The following includes spoilers for the end of Game of Thrones season 8, episode 4, “The Last of the Starks.” You’ve been warned.
At the end of “The Last of the Starks,” Missandei of Naath, trusted advisor to Daenerys Targaryen, is captured and then publicly beheaded under orders from Cersei Lannister. While undeniably tragic, the scene left a lot of viewers mad for other reasons—specifically, the questionable taste of killing off the show’s last remaining woman of color, who was formerly enslaved, by throwing her back in chains and executing her for the sake of a white character’s narrative arc. From the disastrous Dorne plotline to the generic mass of bodies that has been the characterization of the Dothraki since their return in season 6, Game of Thrones has repeatedly come under fire for its marginalization and misuse of characters of color.
A lot of these problems would require significant overhauls to correct, but there are some places, such as Missandei’s death, where minor tweaks could have made an enormous difference. Namely, Missandei should have jumped. She should have said “Dracarys” and stepped off the edge of the rampart.
Let me explain why.
Game of Thrones enjoys a proper homage. From the callbacks to The Lord of the Ring’s charge of the Rohirrim when the Knights of the Vale come to the rescue during the Battle of the Bastards to Arya re-enacting the Jurassic Park “raptors in the kitchen” scene with wights in lieu of dinosaurs during the Battle for the Dawn — the show is no stranger to a good shout-out.
Intertextuality can serve many functions. Most commonly, they are more like inside jokes or easter eggs than anything—a fun little bonus for those in the know. The homages featured in Game of Thrones thus far all fit this trend. However, in certain circumstances, intertextuality can represent a whole lot more, and with Missandei’s death, the series missed a golden opportunity to do just that.
The circumstances Missandei faced in the end—certain doom while her loved ones look on helplessly—parallels one of the most (in)famous scenes in cinematic history: the death of Flora in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). Perhaps the most racially inflammatory scene in all of cinema, it involves Southern belle Flora Cameron taking a fatal cliff dive to escape the pursuit of a black Union soldier, Gus, while her adoring elder brother Ben watches from a distance, unable to save her. Within the narrative of the film, Flora’s suicide to preserve her white womanly virtue from a black man’s lechery is the inciting incident that sparks the formation of the Ku Klux Klan—that, in turn, augmented a resurgence of the KKK in real life. The scene is as dramatically effective as it is racist—which is why a very similar scenario, sans the race-baiting (though with some problematic subtext still intact), still packs a major punch in Last of the Mohicans (1992). However, it is once again a white woman jumping from a cliff to save herself from a sexual threat represented by people of color.
While nixing Game of Thrones‘ only woman of color is a slap in the face no matter how you spin it, the show missed a golden opportunity to do something powerful. If Missandei, faced with the known rapist and sadistic murderer Gregor Clegane, had chosen instead to go out on her own terms, it would not just have given her some agency. It would have provided at least something of a counterbalance to the sting of the whole “back in chains” thing—but also presented a meaningful subversion of a fundamentally racist trope.
In addition, having Missandei jump would have rung far truer in terms of her character. History is full of examples of black women choosing death over chains when faced with slavery or returning to enslavement after escaping. The ending of “The Last of the Starks” seeks to indicate Missandei’s strength by having her keep a calm, tear-free demeanor even in the face of death, but it also just has her stand there obediently in her shackles while the Mountain unsheathes his sword and beheads her.
When it comes to consideration and representation in popular culture, how characters and scenarios are depicted is just as significant as what they depict. David Benioff and D. B. Weiss could have still gotten everything they required narratively from Missandei’s death while giving her agency and narrative significance beyond being a footnote in the tale of Daenerys Targaryen by just tweaking a few details in a culturally and historically conscious way.