The opening scene of Season 7, episode 2 of Game of Thrones had me thoroughly convinced that I would need to blog about philosophical differences related to effective leadership. The conversation between Varys and Danaerys regarding leadership style and blind following of a leader was incredibly interesting and fairly timely considering some of the more politically driven debates about leadership that are happening in much of the Western world. I should have known that a spark like that in the opening scene would only be upended by thoughts I had while watching later parts of the episode. Perhaps if I have time later this week, I will need to provide a bonus blog that unpacks that first scene, but the topic that has been plaguing my thoughts since the episode ended have to do with the juxtaposition of the show’s eunuchs: Theon Greyjoy, Grey Worm, and Varys, castrated men who face incredibly poignant moments within this episode.
Grey Worm, a member (and now commander) of the Unsullied, and respected member of Danaerys inner circle faces a turning point in his relationship with Missandei. In an emotional build up to a parting of ways, Missandei turns her interaction with Grey Worm in a sexual direction. It is clear by Grey Worm’s reaction that the two of them have not forayed into this phase of their relationship before this point. Before becoming Unsullied, Grey Worm underwent a castration. In the absence of a male member Grey Worm is hesitant to reveal himself to his lover.
Here it is important to understand the metaphorical implications of castration upon the male body. The act of castration in most literary and/or narrative instances is a device used to indicate power loss and control in male characters and in a vast number of these instances, it is specifically a loss of male power. For Grey Worm this was quite literally the case as his post castration life consisted of intense obedience training that decimated any sense of subjectivity and ensured blind devotion to his masters. Although Grey Worm is beginning to reacquaint himself with certain liberties that were lost to him during his days as an Unsullied slave, the absence of his full genitalia suggests (at least in a metaphorical sense) that his masculinity is problematic or fractured. Male genitalia, after all, in Western culture is so often understood in relation to masculinity, sexuality, and power that it is hard to divorce these concepts.
The treatment of Grey Worm and Missandei’s sexual foray during this episode, therefore, stands in distinction from other representations of castrated males. Although the state of his body suggests a powerlessness, Grey Worm becomes empowered in this scene and is able to work his way through his doubts and, ultimately, finds a way to work around any shortcomings that come as a result of his previous trauma.
Grey Worms’s ability to overcome the consequences of his castration is expertly played out in this episode against Then Greyjoy’s less successful attempt to overcome his shortcomings. Theon was castrated and brainwashed by Ramsay Bolton in season three. In more recent seasons, Theon has been seeking redemption and reconnection, with varying degrees of success. It is clear, however, that Theon continues to suffer from the trauma that befell him in his time under Ramsay’s control. His inability to act, and subsequent fleeing, in this most recent episode when his uncle Euron is holding his sister hostage clearly indicates the depth of his suffering. Theon’s actions are surely not considered “manly” and Euron’s insult toward his nephew ensures that the audience will also connect the dots between Theon’s inaction and his lacking genetalia. Euron calls Theon a “Cockless Coward,” which is shortly followed by subjective shots of the horror unfolding around Theon and then a shot of Theon dropping his sword (a obviously phallic symbol) . Clearly, Theon continues to struggle with the mental ramifications of the torture he endured in previous seasons, but his lack of action is hard pressed to be seen as anything more than a direct consequence of his “lack” in other areas. Where Grey Worm seems to have found a way to live through and overcome his “lack,” Theon has not.
To bring this full circle, some mention must also be made of Varys. If this episode played a large role in juxtaposing a Eunich centered achievement (Grey Worm) vs. one of failure (Theon), perhaps that opening scene, in which Varys makes a passionate statement of his rise from his position as a slave is also an important point on which to dwell here. Vary’s, although seemingly having experienced a trauma in his childhood that might be understood as a parallel to Theon’s has found a way to be useful and exercise a degree of power. Varys has often been lurking in the background and helping to shape the political environment of the seven kingdoms, exercising a power that is often associated with the male sphere. Perhaps it is telling that through all of his manipulation of political figures, he has chosen to back a woman’s claim to the throne.