I’ve long been fond of Indira Varma, whether for her hilariously poisonous turn in Bride and Prejudice, Gurinder Chadha’s transplanting of Pride and Prejudice to India, as the older sister of Balraj, a wealthy man who seems in danger of developing an attachment to a woman from a poorer family, her performance as the wife of a volatile but brilliant detective in Luther, or even as a tart, practical British detective in a guest role on Bones. But it’s not for that reason alone that I’m thrilled to hear she’s joining Game of Thrones as one of my favorite minor characters, Ellaria Sand, the Dornish lover of Oberyn Martell, the Prince of Dorne, the Southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms. Ellaria’s magnetic and sexually compelling, and mother to a clutch of scheming, brilliant, independent daughters, powerful in ways that range from hyperfeminine to war-like. And by casting Varma, Game of Thrones is continuing its slow march to being a more diverse show.
Some of Game of Thrones problems are baked into its source material. It’s not David Beinoff and Dan Weiss’s fault that George R.R. Martin wrote a Mongol horde into the narrative, or non-white slave traders, though they arguably could have changed the races of some of these characters, or chosen not to use optics like a mass of non-white recently-freed slaves turning into a mandala as they look to a tiny white lady for salvation. Other times, the show has disappointed fans’ expectations in casting, like with the selection of Chilean actor Pedro Pascal to pay Oberyn Martell, when some fans hoped for a less visibly-white actor in the role, given Dorne’s location, and the opportunity to bring a major non-white character to King’s Landing.
But the show has made some slow progress towards making its world more diverse, and in turn to make the world of the show feel as big and as expansive as it’s meant to be. Some fans uttered disappointing cries against the tyranny of political correctness when the black actor Lucian Msamati was cast to play the pirat Salladhor Saan, because in the novels he’s of an origin that apparently has a lot of blonde people (not withstanding that people of color can, of course, have naturally blonde hair), but they’ve gotten a memorable performance out of him. Casting Varma as Sand gives them an opportunity to create a more multi-racial vision of Dorne than necessarily exists in the novels, and that could act as a pointed contrast to the overwhelming whiteness of King’s Landing. Hopefully, characters like Grey Worm, the leader of Dany’s Unsullied army, and Missendi, her translator and advisor, will get some room to breathe in subsequent seasons as Game of Thrones has to pace itself to allow George R.R. Martin to finish the subsequent novels in the franchise.
It’s always disappointing to see fantasy fans get hung up on details like hair color to justify keeping a character, whose role isn’t at all about whiteness, white. But I also think it’s a good idea to apply a similar flexibility to characters who might be, but aren’t definitively, of color in the Game of Thrones novels, given the track record the showrunners are racking up. One of the things that fantasy can do for us is disrupt the norms we’ve become accustomed to in real life. This can go badly, of course, when it plays into real-world fantasies that have dangerous impacts on policy and law, as with a fantasy novel that imagined evil black oppressors cracking down on innocent and exploited white people. But changing standards of beauty, concentrations of economic power, representation in government, etc. can all be ways of playing with our biases by making us uncomfortable, or making us see admirable qualities that we were socialized to skip over before. Martin’s done his work in this sphere. But if the people adapting that work are going to show some willingness to improve on that, and to cast more actors of color than might have been suggested by the text, I’m willing to allow them some space to depart from it, and to see if they can do better. Game of Thrones fans who get het up about seeing actors of color where they might have expected white ones are depriving only themselves of some enjoyment.