I'm as excited about season 8 of Game of Thrones starting Sunday as anyone. I've watched from the very beginning and am wildly invested in the fates of Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, Jaime Lannister and Jon Snow.
But my favorite character is long gone. Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) was just too good for that world.
Oberyn -- nicknamed the Red Viper -- came into King's Landing like a whirlwind at the start of season 4. The prince from the southern Dorne region seemed exotic, mysterious and dangerous in his first scene, which saw him stabbing a Lannister goon through the hand and pinning him to a table after being dissed.
From here, we learn Oberyn seeks vengeance for the death of his sister Elia and her children at the hands of Gregor Clegane, the horrifying unit better known as The Mountain and one of smug jerk Tywin Lannister's bannermen.
He's itching for payback against The Mountain and Tywin, who ordered Elia's death. Since the Lannisters are basically the show's bad guys at this point, this pretty much sets Oberyn up as a hero.
This sense is reinforced by his compassion -- unlike the rest of Westeros, he never judged Tyrion Lannister (another beloved character and the only member of his family who hasn't done anything horrible) for his small stature. He smoothly charmed all in his path (but me most of all) while maintaining a razor-sharp focus on his enemy.
As the season wears on, Tyrion finds himself in a spot of a bother -- he's put on trial for the fatal poisoning of his jerk-in-chief nephew, King Joffrey. Needless to say, he didn't do it, but his trusted paramour and most of his family turn on him.
Tyrion faces the chop. His only hope to be declared innocent is for someone to stand as his champion and win in a trial by combat. Unfortunately, the champion will have to battle The Mountain, and no one wants to face that beast.
I never really worried about Tyrion, but the way Oberyn steps into his dark, lonely cell at his lowest moment and reveals his understanding of the small man's challenging life utterly warmed my heart. In a world where we've seen pregnant woman getting stabbed in the belly and babies sacrificed to ice zombies, how could I not love the guy at this point? He's proven himself a paragon of decency and justice (even if he's motivated by vengeance).
"I will be your champion," Oberyn says, the torch crackling in his hand.
I whooped with joy as Tyrion is apparently saved and vengeance seems within Oberyn's grasp.
At the trial, a supremely cocky Oberyn knocks back a drink as he prepares to face The Mountain.
"Today is not the day I die," he tells Tyrion and his paramour, Ellaria, and I so wanted to believe him. But we know Game of Thrones is cruel, and I loved Oberyn a little too much.
Spinning through the air and twirling his spear (a whirlwind once again), Oberyn fights like Star Wars' Darth Maul -- who blew my 12-year-old mind in 1999 -- and wears The Mountain down with quick, poison-tipped stabs. Magnificent.
"You raped her! You murdered her! You killed her children!" he repeats, demanding that The Mountain admit his crime.
Oberyn ultimately stabs The Mountain in the stomach and severs his hamstring, bringing the beast down. He paces back and forth over his defeated opponent, demanding The Mountain admit that Twyin (who's watching the fight with his stupid smug face) ordered him to kill Oberyn's sister and her kids.
And so the Dornish prince's hubris is his downfall as Game of Thrones has one of its cruelest moments. This is the point where I like to stop I when I rewatch the fight, as I've done about 10 times ... why would I experience this again?
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Horrifyingly, The Mountain trips Oberyn to the ground and punches him hard enough to knock out his teeth. But it's not over.
The Mountain proceeds to crush Oberyn's eyes with his thumbs as he sadistically admits his crimes, then smooshes the prince's head before collapsing. It's as gory and disturbing as it sounds, and it chills me to this day (even if Pascal has fun with it).
My hero is dead, Tyrion's fate is apparently sealed and Tywin appears untouchable. Or course, Tyrion manages to escape and justice soon finds its way to Tywin as he sits on the loo, but Oberyn's fall is one of the show's darkest moments and I cared just a bit less about the whole thing after that.
But he still beat The Mountain, who succumbed to his poison and is just a zombie now. I like to think Oberyn's revenge is complete, even if it cost him his life. At least Pascal will soon show up as the main character in Star Wars: The Mandalorian -- I'll tell myself he's Oberyn reborn.
So go and be someone's champion . Just don't pace about above your fallen enemy.
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Originally published April 11.