The Writing On the Wall: The Dornish Rose

Ellaria Tyene the end

Valar Morghulis!

This new weekly column will comb through a particular scene or two from each episode of Game of Thrones that highlight the importance of writing within storytelling. The scenes will be discussed at length with the character and overall narrative beats for the television show and the books when appropriate. I hope you like the column!


The most critical aspect of storytelling is writing. Often when people think of writing, the immediate image they conjure is of verbiage flowing across the skin of a page (eventually being devoured by dust mites if Archmaester Ebrose [Jim Broadbent] is to be believed). While that is certainly accurate in its own right, writing is so much more than that. It is the backbone upon which a narrative can properly unfold and breathe as it does so. It is the embodiment of a voice, allowing the audience into the mind and heart of another being. It is the ability to speak just as much in silence as with language. For me, the most beautiful aspect of writing is that it allows me to be myself, to use my own voice, and present myself to the world in ways that I perhaps otherwise could not.

In an appropriately dramatic circumstance, I contend that the greatest strength and weakness of Game Of Thrones is its writing. Certain sequences have stellar acting and breathtaking cinematography but the writing feels stretched, detached, and inconsistent. While I will leave that aside to subjective discussions, there are two particular sequences in “The Queen’s Justice” that are amongst the best written in the history of the series. They are intimately intertwined through a series of events and in spite of being in different regions of Westeros, their shared history revealing an in-depth understanding of one of George R. R. Martin’s most significant themes in A Song Of Ice and Fire.

Olenna

In the final scene of the episode, Lady Olenna (Dame Diana Rigg) is observing the oncoming Lannister and Tarly forces with a wry eye. In that moment, she knows that she will die that day and that on account of her stature, it was likely that Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) would deliver the instrument of her demise. Clad in a black dress of mourning, she sits fastidiously in an imposing chair, looking upon her sparsely furnished room. She waits for her death while dimly basking in the golden light permeating her ornate windows.

Ensuring a painless death for herself, Lady Olenna tries to impart some departing wisdom about Cersei to the deliverer of her demise. Unfortunately, Jaime is blind to what Olenna knows: a world built by Cersei is not a world built to last (Cersei’s erroneous usage of the word “dynasty” is indicative of this). As her sharp barbs on Cersei fail to permeate Jaime’s thick skull, she chugs the poisoned wine like I chug my coffee and fires another arrow. This time, it lands right in the heart.

Olenna notes that she had done unspeakable things to ensure the safety and longevity of House Tyrell, including her beloved granddaughter Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). One of those unspeakable acts, she notes as calmly as if they were discussing the latest tea to hit the Westerosi markets, was to assassinate Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). It was a shocking sight, she admits, watching him claw at his purple throat and gasp for breath. Olenna watches the ensuing shock on Jaime’s visage with a vindictive pleasure. As we would all expect, she ensures that she wins the last word in her own final moments.

Even though Olenna wins in her final moments, however, the fall of Highgarden arrives in part due to her throwing caution to the wind and committing herself wholesale to the destruction of Cersei.  Olenna is famed for being a woman with a sharp tongue and a clever mind and remained so in her final moments, but her advice to Daenerys in “Stormborn” about her being a dragon is indicative of a woman who embraced revenge because she no longer had a future to live for. Her desire to see Cersei crumble and fall, preferably along with House Lannister, is an understandable and even defensible one. Yet it is difficult to not see the seeds of the demise of House Tyrell’s blossoming in part due to her defection to the Targaryens.

Joffreys Death

Joffrey’s assassination inadvertently heralded a new act for Game Of Thrones, ripping apart the admittedly fragile fabric of the Seven Kingdoms and sending it spiraling into the chaos Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) so ardently adores. Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) imprisonment and trial led to Oberyn’s (Pedro Pascal) death and that in turn fueled Ellaria’s (Indira Varma) desire to avenge her lover’s death. It is critically tied to the cruel fate imparted upon Ellaria and Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers).

Cersei’s punishment is cruel in its callousness. Ellaria and Tyene are responsible for the heartless murder of Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) and deserve justice for their crimes. Yet there is something truly horrifying about Cersei’s viciousness as she poisons Tyene and sentences Ellaria to watch her daughter rot away in front of her. She’s thrilled by Tyene’s gasp and Ellaria’s harried expressions of anguish. When she remembers the cruelty of Oberyn’s death and when she quietly asks why Ellaria had murdered her only daughter in revenge, Cersei inadvertently hits upon a powerful theme: the futility of revenge.

Ellaria Tyene Cersei

The cyclical nature of revenge is an especially cruel one because it preys upon a basic human instinct of wanting to viciously protect those we care about. When our loved ones are hurt, that desire to protect becomes overwhelming and all-consuming. We want to punish those who wronged our loved ones but sometimes that punishment feels lacking. Sometimes we want those who wronged our loved ones to suffer, to feel the exact anguish we and our loved ones felt as a consequence of their actions. In those moments, we perhaps feel that that added anguish will deliver satisfaction and closure, but that is rarely the case.

The cycle of revenge in Game Of Thrones and A Song Of Ice and Fire, even when beginning with the sack of King’s Landing by Tywin, is astonishing in its breadth and scope. The brutal rape and murder of Elia Martell and the murders of her children created lines of revenge between several royal houses. Just for the Dornish alone (at least in the television series), the desire to avenge that one act of horrifying brutality has wiped out their entire house and left their once-proud kingdom in the thrall of irrelevancy and chaos.

As horrid as the fates of the aristocratic characters in this series are, however, one cannot forget the suffering the common folk of Westeros endure. From Dorne to the Reach and up to the North, the common folk are ravaged by death, starvation, and utter destruction. The skeletons of the farmer (Finbar Lynch) and his daughter (Trixiebelle Harrowell) that the Hound (Rory McCann) discovered in “Dragonstone” are more than a symbol of a personal journey. They are reminders of the real consequences that befall those without access to power when the oligarchy becomes consumed by its cycles of revenge.

In that suffocating dungeon, Martin’s warnings about the futility of revenge echo throughout the writing. When Cersei’s voice drops to a haunting whisper as she wonders about Myrcella’s fate, you feel the weight of not just the past but also of the actions Cersei was taking in that exact moment. When Tyene cries out for her mother, you feel the weight of her anguish but also the pain of Myrcella as she was dying in front of her father. When you see Ellaria’s anguish, you feel her horror and the strength of the consequences of the actions that led everyone there. In that dungeon, the writing takes the cycle of revenge and makes its consequences so heavy that it feels as if the air itself is about to sink into the ground. There is no dialogue in that final shot as mother and daughter agonizingly try to hold one another before their slow demise, but as their executioner walks away, the power of the scene’s writing makes one imagine what the consequences of this seemingly final act of revenge will be.

Valar Dohaeris,

Akash Of the Andals

26 responses

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    1. Nice write up, you raise many good points.

      As great as it was to see Olenna get the proverbial last laugh in her last moments…you are right in that if she had made some different decisions along the way, her house wouldn’t have been eradicated. Her daughter the queen, her son, her grandson and herself…..amazing how quickly one of the most powerful houses in Westeros crumbled to ashes.

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    2. It’s strange to think how much damage Joffrey’s death created for the Lannisters, Dorne and the Tyrells.

      Varys would still be in KL and Tyrion would never be Dany’s hand without it and Meereen would probably fall after Dany left in Daznak. Tywin would still be alive, so LF would never make a pact with the Boltons and move Sansa north.

      Oberyn would be alive, Myrcella as well. Tommen would never be king. No FM, no HS, no Cersei on the IT. Tyrells would be alive as well.

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    3. No, I blame Rhaegar and his wandering dick.

      The treatment of Elia led Doran to refuse to send troops to help with Robert’s Rebellion, which in turn led Aegon to hold Elia and the kids in the Red Keep, which in turn left them available for the Mountain.

      This led to Oberyn, which led to Ellaria, etc…

      Had Rhaegar kept it in his pants, Lyanna and Robert would be married, probably unhappily. Catelyn and Brandon would be married and Ned married off somewhere else (Lysa? Nah, no need for a double alliance. Yara Greyjoy? Possibly, but Balon might not have allowed it. Arianne Martell? Possibly. Maybe…. wait for it… Cersei???)

      Or Ned is allowed to pursue his heart and ends up with the Dayne chick. Benjen still joins the Night’s Watch. (Or Ned says “Screw it” and joins and Benjen gets to do the marrying thing…)

      Or, Cersei gets married off to Stannis, which would be fun.

      Either way, Dany marries Viserys and Khal Drogo marries his horse.

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    4. I think this is particularly appropriate considering Book!Ellaria’s very different perspective on revenge, as it agrees with the point made in this essay. In the books, Ellaria said:

      Oberyn wanted vengeance for Elia. Now the three of you want vengeance for him. I have four daughters, I remind you. Your sisters. My Elia is fourteen, almost a woman. Obella is twelve, on the brink of maidenhood. They worship you, as Dorea and Loreza worship them. If you should die, must El and Obella seek vengeance for you, then Dorea and Loree for them? Is that how it goes, round and round forever? I ask again, where does it end? I saw your father die. Here is his killer. Can I take a skull to bed with me, to give me comfort in the night? Will it make me laugh, write me songs, care for me when I am old and sick?

      (For anyone confused by none of the four named daughters being Tyene, Tyene isn’t Ellaria’s daughter in the books. For anyone wondering about the skull, in the books, after Oberyn’s death, Dorne is sent a skull claimed to be Gregor Clegane’s after he apparently dies due to the poison on Oberyn’s spear.)

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    5. WorfWWorfington,
      Just thinking, one might argue that Rhaegar did his part all for said prophecy and prevention of white walkers, etc. Yet if he didn’t pursue the visions, the Planetos might find a more peaceful way to deal with it…who knows, still, I enjoying this drama and all the dramas from our own complicated history : )

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    6. If the dornish women just backed up all the way to the wall, theyd have enough slack to pull out their gags…. still a pretty shit situation to be in, but still

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    7. Estelindis,

      I’d been going to post about this – you got there first – kudos 🙂 It’s important, I think, that this idea of the cycle of revenge does come out in the show as it does in the books.
      ‘What-ifs’ aren’t of meaning in themselves (there is always another way, irl or fiction, for events to occur), but Book!Ellaria’s statement is moving and I’m wondering who will speak it (or a modified version obviously) in the show.

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    8. Chuck:
      Nice write up, you raise many good points.

      As great as it was to see Olenna get the proverbial last laugh in her last moments…you are right in that if she had made some different decisions along the way, her house wouldn’t have been eradicated.

      Even in an alternate universe one imagines realistically no house is really eradicated. The Trells have people dwelling on their lands , can’t have and sort-of-state , so to speak, without other high born and especially the small folk, they don’t away, the Martells have a whole nation, still an army there (probably some military left near Highgarden too) , the Stromlands must now have someone running it, even the Twins in the river lands had have more than just the Freys to run it, more than just Lannisters ,someone from the river lands, … and so on…
      I know no-one cares about realistic details in a visual drama like this, but I always have internal logic running in the back of my mind even if the on screen events are way too simplified. Otherwise its no fun.

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    9. Goodness. How many great new weekly features are we going to be treated to here at WOTW? Petra and Luka’s Glass Candle Dialogues. Morgoth’s From the Maester’s Desk. Hogan Mc Game of Threads. Patrick Sponaugle’s weekly column. And now, this! As if I don’t spend enough of my free time on this website already! 😉

      In all seriousness, I really enjoyed the column, Akash of the Andals! As someone who’s fascinated by the art of writing (and wishes I was better at it), I really appreciate your insight into the way that Benioff and Weiss wove one of the series’ most critical themes into these two scenes – which blew me away on first viewing, and are rapidly rising up the ranks of my favorite scenes in the show. You’re clearly very passionate about the subject. I’ll be looking forward to next week’s installment!

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    10. Estelindis,

      spaewife,

      I can’t take credit for the following idea – I encountered it on another forum, courtesy of a user named nikma. But given the current discussion, I think it’s appropriate to raise it here, with fair attribution.

      In the books Ellaria has a speech about the futility of revenge, and in the show her character was a representation of the futility of revenge

      Ever since I read that idea, it’s stuck with me. I know that some have objected to what on the surface appears to be a radical repurposing of Ellaria’s character. I never shared those concerns, because I appreciated the story that the show was trying to tell, and I thought that it was effective on its own terms. That statement helped me articulate why.

      One of my favorite exchanges in the entire show is the one between Cersei and Oberyn in “First of His Name”, when Oberyn attempts to reassure Cersei that Myrcella will be safe by declaring “We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne.” Cersei responds – sadly, wisely, and ultimately prophetically – “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” In light of Myrcella’s assassination, some people see that exchange as an inconsistency in the writing. But I don’t see it that way at all, because Cersei had the right of it. That exchange enhances my appreciation for the ensuing storyline in Dorne, with Ellaria and Oberyn’s daughters seeking vengeance for his death. Oberyn believed Dorne was enlightened; that the children of his enemies did not bear responsibility for the sins of their family. Tragically, Oberyn’s own family proved him wrong. Their insatiable desire for revenge – which they justified in his name, but was really serving their own desires – shed innocent blood, and dishonored his memory. And it was never enough – the blood kept coming, until finally, it consumed them all. The futility of revenge in action.

      So to me, nikma‘s statement underlines the idea that despite the differences in her motivations and her actions, the character of Ellaria Sand still serves the same core thematic idea in both mediums. To be sure, the show’s take more brutal (at least as far as we now) and took longer to arrive at the desired end, but ultimately, the same message was conveyed. As has often been said about the adaptive process: different paths, same destination.

      Now I’ll grant you, sublimating character to serve a particular theme can be dangerous. Many have gotten into trouble for doing exactly that. But in this particular case, I think it works quite well, because the show committed to its choice of having Ellaria be a more active agent in its depiction of the cycles of revenge, and held to it. Despite what people perceive as the ups and downs of the Dornish storyline, that theme was never lost. It all culminated in that scene in the cell beneath the Red Keep, which for me, at least, was an extremely elegant, fitting, and haunting payoff.

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    11. Boojam,

      With exception of Dorne, where they right now probably try to establish a new leader, I see them all switching their loyalties to the winner side.
      I’m content with that happening offscreen.

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    12. Jared: in the show her character was a representation of the futility of revenge

      I think that’s actually the point of prince Doran’s arc in the books.
      Like Ellaria (in the show) he will (in the books) lose everything because of his wish for revenge, although he plotted so carefully and meticulously over a span of 2 decades:
      first he loses his son, then will loose the rest of his family, all people he loves, the watergarden and its children, and at the end he will see Dorne burn down in dragon fire before he dies.
      (For example many people see Dorian’s son Quentyn’s arc as pointless – I see it as first step of Dorian losing everything.)

      GRRM’s point here is: no matter how careful you plot your revenge – you will lose!
      D&D just took a shortcut to the same conclusion with Ellaria’s arc in the show. ^^

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    13. I fully appreciate this beautifully, articulate article!

      Perhaps, when contemplating revenge, it is better to avoid intricate planning, and simply take advantage of the opportunity for revenge, should it arise. Personally, I’m not an advocate for revenge. I feel that “justice” will come eventually, in some way, without my own involvement. But it is human nature to desire it, and those who are more proactive will seek to exact it. Will they have a period of self examination afterwards? Unfortunately, I believe many do not see” the writing on the wall.”

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    14. So beautifully written and insightful! Thank you! It is true that every decision one makes will play a part in another’s life.

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    15. Dragonwolf,

      Great point! I think you’re right. I tend to roll my eyes whenever anyone talks about Doran’s so-called “Master Plan” as evidence for him being an effective player, because the plan, careful though it might be, is already collapsing into shambles (and it’s only likely to get worse in TWOW, with Dorne likely to pivot into backing fAegon, who – more than perhaps any other character in the story – I’m certain is doomed). I see Doran’s arc as a far more tragic one. As you say, he will never get revenge for his sister or his brother, and in the end, his country and his family will be left in ruins thanks to his efforts. Through Ellaria, the show has effectively arrived at the same place.

      Given that it was reported that Doran was originally slated for a larger role in Season 6 (something like four episodes), I wonder if the show originally intended to have him follow a similar arc – either in conjunction with Ellaria or in place of her. Perhaps they would have used that additional time to build up his motivations for vengeance and eventually lead him into forging an alliance with Dany, as Ellaria eventually did herself. But ultimately, perhaps they decided to use Ellaria alone because as a longer-tenured character, her motivations had already been clearly established (and Indira Varma was contracted as a series regular). Furthermore, as Myrcella’s killer, she had a far more direct connection to both Cersei and the larger story as a whole. That would make it easier to achieve the same thematic end in less screentime.

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    16. Jared,

      You and Dragonwolf make some great points about Ellaria’s “function” in show/books and Doran’s “master plan” and what seems its likely conclusion in the books.

      Also, thank you, Akash, for highlighting this important theme, the futility of revenge. It is a human instinct but it should be resisted exactly because it can lead to a vicious cycle. GRRM isn’t even very subtle about it.

      Yet, there are countless fans who want revenge, usually for what has been done to the Starks. There are Arya fans, who glorify her killings as revenge and salivate at the thought of more revenge killings from her. (Some try to dress Arya’s actions as “justice”, but they’re vigilantism at best.)

      I see Arya’s story as a tragedy. A young girl sees and experiences too much horror, and without someone to guide her, quite understandably, takes the path of revenge. It’s not to be admired, it’s to be ultimately regretted. Fortunately, she hasn’t last all her humanity, c.f. Lady Crane, the nice Lannister soldiers. As to the Frey murders, I personally would’ve wanted to see the Freys destroy themselves with infighting, greed, pride, whatnot. There are hints that that may happen in the books, but the show obviously cannot devote so much time to a side-story, so having Arya kill them is a fairly good shortcut, especially because it serves Arya’s story – do we really want Arya to be a cold-blooded revenge machine who seems to enjoy killing? (Jon’s good at killing but he doesn’t enjoy it.)

      I want Arya to finally go home to her pack of Stark siblings (and cousin), turn her back on revenge and fight for the good cause, i.e. fight for the living against the dead and the White Walkers – answer Jon’s call to arms.

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    17. WorfWWorfington,

      Lol! Thanks for this, I’m now imagining an alternative story, where all these marriages took place. Cersei and Stannis! Priceless!

      Actually, in the books

      Tywin and Hoster had plans to marry Jaime and Lysa, but Cersei wanted Jaime for herself and convinced Jaime (with an all-night sex marathon) to join the Kingsguard. This was when Tywin was still Hand to the Mad King and Cersei lived in KL. However, the Mad King taking away his heir was the last straw for Tywin and he resigned and went back to Casterly Rock, taking Cersei with him. An early example of Cersei’s “clever” schemes backfiring on her.

      But, yeah, Rhaegar not being able to keep it in his pants is the reason we have the story we do. So we all should be grateful to Rhaegar. 😀

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    18. Jared,

      And also, they felt pressure to have more strong women after Sansa-Ramsey.

      I think you can do both. Have Doran reveal his dumbass plan and then Ellaria be like “What? You dumb. Die!”

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    19. Jared: “In the books Ellaria has a speech about the futility of revenge, and in the show her character was a representation of the futility of revenge”

      Ever since I read that idea, it’s stuck with me. I know that some have objected to what on the surface appears to be a radical repurposing of Ellaria’s character. I never shared those concerns, because I appreciated the story that the show was trying to tell, and I thought that it was effective on its own terms. That statement helped me articulate why.

      I see your point here and respect it. However, book!Ellaria was positioned to articulate that futility in a way that demonstrated her personal stake in stopping the cycle of revenge and her despair of the continuation of feud through her children. Altering her character as has been done means that there is no one to articulate this.

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