Love, Fear and Humanity: The Ballad of Grey Worm and Missandei

GreyWormMissandei

When you step back and take in Game of Thrones’ cast of thousands, you can really appreciate how exceptional Grey Worm and Missandei are. It’s not just that they’re one of the few couples to have survived this long (though holy moly the mortality rate for romance is high on this show), but rather because their shared relational arc touches on some of Game of Thrones’ bleakest concepts yet actually offers a hopeful outlook.

If there’s one thematic throughline that connects most, if not all, the characters who have survived to the end of season 7, I’d argue it’s learning how to live down trauma. Anyone who has made it this long in Westeros has been subjected to horrors most of us can’t imagine and made mistakes that got people killed. Seasons 6 and 7 in particular deal with characters figuring out how to move forward and coming to terms with how these experiences have changed them.

In most storylines, faith in something as quaint as romance is one of the first casualties of a character’s disillusionment. Sansa regrets her infatuation with Joffrey, Jon loses Ygritte several times over, Daenerys euthanizes Drogo, Tyrion strangles Shae, and Robb and Talisa pay dearly for following their hearts. One way or another, these couples are torn apart and the survivors rebuild themselves with reorganized priorities.

Grey Worm and Missandei, by contrast, have already endured a lifetime of abuse by the time they meet and the bond they form is what helps them heal and move forward. It’s important to note that, unlike characters like the Stark children, for example, we never got to know Grey Worm and Missandei before their trauma. They themselves have little to no memory of life before enslavement. This sets their arc apart from most others as their story isn’t about building themselves back up but rather discovering what it means to feel human in the first place.

I should stress that I said feel human, not be human. No one’s humanity is contingent on their social status but the way people are treated does inform their self-perception. Grey Worm and Missandei were objectified and commodified from early childhood; that shaped the way they saw themselves. It’s no coincidence that they’re introduced into the show more as narrative tools than as individulals. They have a few characters beats in season 3 such as Missandei sanitizing Krazny’s rude comments as she translates for Daenerys and Grey Worm explaining why he’s chosen to keep his Unsullied name. But for the most part they are what they do. Missandei is a translator; she translates. Grey Worm is a soldier; he fights.

Missandei

It’s not until season 4 that Grey Worm and Missandei begin to develop their relationship and, in doing so, start fleshing out their own internal lives. We get our first hint of a connection when Missandei shoots Grey Worm an admonishing glance in 4×01 “Two Swords” but it’s not until episode 4×06 “The Mountain and the Viper” that they vocalize, albeit laconically, that for the first time in their lives, they feel desire for someone else. Most telling of all is Grey Worm’s use of the word “precious,” which Jorah taught him. It’s never made clear if Grey Worm asked Jorah for a direct translation of a Valyrian phrase or if Jorah had to sit through a lengthy description before suggesting “precious” as an adequate summary.

Either way, Grey Worm, the elected general of the infamously disciplined Unsullied army has sought out a new word to adequately describe what his language lessons with Missandei mean to him. Normally, when male characters do this it indicates that they have an unexpected sensitive side, such as when Michael recommends that his cellmate use the word “passion” instead of “love” in a letter to his girlfriend in the first episode of Prison Break. However, with Grey Worm it’s a sign a personal growth, an indication of newfound introspection.

Possibly Grey Worm and Missandei’s most significant break through is confessing to each other that they both “have fear” now that they have someone to lose. This is such a drastic change for Grey Worm that describes it as “weakness” but that’s the double-edged sword of the human experience. If you can feel desire and pleasure that means you also have the capacity for fear and pain. Admitting this to each other is what finally frees them up to act on on their mutual attraction. Speaking of which …

MissandGW

Setting aside the initial half-joking glee of, “Oh, hey! They finally figured it out,” there‘s something wonderfully defiant about Grey Worm and Missandei’s love scene. I think Alt Shift X put it best:

Grey Worm and Missandei were both slaves. Their bodies were property, tools for violence and obedience. But here they defy their former masters by instead using their bodies for love … which is kind of beautiful.

“First times” are typically important to a character’s development, for obvious reasons, but Missandei and Grey Worms’ consummation deserves special mention. It signifies how far they’ve come, both as a couple and as individuals. Their very capacity to feel and share something so intimate flies in the face of everything that their former masters thought them to be.

I suspect part of the reason Grey Worm and Missandei tend to get less attention from the fandom (SNL apparently forgot they existed for one sketch) is because their arcs are much less flashy than others’. Indeed, in a world in which most people seem to swap names, allegiances and literal faces as often as we change our small clothes, Grey Worm and Missandei lead staggeringly uncomplicated lives by comparison. They always speak in quiet voices, their loyalty to Daenerys remains unambiguous and, even though it took them a long time to consummate their relationship, they never fell into the void of the Will-They-Won’t-They trope.

For having had among the harshest upbringings of any character on the show, they are both extraordinarily well-adjusted people. I think that’s the point.

Whether this was intentional on the part of the writers I neither know nor care but Grey Worm and Missandei prove that hardship and even trauma don’t have to rob you of the capacity for gentleness, decency and love. As I said earlier, trauma has become one of the major themes of the show. Grief, abuse, loss of faith, systemic injustice … these are complicated issues that change people, and not in a way that’s pretty or clean or easy to understand.

While it’s important to truthfully depict the range of ways that people cope with trauma (and for what it’s worth I think Game of Thrones has made great strides in that department) there is also great value in creating characters we can aspire to emulate. Missandei and Grey Worm don’t let the horrors of their pasts rob them of having a future. Yet, they didn’t come into this strength all on their own. While love interests are so often extraneous to a characters’ arc Grey Worm and Missandei’s mutual attraction has been integral to their development. They’ve helped each other become their best selves.

That’s one hell of a love story.

25 responses

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    1. You’ve done it again, Petra! Beautifully written article. 🙂

      I should enumerate all of the interesting things you wrote about Missandei’s expression of her affection for Grey Worm and Grey Worm’s demonstration of his love for Missandei. For now, suffice it to say…

      Many things.”

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    2. Wonderful article. Missandei and Greyworm are two of my favorite characters and their halting but clearly sincere romance is a rare glimpse of what hope can look like. Their love scene was one of the best sex scenes that any one has managed on cable television and on film in general. So much credit for making these characters live and breathe go to Natalie and Jacob. Maybe, they will get the lead roles in the film adaptation of “An American Marriage”. Here’s hoping.

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    3. Thank you for this, Lady Petra! If any relationship in this show deserves it’s own ballad, it is Missandei and Grey Worm – send a raven to Ustad Djawadi! It’s also worth mentioning (which I have done on another post) the bond between Missandei and Daenerys, which seems to transcend the usual master/servant relationship, in which the servant has no life of their own, living only for the master. At any rate, their love story is a blessed relief from the violence and horror.

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    4. You’ve jinxed them!! 😭 haha. But seriously, what a great relationship to highlight. I know some people were over the Meereen storyline in Season 6, but I particularly loved how both Greyworm and Missandei were a united front interacting with Tyrion and educating him about slaves and slavers.

      Missandei: “And how long were you a slave.”
      Tyrion: “Long enough to know”
      Missandei: “But not long enough to understand.” (As Greyworm looks at Tyrion) disapprovingly).

      I think book!Missandei has more memories of her childhood than on the show as Naath is full of peaceful vegetarians, which is why slavers targeted the island so much. She has a gentle spirit that really connects well with Greyworm, something he lacked while in training.

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    5. I’ve actually been thinking recently… who in GOT has suffered the LEAST on this show? Everyone has suffered somehow… physically, emotionally, psychologically…. hell even Sam got nearly beat to death and faced off against white walkers…. maybe Euron? Only because he’s only been here two seasons?

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    6. Great article and analysis.

      I have always enjoyed their scenes. It was great to also see what being free meant for actual characters and not have it be just an abstract concept.

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    7. Ryan,

      Hmm … good question. I suppose Maester Aemon had a pretty straight forward life. He outlived all his loved ones, sadly, but he died peacefully of old age.

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    8. Ryan:
      I’ve actually been thinking recently… who in GOT has suffered the LEAST on this show? Everyone has suffered somehow… physically, emotionally, psychologically…. hell even Sam got nearly beat to death and faced off against white walkers…. maybe Euron? Only because he’s only been here two seasons?

      Ser Pounce maybe?

      Kidding aside, that’s a tough one. Maybe Bronn? Daario perhaps? They both seem to have lived tough lives, but we really haven’t seen much of it. I think every character in the show has been through the ringer one way or another, so it’s tough to answer.

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    9. Ryan: who in GOT has suffered the LEAST on this show?

      It has to be Qyburn if we’re considering everyone. The dude has been riding the easy-living, high-horse the whole time. He’s gone from an outcast maester when he first appeared to ‘Master of Whispers’ and trusted Royal physician, to the Grand Maester to Hand of the Queen without even breaking a sweat.

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    10. Clob: He’s gone from an outcast maester when he first appeared to ‘Master of Whispers’ and trusted Royal physician, to the Grand Maester to Hand of the Queen without even breaking a sweat.

      Yeah, he has moved up relatively unscathed (afaik), hasn’t he? Interesting. Although I look forward to more of Qyburn’s devious contraptions and manipulations, I think his termination will be most severe.

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    11. Qyburn isn’t a bad suggestion, although he almost died at Harrenhal.

      I’m also guessing that given his fascination with dragons, he will be a delicious roasted treat for Drogon.

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    12. This was a beautifully written article about one of the most tender and loving GoT relationships.

      I love the way that Grey Worm and Missandei work together to heal themselves and each other. Their story is a very human one and resonates in the real, non-fantastical world – how to deal with trauma you have experienced, and reach a place where you can trust again, be that people, places or things.

      Grey Worm and Missandei are quiet and stoic characters. They don’t scream or shout or kill people to make a point. They have a deep abiding loyalty to the woman who saved them from the brutal, dehumanizing life they were forced to live. And I also think they add a lot to Dany’s story – they form real proof of the positive impact her crusade on slavery has had on people.

      Their scene in Stormborn was so beautifully written and played. It was so tender and loving and vulnerable.

      For all Ramsay says If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention, Grey Worm and Missandei definitely deserve to have one.

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    13. If there was anything from GOT worse than “bad poosy” it was Missandei and Grey Worm’s forced diversity checklist plot garbage.

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    14. Steve Snow: forced diversity checklist plot garbage.

      That’s not at all how I see the, absolutely NOT plot garbage. Their presence in the story is a bit of humanity and hope amidst all the carnage. I like their story.

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    15. Alba Stark,

      “For all Ramsay says If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention, Grey Worm and Missandei definitely deserve to have one.”
      ________________

      In a way, they’ve already had a happy ending. How many people in this fictional world actually grow old, let alone grow old together? Sure, Maester Aemon died of old age, but with love and romance just a distant memory in his past. Davos says he’s approaching his senior years, yet he’s alone – who knows how long it’s been since he’s seen his wife.

      For Missandei and Grey Worm to be able to declare their love for each other and consummate it is a rare and special thing. Aside from his “fear” of never seeing Missandei of the Island of Na’ath again, he can die a happy man. If something happens to her, I doubt she’d have regrets, considering her beginnings and where she ended up: BFF to the Breaker of Chains and the one true love of the duly elected Captain of the Unsullied.

      Consider this hypothetical. Whether in the fictional world or the real world, let’s say you gave two people like GW and Missandei the following choice: Live a long and dreary life without ever finding love, or experience the romance and passion you had with each other for a year or two but die young, eg in S8.

      For me, it’d be a no brainer.

      PS To be cont. (There was a GW quote I wanted to insert here but I forgot what it was.)

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    16. Alba Stark,

      [Cont. from above. ]

      I thought Grey Worm’s words at the end of this exchange with Missandei in S4e8 (in bold) were… beautiful.
      ………………………………..

      GW: Missandei. … The lessons you give I in common tongue, these are precious to I.

      M: To me.

      GW: – To me.

      M: I don’t remember teaching you the word “precious.”

      GW: Jorah the Andal, he teaches I– he teaches me this word.

      M: Do you remember the name you were given at birth?

      GW: I remember nothing. Only Unsullied.

      M: When they cut you, do you remember that? I’m sorry. I’m sorry they did that to you.

      GW: Why? Why sorry?

      M: It’s a terrible thing to do to a boy.

      GW: If the masters never cut me, I never am Unsullied. I never stand in the Plaza of Pride when Daenerys Stormborn to kill the Masters. I never am chosen to lead the Unsullied. I never meet Missandei from the island of Na’ath.
      ………………………………………..

      What better way to announce your love than saying, in essence: “It was worth getting mutilated, enslaved, and brutalized ….because I met you.” ?

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    17. This post was a good read and it’s interesting to see everyone’s view on the relationship.

      Personally I don’t really care about it, maybe because I don’t find the characters super interesting. It’s sweet and beautful and all but when they had scenes together I mostly thought “Yeah OK whatever, move on! We only have X minutes!”

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    18. Ryan:
      I’ve actually been thinking recently… who in GOT has suffered the LEAST on this show? Everyone has suffered somehow… physically, emotionally, psychologically…. hell even Sam got nearly beat to death and faced off against white walkers…. maybe Euron? Only because he’s only been here two seasons?

      Ilyrio Mopatis hands down. Maester Aemon had to live through the destruction of his house, and Qyburn was almost butchered at Harrenhal.

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    19. Ryan:
      “I’ve actually been thinking recently… who in GOT has suffered the LEAST on this show? Everyone has suffered somehow… physically, emotionally, psychologically…. hell even Sam got nearly beat to death and faced off against white walkers….”

      I’ve actually compared a bunch of characters and assigned each a “Suffering Index Rating” on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most suffering and 1 being the least.

      I’m just reluctant to post my score card. I fear that when I name the character with the lowest Suffering Index Rating, it will reignite a debate we had here several weeks ago, and I’ll be excoriated for being insensitive.

      Hmmm.

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    20. Yes, in the midst of an otherwise grim world, their love story is beautiful. On its own, however, it is dull. With only a finite amount of time left to wrap up this story, I hope to not see another lengthy scene between the two. Perhaps, when all is said and done and the dust has settled, I’ll go back and watch and appreciate ALL the storylines. For now, though, I need less of them and their love story, not more.

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    21. I find it significant that Grey Worm was able to make Missandei happy and bond with her, in spite of his mutilation. For some of us this is equal in value to prowess in war. IJS.

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