After the death of Prince Oberyn Martell in King's Landing. His paramour Ellaria Sand and his daughters, the Sand Snakes, seek to avenge him. Though Prince Doran Martell, Oberyn's brother, refuses to allow them to hurt Myrcella Baratheon in order to provoke the Lannisters into conflict. Despite his warnings, Ellaria defies Doran and poisons Myrcella in secret.
Apparently having made amends with Ellaria, Doran walks through the Water Gardens with her while reminiscing about Oberyn. Until Maester Caleotte brings news of Myrcella's death. Doran immediately realizes Ellaria was responsible, but she stabs him in the chest before he can react, while Tyene Sand kills Areo Hotah and Caleotte, and even the palace guards. Dissatisfied with Doran's decisions, stand and watch. As Doran lies dying, Ellaria chastises him for allowing the Lannisters to get away with the deaths of both his siblings, Elia and Oberyn. She call him a weak ruler. Before he dies, Doran begs Ellaria to spare Trystane, but she refuses.
In the bay just outside King's Landing, Trystane is ambushed by Obara and Nymeria Sand, sent by Ellaria to kill him. Trystane attempts to reason with them since they are cousins, but they refuse and give him the choice of fighting whom he wishes. Trystane draws his sword and chooses Nymeria, but he is impaled in the back of the head by Obara, to Nymeria's chagrin.
Behind the Scenes
A close-up behind the scenes photo of the prop letter which Doran received in this episode was released by HBO. The letter was dictated by Jaime Lannister, and it rather fairly states that to avoid Cersei seeking war and the Martells' total instruction, it would be a good idea to send the severed heads of Ellaria and the Sand Snakes - who were directly responsible for the assassination - and as a gesture of good faith Jaime intends to send Trystane back to Dorne unharmed, because he knows he really loved Myrcella and had nothing to do with her death. The exact text reads:
- The Princess Myrcella died by poison on our return journey. I suspect El...[Ellaria]
- not you, but my sister will demand war. I doubt Ellaria's head will app...[appease her but?]
- it is a start, along with your neices [sic]. Your son cannot stay in King's Landing...[I]
- am sending him back on the same ship.
In the books
The Dornish storyline in Season 5 and 6 was drastically changed from the A Song of Ice and Fire novels:
The TV series has drastically altered the Dorne subplot of House Martell, and drastically altered it even more the Season 6 premiere, "The Red Woman": neither Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, nor Areo Hotah have died in the novels. From House Martell, the only member who has died is Quentyn Martell, Doran's other son, while foolishly trying to capture Daenerys's dragons for himself.
In the books, after Oberyn Martell is killed, his daughters the Sand Snakes demand Prince Doran to allow them to take vengeance on the Lannisters (Obara suggests open war, Nymeria - targeted assassinations, Tyene - to crown Myrcella), but Doran refuses all of it. Moreover, Doran's eldest child and heir, his daughter Arianne Martell, sides with the Sand Snakes (under Dornish law women have equal inheritance rights - though the live-action TV episodes have never mentioned this). After Doran has the Sand Snakes arrested to prevent them from stirring up troubles, Arianne attempts to execute Tyene's plan to actually crown Myrcella as a rival monarch to her brother Tommen - under the nominal pretext that under Donrish gender-blind inheritance law, she is ahead of her brother in line of succession. Someone (whose identity is not revealed) informs Doran about the plan, and he has Arianne's party intercepted by Areo Hotah. However, one of Arianne's escorts, Ser Gerold "Darkstar" Dayne, slashes at Myrcella and escapes. Myrcella survives thanks to Maester Caleotte, but is permenantly disfigured.
Ellaria Sand is actually the strongest opponent of going to war against the Lannisters – fearful that the cycle of revenge will never end: they will avenge Oberyn, but then the Lannisters will avenge their dead, and ultimately years from now her younger daughters who are little more than 5 years old will eventually get killed as well.
Two major factors affected the Dorne storyline when it began in Season 5:
- The writers explained in the Blu-ray commentary that for several years into the TV show, Benioff and Weiss never thought that the subplot in Dorne itself would ever appear, because it doesn’t involve any previously established major cast members. They did know Oberyn and Ellaria would appear in Season 4, but not that the narrative would ever go to Dorne. Belatedly, Bryan Cogman suggested that they invent the detail that Jaime and Bronn would be sent to Dorne in Season 5 to directly confront the Martells – thus the Dorne subplot wasn’t planned out several years in advance as other subplot were.
- It was also explained in the Blu-ray commentary that after it was decided to actually take the narrative to Dorne, they greatly expanded Ellaria Sand’s role from what it had been in Season 4 – specifically because they enjoyed Indira Varma’s performance.
Thus, all of the drastic changes to Ellaria and the Dorne subplot as a whole were not really developed until after Season 4 was produced, as opposed to being carefully planned out years in advance.
In the novels, after Arianne’s attempt to crown Myrcella ends in failure, she is imprisoned by her father. When he later comes to visit her, Doran finally explains that all of his speeches about how Dorne must have peace at any cost were just an act – he has been plotting revenge against the Lannisters for nearly 20 years, he was simply very careful and patient about it, waiting for all of the pieces to come together. It is also revealed that he was a secret Targaryen loyalist the entire time, and is planning for Dorne to openly rise up to join Daenerys if and when she returns to Westeros. Myrcella's injury, though, may result in a war that Dorne is not yet prepared for. Arianne and the Sand Snakes reconcile with Doran now that they know the real plan. Together they come up with a plan how to resolve the situation, by placing the entire blame on Darkstar. The Sand Snakes swear (Obara - somewhat grudgingly) they will serve their uncle loyally, and he gives them and Arianne various assignments, which they follow obediently by the point the books and the sample chapters reached. Cersei believes the cover story, and does not suspect the Martells at all, she even thinks Tyrion is the mastermind behind the attempt on her daughter.
In the TV version, instead of Ellaria arguing for peace, her role was somewhat combined with Arianne’s as the one pushing for revenge in Season 4 – the exact opposite of her actions in the novels. Doran’s eldest two children, Arianne and Quentyn, were never even introduced. Ultimately, Doran’s speeches about preserving peace at any cost were apparently meant at face value in the TV version – to the point that Ellaria kills him for not taking any more aggressive action.
The plot mechanics by which the TV series introduced Ellaria's betrayal and murder of Doran seem to be more concerned with shock value than internal plot logic: after poisoning Myrcella and knowing that she would die soon on her ship, Ellaria must have known that word of the princess's death would eventually become public knowledge, and the Lannisters would sent news of it to Doran before long. In this case, it would have made more sense to assassinate or poison Doran himself at the first opportunity - not to wait for the instant that Doran was handed a letter informing him about Myrcella's assassination, leaving open the possibility that his guard Areo might land in a killing blow against one of them, etc.
It is also confusing that in this episode, Ellaria points out that not even one of Doran's guards (other than Areo) rush to his defense when she stabs him, because they all think he's weak and agree with her actions - when during the Sand Snakes' attack on Myrcella in Season 5, they all joined Areo to stop the Sand Snakes. It might be possible that the way he dealt with this incident, insisting that he still wouldn't fight the Lannisters, is what was meant to be what drove them over the edge to side with Ellaria: in which case, they wouldn't turn on Doran for taking no action to avenge his brother, but do turn against him for stopping his nieces from killing a political hostage (and young girl at that) who was a formal guest in his own castle - even though in Season 4, Oberyn himself insisted that he would never want to harm Myrcella because the thought of killing a little girl who was a non-combatant was abhorrent to Dornish honor.
Areo Hotah's inattentiveness during the assassination is also considerably out of character compared to the books, in which he is always on his guard when the Sand Snakes or anyone else are within the vicinity of Doran. He would not act so carelessly, turning his back on a potential threat. Particularly, in the novels Areo knows full well that Tyene is a master-poisoner like her father, often giving little pin-pricks to her enemies with small blades coated in lethal poisons, so he knows to always keep her in his sight and to keep a safe distance from her.
The Sand Snakes also have no need to kill Doran’s son Trystane in the novels because they realize that Doran was on their side the entire time. It is Cersei who plots to assassinate him, for unknown reasons, but someone at King's Landing informs Doran about the scheme and he takes steps to prevent it. The Sand Snakes' reaction when they hear about the scheme from their uncle - deep shock - indicates clearly they never had any ill intention toward Trystane. Trystane’s death in the series also raises other logical questions. Trystane left on the same ship Jaime and Myrcella did – which apparently stayed in the harbor at King’s Landing, given that Trystane is seen painting funeral stones for Myrcella in his cabin. Obara and Nymeria didn’t go on the ship with them – they were shown waiting on the shore as the ship departed. It is possible that they secretly got on the next boat to leave the port and were thus only an hour or two behind Trystane's ship the entire time, then upon arriving in King’s Landing’s harbor snuck onto Trystane's boat to kill him.
For that mater, kinslaying is considered a heinous crime in Westeros, and while people do commit it they are often very reluctant to do so and only when they feel they have been pushed too far or have no other option, i.e. Tyrion killing his own father Tywin in revenge, or Jaime killing his distant cousin Alton Lannister to make an escape attempt - Alton and Jaime killing him were invented for the TV series, nor is killing a distant cousin very egregious, but the TV series still hewed close to this concept from the novels by showing that Jaime was still upset about it even multiple seasons after it happened. In this episode, Obara and Nymeria Sand debate which of them gets to kill their own first cousin, Trystane - who unlike his father wasn't even in a position to choose to avenge Oberyn's death. The scene ends in an outright joke with Obara "stealing" the kill of Trystane from behind, causing Nymeria to glibly remark that she is a "greedy bitch" - the novels never have characters treat instances of kinslaying so lightly, even when family members such as Tyrion and Tywin outright hate each other. The television series has essentially changed the Sand Snakes drastically for the worse, much like the case of Doreah and Xaro Xhoan Daxos, depicting them as ruthless, sadistic murderers (though not as bad as the likes of Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton) as opposed to the ferocious but honorable warriors from the novels.
Also, changes to the Dorne subplot in Season 6 might not even have been intended in Season 5. When a dead viper with Myrcella's pendant in its mouth was sent to Cersei as a threat, the TV show never explicitly identified who sent it - Ellaria, one of the Sand Snakes, or all of them acting in concert. In the books, Prince Doran made a big show of arresting Arianne and the Sand Snakes after their failed attempt to crown Myrcella, to convince the Lannisters what a loyal ally he was. Combined with the fact that the TV series never identified who stole Myrcella's pendant and sent it to Cersei as a threat, this led to considerable speculation that it was actually Doran himself who sent it, to bait the Lannisters to try to "rescue" Myrcella, when in fact he was wise to the Sand Snakes' plan the entire time, and wanted to make a big show of "stopping" them, to convince the Lannisters he wanted to avoid a war at all costs when in fact he was secretly preparing for one. It would also have been odd for Ellara and the Sand Snakes to warn Cersei in advance by sending a threatening message implying they intended to harm her daughter - when they were having trouble enough as it was sneaking into the Water Gardens to assassinate her without Doran's permission. This might have actually been the screenwriters' intention early in Season 5, but the idea was later abandoned: note that while Doran keeps insisting he wants peace, right before both Jaime and the Sand Snakes make their move to take Myrcella in episode 5.6 "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken", he has a private conversation with Areo Hotah in which he gravely warns him that he will have to use his axe in combat before long - implying that he already knew that the Sand Snakes were going to attack Myrcella but were letting them do it in order to make a show of stopping them, and possibly that he was warning Areo that he intended to fully take Dorne to war. Doran's actions and statements in Season 5 are thus somewhat incongruent with how he is presented in Season 6.
Previously it was thought that Myrcella Baratheon's death in the Season 5 finale indicated that she would die in the next upcoming novel, albeit with the circumstances moved around somewhat. Now, given the drastic changes to the Martell storyline in Season 6, there is no strong reason to take Myrcella's death in the TV series as reflecting that she will in fact die in the next novel.
With Doran dead and none of his other children established as existing in the TV show, House Martell is legally extinct. Ellaria cannot make any claim to rule because she was only Oberyn's paramour, not even his legal wife, and even if she as his wife she has no blood claim to House Martell. Oberyn's eldest daughter is Obara Sand - but by definition, all of the Sand Snakes are bastards and thus cannot lawfully inherit any of House Martell's lands and titles.
How Ellaria intended to officially hold power after this is therefore unclear (or more specifically, out of universe, how the TV writers intend to answer this):
- It is possible that the Sand Snakes might try to be legitimized by some rival king. Even the other noble Houses in Dorne that support the Martells and the Sand Snakes would blanche at the idea of a bastard claiming full inheritance (even despite the fact that otherwise Dorne has relaxed attitudes towards Bastardy), especially after killing the true heir in cold blood.
- There are minor Martell cousins sporadically mentioned in the novels, but given that even Doran's other children Arianne and Quentyn haven't been mentioned in the TV series the distant cousins probably don't exist in "the TV continuity" either.
- Due to intermarriage, Daenerys Targaryen is actually part-Martell, just as the Martells are all part-Targaryen. Dorne remained unconquered by the Targaryens for generations, only uniting with the rest of the realm one hundred years ago through peaceful marriage-alliance. Specifically, it was a double marriage alliance in which the then-current Targaryen king married the Prince of Dorne's sister, and the Prince of Dorne married the Targaryen king's sister. It seems improbable, however, that anyone would accept Daenerys ahead of a hundred years' worth of more closely related Martell cousins.
After the Season 6 premiere, "The Red Woman", which contained the coup aired, Vulture posted a special op-ed article heavily criticizing the bizarre changes to the Dorne storyline across Seasons 5 and 6:
- "Throughout it all, there's been little indication why anyone is doing the things they're doing. Why does Ellaria want revenge on Cersei, a woman who was only tangentially involved in Oberyn's death, and had absolutely nothing to do with House Lannister's earlier atrocities against the Martells? Why do she and the Sand Snakes hate Doran enough to indulge in kinslaying, a supreme taboo in Westeros? And, after staging such a random coup, why do they think anyone else in Dorne would accept them as rulers?"
The article went on to express the fear that the TV writers genuinely thought that this was making the Sand Snakes and Ellaria into interesting characters, when Vulture felt it was really reducing them into offensive caricatures:
- "They're the TV version of Kate Beaton's Strong Female Characters, the kind of violent, scantily clad women that emerge when creators want to pay lip service to feminism, but don't have the time or inclination to create actual three-dimensional female characters."
Westeros.org's review - written by Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson, co-authors of the World of Ice and Fire sourcebook (2014) - also criticized the changed sequence of events as poorly set up and illogical (and that the changes to the characterization of the individual Martells and Sand Snakes was "too painful to consider"):
- "...even disregarding that the chain of events is nonsensical, the whole scenario shows once again that often the writers get an idea about a desired end point and then simply force everything there, logic be damned. Why are the guards standing by during the murder, the same guards who arrested the Sand Snakes not long ago? Even if all of Dorne hates Doran, why does Ellaria think they will accept her ruling Dorne?...In one of the most remarkable feats of teleportation yet on the show, Obara and Nym show up on the aforementioned ship in King’s Landing to murder Trystane..."