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How Game of Thrones Has Failed Its Most Feminist Storyline

By  · Published on May 20th, 2015

Something is rotten in the state of Dorne.

In an episode that has already courted a great deal of controversy with the way it chose to handle Sansa and Ramsay’s wedding night, my suspicions and fears about how Game of Thrones has failed its Dornish storyline have come to fruition. Before we get to that, allow me insist that this discussion in no way overshadows the very important discussion happening around the final scene of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” For more on that, I’d direct you to my weekly Game of Thrones Explained column or even this excellent essay by my Storm of Spoilers cohort Joanna Robinson.

Today we turn our attention to another storyline that further amplifies the problematic relationship between the Game of Thrones show creative team and the female characters created by George R.R. Martin. We’re talking about the issues that have arisen in the adaptation of the stories set in Dorne.

For those who require such things, let this serve as your spoiler warning. This discussion includes all Game of Thrones show material through the most recent episode. It also includes some knowledge from the books, which could possibly include some spoilers for the show, though it doesn’t seem likely at this point. Either way, be warned. In Dorne, danger lurks around every corner.

We begin with something the show got right: Prince Oberyn Martell. The show’s introduction of Dorne, after three seasons of scattered chatter about the mysterious and remote seventh kingdom, was done through the arrival of Prince Oberyn (aka “The Red Viper”) in King’s Landing in season four. He came to King’s Landing to attend the wedding of Joffrey and Margaery, but he also came with ulterior motives. Namely revenge upon Tywin Lannister and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane for the rape and murder of his sister, Elia. We learned a lot about Dorne in our short time with Oberyn. It is easily the most progressive of the Seven Kingdoms, with very liberal values around sexuality and status. But perhaps the most important thing Oberyn said before his very untimely death, “We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne.”

This is a message that tells us a lot of what we need to know about Dorne. But there is more to Dorne’s worldview than what the show has delivered. In the books, it’s made clear that Dorne is not just a sexy Mediterranean paradise. It’s a kingdom of acceptance. In Dorne, bastard-born children are not treated with disdain as they are in the other six kingdoms. In Dorne, the eldest child of the current ruler is the heir to the throne, regardless of gender. It is unlike any other place in the world the George R.R. Martin has created.

In the books, the heir to Dorne is a character named Arianne Martell, the beautiful and calculating daughter of Prince Doran (Oberyn’s brother). After Princess Myrcella is shipped to Dorne and betrothed to Prince Trystane (Arianne’s younger brother), she becomes close with the Lannister girl. And in the wake of the death of Prince Oberyn, The Sand Snakes are decidedly upset. To prevent them from doing anything rash, Prince Doran locks them up. Inspired by their outrage and frustrated with her father’s inaction toward the Lannisters for killing both of his siblings, Arianne devises a plan: She wants to name Myrcella as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, based on Dornish law and the fact that Myrcella is older than Tommen. If she can abscond with Myrcella and install her as the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, it puts a friend of Dorne (and her personal ally) on the Iron Throne. So she’s the one who attempts to kidnap Myrcella, but for very different reasons.

It’s not a great plan, as Arianne is overlooking the fact that King’s Landing doesn’t recognize the Dornish law that a woman can be successor to the Throne, but it’s bold and interesting. Arianne is a character with agency, someone who is using her own political savvy to enact change that falls in line with the very fabric of Dorne’s worldview: that your gender is not a prerequisite for being able to rule and that hurting little girls is off the table.

In the show, we now know that Dorne’s story is far different and far more sinister toward Myrcella. Arianne is nowhere to be found (most likely cut entirely) and in her place is Ellaria Sand, Oberyn’s paramour. It’s worth noting that Book Ellaria is one who, like Doran, urges patience and caution in the wake of Oberyn’s death. It is revealed later that they are playing the long game, with a much larger plan, a la Littlefinger or Varys. The show’s version makes them seem small minded and insignificant, more like a tanner version of the Boltons.

Show Ellaria devises a plan that goes against the Dornish moral code. It’s basically, “Let’s hurt the little girl and start a war.” This turns the entire dynamic upside down. The Sand Snakes have become villains of the story, hellbent on doing harm to Myrcella in their blind quest for vengeance, rather than dangerous, yet heroic and relatable characters. It has made them one dimensional characters, stereotypes who will potentially become more known as “The One With the Whip” and “The One with the Daggers” than well-rounded characters. They are caricatures, whereas Oberyn was a dynamic and fully fleshed-out character. One could argue that there simply isn’t enough time to flesh out all three and add in Arianne, but if the show really had an interest in making Dorne a worthwhile storyline, they would find the time and the various devices to make it work.

Instead we’ve been given a story that makes Dorne out to be an evil from which Jaime Lannister must save his daughter-niece. The show has taken a very interesting, alternate view of power and gender in a world that is overwhelmed with male privilege and patriarchy, and made it a story about a heroic man stealing back his daughter from the island of blood-thirsty women.

It’s a shame. I am disappointed. And with the understanding that the show’s Dorne storyline is not yet over, I hope that I will ultimately be proven wrong. The inherent problem with judging a show on a week-to-week basis is that we lack the context of knowing the full story. This is more true this week than any other. But my very real fear is that the show’s journey to Dorne will begin and end in season five, leaving countless interesting characters out entirely. It will be a matter of resolving Jaime’s quest for redemption (in rescuing his daughter) and we’ll never hear from the Dornish again.

Can the show still bring this storyline up to its potential? Sure. Arianne could be introduced in season 6, she could become a love interest and foil for Jaime, and a Dornish master plan could be revealed and executed. But the show’s track record – its relationship to Dorne and to so many of its female characters – suggests otherwise. They don’t seem to have an interest in the nuances that Martin injected into Dorne. Because for better or worse (worse in this case), Efficiency is Coming.

Bonus Outrage

Time for a massive nitpick. As if this mishandled narrative weren’t enough, even the credits of Game of Thrones look down upon Dorne. The inclusion of Dorne in the credits not only came a few episodes too late, they also include a massive inaccuracy. Instead of using one of the Dornish cities (ie. its capitol Sunspear or The Water Gardens, where all of season four’s action is occurring), the show chose to simply erect a hodgepodge of Dornish iconography and flank it with the word “Dorne”:

This would be akin to showing King’s Landing, but having the caption say “The Crownlands.” Dorne is a kingdom, not a city. As you can see from the map below, there are many cities within Dorne:

HBO Viewer's Guide

This should be an insignificant and disposable detail, but based on everything else that has happened within the Dornish story, it’s further proof that the show really didn’t know what to do with Dorne, nor do they really care about it beyond making it a diversion for Jaime Lannister. It’s another example of the show taking a strong female storyline and marginalizing it as part of a man’s story. In a feudal world that’s already so patriarchy-heavy, this feels not only redundant, but also lazy. Especially when the opportunity was there to do something interesting and unique with the Kingdom of Dorne.

Mostly Fun Fact

The episode’s title, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” is taken from the words of House Martell of Dorne. For me, this is salt in the wounds. Thanks, Game of Thrones.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)