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What is greyscale, the illness looming over ‘Game of Thrones’

A single touch of the skin could bring down a kingdom.


Michelle Jaworski


Posted on May 11, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 9:01 pm CDT

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire.

Things aren’t looking good for our favorite exiled knight on Game of Thrones at the end of “Kill the Boy.”

In an episode filled with a sparring of words more than a sparring of swords and plenty of nods and quotes directly from the books, we found our new favorite reluctant-buddy adventure duo, Tyrion Lannister and Ser Jorah Mormont sailing closer toward Meereen by cutting through the “demon-haunted” capital of Valyria. Serving as both a shortcut and change of scenery, it started out as yet another beautifully shot scene of mostly smooth sailing; Tyrion even trolled book fans by noting that they weren’t on the Rhoyne, a river he travels on in A Dance With Dragons.

And then the Stone Men attacked and a waterlogged Tyrion will be the least of their problems for the rest of the season so long as Jorah still approaches Meereen with greyscale.

It wasn’t an entirely unexpected development. Before they entered, Tyrion noted that people say “the Doom still rules Valyria.”

Valyria was an ancient civilization that experienced 5,000 years of prosperity before collapsing about 400 years before present day in Game of Thrones from a “cataclysm of an unspecified nature.” You might recognize it as original home of the Targaryens. It often gets compared to Atlantis and even the Roman city of Pompeii that was destroyed by a volcano nearly 2,000 years ago. Nowadays, it’s where people send those who contracted greyscale, a highly contagious disease comparable to leprosy that will turn your skin to stone—and in some cases, it will affect your brain and turn you mad. Even cutting off infected limbs a la The Walking Dead won’t really do anything to stop the spread of the disease.

All you need to do is touch someone with it to get it yourself. It also has plenty of ignorance and shame tied to it, which is why those who survive it are treated like outcasts.

Up to this point in the season, the writers have been hitting us on the head with greyscale, writing multiple scenes about it before Tyrion and Ser Jorah’s fight with the Stone Men. Shireen Baratheon, who had it as a baby, talked to Gilly about it in the episode “The House of Black and White.” Two of Gilly’s sisters caught it, and she talked about how they were kept away from everyone else and were eventually not even human toward the end.

Tyrion sees a red priestess speak about greyscale in “High Sparrow,” but he scoffs at her efforts, saying “Stone Men, good luck stopping the spread of greyscale with prayer.”

Later on in “Sons of the Harpy,” Shireen shares a tender moment with her father, Stannis, who told her that men advised him to send her to “the ruins of Valyria to live out your short life with the Stone Men before the sickness spread through the castle” before he found someone to stop the progression of the disease.

At this point, we’ve been warned that greyscale is a dangerous disease, not just disfiguring. (The wildling Val has even more severe opinions on the matter.)

In the books, the scene plays out a little differently. Tyrion isn’t Ser Jorah’s hostage, but rather a passenger on a ship with a crew that includes Jon Connington and Aegon Targaryen, two characters who aren’t on the show but are rumored to appear. They’re sailing past a different set of ruins down the Rhoyne when they are attacked by Stone Men. Tyrion is knocked overboard in the battle, and Jon Connington contracts the disease when he rescues Tyrion from the river. This he keeps a secret as he, Aegon, and the sellswords loyal to Aegon prepare to invade Westeros as he potentially brings a plague to its shores.

Either way, a proud man who contracts greyscale is going to bring a potential plague to a populated city/country because of loyalty to a Targaryen.

The thing is, that’s where the comparisons end. Jon Connington ends up invading eastern Westeros by the beginning of The Winds of Winter while Ser Jorah is heading to Meereen. It might not erase the Griff/Young Griff ADWD plotline (especially if you believe the rumors), but it could be replacing another one instead: the “pale mare” plague.

In ADWD, a sickness called the bloody flux takes over Slaver’s Bay and makes its way from Astapor to Yunkai, from New Ghis to eventually Meereen. It gets the name “pale mare” because it came to Meereen via an Astapori who rode in on a pale mare. Matching the symptoms of dysentery (and similarly spread through unsanitary living conditions and contaminated water), it has a high mortality rate and is often the bane of armies.

By the time Daenerys leaves Meereen, the plague has already made its way through parts of Meereen and some believe that even she contracted it; others believe that particular passage is referring to her having a miscarriage. Swapping out the bloody flux for greyscale makes for better TV, visually speaking, and given the contagious nature of it, it could easily cause an outbreak once it’s brought to the city.

But by showcasing greyscale so heavily this season does that mean that it may hint that the white walkers aren’t the only looming threat to Westeros in future seasons and books? Swords and dragons can kill plenty of people, but hiding in the ranks of men is something even deadlier: a disease that could wipe out everyone. At that point, it won’t matter who sits on the Iron Throne.

We’ll have to wait for the writers’ long game to play out, but it’s probably safe to say that this isn’t the last time we’ll see it—even outside Shireen’s and Ser Jorah’s cases.

Screengrab via HBO Go

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*First Published: May 11, 2015, 2:58 pm CDT