The new HBO show is like The Sopranos in one key respect: Where you come from is vitally important
"Family, duty, honor. Is that the right order?"
In the weeks before it premiered, Game of Thrones was often described as "Lord of the Rings meets The Sopranos." That description is too neat to capture the essence of what Game of Thrones is really about, but it does hint at an important quality that this series and The Sopranos have in common: if you look past the violence, the sex, and the rest of the genre window dressing, everything really comes down to family.
The title of last night's series-best episode, "The Wolf and The Lion," refers to the sigils that serve as symbols for the Stark and Lannister families. The world of Game of Thrones is steeped in arcane symbols—sigils, family colors, slogans, tomes of ancestral history. Particularly in the Middle Ages (or, for our purposes, in the Middle Ages pastiche of Westeros), these icons served an extra-vital purpose: spreading a family's legacy and influence across the country. You may not recognize a Targaryen by sight, but you'd recognize a black-and-red dragon banner from a mile away.
These family sigils have enormous power in Westeros. When Queen Cersei demanded the killing of Sansa Stark's direwolf in "The Kingsroad," it was more than the death of a beloved pet; it was an insult to the Starks as a whole, because direwolves symbolize the purest, noblest, and most essential aspects of their family.
The family mottos discussed in "The Wolf and The Lion" serve just as vital purpose. The Starks' oft-quoted "Winter is coming," befits a hale clan from the north—people who live each day with the knowledge that harder times are just around the corner. Each of the seven kingdoms have defined themselves by their creeds, and it's expected that each family member represent that creed in all that they do (though sometimes the families themselves get it wrong—the official motto of the Lannister family is "Hear me roar," a stupidly generic slogan that virtually everyone discards in favor of the far more telling "A Lannister always pays his debts").
The slogan of the Tully clan is "family, duty, honor." In "The Wolf and The Lion," Lady Catelyn Stark (a Tully by birth) is forced to question her commitment to that ideology as she brings her prisoner, Tyrion Lannister, to stand trial in front of her sister Lysa. The attempt on Bran's life, which Tyrion claims ignorance of, has had far-reaching implications across Westeros, but it has angered no one more than Catelyn Stark. When her son was attacked, she fell back on her old family motto, capturing Tyrion without proof of his involvement and putting him at the mercy of her family.
Unfortunately, Lysa seems to have taken the Tully family motto a bit too literally. Even more so than Catelyn, Lysa's priority is family, at the exclusion of duty, honor, and apparently anything else. The sight of Lysa sitting on the throne, breastfeeding her seven-year-old son Robin, works as first-rate nightmare fuel, but it also represents the danger of familial love taken to its absolute extreme. Her kingdom is apparently run on the whims of her demented adolescent child, who cackles gleefully at the idea of "seeing the bad man fly" without investigation or trial.
Creepy young Robin is like a shadowy doppelganger of Catelyn's own son, Bran. Robin's deficiencies are mental; Bran's are physical. Robin is a gibbering idiot; Bran is "too wise for his own good." Catelyn left Bran behind to seek justice for his injuries, but by Bran's own testimony, he'd rather she had stayed in Winterfell. There are no easy answers; things get complicated when family, duty, and honor become intertwined, and Catelyn's loyalty to her son has made her act foolishly and recklessly, and put the rest of her family in danger. The twisted relationship between Lysa and Robin should serve as a warning to Catelyn; without proper judgment, her love for her family could pervert or destroy it.