Where the Lannisters would rather practice incest than allow any outside strain to taint their pure bloodline, the mongrel Starks are intended to serve as counterpoint. Their House is a fascinating assortment of the foreign and the native born, an all-embracing brood that includes bastard foundlings like Jon Snow and outcast wards of the state like Theon Greyjoy. They even take in orphaned direwolves, sigil of their name. The royal visit to the Stark’s ancestral seat in Winterfell, with the queen’s family in tow, lines up the two opposing clans in the very first episode. As they stare one another down, face to face for the first time, clear battle lines are drawn between them. Jamie confronts Ned at the feast, not allowing him to pass, with pleasantries that sound more like challenges, “It would be good to have you in the field (of combat). The competition has become a bit stale.” He makes small of Snow same as he does his father upon learning he’s to join the Night’s Watch, mocking the weak, scared lad by saying how grateful he is to have “good, strong men like you protecting us.” The second youngest Stark son, Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), is so surefooted he can scale the castle’s walls, swinging from jutting beams and finding toe holds in the smallest stone crags. His legs are soaring freedom for him, but they end up twisted and crippled thanks to his involvement with the Lannisters. The premiere episode, centered around this royal visit is much like unsuspecting King Duncan’s similar stay in Macbeth. Only instead of the lord of the manor assassinating his guest, it’s the guests who try to slay their hosts in cold blood.
“They come into our home and try to murder my brother…,” Robb fumes at their flagrant disregard for the basic tenets of etiquette and hospitality. Though they set out to assassinate only Bran, dispatching the peeper as unceremoniously as Donald Sutherland did in Bertolucci’s 1900, the Lannisters go on to decimate the entire household, doing their damnedest to tear the family apart and strike their name from history. But they’ll find their work cut out for them. As Snow notes when Robb tells him Bran isn’t going to die after all, “You Starks are hard to kill.” In the aftermath of a prolonged summer, the main drama in the first season arises from the ingenuous Stark family being roused from its untroubled idyll to the threatening mortal storm stirred up by the Lannisters’ ruthless ambitions.
As wardens of the North, the relatively naive, sheltered, old fashioned (“Our ways are the old ways.”) Starks have been able to remain safely tucked away at Winterfell, their feudal manor in the provincial countryside rather than being corrupted by the sinful cities and royal court. “I’m a Northman,” Ned complains to wife Catelyn when Robert asks him to return to King’s Landing and serve as Hand, “I belong here with you. Not down south in that rat’s nest they call a capital.” Forced to come back in contact with its corruptive influences, the Starks are about to have their eyes opened to the treachery they’ve stood safely apart from all this time.
When Ned must behead the Night’s Watch deserter who broke his oath to the order and hence betrayed his sacred trust, he takes young son Bran with him over his mother’s objection that ten is too young to see such things. Her husband responds that “he won’t be a boy forever.” The show begins with Bran forced to watch this beheading and ends with him privy to a sexual sight equally unsuited to his underage eyes, culminating in his being rudely awakened out of his childhood innocence. It’s an end of innocence for all the Starks, heralding the conclusion to an uninterrupted decade of peaceful bliss. As they become more conscious of the all-pervading moral darkness surrounding them on all sides, the coming winter threatens to envelop the whole land in endless, eternal night.
Though outright fantasy has, by conscious intent, been relegated to the fringes, Game of Thrones still seems fraught with signs and wonders. Bran’s reoccurring vision of a three-eyed raven for instance, with its psychic intimations, the extra optic representing the inner eye which sees all, leads him into the family crypt where the spirit of the slain Lord Stark returns at the moment of passing to bid him adieu. These ominous portents are never more atmospheric than in the initial episode, Winter is Coming, where the body of a dead stag is discovered in the woods of Winterfell. The sigils of both Baratheon and Stark, the stag and the direwolf, are found to have simultaneously slain one another in a pitched battle that foreshadows the civil war to come. Moreover, when Jaime brings his father the missive that he’s been summoned to court to answer for his actions, the old lion is gutting and skinning another stag, demonstrating what he’d like to do to the king, proving himself a butcher at heart. We learn that the unfortunate Targaryen children were slaughtered on his order when the mad king fell, “And the years have not made him kinder.” This is blatant animal symbolism in its most rudimentary form, but since the war won’t emerge on the horizon for a few episodes yet, it’s not as obvious at the time as it may seem in retrospect. As a family, the Starks stick together like a pack of wolves so it’s no wonder they’ve chosen this banner animal for their ancestral sigil. Their discovery of direwolf pups in the Wolfswood north of Winterfell seems the stuff of folklore and legend, equivalent to the origins of Romulus and Remus. Their mother having been killed by the stag, it’s revealed that there are exactly five surviving pups, aligning perfectly with the number of Stark children, and even an extra runt in the litter for the bastard boy, white as Snow as if made to order. As Jon observes, as sigil of the house, they were truly meant to have them. The old gods of the wood might have sent the direwolves down to watch over the saplings, guard dogs to protect them from harm, preserving them for the higher purpose they were intended for, like that Rottweiler in The Omen. It seems that these pups have but one single calling and they’re so attuned to their mission they don’t even display hesitancy upon observing the wolf pelt hides the family has flung all about. But the direwolf angle was resorted to only sporadically throughout the first season, leaving viewers too apt to forget the animals were even around. Rather than constant shadows, they cropped up out of nowhere whenever they were needed for dramatic effect, with each accorded a single exciting scene that used them to good purpose. Bran’s saved his master from the second attempt on his life, for instance, Jon’s Ghost alerted him in time to rescue the Lord Commander from a risen White Walker, Robb’s wolf helps him assert his authority over the rowdy bannermen by biting off a few of one’s fingers.
The direwolves were put to best use in the second episode, The Kingsroad, in order to show that even when children play at their own variation on the grownup game of thrones, it turns just as deadly. Wanting to impress Sansa when they happen across Arya sparring with a boy beneath her station, Joffrey tries playing brave knight but ends up worsted in the fight when Arya’s wolf Nymeria draws blood after he draws his sword. To save face, Joffrey fibs that he was beaten with clubs while Arya set her wolf on him, and the immature way he argues the point in front of the court makes him sound like the spoiled brat he is. This typical childish spat could have been resolved easily by some parental supervision. As Robert sensibly observes, “Children fight. It’s over… Ned, see that your daughter’s disciplined. I’ll do the same with my son.” Instead, it’s blown out of proportion by the fact that the prince was involved and it’s considered sacrilege to strike your sovereign. The worst thing about Robert becoming king, as Ned earlier observed, was that he couldn’t hit him when he asked for it. But someone must be made to pay for the prince’s disgrace, even if it’s only an innocent animal.
With Nymeria having run off, Cersei demands the life of Sansa’s pet Lady in its place. As he did with the deserter, Ned volunteers to do the black deed himself explaining, “The wolf is of the North. She deserves better than a butcher.” Her name indicative of how perfectly well-behaved she is (“Lady’s good. She didn’t bite anyone!” his daughter pleads), he finds the loyal wolf chained up so she can’t even defend herself and the episode expends more emotion over her murder than that of the butcher boy the king’s Hound rides down. This assault on the Stark sigil sets an unsettling precedent for things to come, the first yet far from the last member of their household whose death Joffrey will be responsible for. Bran wakes from his coma at the very instant the wolf is slaughtered as if its soul has entered him, giving him the heart of a lion, and we eagerly anticipated the vengeance to be tasted when he revealed the truth about the wicked Lannisters. But in one of the weaker plot points of season one, Bran proves to be suffering from a too convenient fit of amnesia which prevents him from remembering what occurred to cause his fall.
There are elements of Avalon in the melancholy scene where Ned’s wife Catelyn brings news of the death of her sister’s husband, Jon Arryn. Set by a small pond in a forest grove with mist clinging low to the ground and shafts of sunlight peeking through the trees, it’s a lovely, stabilizing scene of past and remembrance before everyone’s world begins to crumble. We learn Lord Stark married a woman of the south, the first outsider to be taken into his heart and to grace his home. And even after all these years, as she admits, she still feels like an interloper when she comes to the site of the ancient weirwood tree, where her husband communes with his gods. The cruel Cersei says beauty like Sansa’s should not be hidden away in the sticks, a sly jab suggesting that Catelyn has squandered her own by secreting herself so far away from civilization. Confiding to the queen how scared she was when she first came north, when she mentions that marrying the prince would take Sansa far away from them, her daughter reminds Catelyn that she herself had to leave her land and people to go wither her husband goes.
If the first episode had to do with arrivals, the second was all about departures with Ned and the girls riding to the South while his bastard, Snow left for the North to join the Night’s Watch. Referring to the sore spot between them, Catelyn reminds her husband that “Seventeen years ago you rode off with Robert Baratheon and came back with another woman’s son. And now you’re leaving again.” She’s not entirely wrong in believing that any association with the dissolute king must surely lead her husband to a bad end. She’s like those maidens who waved goodbye and were left to wait when their husbands rode off to the Crusades, unsure if they would ever return. Catelyn says she can’t do it all alone, and once deserted spends her days obsessively sitting by her sick son’s bedside allowing her house to fall to pieces around her. But she’s proven right in her stubborn insistence that Bran still needs her, for if she hadn’t been present to prevent it (“You’re not supposed to be here. No one is supposed to be here.”) the assassin’s blade would have struck home. As Cersei says,“Sometimes we go to extremes where our children are concerned,” and Cat becomes the proverbial mother tiger when her brood is threatened, earning the king’s appreciative approval with “Who’d have thought she had it in her?” Sleuthing around the tower she finds a blond strand of hair that seems to validate the warning her sister sent by raven that the Lannisters were involved in her own husband’s death and aren’t to be trusted. Hidden away in the North (the queen calls it a ‘grey waste’) for far too long and incapable of leaving her son’s bedside before, Catelyn now makes her own epic hero’s journey to Kings Landing alone when no one else can be spared (“There must always be a Stark in Winterfell.”). Having set out to voice her suspicions to her husband in person, her protracted absence has the adverse effect of stirring resentment in the son she left behind. Feeling abandoned upon waking and finding she’s not there, Bran mocks the Tully motto of his mother’s house, “Family, duty, honor.” Though his tutor tries to reassure him that she had to leave to protect the family, he retorts “How can she protect the family if she’s not with the family?” Recalling the proud, spirited girl of Riverrun she once was before she relocated North and buried her own identity beneath the drifts, Catelyn enlists the aid of former paramour Littlefinger who wants to prove his devotion to the woman he’s loved since childhood by protecting her while in the city. Allowing him to lodge her in his house of ill repute despite her chagrin, knowing no one will think to look for her in such a place, the amusing setup pays off when she pops her head out a second-story window, startling her husband who is in the process of strangling Littlefinger for impugning his wife’s honor by suggesting she’s taken up residence in one of his establishments. And in a gloriously thrilling subsequent scene Catelyn reclaims the long standing ties of her maiden name (“I was still Catelyn Tully the last time I stayed here.”), by calling on those bannermen loyal to her father’s house to apprehend the imp she believes tried to murder her son.
When Tyrion warns Catelyn on their journey to the Eyrie where they’ll await the king’s justice, that her sister has changed since the last time she saw her, he isn’t kidding. The way the slightly unhinged Lysa (Kate Dickie) responds to Catelyn’s arrival recalls Elizabeth’s audience with her equally paranoid sister Bloody Mary, who also imagined conspiracies and cabals all around her in the 1998 Cate Blanchette movie. Mary’s court subsisted in an atmosphere that seemed as equally fetid and unhealthy as the Eyrie and her sister’s touched behavior gives Catelyn second thoughts about having brought her captive here.
The throne Lysa occupies resembles the twisted stump of an oak, and even more alarming her infantile ten year old son still suckles at her breast upon it, presenting an undignified public appearance that is as far from regal as humanly possible. Lysa seems so off-center herself we’re not surprised that the tilted sky cells where she confines her prisoners are equally slanted, having been designed at a sloping angle so things just naturally roll downhill, toward an open space where a fourth wall should be. Beyond, there’s only a sheer drop down the cliff face, leaving unwary prisoners to “fly” off the mountaintop lair to their deaths. To a little man like Tyrion, the height of that vertical descent from above the cloudbanks must appear all the more daunting. As portrayed by actress Michelle Fairley, the living image of an Irish Joan Allen, Catelyn makes an unlikely heroine but her story was one of the most fascinating aspects of season one. When her husband leaves for the capital she says she can’t manage alone as she had been forced to before, when he galloped off to remove the mad king, and Ned later jokes that he doesn’t think the widow’s life would suit her. But she finds unexpected reserves of inner strength, soldiering on despite the wrack and ruin visited upon her house. She even accompanies her son into battle, proving an invaluable asset when the army must cross a toll bridge spanning the river controlled by Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley) whose twin towers flank both sides.
Warning that “The Freys have held the crossing for 600 years and for 600 years they have never failed to exact their toll,” she agrees with Robb that “My father would do whatever it took to secure our crossing… If I’m going to lead this army, I can’t have other men doing my bargaining for me,” and goes to dicker with her father’s bannerman herself, rather than letting him send one of his men to handle a sensitive subject requiring a woman’s touch. Having known Lord Frey since she was a girl, she feels secure that he won’t harm, imprison or sell her out to the Lannisters.
It’s only through Catelyn’s shrewd intervention that the northern army manages to negotiate a crossing, as well as securing the loan of Frey’s soldiers, the Levies, if at a higher cost than hoped. Like everyone else, Lord Frey is merely interested in what he can chisel out for himself. Without personal ties, it’s immaterial to him who wins the war or who reigns in King’s Landing. As he states, he has no vested interest in any of their houses, “Stark, Tully, Lannister, Baratheon. Give me one good reason why I should waste a single thought on any of you.” Catelyn establishes some by promising Robb will take on Frey’s son Oliver as his personal squire and grant him knighthood in time. Worse yet, in vengeance for her father having refused to betroth any of his children to the Frey family he looked down on, Arya must marry his son Waldronn when they both come of age. And, as Greyjoy smirks at the necessity of his friend sacrificing his freedom for the old ball and chain, Robb learns he must “marry one of his daughters, whichever you prefer, he has a number he thinks will be suitable.” It’s a high toll to pay to be granted simple passage, but Robb mans up, willing to do “whatever it takes.”
Robb (Richard Madden) came into his own throughout the season, when he was forced to act as man of the house, Lord of Winterfell in his father’s absence. He earned scrappy Stark ward Theon Greyjoy’s respect by making the executive decision to rally the northern bannermen and raise an army to rescue his father and sisters. History seemed to be repeating itself as he set off to lead another rebellion against a mad king. Finding his hand trembling despite himself after having just declared war on the crown, he cottons to being afraid, to Greyjoy’s approval, “Good, that means you’re not stupid.” When the messenger birds are all dispatched from the castle simultaneously to deliver the call to arms, like the falcons of some Renaissance prince, the image anticipates the one Arya will see in the sky at her father’s death, as though his soul had taken to flight. Robb recalls callow Prince Hal in Henry V, who also proved himself worthy of his new office, complete with his own rousing battlefield version of “Once more unto the breach, dear friends …” When he swears vengeance in the final episode, on all those who murdered his father, a Hamlet allusion even seems apt.
His rescue mission is preempted by news of the execution in the final episode of the season, Fire and Blood, leaving Robb impotently swinging his sword at a tree trunk, just as his bastard half-brother was seen doing with that practice dummy in the pilot, after being barred from the feast. His sword having failed in its primary purpose, he allows it to slip from his grasp. His vengeance-bent vow to kill everyone responsible sounds too similar to what his namesake King Robert pledged to do to the Targaryens. We can only hope his words are clouded by emotion and he can’t really mean what he says. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
It’s his father Robb wants to emulate, not the kings who have left Westeros in its present sorry state. Assured by his high command that he doesn’t have to personally execute the Lannister spy they apprehend for instance, we remember his father’s earlier words about the man who passes judgment also swinging the sword. So it seems reasonable that Robb should justify letting the boy go on the basis that “My father understands mercy when there is room for it. And he understands honor and courage… Tell Lord Tywin winter is coming for him. Twenty thousand Northerners marching South…”
As new liege lord Robb must earn the respect of the grizzled old veteran soldiers, winning them over by proving himself a man made of sturdy stuff (“Your meat is bloody tough.”). He shows them he can’t be intimidated after his direwolf bites off the fingers of one bannerman, the Greatjon (Clive Mantle), who draws steel on him. Everyone considers Robb too young and inexperienced for command. “A green boy. One taste of battle and he’ll run back to Winterfell with his tail between his legs,” Tywin predicts and his own bannermen see him as “a boy so green he pisses grass.” According to Lord Frey, Robb hasn’t even grown fur to keep his balls warm yet. When Ned scoffs that “he’s just a boy” upon learning that the loyal lad is fighting for his father’s freedom, Varys reminds him that boys have been conquerors before. Even his mother has reservations that Robb possesses the proper equipment to command an army. Still seeing him as a child, she recalls “I remember the day you came into this world, red-faced and screaming. Now I find you leading a host to war….,” though any of his seasoned officers would have been a better choice. When she sees him returning from battle both alive and victorious, the relief on her face tells us how glad she is she was wrong. “The Stark boy appears to be less green than we hoped. I heard his wolf killed a dozen men and as many horses,” Tyrion notes to the war council after hearing of their defeat. Even Tywin must acklowledge that “He does have a certain mindless, provincial courage.” “Call me boy again,” an understandably fed up Robb dares Greatjon, “Go on…” This rite of passage theme was reoccurring across the story arcs of several different characters throughout the first season. It emerged most pointedly in the second to last (and perhaps best) episode, Baelor, with several of the young male characters striving to prove themselves men in the world’s eyes. Along with Robb, we had Jon Snow, still trying to make his mark in the Night’s Watch and being rewarded with a sword for bravery after saving the life of the Lord Commander with the admonition, “It’s a man’s sword, it will take a man to wield it.” Joffrey is referred to dismissively as the “boy king” and was disparaged by his father in front of the court for letting a little girl disarm him as well as on his deathbed when a regretful Robert told him, “I should’ve spent more time with you, taught you how to be a man. I was never meant to be a father.” Once Joffrey comes to power he’s determined to assert himself, not just as a figure of authority in his new office but as a merciless, iron-fisted autocrat to be feared, brutally crushing any dissidence beneath his heel. His aversion to Sansa is likewise based on the fact that she saw him in a vulnerable state that revealed how weak he is at core.
King Robert’s brother Renley (Gethin Anthony) is struggling with issues of his own. Being homosexual, he must play act like everyone else in court, assuming a false pretense before the public, like the masquerade balls he’s said to be fond of for the opportunity they afford to further disguise his identity. He wants to prove himself in the eyes of the world as well though, complaining that, “My brother thinks that anyone who hasn’t been to war isn’t a man… he treats me as if I was a spoiled child,” all the while letting his lover shave him smooth, giving him the physical appearance of the boy others perceive him to be. Asserting himself as a viable candidate for the crown, the idea of power gets Renley so worked up he finds his scepter being polished while his ego is stroked. Though Robb tries to uphold the proper line of succession, “Renly is Robert’s youngest brother. If Bran can’t be Lord of Winterfell before me, Renly can’t be king before Stannis,” his Northmen begin to talk of seceding from the Union. “Renly Baratheon is nothing to me. Not Stannis neither. Why should they rule over me and mine from some flowery seat in the South? What do they know of the Wall or the Wolfswood. Even their gods are wrong. Why shouldn’t we rule ourselves again? It was the dragons we bowed to and now the dragons are dead.” They propose Robb as their candidate elect. “There sits the only king I mean to bend my knee to. The king of the North.” Being raised to the rank of another King Robert, this ‘boy’ has come quite a ways in the estimation of his men.
The fourth episode’s theme concerning Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things was expanded to include that of broken homes, encompassing the other outsiders in the extended Stark family. We learned more of their resentful ward Theon Greyjoy, for instance, and his place in the household. A casualty of the failed rebellion led by his father, Lord of the Iron Islands, which resulted in his brothers’ deaths in battle, he was taken captive at the age of eight to serve as squire to his enemy. The Starks have chosen to raise him more like a son than a prisoner however, and he’s apt to forget at times that he’s not really one of them, since he and Robb have grown up together and are as close as brothers. When Robb tells him to put down the pup Lord Stark has commanded him to kill, he chafes at taking orders from this man his own age whom he considers his equal, sneering “I don’t take orders from you. I only take orders from your father.” He smarts when Tyrion refers to Robb as his master and is ridiculed for calling Catelyn milady with, “Your loyalty to your captors is touching. Tell me, how do you think Balon Greyjoy would feel if he could see his only surviving son has turned lackey?” As disappointed as Tyrion’s own father is in him and Jaime, I suspect. Tyrion even throws Theon a shilling as if tipping a groom, to show him in what low regard the rest of the world really holds him.
Jaime remarks that when he saw the youngest Greyjoy at Winterfell it was like seeing a shark on a mountaintop and harbors doubts that they’ve reformed him as they claim, into ‘a good lad’ over the intervening years. Saying his prayers, Bran asks the old gods to “Watch over Robb and all the other men from Winterfell. And Theon too, I suppose.” He’s regarded as addendum. Throwing in his two cents during Bran’s lessons on the noble families of the seven kingdoms, Theon jokingly asserts that his people are renowned for their skill with archery, navigation and lovemaking. “And failed rebellions,” the tutor, Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) adds. When he must sneak his whore Ros (Esmé Bianco) into the castle, she needles him as well, “Thought you were supposed to be an important person around here.” When he assures her that his family have been lords of the Iron Islands for three hundred years and “there’s not a noble family is Westeros that can look down on us,” she asks the captive “What about the Starks?” Even if he has no real grounds to resent the family, the world keeps drumming the idea into his head that for some reason he should. He’s been cast in the same light as the proverbial angry young man of British kitchen sink drama.
His foster status is his sore spot, and it’s continually thrown in his face, the same way Snow is never permitted to forget his illegitimacy, and Theon’s growing resentment about not being a real member of the family began to fester throughout the season. After Jaime’s preemptive strike on the Stark guard, overeager Theon proved the only person who considered Robb a capable leader, painting him in the opposite light as everyone else, “You’re not a boy anymore. They attacked your father, they’ve already started the war. It’s your duty to represent your house when your father can’t.”
With the Greyjoys having led one rebellion against the capital, Theon seems far too eager to instigate another, so rather than thanking him for the vote of confidence, Robb instead rebukes his clamoring for war. Putting him in his proper place, he’s reminded “it’s not your duty, because it’s not your house.” It’s a hard truth Theon must face, that the interests of this family who have raised him from boyhood are not in fact his interests, and regardless of how close to them he may feel himself to be at times, he’ll never be completely accepted as one of their own. When Bran subsequently goes missing in the Wolfswood, Theon’s unresolved feelings concerning his indeterminate position in the home become even more complicated as he ignores his first instinct to help Robb find the boy he too regards as a brother. Still nursing his bruised ego over Robb’s hurtful remark, he instead throws it back in his face by claiming it’s not his duty to look after Winterfell’s heir because “it’s not my house.” When Theon comes through anyway, saving Bran’s life by shooting an arrow into the wildling threatening to slit his throat, ingrate Robb again rebukes him, maintaining that he doesn’t have the right to make such judgment calls that could potentially endanger a Stark’s life.
Feeling increasingly powerless under their roof, Theon tries to exert his non-existent authority over the wildling taken captive, telling her to address him as ‘my lord,’ “…You refer to your betters by their proper titles.” But even she slyly outwits him by getting him to admit that he has no legal recourse to his father’s label so long as he still lives, making him feel even more insignificant. It’s only the appearance of Luwin that prevents Theon from forcing himself on her to assert his dominance. Reminding him that she’s their guest and the rules of hospitality must be observed, Theon replies that he thought she was their prisoner. “Are the two (concepts) mutually exclusive in your experience?” the tutor asks, referring to Theon’s own status under the Stark’s roof. Making him understand why he shouldn’t abuse his power, the comparison also draws our attention to the fact that he’s really no better off than the wildling they’ve clapped in irons. He’s still considered a prisoner of war no matter how kindly his captors treat him. Unsure any longer whether he is the Stark’s ward or their hostage Theon has become increasingly torn over where his allegiances lay, suffering from an advanced case of Stockholm syndrome. The issue seemed settled on the battlefield in the season finale however, his bond with the family reaffirmed outright before the entire company, when Robb openly acknowledged that he considered Theon his brother, “Now and always,” earning the ward’s own oath in return that “My sword is yours in victory and defeat. From this day until my last day.”
As Theon, actor Alfie Allen resembles an elongated Peter Dinklage to such a disconcerting degree, one can’t help feeling he would have been better cast as a Lannister. He looks more like the imp than Jamie does. Then again, I don’t understand why the bastard child Ned has taken into his home has been cast to look so much like his real son, Robb either. They both have the pale, poetic pallor of a romantic knight in some Pre-Raphaelite painting, so based on looks alone, they might as well be full-blood brothers, which only makes it more difficult for us to distinguish between the two upon cursory glance. If it wasn’t for the differing lengths of hair they’d be indistinguishable to our eyes.
The youngest Stark daughter Arya (Maisie Williams), yearning for the same opportunities as men, is chaffing against the restraints of being brought up a demure, respectable lady. She’d rather slip out of the castle to rub shoulders with the peasantry such as when she asks the butcher boy to spar and proves a better marksman with a bow and arrow than her brother, who is being afforded the opportunity to shoot. While her father asks the sons who are laughing at Bran’s poor aim which of them was a sure shot at ten, she proves a natural by hitting a bullseye on her first try, embarrassing him in front of the rest of the family and proving how sorely her real skills are squandered in ornamental, drawing room settings. Arya may live south of the Wall but she’s much of a wildling herself, untamed as the savage direwolf she takes for a pet. “She’s as wild as that animal of hers,” Cersei observes when Arya flies at Sansa for lying about what happened with Joffrey, and her septa (Susan Brown) tuts disapprovingly, “Arya would rather act like a beast than a lady.”
After she escapes the massacre of the rest of the household and is reduced to a fatherless stray she begins to seem even more like a feral child in her progressively bedraggled state. When she’s taken back North by Yoren (Francis Magee), recruiter for the Night’s Watch along with the rapists, pickpockets, highwaymen, murderers, accumulated scum scraped out of the dungeons to serve as raw recruits, including King Robert’s blacksmith bastard Gendry (Joe Dempsie) whose master has tired of him, it’s disguised as ‘Arry,’ the orphan beggar boy, so she can’t be traced by the Royal Guard. After a manner of speaking, she seems to have gotten what she always wanted, the opportunity to live life unbidden by the social restrictions imposed upon her sex.
When her father finds her blade he reprimands, “Little ladies shouldn’t play with swords,” but his daughter shoots back “I wasn’t playing and I don’t want to be a lady.” To Arya, swordplay is no game. Trying to placate her with the compromise “You will marry a high lord and rule his castle. And your sons shall be knights and princes and lords,” she honestly responds “No, that’s not me.” Like bastard son Jon, who seems to take after his father more than the other boys, cautioning Arya that the castle-forged sword that will replace her cross-stitches is no toy (“Sansa can keep her sewing needles. I’ve got a needle of my own.”), Ned displays a liberal open mind. While one wonders if he would have been as accepting if one of his boys had professed the hankering to wear a dress and learn needlepoint, rather than suppress Arya’s self-expression, he chooses to support her desire to dress in boy’s tights and blouse, and wear her long hair drawn back, in the same style as his. Arya dresses as a boy because she doesn’t want to be restricted by her gender, but whenever anyone mistakes her for the opposite sex, such as the guardsmen who deny her entrance assuming she’s a beggar and the visiting Yoren who remarks “This must be your son. He has the look,” she humorously protests that she’s a girl. The beginnings of a severe sexual identity crisis seems to be in the brewing until she finds her true place, learning that anyone appropriating a phallic sword becomes a gender neutral knight.
The dancing she wants to learn is not the courtly kind of balls and cotillions but the sort that only fencing master Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou) can teach her. Her father wants her to be able to take care of herself, to defend her own honor, as though he sensed what was coming (“We’ve come to a dangerous place. We must protect ourselves.”). The wooden sticks Arya brandishes when training with Syrio are only a slightly modified version of what we’d earlier seen her using when practicing with the butcher boy, only now her simulated swordplay has moved a step closer to the real deal. Their sport is played just as dishonestly as all the other games afoot, with Syrio teaching his charge not to believe what moves he tells her he’s going to make but to read his body language to discern the truth behind his words. When she protests that he lied (“You said right, but you went left!”), he responds, “And now you’re a dead girl… My tongue lied, my eyes shouted the truth. You were not seeing… the seeing, the true seeing, that is the heart of swordplay.” Disheartened after Jaime ambushes her father and kills Jory (Jamie Sives), the guardsman who had promised her to protect him, Syrio tells Arya the perfect time for practicing is when she’s troubled, since she can’t allow herself to be distracted on a field of real combat either. Putting all personal thoughts and emotions aside, she must keep her head in the game at all times.
The Pointy End episode, which used shadows on the stone castle walls as evocatively as Michael Curtiz did in The Adventures of Robin Hood, begins horrifically, with the royal forces storming accused traitor Stark’s southern residence and slaughtering everyone inside from the oldest to the youngest. It’s like that scene in Macbeth where Macduff’s family is slain under orders of the treacherous new king. Only Arya escapes with the help of this effervescent little Italian (or whatever equates with such a “foreign bastard” in Martin’s world). He has the same balletic grace with a sword as Cyrano de Bergerac and like his namesake (they’re just a few syllables off), Syrio’s looks are deceptive. So small and slight, little bigger than Arya herself, we have our doubts about him, but when faced with a genuine threat from the King’s knights who are intent on seizing his charge, he takes us off guard with his deadly swordsmanship. Like Tyrion, this little man proves that good things come in small packages.
With only a wooden stick for a weapon he holds off an entire room full of armed and armored men twice his size in order to buy his protégé time to escape, reassuring her when she pleads with him to come with her, “I am Syrio Forel… the First Sword of Braavos does not run.” Repeating the phrase feverishly for protection, like a catechism as she slips out of the castle, the defiant response Syrio taught her to declare to the god of death “Not Today,” will be appropriated by Arya as her own coping mechanism in times of trouble, affirming that to everything there is a season.
And the street smarts he imparted her with will prevent her from becoming a dead girl in the real world when she finds herself caught up in the crossfire of a game of thrones she’d only been playing at heretofore. Alone and penniless, living on her wits and killing pigeons for food with the same silent agility she’d learned by chasing cats, even Varys’ little spies cannot locate Arya once she absconds from the ambush. She might have dropped off the face of the earth, the quintessential lost princess, another Anastasia. “It’s always the innocent who suffer,” Varys reflects.
With a slugged dullness about the eyes, Arya’s older sister Sansa is her total opposite in nearly every respect. She seems such a frivolous, silly thing, with her willfully blind attraction to Joffrey who anyone could tag as trouble a mile off. Begging her mother to have her father agree to the marriage with “It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted,” she seems as dazzled by the prospect that she’d be queen someday as she does by the pampered little princeling himself. Even after Arya easily disarms him, proving what a spineless weakling he is as he begs for his worthless life, Sansa seems to be living out some princess fairytale in her own mind, sympathizing “My poor prince look what they’ve done to you.” When her father promises to match her with someone more suitable, someone who’s ‘brave and gentle and strong,’ she foolishly responds “I don’t want someone who’s brave and gentle and strong, I want him,” as her sister titters at Sansa’s unwitting acknowledgement of Joffrey’s true worth.
Sansa is more concerned that she’ll only have girls, passing the throne to Joffrey’s little brother, and she’s probably right to worry since if she fails to produce the male heirs he promises to put in her after she’s had her blood, we wouldn’t put it past him to lop her head off like Anne Boleyn. Apparently the old Salic Law of Succession applies in Westeros as well, since women can’t inherit the crown any more than bastards like Jon Snow can. This is why it never occurs to anyone that the dragon might be awakened in Daenerys rather than her brother and why Arya, who wants equal rights in a man’s world, isn’t taken seriously when she asks if she can be Lord of a Holdfast. It’s plainspoken Arya who seems most sensible, asking her father how he could let his daughter marry someone like Joffrey. “You were born in the long summer. You’ve never known anything else,” he says, explaining why the family must stick together. “But now winter is truly coming and in the winter we must protect ourselves. Look out for one another. Sansa is your sister… we cannot fight a war amongst ourselves.”
As her name suggests, Sansa is all exposed emotions whose good sense gives way far too easily to her sensibilities, allowing her foolish heart to dictate her life’s course, leading her willingly into the trap that’s been sprung for her by the Lannisters. Over the course of the first season, Sansa’s experiences in the South (“You wear your hair like a real Southern lady now,” her septa notices) serve as an eye opening experience for the naïve young girl, as she comes to see the Lannisters and Joffrey for what they truly are. She may wear her hair up but she still speaks like a child with “Let me go home. I won’t do any treason, I swear.” Using her as a susceptible pawn in their war with her family, she’s induced to write her brother to come to King’s Landing (“It’s your sister’s handwriting but the queen’s words.”), ostensibly to swear his loyalty to the new king. They actually intend to snare him once through the gates, rooting out the house of Stark forever, with Joffrey promising to give her Robb’s head on a spike. Trying to save her father (“[What happens to him] will depend on your brother. And on you.”), begging for mercy on bended knee before Joffrey “If you still have any affection in your heart for me, please do me this kindness your grace,” as she’s been carefully instructed to do, Sansa commits the real act of treason by turning traitor to her own house. She makes it possible for the Lannisters to trick her father into reneging on his integrity by publicly proclaiming Joffrey the rightful king in the belief that it will prevent them from bringing down the blade.
Sansa becomes as much a captive as Tyrion, her father or Theon, only she’s held prisoner in marriage to a man she now loathes. Her fate makes clear everything Arya is rebelling against. When she tells Joffrey she hopes her brother gives her his head instead of the other way round, he orders his henchman to slap her, since he wants to maintain a veneer of chivalry himself. “My mother tells me a king should never strike his lady,” like Robert once struck her. Believing he’s being a perfect gentleman by keeping his own hands clean (“Will you obey now, or do you need another lesson?”), as if it mattered in the slightest that he isn’t the one actually acting out the evil in his heart when Sansa ends up bloody all the same. We’re reminded of Ned’s earlier words about the man who passes sentence being held morally accountable for swinging the sword. Unlikely as it may seem, Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann), who she’d earlier feared proves the only person to see Sansa’s pain or sympathize with her plight. We shouldn’t be surprised since hounds have a natural affinity with wolves. Upon initial introduction in the king’s entourage, he’d been outfitted in full steel armor topped by an imposing dog-head visor, suggesting he should be more closely aligned with the Stark’s interests than those of the Lannisters. Given the story of how The Hound was scarred by his older brother, The Mountain when boys, and after the way they square off at the jousting tournament, it’s telling that the Lannisters should then conscript the wicked Mountain’s mercenary services to loot and pillage outlying districts under protection of the king. Belying his alarming visage, The Hound proves the only gentle man out of the lot. Handing Sansa a handkerchief to wipe the blood from her mouth, he stops her from acting on the suicidal impulse that crosses her mind to push Joffrey over the balustrade as she advances threateningly toward him.
As Sansa, Sophie Turner looks to have stepped out of a Millais painting herself, another young Bess. She’s the ideal vision of a damsel in distress, and with her blazing hair and snowy complexion the actress seems to embody Martin’s fire and ice conception all rolled into one. But there’s something fuzzy and amorphous about her presence, as if her Sansa had been smudged in vaguely, instead of fully sketched out, so the character doesn’t feel to have completely come into being yet. Early episodes did her no justice, making her seem like an infuriatingly foolish, unquestioningly compliant creature, still attracted to Joffrey even after he lets her lie to save his own skin despite knowing that “It’s a great crime to lie to a king,” resulting in the death sentence being meted out to her direwolf, which the prince could have stopped with a word, same as he could have stopped her father’s execution. And though real emotions seem to have slipped through at the conclusion of The Kingsroad, by the beginning of the next episode it’s as though nothing had happened and the glimmers of sadistic insanity he’s shown have failed to dampen her attraction to him. When Joffrey gives her a necklace similar to the one his mother wears and assures her that she’ll be queen one day, that he’ll never disrespect her again and never be cruel to her again “You’re my lady now. From this day until my last day,” her brain is again benumbed to his despicable true nature. Eradicating Lady has left Sansa without her protective spirit guide, making her easy pickings for Lannister exploitation.
Jack Gleeson plays Joffrey like a bratty, entitled child star and he excels at making the contemptible character perfectly loathsome in every respect. His Joffrey is a bluff through and through; he’s not even the legitimate heir. “The king has no trueborn sons, Joffrey and Tommen are Jaime Lannister’s bastards, so when the king dies the throne passes to his brother, Stannis Baratheon,” who made no appearance in the first season. Ned seals his own fate by deducing that Joffrey is not the king’s heir because he has blond hair, unlike all Robert’s other illegitimate, dark-haired offspring. But it’s not simply that Joffrey looks nothing like King Robert, he acts nothing like his presumed father either. Anyone could see that he’s no relation, so we’re surprised the canny king was ever gullible enough to fall for his wife’s assurances.
Sporting his crown fashioned in the shape of stag horns and slouched on an Iron Throne that practically swallows him up, Joffrey’s wicked, dishonest despot looks like an absurd, platinum blond Kenneth Branagh in Henry V. The second he’s in power, he institutes a ruthless reign of terror rife with beheadings and artistic censorship, cutting out the tongue of a minstrel accused of singing a seditious song, much as Khal Drogo pulls the tongue out of one of his own defiant minions. He takes jaunty delight in putting people to the sword, dishing out tortures right and left, even sadistically forcing Sansa to gaze on the not entirely convincing paper mâché heads of her father and house which have been piked on the tower battlements. Unaware that she was creating a monster, it was Cersei who instilled in her son this omnipotent God complex by telling him history is written by the winners and convincing him he had the divine right to reshape the world to suit his purposes. “When Aerys Targaryen sat on the throne, your father was a rebel and a traitor. Someday you’ll sit on the throne and the truth will be what you make it… You are my darling boy and the world will be exactly as you want it to be.” To his mind he’s answerable to no one for his actions, so it’s just a matter of time before he realizes he’s not answerable to her either. With nothing to check his worst impulses, he behaves like an infantile degenerate given carte blanche, a monstrous little Caligula or Nero.
Surely he seems every bit as mad as the former king Aerys (“This is madness,” his mother cautions when he demands Ned’s head, while his grandfather will later observe of the news, “Madness and stupidity.”) As he proved when Cersei humored him by asking how he’d deal with the Northmen if he were king, young Joffrey’s political savvy and skills as a tactician prove to come up short so he could stand to heed the guidance of his military advisors and council, though his megalomania prevents him from doing so. His rash, immature act in killing off Ned, their one trump card ruins any chance there might have been for the Lannisters to call a truce. As patriarch Tywin acknowledges, “If he were alive we could have used him to broker a peace with Winterfell and Riverrun.” A ‘tame wolf’ would have been more useful to them than a dead one.
In its first year Game of Thrones used Ned as the show’s moral compass, giving viewers someone sturdy and stable to serve as dependable guide through this duplicitous world in which no one is to be trusted. But he seemed so noble that he lacked the necessary guile to navigate the conspiratorial nest of vipers he’d fallen into, which means he had no place among them. As Cersei assessed why he would never be king, “You’re just a soldier aren’t you? You take your orders and you carry on. I suppose it makes sense. Your older brother was trained to lead and you were trained to follow.” But Ned’s problem is that his conscientious objections prevent him from blindly following orders, he’s constantly questioning them instead. The sordid world he’s forced to mix in pains his better nature (“You’re in pain,” Cersei coos, “Perhaps it’s time to go home. The South doesn’t seem to agree with you.”).
With his hair styled in the fashion of Jesus, Ned is frequently placed in front of cathedral style stained glass to make the allusion more complete. But his high-toned moral values simply mark him as a soft touch, placing him at a distinct disadvantage, leaving him open to wholesale exploitation and victimization. Referring to Ned, who married the girl he loved, Littlefinger asks how he could possibly measure up to him, since he’s just “so… good.” Asked what his father would do if forced to choose between love and honor, Snow responds that he would do what was right, no matter what, to which his superior remarks, “Then Lord Stark is one man in ten thousand. Most of us are not so strong…”
Like that bastard son who so takes after him, renouncing worldly cares to join the order, Ned is too good for this world, which is why he’s forcibly removed from it. Demonstrating just how far integrity gets one, the last honorable man left in Westeros didn’t even survive the first season, losing the game of thrones right out the gate. While the Lannisters hire cutthroats and the king orders his Hand to carry out assassinations of political enemies in order to keep their own hands clean, principled Ned believes in personal culpability and accountability. Rather than having other people do his dirty work for him, he declares that “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Robert rages to his counsel when Ned won’t acquiesce in his plan to assassinate Daenerys “Speak sense to this honorable fool!… Too proud and honorable!” Yet Ned’s moral skittishness at the king’s command is shown to be dead wrong in the long run, same way Catelyn was mistaken when she impulsively imprisoned Tyrion (chivalrous Ned insists to all who will listen that she was operating under his orders as Hand and had the authority to do so), instigating unnecessary altercations and deaths. Daenerys is planning to do precisely what the king fears, “If the Targaryen girl convinces her horse lord husband to invade and the Dothraki horde crosses the Narrow Sea, we won’t be able to stop them… only a fool would meet the Dothraki in an open field.” If Ned had followed his directives and nipped her in the bud from the beginning, he could have saved far more lives.
When the king goes off hunting, leaving him in charge, he scoffs “You’ll hate it even more than I do!” Appointing Ned Lord Protector on his deathbed, Robert sighs with satisfaction, “At least they’ll say I did this right, this one thing. You’ll rule now. You’ll hate it worse than I did, but you’ll do it well.” Ned practically has greatness thrust upon him as he’s maneuvered onto the throne, despite the fact that he is the only character on the show who doesn’t crave the crown and the power that goes along with it, the only person who refuses to play the game specifically because it can’t be played with honor.
“You should’ve taken the realm for yourself. Jaime told me about the day King’s Landing fell,” says Cersei. “He was sitting on the Iron Throne and you made him give it up. All you needed to do was climb the steps yourself. Such a sad mistake.” But seeing what lusting after such power has reduced them all to, Ned has no regrets in this regard, “I’ve made many mistakes in my life,” he admits, but “That wasn’t one of them.” As the equally unassuming Lord Varys points out, “There are few men of honor in the capital. You are one of them. I like to believe that I’m another strange as that may seem.” But that same ethos prevents Ned from seriously considering the devil’s bargain Littlefinger tries to strike with him, though he knows in his heart he’s right, that as Hand of the King and Lord Protector all the power is his, he need only reach out and take it. It also prevents him from heeding Henley’s sage advice that they should make a preemptive strike before Cersei has the chance. He’s so blinded by Renley’s play for power in jumping the line of succession (“This isn’t about the bloody line of succession. That didn’t matter when you rebelled against the mad king, it shouldn’t matter now. What’s best for the kingdoms? What’s best for the people we rule?”), he fails to hear he’s speaking perfect sense. Ned’s principles prevent him from acting, “I will not dishonor Robert’s final hours by shedding blood in his halls and dragging frightened children from their beds, though we’ll subsequently see that Cersei shares no similar compunction when she sends her own soldiers to raid his home and slaughter everyone they find.
While we initially believe that Ned would make a better ruler than any of the other negligible prospects the fact is that, though he possesses the wisdom and benevolence required of the high office, the way he shrinks from behaving dishonorably tells us he doesn’t have it in him to partake in the ruthlessness necessary to run the realm. Asking Littlefinger if he has a shred of honor for instance, he is jeered. “Look at you. You know what you want me to do, you know it has to be done, but it’s not honorable, so the words stick in your throat.” It was his very desire to be merciful by telling the queen that he’d learned the truth about Joffrey’s birth, affording her the chance to escape with her life and that of her children that ended up getting the king killed and the House of Stark annihilated. They would have all been better served if he’d been less honorable and a bit more judicious.
As Varys assures him, “The wine slowed him down and the boar ripped him open, but it was your mercy that killed the king.” The path to hell is paved with good intentions. Like Catelyn, who released the imp following his trial by combat rather than holding on to him to barter for her husband’s life and later confidently declared that Littlefinger would never betray their trust, this holy fool’s attempt to abide by the rules while everyone else is brazenly cheating and double dealing avails him nothing. It may be Michelle Fairley who looks eerily like Joan Allen, but it’s Sean Bean’s Ned who reminds me, if anything, of the character Allen played in the big screen adaptation of The Crucible. Beyond reproach and above suspicion, Allen’s Elizabeth Proctor ended up damning herself and her loved one by telling the first lie of her life when only the truth could have set them free. Ned similarly finds that betraying his own integrity at the end profits him nothing either.
Initially Ned is quite willing to go to his death to preserve his honor, “You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honor for a few more years of what?” Without honor, he would be an empty shell of a man, like Khal Drogo once raised from the dead. “You grew up with actors. You learned their craft and you learned it well. But I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago.” He’s like Paul Scoffield’s Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, who has the fortitude to sacrifice his life rather than his integrity. Snow, who is feeling the itch to flee the Wall to save his father is lectured that “We all do our duty when there’s no cost to it. Honor comes easy then. Yet, sooner or later, in every man’s life, there comes a day when it is not easy, a day when he must choose.” Only Ned’s concern for the safety of his loved ones could induce him to ignore that inner voice, and at the threat that his daughters will be harmed he capitulates. Acknowledging Joffrey as the one true king, he humbles himself on bended knee, the same stance he was forced to adopt when hobbled by Jaime’s lance. Proving willing to play the game at the end, betraying himself and his own code of honor crushes his spirit and kills his soul, so inside Ned was dead long before his head ever ended up on the chopping block.
The oppressive, all-pervading darkness that portends the approaching winter threatens to swallow anyone who strays from the moral path. Jaime sees no reason to fear death since “The darkness is coming for all of us. Why cry about it?” Northerners such as the Starks follow a nature religion like the Druids, worshiping the ‘old gods,’ primeval weirwood trees with tortured faces carved into their trunks that seem to bleed the red tears of stigmata. The wildling taken prisoner says the old gods are her gods as well, that “Beyond the Wall they’re the only gods.”
In the South they worship a new religion, and from what we see of it their only idol is gold and the old gods seem to have turned away, averting their gaze rather than behold such sinfulness. Assuring him he’ll be damned to “the deepest of the seven hells if the gods are just,” Jaime asks Lady Stark, “What gods are those? The trees that your husband prayed to? Where were they when his head was getting chopped off?” The wildling knows, telling Bran, “Your brother will get no help from them where he’s going. The old gods have no power in the South. The weirwoods there were all cut down long ago. How can they watch when they have no eyes?” Having been razed from this realm where even angels now fear to tread, the dominion has become the province of corruption and greed, turning out men like Jaime, who no longer fear divine retribution since they know there’s nothing to stop them from indulging their every vice with impunity. “If your gods are real and if they’re just, why is the world so full of injustice?” he asks. But Catelyn has her answer at the ready, assuring him it’s “Because of men like you.” With the gods having fled, only men of scruples can thwart such grasping predators from consuming the earth, which is why the honorable must have the wherewithal to stand up and fight. As Lysa points out, “They killed my husband. You say they shoved your boy from a window. These people will do anything!” “And that is why we have to stop them,” Catelyn asserts. Someone must step into the void and make the wicked answerable for their actions.