More bad sex in Westeros: Why the recent "Game of Thrones" love scene left us wanting

Why can't HBO's fantasy hit go all the way without leaving us cold?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 25, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

Jacob Anderson as Grey Worm and Nathalie Emmanuel as Missandei in "Game of Thrones" (HBO)
Jacob Anderson as Grey Worm and Nathalie Emmanuel as Missandei in "Game of Thrones" (HBO)

As many “Games of Thrones” viewers likely know by now, Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) finally knocked sandals in the season 7 episode “Stormborn.”

“Thrones” viewers have been speculating as to whether the pair would ever make the beast with two backs since Grey Worm, the Unsullied Commander turned Queen's guard to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) began working closely with Missandei, Dany’s “all business, no party” translator.

In the limited number of scenes where the pair engage in discussions that have nothing to do with their employer, Missandei and Grey Worm have subtly expressed how much they care about one another. One such moment occurs in an earlier season as Missandei helps Grey Worm to learn the common tongue. Last year Grey Worm busted out with a joke and was delighted to have made the woman he pines for laugh. For many people, the question wasn’t whether they would do the deed, but how, exactly, they would accomplish said act.

Turns out the answer was, very quickly and unrealistically.

Let me pause for a moment and observe that these scenes aren’t comfortable for most people to write about, and that’s triply true for people like me who clench up every time the warnings that air prior to any “Game of Thrones” include nudity or sexuality. It’s not that I’m a prude. It’s because sex, as it’s presented in this series, tends to be transactional or strained or is violence masquerading as sex. There’s not much veritable intimacy in Westeros world; instances in which sensuality is presented in the context of pleasure or romance are rare and fleeting, and definitely not meant to entice viewers like me.

Therefore the significance Grey Worm’s and Missandei’s love scene — and it was a love scene — cannot be underplayed. Yet as it was presented onscreen, it was pretty darn underwhelming.

Sparked on the eve of battle, Missandei goes to Grey Worm’s room and chastises him for failing to bid her farewell. He explains that she is his weakness, the only thing in the world that he’s afraid of losing. And then he rushes in and plants a kiss on her that looks a tad aggressive. She halts him . . . and then disrobes.

Here’s where a person can see the “Game of Thrones” equations kicking in. From director Mark Mylod’s point of view we saw both characters topless, and both fully exposed from the behind. But the scene direction skews the experience to cater to male concepts of sexuality foremost; Missandei strips, then takes off Grey Worm’s shirt. She moves to undo his pants, and he stops her. She reassures him by telling him she wants to see him.

The point of this scene is in that line. Two marginalized characters are viewing each other completely, and without armor or bindings. The power in that moment could have been augmented by letting the audience see through their eyes. Yet, we did not. As Missandei unfastens Grey Worm’s belt, the scene cuts to a tight shot of the frightened, vulnerable expression on the soldier’s face. What is he scared of, exactly? Who knows. We never got the front view.

This tells us what we already know, that full frontal nudity is a condiment “Game of Thrones” reserves for the men in its audience. A bare-chested Grey Worm is nice for the ladies, sure, but what does it say that the fact that Missandei was able to remain covered up until now represents a small win? (And now Emmanuel’s bare breasts can join the boob quilts adorning the walls of countless fanboys.)

However, in the view of "Game of Thrones" producers, to show Grey Worm’s castration scars would emasculate him, even though his actions up to that instant fit the common idea of what masculinity entails. He’s a gentleman, a skilled fighter and as he explains to her, the bravest of his fighters — and Missandei responds by lovingly pulling Grey Worm into bed after she drinks in the sight of him.

Looking at this from a wider contextual lens, the fact that the act was consensual and made Missandei’s pleasure central to the scene counts as a rare positive depiction of sexuality in Westeros. Salon deputy culture editor Gabriel Bell points this out in his recent take on the moment.

“While it’s a positive and empowering thing that she — ahem — got off, it’s also a bit odd. These things don’t normally happen your first time out.” Except, he adds, on a drama where virgin men regularly exhibit supernaturally endowed sexual prowess.

Not at all coincidentally, “Game of Thrones” hasn’t had a woman direct any episodes since its fourth season, and has featured a woman on its writing staff since its third. And there are no scenes in “Game of Thrones” where the show’s lack of female influence is more apparent than the ones involving depictions of carnal pleasure.

I’m talking about the moments where pleasure is the focus and intent — when Daenerys wields her power inside the tent she shared with Khal Drogo in season 1 (that is, after she’s had enough of him forcing her through the act nightly). Or when Robb Stark and his wife Talisa consummate their rule-breaking romance, or the hungry joy with which Ygritte and Jon Snow take each other in that cave north of the Wall. Those were all quick, explosive acts structured to rival Big Screen Sex, love scenes that don’t require much to get the job done.

In contrast, I can only think of one scene where a woman sexually objectifies a man for her own delight, and that is when Dany orders her lover Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) to strip for her. Which he does, and we get to observe . . . for about two seconds.

Knowing all of this, the coupling of Grey Worm and Missandei presented a different challenge as well as an opportunity: Since Grey Worm is a eunuch, there’s no way the two could ever go straight to pound town. As Dany points out in season 4, even if both the “pillar” and the “stones” are missing, there are plenty of other ways to physically express themselves. They could, you know, do stuff.

But the script went the obvious and illogical route, showing the virginal warrior skipping all the bases to slide straight down Missandei’s pioneer trail with his face, making use of everything he learned about the clitoris in Unsullied Human Sexuality Class.  Apparently this exists.  Another victory, right? I mean, a sizable portion of the male population in the real world either has no idea how to find the little lady in the boat or simply denies she exists at all. But Grey Worm does. Grey Worm has a strategy!

Nevertheless, that’s precisely the reason the “Stormborn” interlude ultimately dissatisfies. Even with this as its climax, the moment fails to integrate Missandei’s desire into the proceedings and, by proxy, the desires of both male and female viewers. Because if you care about these characters getting together at all, the nature of that affection likely is rooted equally in romantic ideals and pure inquisitiveness.

Plus, virginal fumbling can actually be quite seductive, a fact that “Outlander” viewers know quite well. The first season episode titled “The Wedding” framed the entire hour around the consummation of the union between its characters Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe). It was Jamie’s first time, and their initial try at the act was awkward. But then they connected after talking and negotiating and touching — lots of touching. The slow-handed segment of their wedding night only took about six minutes to portray, and what a six minutes it was. And it began in the same place as the “Game of Thrones” couple’s night of passion does, with Claire telling Jamie, “Take off your shirt. I want to look at you.”

That episode, by the way, was both written and directed by women, proving that the term isn’t called “the female gaze” for nothing. We want to see.

In the view of the men who created "Stormborn," we did.

And the view left us wanting.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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