This post will be discussing plot points from Season Four of HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you’re not caught up on the series (or haven’t read at least up through A Storm of Swords, the third book in A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin) then I respectfully ask you to step away from your computer, and either read the books or watch the series. Then please come back.
Because right now, I’ll be dropping some mad spoilery details.
Seven Hells yes, Prince Oberyn. The Red Viper. Prince of Dorne. That dude’s mostly awesome.
What? Mostly awesome?
Okay, he’s totally awesome. Fine.
But this is one of my “In Defense Of” articles, so you might imagine that I’m going to bring up some bad decision he made and try to rationalize it, or back up some of his actions with smug 20/20 hindsight.
Oh, I could probably bring up how bummed everyone is that he got over-confident which gave the Mountain the opportunity to kill him. I could try to justify that, or try to balance it with him operating on a very high level throughout the fourth season. But I’m not going to do all that. Because I’m not here to defend Oberyn.
I’m here to defend myself and others like me who had read the books and knew that the prince’s grisly, hope-shattering death was imminent.
Just what am I defending myself (and others) against? I’ll get to that. But first, let me tell you a story.
Way back when, a few years ago, Game of Thrones first aired. It starred Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark, who was conspicuously part of the advertisement campaign for the show.
Then he was beheaded in Season One.
That was a bit of a shock for the viewing population, and people who write about TV wrote a lot about that. One of the things mentioned was the restraint of the book-readers who knew Ned’s death was about to happen, and for the most part did not spoil anyone.
Show Watcher: Wow, thanks for not spoiling me!
Book Reader: I was looking out for you, my friend.
Season Three rolled around, and the Red Wedding happened.
This was a different kind of shocking event. Robb Stark didn’t hold the same weight in the story as Ned had in the first season, but the unexpected treachery and brutality of the assassination of Robb, Catelyn, Talisa, and Robb’s men was a major deal.
People who write about television wrote a lot about that. It was also noted that for the most part, people who hadn’t read the books went into the episode unspoiled by the Internet. But there was less praise of the book-reading in-the-know population, possibly because of all the YouTube videos of people recording the horror on their innocent friends’ faces.
Show Watcher: Wow! You didn’t spoil me.
Book Reader: I was watching out for you, my friend. Well, to be more accurate, I was watching you.
Then Season Four premiered, along with Prince Oberyn of Dorne. Doomed to have his melon smashed by the Mountain, which was a fact book readers kept to themselves.
Tyrion ends up on trial, chooses trial by combat, and discovers that anyone who might have been in his corner, champion-wise, was not available. Until Oberyn volunteered. THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE!
And then Oberyn loses his life as well as Tyrion’s chance to be exonerated.
People who write about television, wrote a lot about this. This time, people apparently had gotten into the habit of filming themselves watching Game of Thrones, just in case something shocking happened, so that wasn’t as noteworthy as before.
Book Readers also weren’t praised as much for not spoiling things, since it’s almost a given that the smuggy-smug readers get a lot of smug enjoyment out of smugly keeping their friends in the dark.
And possibly this time, some misdirection was happening by the Book Readers.
Here lies a toppled god —
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.
(A Tleilaxu epigram, from Dune Messiah)
The Questionable Behavior
Sure, no one wants the book-readers to be spoiling things. No one needs us to slyly drop hints that this fight would be Oberyn’s last. But we kind of crossed the line this season in going in the other direction. Not overtly. We didn’t lie.
It’s not like we told our friends that Oberyn was totally going to win this for Tyrion, just so his bloody defeat would be extra awful.
Or maybe we did?
During the first season, no one was really making a big deal about Ned. Show watchers were on board with him as the hero, and book readers didn’t feel the need to overplay their hand.
As far as I know, there weren’t any conversations like this:
Book Reader: Hey, how about that Ned Stark, pretty awesome dude, huh?
Show Watcher: Yeah, he’s okay. I mean, he is the hero or whatever. I kind of like that Tyrion too.
Book Reader: Right on! Ned’s the MAN! He’s so awesome.
Show Watcher: Yeah. But I did just say that I like Tyrion…
Book Reader: NED! THE MAN!
The Red Wedding
Likewise, the assassination of Robb Stark at his uncle’s wedding was a shock that needed no support from book readers. We’d didn’t sneakily raise expectations of hope.
As far as I know, no one did this:
Book Reader: Hey, it’ll be really epic now that Robb’s patching things up with the Freys.
Show Watcher: What? Don’t spoil me man! But Robb’s going to kick some Lannister ass, right?
Book Reader: That would be telling, dude.
Show Watcher: Say no more! Yeah, Robb’s story has been kind of boring, I’m looking forward to him smashing Casterly Rock!
Book Reader: The King in the North! THE KING IN THE NORTH!!!
Show Watcher: YEAH! It’s about time!!!
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I was committed to talking up the Red Viper every chance I got. Before the season started, when casting news broke, I started in on how much I anticipated his debut.
Throughout the season, the words “Oberyn”, “awesome”, and “badass” were strongly connected in my discussions with my show-watching buddies. When Oberyn volunteered to be Tyrion’s champion, I am pretty sure I was noticeably animated when discussing the event with my friends.
I wasn’t alone. Social media was abuzz once the season started, particularly by people-in-the-know, praising Prince Oberyn. And the buzz just kept up.
During Game of Thrones season, the metaphorical water-cooler talk in the office includes GoT, and I try to get my co-workers to make predictions. Because I’m evil.
They rarely comply**, Season One taught them that predictions are very tricky for this show. But as the eighth episode was approaching, they were less cautious.
Them: Pat! I’m making a prediction.
Me: Right on!
Them: Oberyn’s going to kill the Mountain!
Me: Whoa! Get out of town! Are you SURE you want to make that CRAZY prediction?
Them: Okay, I know that’s obvious. They’re not going to kill Tyrion, that’d be stupid, so the Mountain’s going down. And it’s pretty clear that Oberyn’s a guy who is going to be around for awhile, making waves.
Me: I can’t fault that logic.
And then I’d steer the conversation toward what we thought might happen once Tyrion was found not guilty. They’d take the lead and spin a great potential tale:
- Cersei would be crazy angry, and might try to have Tyrion assassinated.
- Jaime would have to take a stand and he’d back Tyrion.
- Oberyn and Tyrion (possibly with Varys) would form the beginnings of Justice League Avengers: Westeros (JLAW!) A Super Team.
After the episode, I got tweets from my friends, which more or less can be paraphrased as this:
Well that was disappointing.
It’s not that they were faulting the show’s execution of the scene, or that the story event wasn’t emotionally touching or coherent. They reacted as you’d imagine, stunned and angry and sad. But they were disappointed that their elaborately constructed future vision of the show was as crushed as Oberyn’s skull.
It’s bad enough that they’d liked this character and he was now dead. But they’d invested extra emotional currency in connecting with a character, on a show famous for killing off people.
And that’s on me. I’d hyped up the Red Viper a lot. More than you’d expect for a character who’d only live for eight episodes. I’d kind of given off a signal that it was safe to do so.
In My Defense
Look, I need to explain where I was coming from. And I’m going to talk just a weeeee much about the books. No future spoilery plots, I promise.
When I first read A Storm of Swords, Oberyn and Elaria were introduced as cool characters from a much-talked about land. But they were two characters among thousands in that book. I had Manderlys and Kettleblacks and Hornwoods and all kinds of people to keep up with.
But I took notice when Oberyn chose to be Tyrion’s champion. If “taking notice” describes “being hit by lightning”, or something equally epiphantastical (I totally just coined that word, yo.) Oberyn’s choice to be Tyrion’s champion was great. It served the story, it offered hope, and it was completely consistent and believable. Oberyn was acting entirely from his own agenda, to get at the Mountain. Right on.
Then he died and my hope was dashed like a fragile thing under a heavy crashing scary non-fragile thing.
On my second read-through of A Storm of Swords, I really paid attention to everything about Oberyn and anything Dornish. I couldn’t believe how awesome he was. And it was extra awful when he died again. But, also awesome.
So I can honestly say, when this show was first green-lit, I was anticipating all of the big moments, Ned, Robb, and Joffrey, but I was really looking forward to seeing the Red Viper’s dance with the Mountain. It’s like something I had to face and get through the other side on.
And I wanted company. So I really talked up the Viper. Not to be mean, I just wanted friends on that journey. It was just really personally important to me that everyone was deeply invested in Oberyn.
I can’t speak for everyone who knew what was going to happen and who amped up their public praise of Oberyn to Eleven. And I don’t regret what I did. But I respect that in some ways it was wrong. Maybe I should have played it more cool. Sorry about that.
Dan Harmon (of Community) on his Harmontown podcast recently outlined the three parts of a proper apology:
- Recognition: I acknowledge that I (and possibly others) really hyped Oberyn even though we knew he was going to die.
- Regret: I feel bad if anyone was overly upset over his death, based on my campaign of praise. (I can’t apologize for the others, that’s on them.)
- Redress: Going forward, I’ll try to remember to play it more neutral, and give people a chance to experience the story without my toying with their emotions like I’m Facebook.
But it’s all good. I doubt there are any more shocks in store for the embittered, hardened, and cynical show-watching population. Am I right, Book Readers?
Defending Pedro Pascal
From my point of view, Chilean actor Pedro Pascal was great as Prince Oberyn. I was hoping he’d be good in the role, because there was some controversy at first when he was cast.
Dorne, the seventh of the Seven Kingdoms, is the most diverse ethnically. Nearly every other region in Westeros appears to be populated by the usual medieval-esque populations of Anglo-Saxons and Nordic analogues. But the Dornish in the books were a heterogeneous people, mostly represented by the Rhoynar with variations due to contact with the Andal race. They were culturally and politically distinct, having more autonomy in the Seven Kingdoms since they were never conquered by the Targaryens and their dragons, but united into the hegemony through marriage and treaties.
HBO’s Game of Thrones occasionally is the target of criticism for its predominantly white cast, and there was an opportunity to change that aspect with the Dornish and particularly Prince Oberyn. When Pascal was cast, I remember reading blog posts disappointed by the casting and allegations of whitewashing Oberyn, as well as statements from GRRM supporting the showrunners and Pascal.
For a quick reference, I’d recommend checking out the George RR Martin’s Not A Blog entry where there was a lengthy and thoughtful exchange between the author and commenters on views regarding race and how geographical labels can provide less-than-perfect shorthands for race.
I didn’t necessarily have an investment in Oberyn based on his racial identity, but I was invested in him as a character. I felt of all of the secondary roles on this show, the Red Viper really had to be charismatic and believably threatening. He’d have a very short time for the viewers to get on board with his personal mission and a backstory that went far back (to Tyrion’s first year.)
Season Four didn’t do everything perfect (patience, I’m saving those topics for later posts) but the Red Viper’s story was pretty much flawless.
This season, I have not found anything negative written about Pedro Pascal as Oberyn, but I’ll also admit to not seeking it out. If anyone runs across articles of that nature (or have a beef with him that they’d like to discuss) I’d be interested to know about it.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that people of color have been under-represented in the fantasy genre, and although Oberyn may or may not have improved that ratio, there are still opportunities to represent the diversity of Dorne.
Dorne on the Horizon
(Skip this if you are allergic to non-specific casting news, but I promise it won’t be spoilery)
Although Prince Oberyn is gone, the Martells remain (Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, yo) and casting news for next season included a lot of Dornish roles. Yes!
The television show has not been shy in pruning away the members of some of the houses. Ser Loras, for example, has been presented as being the sole male heir to Mace Tyrell, when in the books he has two older brothers. The show decided to consolidate and reduce characters, I totally understand.
But this season, Oberyn’s dialogue with Cersei (to my joy) specified his 8 bastard daughters. I don’t necessarily need to see every one of them in the show, but it was a fact that I didn’t want minimized.
RIP, Red VIP
It might be best that Oberyn did go out like he did. Oberyn showed up at just the right time, a powerful noble who hated the Lannisters while the Lannisters were at the peak of their power. He was on hand to bring some spice into the mix, and to be available to help one of the show’s favorite characters (and therefore earning the viewers’ good graces.)
But this is Game of Thrones. Had Oberyn lived, next season he could have just as easily teamed up with the Boltons if it served his purposes. And then we’d have another situation where one of our heroes had fallen.
So, it’s just as well that the prince has been laid to rest. Going out fighting, with his victim filled with a deadly and painful poison.
What a sad way to end this post. But I’m still sad over his death. It is known.
Hey, maybe a fun poll will lighten the mood.
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, mostly. The beautiful depictions of Oberyn are not of my doing, and are copyright of the original artists.
I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there. Except for the quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah.
And that Sudden and Inevitable Betrayal quote.
* From Firefly, the pilot episode.
** To be clear, most of my friends refuse to make predictions, but I have one who makes 30+ predictions every season, prior to seeing any promotional trailers. They’re great, and sometimes bizarre. One day, I hope he’ll let me post them.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved