The tapestry of Game of Thrones is a rich one. It is full of lore and characters and storylines that interweave with one another and often in a poetic and dramatic fashion. It is often a beautiful tapestry, interwoven with production and art design of the highest caliber. You can admire it as Ramin Djawadi’s gorgeous score swells in the background. Pour yourself a glass of Arbor Gold (or maybe not, because in the show it is a motif of imminent betrayal) or some Dornish red. Sit down on the Iron Throne or other, more comfortable chairs that abound. And then think.
Every generation has stories that define its cultural lexicon. These stories are portraits, or photographs, of a political and cultural milieu of the times. It is why so often some stories seemingly become outdated from one generation to the next – those portraits no longer reflect the world we live in. Others stand the test of time for their underlying messages transcend the generational divides and gaps. Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. Game of Thrones. These stories have become powerful lexicons in the annals of our cultural histories. They have shaped entire generations. They are almost entirely white.
There are certainly characters of color in three of these stories, but the more important metric is how have they impacted the story? And perhaps just as importantly, if not more so, how has the story treated them? There isn’t much of an argument that any character of color was truly meaningful to the tapestry of Harry Potter, even if J. K. Rowling tweets otherwise. Samuel L. Jackson and Billy Dee Williams energized Star Wars and the jury is out on if the newest characters of color in that universe will receive their due.
The reason this matters is that in our current day and age, the line between a cultural phenomenon and its impact in our everyday perceptions is blurring more than ever before. That is not to say that a singular act of doing poorly by a character of color is going to have an instantaneous effect on society (sometimes that depends on the veracity of the property in question) but in its aggregate it leaves a sincere conversation about why the diversity of characters in our culturally defining stories is necessary.
I have noted this elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating here: I do not think that Game of Thrones showrunners are maliciously racist. I think they are, in spite of their respective flaws as writers, fairly adept at writing dramatic scenes. It’s great drama to have Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) lose the person she cares about the most at the gates of the city she believes she wants to rule more than anything. Cersei (Lena Headey) placing Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) in chains before executing her is a cruel beat that is completely in character. Qyburn (Anton Lesser) was not playing around when he said that Cersei had a thing for poetic justice (or injustice, in this case).
I do think, however, that some of those aforementioned flaws come from an ignorance of how some of their dramatic beats are going to be received outside the context of the story itself. To a certain degree, writers can and should not prioritize meta context when creating their story. The characters and the narrative should take precedent. That does not mean, however, that writers should not be understanding of those dynamics and aware of the larger context in which those character and narrative decisions take place. They should be, that is a responsibility of artistry in a cultural context, and they should address them in a way that does not sacrifice social value for a story and vice versa.
The overall narrative strokes of Missandei’s execution make sense. The show, regardless of whatever happens in the next two episodes, needed to push Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to the brink and the execution of her closest confidante and friend would surely get her there. In terms of acting and direction, the sequence was incredibly tense – I felt myself shrinking considerably while gripping a bottle of cider a bit too tightly. And then I just felt my gut crumble in disgust, a feeling that in spite of the rationalizing of the scene, I could not escape.
The poetic drama of the sequence could not mask the genuine discomfort in seeing Missandei back in chains. The discomfort could have been mitigated if other women of color, if any frankly, had been given any genuine weight in the series and certainly there had been plenty of opportunities to do so. It would have required some creative adaptation choices, but considering how sharply the series has diverged from the books in many respects, why not shift here as well? It’s not a perfect solution, but it would have shown a more genuine awareness of the message it sent when the writers decided that Missandei would meet her end on the ramparts of King’s Landing.
Missandei’s execution, even outside of the specific context of Game of Thrones, serves as an unintentional reminder that characters of color still have a long way to go in receiving the same complexity and narrative service that white characters benefit from. We are heroes, villains, and everyone in between so perhaps in the upcoming, unofficially titled series, we will see some more of that. Lords and ladies of color, knights, pirates. Our tapestries are just as rich, intricate, and colorful and when we ask for those tapestries to be given the light of day, it is not out of service to a particular ideology. It is out of respect and the return of a love that is integral to the success of any of these stories in the first place.