In 'Game of Thrones,' Everyone Is a Bastard

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A beloved character illuminates an essential element of the series: All the characters are broken in one way or another

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HBO


"I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things."
Tyrion Lannister

It's unsurprising that Tyrion Lannister is such a fan-favorite character in Game of Thrones. At times, he's manipulative, lecherous, and calculating, but he's also witty, candid, and wickedly intelligent. More than anything, however, he's consistently, fascinatingly inscrutable. It's possible (and probably wise) to read three or four meanings and motives into virtually everything he says.

Last night's "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things" saw Tyrion expressing his sympathy for the downtrodden of Westeros—the "cripples, bastards, and broken things" that give the episode its title. As the sole dwarf in a family of legendary regal beauty, Tyrion himself is no stranger to feeling like an outcast. But no matter how sympathetic he may or may not personally be, what are his real intentions for the Stark family?

The cripple that Tyrion refers to is Bran, the permanently-disabled 10-year-old son of Ned and Catelyn Stark. Tyrion has taken an interest in Bran, and in "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things" he presents Bran with the plans for a specially-made horse's saddle that even a boy in his condition can use to ride. But there's something more to the bond between Tyrion and Bran. Even before his injury (and much like Tyrion), Bran was destined for a strange, tenuous place within his family; his older brother Robb is the next "Lord Stark" by birthright, so the best Bran could hope for is a position in the King's Guard. When Bran was pushed out the window by Jaime Lannister, even that possibility was waylaid, and he's in a deep depression before Tyrion brings him the plans that could revive his dream.

Bran is also beginning to have strange dreams starring a blackbird with a third eye in its forehead—a dark and confusing premonition that he's choosing, for the moment, to keep to himself. Like most amnesia plotlines, Bran's amnesia has the feeling of an irritatingly convenient writer's trick—more a product of what the plot requires than what feels plausible (after all, it would affect literally every aspect of the plot if Bran had awoken with the knowledge that Cersei and Jaime are having an affair, and that they'd tried to kill him to keep it a secret. It's far too early in the series to bring that information out into the open). But Bran's dream, cryptic as it may be, is slowly leading him down an important path, and it remains to be seen how long it will take him to put the pieces together.

Though he's certainly not the only example, the most prominent "bastard" in Game of Thrones is Bran's half-brother, Jon Snow—yet another maltreated Stark that Tyrion has formed a bond with. Much like Bran, it's no accident that Tyrion has struck up something like a friendship with Jon Snow; as Tyrion comments, he himself is "a constant disappointment" to his own father. Though Snow clearly respects his father, Ned, his second-tier status wounds him deeply; as he says in last night's episode, being a bastard is "not a good life for a child."

Like Tyrion, Jon Snow's lifelong hardships have created a tender spot in his heart for the downtrodden of Westeros. In "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things," Snow finds a new ally (and a new liability) in Samwell, a portly recruit to the Night's Watch. For all intents and purposes, Samwell is also a bastard—disowned by his disappointed father and given the choice between death or a spot on the Wall. Snow takes the hapless Samwell under his wing, protecting him from the judgment of their cruel trainer, Thorne, and the other new recruits of the Night's Watch. Jon Snow is operating out of sympathy, but if Thorne is right, it's a sympathy he may come to regret. As Game of Thrones relentlessly reminds us, winter is coming, and any kindness can be turned into a weakness.

And that brings us, again, to Tyrion, who is captured by the enraged Lady Catelyn at the episode's end. Catelyn officially accuses Tyrion of conspiring to murder Bran, and resolves to take him to Winterfell to await the "king's judgment." Tyrion, for his part, says nothing.

So how tender, in the end, is that "spot" in Tyrion's heart? Tyrion may be exactly what he says—a man who cares for those like Bran or Jon Snow, who are as unfortunate as he. Or he could be something darker. Is Tyrion truly innocent of all charges? Is he trying to repent for some misdeed by helping Bran? Or is he playing an even longer con, with motives that we can only guess at now? In a world in which a moral code is one of the most dangerous things a man can have, could Tyrion himself be the "broken thing" to which he's referring—by being either too moral, or not enough?

In fact, much of Westeros seems to be "broken." Take, for example, Robert Baratheon—the broken king of a broken city. As we learned in last week's "Lord Snow," the crown is $6 million gold dragons in debt to the Lannisters (I'm admittedly ignorant of the current gold dragon-to-U.S. dollar conversion rate, but it's clearly a lot). While Ned attempts to manage the affairs of the city as the King's Hand, Robert indulges in group sex with a rotating cast of prostitutes. ­Game of Thrones only sparingly offers the tantalizing details about the rebellion that led to Robert's kingship, but whatever the full story, something has gone dreadfully wrong. Robert is completely disinterested (and woefully unqualified) for the job, and his failings as a king are poisoning all of Westeros.

But brokenness doesn't just apply to the power-hungry adults of Westeros; in her own unfortunate way, even Ned's daughter Arya is "broken" by the standards of Westeros. As a Stark, there are very strict expectations for what Arya's life should be. In less than 30 seconds, Ned prescribes Arya's entire future: "You will marry a high lord and rule his castle. And your sons shall be kings and princes and lords." Unsurprisingly, Arya has no interest in the kind of life that Ned is describing. It's easy for post-feminist audiences to embrace Arya's free-spirited lifestyle. But in über-patriarchal Westeros, Arya's rebellious streak will be every bit of a handicap for her as Bran's broken legs are for him.

And then there's Ned. Ned—who sometimes seems to be the last honest man in Westeros—continues his investigation into Jon Arryn's death, discovering the beginning of what looks like a darker conspiracy than he'd anticipated. As Ned continues to dig deeper, apparent ally Lord Baelish offers him a vital piece of advice: "distrusting me was the wisest thing you've done since you climbed off your horse."

Unfortunately, he's probably right. In Game of Thrones, everyone is broken in one way or another. Some are just better at concealing it than others.

Read all of The Atlantic's Game of Thrones coverage.

Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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