This article contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 episode 4, “The Last of the Starks.”
What’s in a name? This turn of phrase, itself penned by a Bard of certain renown, speaks to the wordless magic and meaning we imbue in the labels we place on one another. The names of people, the names of places, the names of even flowers, and the feelings we associate with them. It can also apply to feelings and emotions we associate with a term not so gentle as a rose. Take “Dracarys,” for instance.
Once upon a time, “Dracarys” was associated with power and defiance, and the visceral cleansing of evil, yet it seemed to have a sudden added dimension on Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones. In the final moments of the episode, Missandei stands atop a wall, forced to look across a field at her lover and queen, perhaps the only two people she’s ever cared about in her adult life. They’re so close in this moment, yet so far (presumably far enough back to be out of archers’ range). Having spent most of her adolescence in chains, she is in them again, much to Cersei Lannister’s delight. And she is going to die in these chains—she knew it even before Cersei drank up the horror in saying, “If you have any last words, now is the time” as if it were a fine Dornish wine.
Missandei will die, but it does not mean she must die bowed or broken. Doing her best to make eye contact with Daenerys and Grey Worm, she cries, “Dracarys” with all the hate of a million Unsullied spears. And with her last breath, she has committed her queen on a path of Fire and Blood.
The term “Dracarys” itself is simple High Valyrian. In the common tongue, it means “fire,” yet as with all ancient languages, it has so much more poetry when you don’t know the meaning. And still, it has more significance for Missandei and the Silver queen than its fiery noun. The first time Dany uttered the phrase before Missandei, it was with a fire and conviction that meant instantly her days as a slave were over. Having taught her dragons to cook their food on that command, it was with delight—both on and off-screen—Dany said “Dracarys” in season 3, ordering baby Drogon to barbecue the very slaver who had controlled so much Missandei’s life up to that point.
Kraznys mo Nakloz, the man who called himself Missandei’s master, derided and mocked the Mother of Dragons in his native tongue of Valyrian, using Missandei as an interpreter to clean up his lascivious comments. Of course Dany being a Targaryen, and thus born with roots deeper in Essos than even Westeros, had been taught High Valyrian since she was a babe. She hid her mastery of that language from Kraznys, from Missandei, and from everyone else. Though Missandei didn’t mind—she was visibly thrilled when Dany unveiled her Valyrian eloquence by ordering her newly purchased slaves to kill their masters. As for Kraznys? It was Fire and Blood. The fireworks began one breath after Drogon heard “Dracarys.”
With that word, Daenerys became the Breaker of Chains and more than just a potential employer or even friend to Missandei—but an idea. The Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons, could rid her world of the vilest institution that led to Missandei’s kidnapping at a young age on a beach. There will always be a certain honest critique of Daenerys being a “white savior” narrative, particularly on the show where the slaves tend to be shaded much more varieties of brown than they were in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” But as with certain historic figures who were able to inspire foreign continents to their side, be it Alexander or Lawrence of Arabia, Daenerys’ use of “Dracarys” had an almost supernatural draw that flocked people to her cause. It wasn’t just the order of slaughter; it was a clarion call of freedom, of uplift.
It’s why Missandei followed Dany on a warpath through the Slave Cities and to this honestly accursed land, at least by Missandei and Grey Worm’s understanding. The much whiter Westeros has hardly been welcoming or open-minded about outsiders of a different hue. The Northerners treated Missandei and all who followed Daenerys as an occupying military force, and as far as the South is concerned, they’re “savages.”
The implicit racism in forcing Missandei to be in chains does not escape Cersei. The prisoner could have stood, and been executed, with her arms free. Cersei took pleasure in purring a hateful utterance of “Breaker of Chains, indeed” to Missandei days before her execution. Cersei wanted to humiliate and minimize Missandei by returning her to the dehumanized state that Dany took pride in ending—thereby suggesting Dany’s savior complex is also a sham that’s worthy of ridicule. There is nothing “Woke” about this sequence, nor is it trying to be. Cersei is a small-minded, hateful woman, as even her confused lover admitted Sunday night, and she is hateful to the last of Missandei, treating her as a slave… an object and possession she will destroy before the eyes of its owner.
If this makes you angry, it should. That is the point, Cersei to her last breath will be a monster, even if Tyrion says otherwise. It also gives new context to the term, “Dracarys.” When Dany said it to Kraznys, it was out of power and defiance for his world, so too is it out of defiance by Missandei. She is asking her queen to burn them all. Roast Missandei’s captors, firebomb this whole city. Burn these awful people who you wish to rule so badly that you’ve killed me.
The difference, however, is that when Daenerys burned the slavers, she had the power to command the Unsullied to leave all children and innocents alive in Astapor. In the other Slave Cities, she tried to keep the death toll as much on the slavers and their personal armies as possible. She did not kill children or the destitute in these cities. But if Dany accepts “Dracarys” now, she is deciding to essentially burn everyone in King’s Landing. The guilty and innocent alike will immolate. While this might feel right in a moment of outrage for Missandei’s death, it is the impulse of a tyrant, something Daenerys has attempted to avoid this entire series. By giving in to the anger and vengeance that is implicit in Missandei’s plea of “Dracarys,” Dany is giving in to the worst instincts in her Targaryen blood—instincts that we also know her advisors, Tyrion and Varys, may attempt to actively undermine in the final battle next week.
“Dracarys” is the word that set Missandei free, and it might also be the word that condemns Daenerys to her father’s fate. What’s in a name? A lot.