Missandei's Death On 'Game Of Thrones' Was Tragic In More Ways Than One
While Sunday's episode of Game of Thrones, "The Last of the Starks," had some heartfelt moments — Jon and Tormund saying goodbye and Brienne and Jaime finally getting together— the episode was largely overshadowed by the shocking death of the only woman of color left on the show who even had a name and speaking role. This followed right on the heels of the writers doubling down on a rape plot that caused many fans to quit back in Season 5. These two upsetting plot points, happening within the same episode that featured heartwarming scenes of male camaraderie and friendship, reminded many fans that Game of Thrones' creative team is mostly men.
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss lead a crew that by and large skews white and male. Out of 73 episodes so far, only three women (Vanessa Taylor, Gursimran Sandhu, and Jane Espensen) have had co-writing credits and they're for just seven episodes of Game of Thrones. Only one out of 19 episode directors has been a woman (Michelle MacLaren). Game of Thrones is a wildly popular show that's often praised for its "Strong Female Characters," but the way we understand these characters has been largely dictated by men. This ends up being a disservice to both the fans and the characters, as we trade in the nuance and perspective a female writer could bring for the problematic tropes we see all too often in media.
Let's talk about what happens to Missandei in the episode. Against Sansa's advice, Daenerys and her remaining Unsullied and Dothraki forces head immediately to King's Landing to depose Cersei and are ambushed by Euron Greyjoy's fleet. In the ensuing chaos, Rhaegal is killed and Missandei taken prisoner. Cersei then orders the Mountain to behead Missandei in front of Dany and Grey Worm. "Dracarys," Missandei shouts before she dies, seemingly signaling to Dany that she wants King's Landing to burn.
It's a frustrating and somber end to a character who provided one of the only non-white perspectives on the entire show. When we're first introduced to the khalasar in Season 1, we're meant to understand that the dark-skinned, gyrating Dothraki women are savages and Dany is the relatable point-of-view character who will make them civil; we never get to know any of them outside of Irri, a servant who is killed off-screen early on. When it came time to introduce the feminist daughters of Oberyn Martell, the show writers botched the Sand Snakes storyline, with the three women of color flattened from their book counterparts into carbon-copy femme fatales, who were then killed off in violent ways. (Obara Sand was impaled in the stomach and Nymeria Sand strangled to death by Euron.)
Missandei was the one positive, long-standing representation of a woman of color — a low bar in and of itself, considering how few lines she got. We are only given hints that Missandei had a rich inner life, such as her backstory as a child slave, that she fell in love, and rose to a position of adviser to Dany. But in a show that spent quite a bit of time focused on characters wandering around in the wilderness for seasons on end, it seems like there could have been enough backstory and time for the writers to expand on her more.
Instead, her entire story is in service to Dany. Her final word, "dracarys," is less about her and more about giving Dany motivation for the final battle. That the writers felt the need to further drive home that Dany has motivation to kill the queen and that Cersei is heartless — when Dany has already watched Rhaegal die and the audience saw her blow up the Sept in Season 6 —was a little insulting. We get it, guys.
It also seems like proof that the all-male writers just didn't know what to do with Missandei, a female character who doesn't want for the throne, doesn't know how to wield a sword, and isn't catty or manipulative. As a lower-class character who's suffered through all forms of slavery and servitude at the hands of nobles, the least the show could have done is allow her the happy ending on the beach that she wanted, back to the Summer Sea where she came from. With her gone, the total number of named people of color on the show is down to one — Grey Worm, her Unsullied boyfriend, whose story also happens to revolve entirely around his deference to Dany.
An argument could be made that this is Game of Thrones and characters die all the time, sometimes in brutal and random ways. (I'm sure none of us forgot that Tywin Lannister died on the toilet.) Missandei's death, by most accounts, is about as noble as it could've been, mirroring the same kind of "honorable" deaths given to upper-class characters like Ned Stark.
But unlike Ned dying as a result of his own actions, Missandei's life and choices have never been her own. From the moment Dany buys Missandei from her former master and tells her, “You belong to me now, you do what I tell you to,” there has always been a stark power imbalance in their relationship. Dany may very well love Missandei as a close friend, but that doesn't change the fact that Missandei felt indebted to Dany in ways that the dragon queen could never, by virtue of class, fully reciprocate.
In the end, Missandei is fridged on Game of Thrones simply to further Dany's own arc (and likely transformation into the Mad Queen), and double down on how evil Cersei is. Created by comics writer Gail Simone, "fridging" is a term that's used to describe when a female character is killed for a man's character development. In this case, it's a woman of color who dies so a showdown between two white women can be given extra weight. That Missandei, a former slave, literally dies in chains in service to the self-titled Breaker of Chains, the purported most progressive, feminist character on the show, is a terribly tone-deaf misstep, one that perhaps would have been avoided had there been a single black woman in the writers room.
This upsetting death comes right on the heels of a truly mind-boggling scene where the Hound brings up Sansa's rape — and Sansa seems to positively credit her growth to that very abuse.
It's understandable this scene upset fans, as Sansa's rape — a complete departure from the books, which saw a side character, Jeyne Poole, abused by Ramsay Bolton instead — caused many fans to quit the show entirely back in Season 5. Yet in Season 8, Sansa herself is being used a mouthpiece to essentially pat the writers on the back and reaffirm that it was, indeed, necessary and good writing. Had there been more women in the writers room who were allowed to take the driver's seat on these characters, we may not have to be here yet again, talking about the merits of sexual trauma as character growth. The scene could very well have been omitted, or Sansa could have been used to condemn their own writing, an apology that could have worked in the writers' favor.
The only writing this episode that seemed to leave audiences well and truly divided on their merit was the scene between Brienne and Jaime, where Jaime leaves her to head to King's Landing, after hearing that Rhaegal was killed and Missandei captured. Some saw Brienne, a headstrong woman, crying over Jaime as proof that men wrote her scenes. "All of her agency is reduced to pleading with Jaime not to leave her for another woman," writes Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture.
Others, myself included, actually see Brienne's tears as valid in this case, as Jaime is the first man Brienne has loved who has actually loved her back, and even a knight can get emotional about who they just had sex with. There's also a very real possibility Jaime won't return from this last stand against his sister, who we know by now is completely untethered. Brienne's tears seem a bit more understandable in light of the fact that Jaime may be heading to his own death, seemingly just a day after he narrowly survived an army of the dead.
Regardless, these were all scenes crafted by a predominantly male team of writers, and the fact that they leave so many fans frustrated and divided tells us how much viewers are missing out on. George R. R. Martin gave us rich, complicated characters like Sansa, Cersei, and Dany, but how many stories have gone untold in the show without women writers there to add their perspectives? How much depth of character have we lost with all these female characters? As we head into the last few episodes of the entire series, it's hard not to mourn what could have been.