This post contains frank discussion of several plot points from Season 8, Episode 4 of Game of Thrones. If youre not all caught up, or would prefer not to be spoiled, now is the time to leave. Seriously: this is your last chance, and you wont have another so, get out while the getting is good.
Last week after most—if not all—of our favorite characters survived the Battle of Winterfell, culture writers and Game of Thrones fans alike were accusing the final Game of Thrones season of being too toothless. Theres likely to be a different outcry this week. Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), close advisor to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and girlfriend of Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), was brutally and publicly beheaded in the episodes final moments. This death will hurt a large swath of the fandom for a number of reasons which well get into. But first, lets investigate whose idea this was in the first place.
When young Shireen Baratheon burned back in Season 5, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were able to deflect some of the heat from an outraged fandom by saying they were shocked to learn that this was author George R.R. Martins plan all along. So is this another instance of Weiss and Benioff just following Martins lead? We cant say for sure. The show runners have promised not to divulge which plot twists are theirs and which are Martins in these final episodes, but its very unlikely. In the books, Missandei isnt a young woman, shes a small girl. Daenerys often refers to her personal advisor as her “little scribe,” because shes so small.
As evidence by Shireens fate, age is no guarantee that Martin wouldnt kill off a character like Missandei. (In fact, there are some theories that little book Missandei might be plotting against Daenerys.) But Missandeis death in the show serves a dual purpose that it simply cannot in the books. Her beheading outraged Daenerys, yes, but it was enormously painful to her lover, Grey Worm, as well. Suffice to say Grey Worm and little Missandei are not hooking up in the books. This makes Missandei (over, say, someone like Jorah) a more valuable pain point as far as the Game of Thrones writers are concerned, and her demise here likely has nothing to do with anything Martin has planned.
As the author himself put it back in 2015: “People are going to die who dont die in the books. So even the book readers will be unhappy. So everybody better be on their toes. David and D.B. are even bloodier than I am.”
As the shot of a lonely and isolated Daenerys staring out over the victory party at Winterfell at the beginning of the episode underlined, Team Targaryen is particularly vulnerable. Daenerys lost Jorah, her boyfriend Jon, her dragon Rhaegal, her Dothraki, and the closest thing she had to a best friend in the span of just a few episodes. But Missandei is more than just Daeneryss only friend and Grey Worms girlfriend. She happens to be the only woman of the color on the show. Using her death to motivate other characters—a white woman and even a black man—has wider implications for a show that has always struggled with the question of race.
A number of prominent black actors have called out Game of Thrones over the years for its lack of racial representation. “There are no black people in Game of Thrones,” Star Wars actor John Boyega told GQ in 2017. “You dont see one black person in Lord Of The Rings. I aint paying money to always see one type of person on-screen.”
Boyega may have forgotten about Missandei and Grey Worm, but David Oyelowo did not. In a 2016 interview with The Radio Times he said there is “no excuse” for a lack of diverse casting on a show like Game of Thrones. Grey Worm and Missandei have fairly minor roles on the show, and Oyelowo argued, “there should be space for bigger characters. Because youre not just saying, O.K. this is purely a white world, and here are very story-driven reasons why thats the case.” Outside of Grey Worm and Missandei, Salladhor Saan (Lucian Msamati), Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie), and Areo Hotah (DeObia Oparei) are the only black characters of note to have appeared on the show—and theyre all long gone now.
Author George R.R. Martin has been called out for that “white world” that Weiss and Benioff inherited from him. In 2014, a distressed fan wrote on Martins blog, asking “must all black people in the series be servants, guards, or charlatans?” Martin responded that there would be more characters of color in his still-forthcoming The Winds of Winter, and defended the shows efforts to “promote diversity as well.” But no matter what Martin, Weiss, and Benioff may say they want, the optics on diversity only got worse in the translation from book to screen. The Spanish-inspired country of Dorne, which brought in actors of color like Alexander Siddig and Keisha Castle-Hughes, suffered from a poorly executed plot line that was cut surprisingly short. Daenerys, depicted with highly criticized “white savior” imagery in her time in Essos in Seasons 3 and 4, left that continent without much of the reckoning that many book readers—myself included—were certain would come. And Areo Hotah, whom Martin singled out as an example of the storys diversity? He got the shaft, literally, in season 6.
In the Battle of Winterfell, the Dothraki—an entire culture, depicted in great depths of the book—were wiped out, prompting Nina Shen Rastogi to write, “The Dothraki Are Dead. Does Game of Thrones Care?” for Vulture. The condensed and accelerated latter seasons of Game of Thrones have only heightened the racial inequality, Grey Worm and Missandeis expanded roles aside. The Dothraki were largely reduced to cool horse stunt riders—like watching Wakandan warriors pull background duty in Avengers: Infinity War. As for the Unsullied, Daeneryss other force of non-white fighting men, the show has just made Grey Worm the face of an entire fighting tribe. The same could probably be said at this point about Tormund and the Wildlings, so we can just leave all that where it is.
Which brings us back to Missandei. When examining race and its relationship to pop culture, writers often speak about the “burden of representation.” When, say, there is only one woman in a cast of characters or only one person of color, they are forced to stand in for an entire gender or race. Missandeis death, then, carries more symbolic weight than a white womans death might.
Another popular culture phrase is the concept of “fridging“—when an underdeveloped female character is killed in order to motivate a man. While we cant say Missandeis death only motivates Grey Worm, it was, perhaps, a bad idea to cut away from her final moments to focus on his pained expression instead. A similar decision to cut away from Sansas sexual assault to Theons tear-streaked face earned Game of Thrones some harsh critique in Season 5. And here, they did it again.
Is Missandei an underdeveloped character? Your mileage may vary. Though she is Daeneryss only female friend, the two rarely talked about much other than the boys they were interested in. In fact, the show made decisions to cut out scenes that further fleshed out their relationship. Anderson told The New York Times last week that he and Emmanuel also shot some scenes that didnt make it to air. We dont know much about Missandei other than she loves Grey Worm and is loyal to Daenerys. The closest we got was a Season 6 attempt to give Grey Worm and Missandei a voice in disagreeing with Tyrion over how to handle the slave masters in Meereen when Daenerys was gone. Tyrion bungled that whole operation but got promoted to Hand of the Queen anyway.
To be honest, Missandei and Grey Worm have been sitting on top of most peoples death pool since Episode 2, when the Unsullied warrior promised to take his girl away from all this and back to the idyllic island of Naath.