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Why Missandei's death on Game Of Thrones felt particularly problematic

Contributed by
May 13, 2019

A recent Game of Thrones episode, "The Last of the Starks," delivered one of the show’s most shocking deaths.

After surviving the Battle of Winterfell but losing half her armies, Daenerys insisted on traveling back to Dragonstone, her ancestral seat. What remained of the Dothraki and Unsullied journeyed by sea, while Jon Snow and the forces of the North traveled the king’s road. Weary soldiers and a depleted fighting force meant Euron Greyjoy was able to launch a stealth attack on Dany’s defenses, killing her dragon Rhaegal and capturing one of her most trusted advisors, Missandei.

While Rhaegal’s death was particularly gruesome, it’s Missandei’s fate that felt particularly troubling and hints at a larger problem the show has never attempted to correct.

Missandei has been the only key female character of color over the course of six seasons. There have been other forms of representation, specifically Ellaria Sand (British-Indian actress Indira Varma), who had a bulked-up role in the show in later seasons, but Missandei’s been advising the Mother of Dragons since Season 3, and she’s been doing it among a sea of homogenously white faces.

We first met the character when Daenerys marched to Astapor in search of an army of Unsullied. She was a slave then, working for a cruel master who Daenerys burned after taking control of his troops, setting Missandei and the rest of the slaves free. Missandei, originally from Naath, was enslaved at a young age, sold to Kraznys mo Nakloz of Astapor, who forced her to work as his interpreter. She’s fluent in 19 languages — a fact that came in handy when Dany interacted with the Good Masters — and the two women bonded over the seasons, liberating entire cities, fending off uprisings, and sailing to Westeros to reclaim the Iron Throne.

Missandei wasn’t as central to the story of Game of Thrones as her queen, or Jon Snow, for that matter. She was never a contender for the Iron Throne, serving as a loyal handmaiden and a voice of reason to the woman who was, but that doesn’t mean her arc wasn’t important. Missandei began the show in chains and grew into a woman of power in her own right, wielding influence over her queen when she could. She fell in love with Grey Worm, commander of the Unsullied, and the two made plans for a life beyond the war of Westeros. We rarely saw the adversity Missandei undoubtedly faced because of her skin color, especially once she landed in the Seven Kingdoms. The Season 8 premiere gave us a hint of her “otherness” as she and Grey Worm rode into an unwelcoming Winterfell where people blatantly shunned them both. And though we felt how uncomfortable and out of place Missandei was in the North, it was never more than a subplot, an excuse to imagine a happy ending for the pair before ripping it away for shock value.

dany_and_missandei.jpg

HBO

The creators of Game of Thrones made a very deliberate choice to not only have Missandei be the one captured by Euron Greyjoy — though she was, presumably, already on a skiff headed for shore when the fleet was attacked — but grant her a death that felt, at best, undeserved, and at worst, like a deliberate insult to the character and everything she represents. Missandei is beheaded by the Mountain in the show’s final minutes, setting the stage for Daenerys’ descent into madness. It’s disappointing that the writers would choose to use the friendship of these two women in such a way, as a vehicle for the show’s female lead to be labeled as “weak,” “emotional,” and “crazy,” but it’s even more disturbing to see how they chose to end Missandei’s story: by putting her back in chains, robbing her of any autonomy she had gained, and then killing her in such a public, tragic fashion.

Plenty has been said about Game of Thrones’ race problem. It’s telling that only a handful of actors of color have appeared on the show as something more than savages or slaves over the series’ run. For every character like Missandei and Grey Worm who seems to make an impact in the story, there are hordes of Dothraki carelessly sacrificed for dramatic effect or acting as a mosh pit of brown faces lifting up their white savior. We’ve long since given up expecting responsible representation from the show, but Missandei’s death feels more sinister than just lazy writing — it feels willfully ignorant and uncaring toward fans who may identify with characters like her, as if the creators are shouting “You don’t matter” with one fell swoop of the Mountain’s sword.

What’s worse, Missandei’s final word, “Dracarys,” harks back to how Daenerys liberated her in Season 3, by burning the city of Astapor to the ground. Now, maybe Missandei meant it as an acknowledgment of all the two women have endured together, maybe she meant it as a show of courage in the face of certain death, but it can be seen as an endorsement for Dany’s worst impulse — to set King’s Landing aflame in retribution (an impulse she fell prey to in the most recent episode). If that’s the case, it means the writers have not only robbed Missandei of a respectable death, they’ve undermined who she was and what she believed in, using her final act to call for the deaths of millions, all out of spite.

Is it too much to ask for a show as celebrated and carefully constructed as Game of Thrones to show more concern for its secondary characters than to make them martyrs, plot points in the lead’s villainous turn, an excuse for why someone went “bad” and did terrible things — as it seems they’re setting Dany up to do? Is it too much to ask that a black woman not be sacrificed for a white woman’s story? Is it too much to ask that the show invest in female creatives — writers, directors, producers — who could better understand and therefore do justice by women like Missandei?

With only an episode to go, it would seem so.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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