Game of Thrones’ Missandei controversy, explained

Hardly anyone expected that episode four of Game of Thrones’ final season, “The Last of the Starks,” would hold more twists and turns than the dramatic episode that preceded it. But after the Battle of Winterfell, the series’ shift to King’s Landing proved to hold a number of shocking moments that no one saw coming.

One of the biggest was the gruesome death of a significant character, news of which leaked online before the episode aired. A short clip that circulated from the episode included the death without any context, sparking confusion and outrage from many Game of Thrones fans in the hours before the episode’s release. Then, after the episode aired, it became clear that the death was was in service of a larger shift towards a plot development for a different beloved character — and it’s one that many fans aren’t too happy with.

There are very valid reasons for the fans’ outrage around this particular death — both because it’s a troubling example of a recurring thematic problem for Game of Thrones, and because of how it could affect the quest for the Iron Throne.

Naturally, there are spoilers ahead!

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“The Last of the Starks” introduced a whole set of potential plot developments surrounding a significant character death

There were two stunning deaths in this episode. The first was the death of one of Daenerys’s two remaining dragons, Rhaegal, thanks to well-placed arrows fired by Euron Greyjoy as Dany’s entourage sailed toward King’s Landing.

But for as hard as Rhaegal’s death was for many Game of Thrones fans to take, the other one was much worse, and it carries dire implications for the direction the series might take in its final two episodes. During Euron’s ambush on Dany’s fleet, her best friend and longtime servant Missandei is captured. She becomes Cersei’s prisoner, and in the episode’s final scene, Cersei orders the Mountain to behead her while Dany and Grey Worm are forced to watch.

It’s not pretty. But even more significantly, right before she dies, Missandei shouts the word “dracarys” to Dany. Dracarys is the command that Dany uses when directing her dragons to lay down fire and torch everything in sight, and Missandei seemed to be advising Dany to burn Cersei’s palace to the ground — and very likely many thousands of innocent King’s Landing civilians along with it.

Missandei’s death is clearly meant to propel both Dany and Grey Worm into destructive grief spirals. It also seems to be setting the stage for a grim plot twist in which Dany essentially turns into her grandfather, the mad king Aerys II Targaryen, and reacts to her losses with a vengeful, unmitigated rage that threatens all of King’s Landing.

But this is an especially complicated turn of events, given that Dany has consistently been lauded as a feminist icon — albeit one with a heavy emphasis on white feminism. Essentially, even though Missandei’s death should be about Missandei, it’s inevitably also about problems with Dany’s politics and Game of Thrones’ often contradictory presentation of Dany as a white savior queen who wants to be kind but who’s often ruthless and imperialistic.

The reaction to Missandei’s death has largely been negative, for a number of different reasons

Many Game of Thrones viewers have expressed anger and disgust over Missandei’s death because of what it means for Dany. Namely, after an entire episode devoted to heavily foreshadowing Dany’s turning into the “Mad Queen,” the death seemed like a calculated plot device to push Dany over the edge. But these same viewers aren’t buying such a shift in Dany’s character; after all, she’s been framed as a noble and just queen, if a flawed one, for several seasons now. Though some people have started to question whether the idea of burning everything down is actually all that bad.

Meanwhile, other fans are in mourning for Missandei — not just because she was a lovely character, but because her death falls in line with Game of Thrones’ ongoing problematic treatment of race.

Missandei was one of Game of Thrones’ few characters of color, not to mention one of its longest-running characters. After the Battle of Winterfell, she was one of only two named characters of color left on the show at all (in addition to Grey Worm). Her death now brings that total to one.

And as far as many fans are concerned, with just two episodes left, Game of Thrones has already used up most of its goodwill on this front, especially given what seems to be the problematic motivation behind Missandei’s demise.

Daenerys Targaryen is a popular feminist icon — but she’s also a troubling one, and Missandei’s death underlines why

When you think of where we began in Game of Thrones season one — with a terrified, naive Daenerys learning to respect the ways of the mighty and powerful Dothraki — it’s easy to be confused about how we got here. After all, Dany’s arc began as a compelling and optimistic one, in which she respectfully engaged with other cultures while building her army and her claim to the throne. This approach to alliance-building, along with her occasionally willful leadership style, is how she initially amassed a substantial fandom among Game of Thrones viewers who saw her as a feminist character.

However, after many seasons of uniting disparate groups beneath her banner (including by freeing slaves and offering them a chance to join her army), Dany’s commitment to bringing the seven kingdoms together has recently started to seem less than sincere. These days, her motivation appears to almost exclusively revolve around her personal quest to restore her family to the throne, instead of around the care and compassion she has previously shown to her followers, however briefly.

And notably, many of those followers have recently died in her name. Most of the Dothraki horde was decimated in the Battle of Winterfell, and the freed Unsullied slaves who formed her army suffered substantial losses. They were all essentially rendered totally expendable, both to Dany herself and to Game of Thrones’ plot as a whole.

The fact that Game of Thrones has had ample time to come up with a less sloppy way of weaving the cultures of its vast world more thoroughly into its narrative — and still failed — hasn’t earned it much acclaim from viewers who care about this sort of thing. Both the Dothraki and the Unsullied represented an entire culture, yet each was used by the show’s narrative as little more than a device to build Dany’s power on her path to the throne. Seasons five and six did attempt to use the clash between the Unsullied and their former slave-owning masters as a way of showing the difficulties Dany faced when it came to actually ruling over a land once she’d conquered it. But even that was a narrative entirely built around Dany.

Although Game of Thrones made a slight effort to give Missandei and her lover, the Unsullied commander Grey Worm, a developed romantic arc of their own — which resulted in one of the show’s only tender love scenes — they were never fully autonomous. Ultimately, Missandei’s entire narrative purpose was to further Dany’s character arc. And that makes her death a classic case of fridging.

“Fridging” is a term that originated in comic books. It’s usually applied to an expendable female character whose gruesome death is inserted into a narrative, often for shock value, and almost always to trigger a man’s emotional spiral into violent, grief-stricken retribution. In other words, a fridged woman’s characterization, and her death, are ultimately nothing more than a plot point within a man’s story. The concept of fridging usually applies to women being killed off to serve a man’s plot, but it can also apply when a minority character is killed to further the plot of a white or a straight cis character.

This fridging also inadvertently reveals just how disposable the characters of color on Game of Thrones are: Missandei probably had a whole community of Unsullied who will mourn her loss, but so far, we haven’t gotten to know any of them except for Grey Worm — who is, on the show, just as isolated as Missandei is. (Relatedly, at the beginning of “The Last of the Starks,” as each major [white] character death from the Battle of Winterfell was revisited, we saw nothing of the Unsullied soldiers for whom Grey Worm was in mourning.)

Game of Thrones has made these characters disposable not just to its larger narrative, but to Dany personally. She ultimately seems to be a classically Imperialist ruler: She conquered and exploited multiple colonies to gain power while struggling to build a stable government in her wake, in part because she didn’t want to stick around once she’d conquered a region. She has consistently appeared to forget about the people she’s conquered beyond their capacity to serve and obey her. And sure, Missandei is her best friend, but she’s essentially a token on Game of Thrones, meant to be a stand-in for the Unsullied as a whole, a relationship that convinces us Dany loves her people. But this doesn’t really align with the way Dany has treated all those other Unsullied.

All of this means that when we see Dany freaking out while Missandei dies, it rings more than a little hollow; Dany’s best friend may be a person of color, but that doesn’t make her less problematic as a white savior.

All of this has set the stage for a dramatic final two episodes of the show in which anything could happen. But it seems highly unlikely that Game of Thrones, after seven and a half seasons of less-than-subtly marginalizing its characters of color, will be able to redeem itself in this regard.

Especially now that only one of them is still alive.