Game of Thrones: Family Matters

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?”

—Bran Stark

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 doppelgänger 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.

Of course, there's another family in Game of Thrones whose dynamics are less than savory. Even for Westeros, the Lannisters are an unusually tight-knit clan. It's not just that Jaime and Cersei are having an incestuous love affair (though to be fair, that's about as tight-knit as it gets). Tyrion has been making a grand tour of Westeros, with stops at the Wall and in Winterfell, so he hasn't interacted with Cersei or Jaime directly since the premiere episode. But word travels quickly, and it isn't long before Jaime Lannister has Ned Stark at swordpoint for Cat's transgression. Even Jaime, however, has a place for honor over family—when one of his soldiers interrupts their battle by stabbing Ned in the leg from behind, Jaime punches the solider out and allows Ned to walk away from the battle alive.

Ned Stark continues—for better or for worse—to stand out as one of the "few men of honor in the capital." When King Robert demands the assassination of Daenerys Targaryen, out of fear that her unborn son might eventually attempt to reclaim the Iron Throne, Ned is the sole dissenting member of the king's council. And when Robert reminds him that his duty as King's Hand is to carry out the king's wishes, Ned resigns his post, putting his sense of honor over his sense of duty.

But Ned steadfastly refuses to give up on what he clearly believes is his real duty: uncovering the mystery behind the death of former King's Hand Jon Arryn. His quest for the truth has already come at great sacrifice. He agreed to become the King's Hand despite the protestations of his wife, and abandoned half of his family in Winterfell to serve at the king's pleasure in King's Landing. Now, Ned is stuck in an impossible situation; his decision to take responsibility for his wife's actions has put the lives of his daughters at risk, and his honorable decision to resign as King's Hand has left him without protection.

Ned's true problem is that he's trying to live his life with complete commitment to his family, his duty, and his honor. Unfortunately, survival in Westeros requires certain sacrifices. Family, duty, honor—is that the right order? Ned will soon have to decide, and no matter what he chooses, the consequences will be great.

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.