The characters aren't just fighting over who will be the next king—they're struggling to determine their legacies for generations to come.
"My legacy will be determined in the coming months. ... It's what you pass down to your children, and your children's children. It's what remains of you when you're gone."
As Game of Thrones' second-season finale draws closer, the clash of kings grows more volatile. But as the series' various characters find themselves drawn into their own alliances and conflicts, it's become clear that the battle is about much more than the king who sits on the throne. Last night's standout episode, "A Man Without Honor" (which aired, serendipitously, on Mother's Day), was chiefly concerned with the legacies passed from parents to children. Kings come and go, but the history lasts forever. And in Westeros, where everything comes down to bloodline, the name a person inherits counts for everything—and the power a name wields can mean the difference between life and death.
That's certainly true for both Sansa Stark, the highest-stakes hostage in King's Landing. As the eldest Stark daughter, Sansa's eventual marriage will have significant political ramifications for the whole of Westeros—which was also the case a generation earlier, when Robert Baratheon married Cersei Lannister (who once presciently remarked that the entire country was held together by their marriage). The parallels between between Cersei and Sansa are straightforward: Each is a beautiful woman from a highborn family, married off to achieve a political gain. More surprising (and perhaps more telling) is the comparison Tywin Lannister draws between Arya and Cersei. Game of Thrones has surpassed even its source material in making Cersei, who could easily come off as a one-note villainess, nuanced and complex. In her own way, Cersei is as single-minded and fiercely devoted to her family as Arya. Both women have been equally ruthless toward their enemies. And though she doesn't yet know it, Arya has already been slated for her own politically expedient marriage, in a deal Catelyn brokered last season with Walter Frey.
The highest-stakes hostage on the Stark side of the conflict is Jaime Lannister, who makes his first appearance since Game of Thrones' second season premiere. Jaime, who's known across Westeros as an oathbreaker and Kingslayer, is one of the many Game of Thrones characters that has already done irreparable damage to their legacies. Daenerys' most loyal ally, Jorah Mormont, was banished from Westeros and denied his birthright after Ned Stark caught him slaving. But even Ned Stark couldn't escape the court of public opinion in the end; one of Game of Thrones' great ironies is that Ned, the most overtly noble character in the series, is now famed across the seven kingdoms for his dishonor and disloyalty. History is written by the winners, and for now, the Lannisters are winning—though their hold on the Iron Throne is far from secure.
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But for all the characters who have tarnished their own legacies, there are just as many who have no control over their legacies. The citizens of King's Landing regard Tyrion, their greatest ally in Joffrey's court, as a "twisted demon monkey" who's pulling the strings of the boy king. Arya was forced to shed the benefits of her legacy in order to survive in the relative anonymity of her serving position at Harrenhal. But no one in Game of Thrones has suffered more for lack of legacy Jon Snow, whose illegitimacy denies him all the benefits of the Stark name. The name "Snow," which is given to all northern-born bastards, is so commonly recognized as a synonym for "bastard" that Ygritte—who has never even set foot in Westeros—knew what his name meant about his birth. By joining the Night's Watch, Jon Snow has given up what little legacy he could have had, as his vows preclude him from taking a wife or siring children. But for someone who has been denied the benefits of his family name for his entire life, the makeshift family he's embraced at the Night's Watch is a more fitting substitute.
And the quest for a proud legacy can lead down some dangerous paths, as Theon Greyjoy, who continues to botch his newly acquired kingdom, has quickly learned. Theon's long stay with the Starks makes him the ultimate House divided against itself—and he's chosen the wrong side. House Greyjoy was originally disgraced when Theon was a child, after a rebellion by his father was quelled by Ned and Robert Baratheon. But Theon has spent the rest of his life wearing his father's chip on his own shoulder, and torn his adopted family apart in the process. In "A Man Without Honor," Theon declares "it's better to be cruel than weak," which would be an even more fitting motto for House Greyjoy than "We do not sow." But his cruelty will only take him so far. The legacy of the Stark family still looms heavily over Winterfell, and no matter what he does, Theon won't be able to make its citizens forget them.
The Lannisters, Starks, and Baratheons may each be fighting for the Throne, but there's someone across the Narrow Sea with an even older claim. Daenerys is still fighting for both her dragons and her throne—two things she believes to be her birthright. But former ally Xaro Xhoan Daxos—who, unlike the vast majority of the characters in Game of Thrones, was born to parents with no legacy whatsoever—forges his own path to power in Qarth: If you can't beat 'em, have 'em murdered by the clones of your blue-lipped wizard friend. Each of the kings in Westeros have spent the season attempting to outmaneuver one another, but Xaro, who's apparently much more efficient, has eliminated his 11 parallel competitors in one fell swoop. In "A Man Without Honor," Xaro warns Daenerys that "a man is what others say he is and no more," echoing Varys' counsel to Tyrion earlier this season. But Xaro is also bold enough to declare himself the king of Qarth. We'll see if he can make anyone else say it.
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.