The Writing On the Wall: An Indispensable Bond

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Valar Morghulis!

A prevalent reading of Game Of Thrones is that it is defined by misery and the triumphs of unsavory characters. Audiences expect that any decent character is likely to meet a grisly and unforgiving end while those who espouse the more negative aspects of humanity are not just likely to survive, but triumph. The expectation is arguably cemented when Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) loses his head, and is further entrenched when the Red Wedding bloodily unfolds in the damp and dark halls of the Twins.

George R. R. Martin has repeatedly noted his intent of crafting a story that is rooted in a sense of realism and much like the real world, Westeros and Essos are often harsh and unforgiving lands. The common folks are consistently torn apart by feuding aristocrats. The decent are often either cunningly outmaneuvered by the less savory and or simply fall to their blunter instruments. A royal family may be beholden to the desires of a powerful bank. Innocents are stolen away to be sold as the property of another human being.

In spite of their popular reputation at times, neither A Song Of Ice and Fire nor Game Of Thrones are rooted in an unrelenting espousal of nihilism. Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) chokes to death at his own wedding, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) is assassinated while on the toilet, and Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) is devoured by his own dogs. It’s justice whose examples can be counted within both hands, but it does exist. Yet that is also justice that is reserved for a few and for many, it simply does not exist and they have to find solitude in other facets of life.

Game of Thrones (2015) Episode Title: Season 5, Episode TK Air Date: Nathalie Emmanuel as Missandei and Jacob Anderson as Grey Worm

Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) were kidnapped as young children and sold into slavery, her from the island of Naath and him from the Summer Isles, respectively. They were both taken to the aptly named Slaver’s Bay, her eventually becoming the translator for Kraznys mo Nakloz (Dan Hildebrand) and him becoming a member of the Unsullied under the charge of the Good Masters of Astapor. They both suffered in different ways and for them, it seemed that there would be no justice for the crimes committed against them.

The horrors Missandei endured as a slave woman are never expressly detailed in the adaptation, but one only needs to glance at the plight of slave women in history and today to garner an idea of the suffering she survived. When Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) negotiates with the slave masters from the great cities of Essos, for example, Missandei’s calm and collected demeanor breaks for the first time and we see the undercurrents of anger, grief, and resentment echoing across her visage. She looks upon the disaffected faces of those three men and sees the resurfacing of her trauma, abuse, and pain.

Grey Worm suffered through the horrific system that created and perpetuated the Unsullied. The Unsullied are castrated in order to prevent any of the weaknesses that are associated with love and sexual intimacy (that the penis is seen as the primary arbiter of both of those paradigms says quite a lot). The Unsullied are forced through their training to let go of every bit of emotion that they espouse and to prove that they have indeed done so, they must slaughter a slave infant in its mother’s arms and repay her with a coin, for her master.

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If the realistic depictions of injustice and justice are necessary for the realism of the narrative to take hold, one can argue that the depiction of people finding small moments of joy and solace are just as critical, if not more so. We don’t often come across examples of justice in our lives and in a world that is ubiquitous with darkness, it is often a matter of not just desire but also necessity to find comfort in the small things and personal connections.

Missandei and Grey Worm have suffered traumas that few, if any, other characters in the series can contemplate, for slavery is more insidious and deep than many realize. A core tenant of slavery is the stripping away of identity, of ensuring that slaves never make the error of thinking of themselves as an individual and not property. Once that paradigm of power is established, there is no limit to the horrors and crimes that can be committed against slaves because they are no longer viewed through the lens of humanity. That empathetic link is critically broken.

When Missandei and Grey Worm meet each other’s eyes in “The Mountain and the Viper,” it is more than a sexual moment where the two characters are exposed to each other sans clothing. It is a moment of deep intimacy where two people who were for so long denied their individual identities felt those shackles quietly but powerfully breaking apart. For once they could look into each other’s eyes and find a genuine desire to connect and belong.

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Their relationship began to blossom when the two discover that their stories, while radically different in many ways, shared an underlying thoroughfare of being stolen from their island homes and sold into this unforgiving, inhumane system of slavery. Here at last, each of them thought, was someone who would not just listen but understand. To find someone with whom you can forge such a deep connection is meaningful, especially when it seems that the world around one’s self is collapsing with a reckless abandon.

Missandei is at first surprised when she discovers Grey Worm gazing at her bathing in the stream, but she allows him to see more of her before she leaves. When he arrives afterwards to apologize, Missandei notes that there is no need, expressing an added sympathy over his castration. Grey Worm quietly notes that if he hasn’t suffered, then in all likelihood he wouldn’t have come to meet her. Missandei is touched as she sees someone like herself, someone who has not only survived significant trauma but found a way to see the small beauties in life.

In the alleyways of Meereen, Grey Worm is gravely injured in an ambush by the Sons of the Harpy. Missandei is terrified for his life and afraid that the connection they had forged would be so brutally broken. When he awakens and finds her by his bedside, he confesses that in the true Unsullied fashion, he was never afraid of dying but he was afraid that if he died, he would never see Missandei of Naath again. Moved, Missandei leans down to give him a kiss.

In “Stormborn,” their flirtation reaches a beautiful consummation that was emotionally and dramatically earned on account of the time and effort the story had put into making their connection resonate. It happened in part because the two were aware of the real risk that Grey Worm would die on his mission to take Casterly Rock, but the emotional impetus was already there. The sex scene that unfolds quietly and slowly, allowing for both characters to show each other who they are in their most vulnerable state. That active choice represents a powerful decision for the two of them, considering that they have been forced to be vulnerable for so much of their respective lives.

While some have found the romantic connection between Missandei and Grey Worm to be an unnecessary distraction, their connection is critical to what Game Of Thrones is about: the conflict of the human heart and how our decisions in regards to those internal conflicts shape us to become who we are. That perhaps doesn’t sound as thrilling as dragons, wolves, and White Walkers, but that is in part because the complexities associated with human emotions have not received the critical discussion they are due.

Writing clicks when it is able to connect with an audience, whomever that audience may be; and it is able to connect with the audience in question when it finds meaningful character beats and stories that evoke our everyday emotions, if not experiences. We may ostensibly be fighting for justice in different ways and to empower those who lack the access to be able to use their voice. But we cannot continue fighting for what is right in an increasingly horrific world without those small moments of joy and meaningful connections, romantic or otherwise.

The dragons, wolves, and White Walkers are arguably indispensable to Game Of Thrones. The various battles for the Iron Throne and the machinations they involve are the bedrock upon which this series grew. The politics gave the series depth. Just as valuable, if not more so, are the personal connections and relationships characters form with one another. Missandei and Grey Worm show us that in spite of all the traumas, suffering, and despair, we can survive and even thrive by finding joy and support and that is an indispensable reminder all of us can use.

Valar Dohaeris,

Akash Of the Andals

18 responses

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    1. Excellent article!

      I have loved watching the expansion of these two characters throughout Game of Thrones. Missandei and Grey Worm are, as you say, the very human faces of slavery. They represent the survivors of a system Daenerys has done her best to eradicate.

      The time spent on Missandei and Grey Worm’s relationship has allowed the audience to get to know them and they’ve enriched Daenerys’s story – her advisers aren’t named identikit characters, but real people we empathize with, understand and care about.

      Their scene together in Stormborn was beautifully written, acted and directed. We may never have been slaves or involved in a war or abused in the way these two characters have, but we can relate to that human moment of intimacy – of laying yourself literally or metaphorically bare to someone and trusting them.

      Grey Worm and Missandei’s relationship reminds me a lot of Sam and Gilly’s; two people who have endured abuse and found each other on the other side. They have healed each other, and are now trying to do what they can to help others.

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    2. I like that they found each other as people that have endored horrible circumstances…unfortunately i feel like Grey Worm won’t survive the Wight Walkers battle but at least he found some happiness with Missandei before the end.

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    3. I’ve often defended what Missandei and Grey Worm bring to the show when people complain it’s a time-waster. GoT can be so dark and grim, with so much death- we need reminders of hope and personal progress in their world.

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    4. The only reason some people complain about this is the fact that this relationship is not in the books. It is better written than some book love stories like Sam and Gilly’s.

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    5. Thank you for writing this, Akash. I love Missandei and Grey Worm, and I’m always happy when Game of Thrones spends time on their romance – not only because of what it represents, but also because they’re just so sweet and genuine together. I think the show has done a wonderful job of building up their love story over the years, culminating in that exceptional scene in “Stormborn”, which was beautifully executed on every level.

      I know that Grey Worm is an ever-popular pick to die almost every year and that heading into the final season, no one is safe. But I’d really like to see both him and Missandei make it to the end. To say that they deserve happiness may be tempting fate (Cersei had some apt words on that subject in the S3 finale that have always stuck with me), but they’ve paid their dues more than most.

      I really have no interest in engaging a debate with those who view any romance in Game of Thrones – and especially this one – as a “distraction” or “a waste of time”. People are welcome to feel however they like, but suffice it to say that I could not possibly disagree more strongly, both generally and especially in this case.

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    6. 1. Whether intended or not, there was a valuable lesson in “Stormborn” when Grey Worm is embarrassed to undress but Missandei insists she wants to see him. In everyday life, I come upon people with “Body Dismorohic Disorder”; girls and women who think they’re five pounds overweight and call themselves fat blimps; and men who pump themselves up with HGH and steroids to look “manly.” (It doesn’t help when Hollywood action movie stars do it.)
      Semi-Rant Over

      2. I for one am glad the show included the romance between two former slaves, both of whom were brutalized and sold and bartered like commidities – but still found a way to regain their humanity. Even what some might consider a “throwaway” scene – when Missandei gets s little tipsy and starts giggling, and Grey Worm smiles – was really enjoyable. I wish there had been a few more minutes of those kinds of scenes, instead of Ramsay tormenting and torturing people. (I get it: he’s a sick f*ck sadist; can we move along and maybe return to Ygritte and Jon cavorting in the hot tub?)

      3. Despite Grey Worm’s serious demeanor, when he went to apologize to Missandei for staring at her when she was bathing, and she replied “I’m glad you did”, I could almost imagine him doing an imperceptible fist pump, and thinking to himself “Well, that certainly turned out better than I ever expected.”

      4. In the exchange described in the article, I thought Grey Worm’s response to Missandei’s comment that she was sorry about the terrible thing done to him as a boy, was beautifully written and so romantic. [Paraphrasing: “Why sorry? If all this bad stuff hadn’t happened to me, I never would’ve met Missandei from the Island of Naath.”]
      In second place: Recovering after the Harpies ambush, and confessing he was ashamed that when he was wounded he had been afraid – not of dying, but that he’d never see her again.

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    7. Jared,

      “I really have no interest in engaging a debate with those who view any romance in Game of Thrones – and especially this one – as a “distraction” or “a waste of time”. People are welcome to feel however they like, but suffice it to say that I could not possibly disagree more strongly, both generally and especially in this case.”
      ———————–

      I hear you. Agree 100%.
      I’ve always felt it’s much harder to write and perform engaging romantic stories than battles and betrayals.
      I can only surmise that those who view any romance in Got as a “distraction” or “waste of time” prefer unrelenting horror and tragedy. Where’s the enjoyment in that?
      [Darn it… I had a quote to insert here but lost it.]

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    8. Wonderfully written, thank you.

      Alba Stark, I agree these two massively enhance Daeny’s story. Not only by being characters in their own rights, but by being living, breathing reminders of how she ‘protects people from monsters’ . And I loved how she remembered the children the Unsullied were forced to murder – and broke the cycle preventing further infanticide.

      This inspiring true life triumph of a boy solider is who I think of when I think of
      Grey Worm’s real life counterparts. It’s an add for a university this man graduated from but its really touching:

      youtube.com/watch?v=buA3tsGnp2s

      I didn’t want it to play automatically, so just insert the www if interested.

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    9. Really thoughtful piece which I thoroughly enjoyed. The love scene between these characters was poignant and sensual. It was so good to see characters in GOT having a good sexual encounter. It was also important to me that this was a moment for two actors of color. It was extremely well done.

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    10. This was a beautifully written piece, and all the subsequent comments were beautifully written as well. I really think their romance and characters in general add something to the show. There is a certain innocence and purity to their romance I feel, and it’s a breath of fresh air to watch. These kind of things are what separate this show from most other shows, because it’s a true emotional roller coaster, one moment you are laughing and happy, one moment the funniest thing ever happens, and then the next moment there is tragedy, and the cycle continues on and on. Take shows like Walking Dead for instance, almost everything in the show is misery, there are no funny moments or joyful moments to be found.

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    11. Dramas don’t make characters happy for the sake of making the characters or the audience happy. There’s no drama in that. They make characters happy so they can hurt them more effectively. You can’t have darkness without light and you can’t have misery without happiness.

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    12. I loved the Missandei-Grey Worm relationship. The slow revelation of mutual vulnerabilities.

      That said, I take exception to this part of the essay:
      >The expectation [that any decent character is likely to meet a grisly and unforgiving end while those who espouse the more negative aspects of humanity are not just likely to survive, but triumph] is arguably cemented when Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) loses his head

      Not for me! I always considered Ned losing his head to be a *positive* event – a fortuitous step in freeing Westeros from the shackles of feudalism, and also allowing his daughters to be who they could be. The conversation I best remember Ned from, after all, is the one where he tells Arya that she won’t be a warrior; her sons will be warriors. Bull-shit.

      Ned may have been a fairly nice guy, but he was a conservative with a limited worldview. Not the kind of person who should have power over others. It’s bad that he lived in a system where he needed to lose his head to lose his power, but it’s good that he did lose the power itself.

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    13. mau,

      Yeah, Martin doesn’t really do a good job with romance. I’d say he even struggles giving a realistic depiction of familial bonds.

      Its why I get bemused when people claim Jon-Dany love story will be better and fleshed out in the books.

      Having said that, its difficult to say the Missandei-Greyworm stuff is anything but a waste of valuable minutes.

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    14. Ten Bears,

      I agree also. I’ve never had a problem with the Missandei and Grey Worm scenes. Both characters had gone through hell before Dany came to Astapor and released them from slavery. I was hoping there would be some romantic element between them and glad to see they finally ‘got it together’ in S7 😉

      Whether they will survive to the end of the series – who knows, but I for one hope they do.

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    15. Great article! I’ve always liked the two characters, Grey Worm and Missandei, and also liked their relationship. I definitely have not enjoyed the constant complaining by some fans about them.

      Yaga,

      Hahaha…… I am of the same mind regarding Ned Stark. A decent man for the feudal, male-dominated system he lived in, but not for the times that are coming. Him losing his head in Season 1 is perhaps an early sign that the patriarchal, feudal society, will someday lose its head!

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    16. Enjoyed the article and appreciate the premise…small pleasures and all that…

      I enjoyed two scenes: drinking wine with Tyrion and Greyworm at Casterly Rock. I thought their scene in “Stormborn” was too long considering that they aren’t major players in the series (my opinion, of course). That could change but I didn’t think they warranted that much time up to that point.

      I’ve never complained about either of them before, though, so this may count as a first…and in all likelihood, it will be the last. Besides, I can never complain about Danys most trusted advisor, right? Pffft…hahaha. Ok, done.

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    17. Kay: A decent man for the feudal, male-dominated system he lived in, but not for the times that are coming. Him losing his head in Season 1 is perhaps an early sign that the patriarchal, feudal society, will someday lose its head!

      Well, don’t we wish. I think we may be lucky if Westeros goes from a patriarchal feudal society to a feudal society where women are in the line of succession, as they do in Dorne. Anyone hoping for a modern, representative-style democracy by the end of the series will be disappointed. The population is almost entirely illiterate, people believe any stupid thing they hear, there’s no such thing as journalism, just rumor and wild story, and the privileged have all the weaponry.

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