With “Stormborn,” Game of Thrones quietly pulled off one of its most shocking scenes in ages.
Euron Greyjoy swashbuckling in out of nowhere to wreak bloody hell might have been more purely spectacular, and Arya reuniting (however briefly) with her long-lost direwolf is the kind of moment fans dream of for years. But to my mind, “Stormborn” will always be a singular episode of Game of Thrones for its downright lovely sex scene between Grey Worm and Missandei, both shedding their fears and exposing their vulnerabilities to share some unexpected intimacy.
Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) have stood by Daenerys Targaryen since the third season, providing priceless counsel as the Dragon Queen tries to both understand and conquer lands that lay far outside her own realm of lived experience. Missandei, a translator, helps Dany determine who’s her friend and who’s her enemy; Grey Worm, an Unsullied soldier, provides military insight and stalwart loyalty.
In their past lives as slaves, both Missandei and Grey Worm were unable to express themselves or their desires. And even as they’ve eyed each other with increasing interest over the past couple of seasons or so, they haven’t exactly been leaping into each other’s arms, give or take a chaste kiss in season five. (Not that there’s ever been much time for that, given how much their queen has vowed to do, let alone how many balls Game of Thrones has in the air between its seven kingdoms.)
But in the midst of shifting alliances and splashy sea battles that headlined the action in “Stormborn,” Game of Thrones gave Grey Worm and Missandei a real moment to look each other in the eye and admit that they love each other — and want to be together in more ways than one. This would no doubt surprise the hell out of every character who’s made fun of Grey Worm over the years for being castrated, as is tradition for Unsullied soldiers. But with this scene, which took place as Grey Worm prepared to set sail for Casterly Rock, Game of Thrones gave Grey Worm the opportunity to express his longing for Missandei, and for her to reciprocate with the kind of tenderness this show rarely affords its sex scenes.
Game of Thrones has never had a sex scene that looks like this one
There are a few things about Grey Worm and Missandei’s scene that are so far afield of a more typical Game of Thrones sex scene that I almost wondered if I had accidentally changed the channel.
For starters, it’s patient. When Game of Thrones deigns to show consenting people having sex, it’s usually more like watching two people scratch an itch. Sex on the show is most often reserved for soldiers stealing time between wars in bar corners, or aristocrats luxuriating in brothels. Even Jaime and Cersei Lannister — who, perversely enough, have served as one of the show’s most steadfast couples despite being siblings — lunge into their moments of intimacy with a fervency so intense it’s practically desperate. Overall, Game of Thrones primarily characterizes sex as rough, quick, and utilitarian — when it’s not outright assault, that is.
The closest analogue to Grey Worm and Missandei’s first time is maybe Jon Snow and Ygritte’s in season three, in which Jon — like Grey Worm — proves he is a Sensitive Man by going down on Ygritte instead of insisting on the other way around. But Jon and Ygritte still found their sexual awakening in a burst of passion they could no longer hold in; Grey Worm and Missandei eased into it, guiding each other with long, languid looks for reassurance.
There’s a moment after they kiss when Missandei breaks away from Grey Worm in which you can see his heart break in real time, but he respects that she doesn’t want him — until she sheds her clothes and encourages him, gently, to do the same. It was in this moment — especially because I was watching “Stormborn” after spending last week marathoning Game of Thrones’ sixth season — that I realized there hasn’t actually been much sex on the show since season five, when sexual assault may as well have had a “supporting actor” credit.
That was the season when Ramsay (repeatedly) raped Sansa to motivate Theon’s journey, causing the show to come under significant fire for its streak of unrepentant cruelty. It then noticeably backed off in season six — but it frankly speaks volumes that temporarily excising sexual assault storylines also resulted in temporarily excising the show of sex, period. With this interlude between Grey Worm and Missandei, the show made a point of including a sex scene that not only isn’t rushed but is unquestionably, meticulously consensual.
Finally, the scene also spotlighted two characters of color in a way that Game of Thrones rarely does. By allowing Grey Worm and Missandei to give in to seasons’ worth of simmering tension in this way, Game of Thrones did something completely unprecedented in terms of its history, which otherwise only tells stories about people of color in relation to how their arcs affect the white main characters (such as Dany). It let these former slaves — the two most significant characters of color the show has arguably ever had — find peace with each other, and only each other.
But the aspect of this scene that floored me most is that it took a serious, respectful approach to both Grey Worm’s castration and his insecurity around it — which, for a show that’s usually obsessed with penises, may be the most shocking thing of all.
Grey Worm and Missandei’s sex scene is a deliberate, welcome departure from Game of Thrones’ pattern of phallic obsession
While Game of Thrones’ HBO sibling Silicon Valley has been doing its best to feature the most dick jokes per square inch of television, the former still easily has a hold on the crown.
From the streets of Westeros to the blazing Dothraki deserts to the frozen Wildling tundra beyond the Wall, almost every man on Game of Thrones is pretty obsessed with penises (even if the show itself rarely shows them). This world has always been one that runs on ale and machismo, with men whipping out their (literal) swords to prove their manly worth, bragging about their many conquests to prove their manly worth, or, worse, raping women to inflate their conquest count to prove their manly worth.
Any time men on this show want to make other men feel like shit, they’ll dismiss each other’s dicks. And when Euron Greyjoy promised the Ironborn toward the end of season six that he would sail the seas to plunder towns and give Daenerys his “big cock,” he was embodying the kind of swaggering, sexist bravado that’s fueled his men for centuries.
But season six also made a point of highlighting all the worthy contenders for the Iron Throne who don’t have penises at all. After five seasons of Westeros running on relentless toxic masculinity, season six cleared the way for more women than ever to ascend to power, from Yara Greyjoy gunning for the Salt Throne to Sansa Stark reshaping the North to Cersei Lannister wiping out an entire city that wronged her.
That season’s overt rejection of Game of Thrones’ usual chauvinism also shined a spotlight Theon Greyjoy. His torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton left him a different man from the arrogant one he was before — and, not coincidentally, hinged on the particular humiliation of Ramsay cutting off his penis. Ever since, hardly a scene featuring Theon goes by without someone mentioning the fact that he barely counts as a man anymore, because what’s a man without his dick?
This is the kind of pervasive attitude that informed the visceral fear we saw on Grey Worm’s face as Missandei reached to take off his pants. For all his bravery, physical might, and demonstrated passion for doing what is good and fair, he was still terrified that the woman he’s come to love would see him naked and laugh in his face — or, maybe worse still, pity him. (Seriously, go back and watch Anderson’s astonishing performance here; every muscle in his face is so beautifully, nakedly vulnerable.)
But Missandei doesn’t do any of that. Instead, she gazes at his body, and she smiles. In that moment, he knows he’s safe, and they find an alternate way of being together that has nothing to do with his genitalia or lack thereof. Even if the countless men we’ve seen animalistically pumping away at women could never understand it, the fact remains that sex can be completely satisfying whether or not there’s a penis involved. It’s refreshing — not to mention long overdue — that Game of Thrones now seems to know that.