A look at how the patriarch's choices have affected his family members
"I remember the day you came into this world, red-faced and squalling. And now I find you leading a host to war."
–Lady Catelyn Stark
Last night's Game of Thrones, "The Pointy End," picks up immediately after last week's stunning cliffhanger, which saw Ned Stark betrayed by Littlefinger as Joffrey Lannister took the iron throne. The Starks have lost this round of the game, and Ned's imprisonment sets in motion a conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters that threatens to tear all of Westeros apart.
With every week that passes, I become less and less convinced that Ned is the hero of Game of Thrones. As Ned is finally realizing, he was vastly out of his depth from the moment he arrived in King's Landing. It's hard to fault Ned for having too much virtue, but it's even harder to remain sympathetic to him when his numerous mistakes—born out of both mercy and arrogance—have had such vast consequences for the rest of the Stark family. The proverbial sins of the father have been visited on Ned's sons and daughters, and much of "The Pointy End" is dedicated to the far-reaching consequences Ned's actions have caused for each of the Stark children:
On paper, Sansa's life is straight out of a Disney movie. She was plucked from the icy north and dropped into the kingdom at the heart of Westeros, where she quickly fell in love with the young prince Joffrey. Now that Joffrey has ascended the throne and professed his love for her, Sansa should be preparing for a lifetime of ceremony and childrearing as the queen of Westeros.
Of course, Game of Thrones is anything but a fairy tale. The cracks in Sansa's dream life were beginning to show long before Ned was imprisoned; Cersei's icy condescension, or Joffrey's sudden, alarming cruelty. Sansa was previously torn between the Starks and the Lannisters when she was forced to testify about the fight between Arya and Joffrey, but this time there's no room for middle ground—it's loyalty to her family or loyalty to Joffrey.
Over the past seven episodes, Sansa has drawn a lot of vitriol from Game of Thrones fans. It's not hard to see why: she's a whiny, self-centered brat, and it's certainly easier to muster up sympathy for the other Stark children, like the fiercely independent Arya or the flawed-but-noble Jon Snow.
But Sansa has to be understood, and sympathized with, for who she really is: a self-conscious, impressionable teenage girl dropped into a situation vastly beyond her maturity or understanding. She's not stupid, but she's desperate to cling to her fairy tale romance for as long as she can trick herself into believing it. As Cersei manipulates Sansa into sending word of her father's imprisonment to Catelyn and Robb, it's obvious just how young, confused, and malleable Sansa really is. And at the episode's end, when Sansa steps forward to beg for her father's life in front of the entire royal court, it's an act of courage as genuine and meaningful as Robb's declaration of war on the Lannisters.
Ned once imagined the ominous sound of real swords clashing over Arya's playful lesson with her fencing instructor, Syrio. In "The Pointy End," his premonition comes true, as Arya has her first taste of real conflict. As the Lannisters storm through the castle, Syrio steps forward to protect her (and dispatches several Lannister guards with his wooden training sword before it's chopped to pieces; though he reminds the fleeing Arya to say "not today" to death, I'm not optimistic about his own chances).
Syrio's bravery gives Arya the chance to escape, but she's discovered by a boy at the stables, who resolves to capture her to curry favor with the Queen. Half by instinct and half by accident, Arya stabs him through the stomach before fleeing. With her first kill, Arya has prematurely been thrust into adulthood; she's now wandering Westeros, somewhere outside the reach of both her enemies and her family.
Though Jon Snow is only a half-brother to the rest of the Stark clan, he's shown more loyalty, sensitivity, and tenderness to his younger siblings than the rest of the Starks. It was Jon who promised Bran that they would explore the north together someday, and Jon who gave Arya the sword that saved her life in tonight's episode. And when Jon hears that Ned has been imprisoned as a traitor, his first thoughts are of his sisters' safety.
As the bastard child of Ned Stark's sole indiscretion, Jon Snow has been dealing with the consequences of Ned's choices for his entire life. Jon's decision to dedicate himself to protecting the Wall comes from a lifetime of maltreatment—for the first time, his talent, not his birthright, would determine his place in the world.
At least, that was the idea. But despite his best efforts, Jon's birth status followed him to the Wall, and in "The Pointy End," he discovers the only thing worse than being a bastard is being the bastard of a traitor. As usual, Jon Snow shows incredible valor in "The Pointy End" (in this case, by slaying the zombie-like White Walker with a well-aimed torch). But despite his best efforts, Westeros is built on familial legacy, and no amount of courage can erase the circumstances of his birth.
Throughout this season of Game of Thrones, 11-year-old Bran has proven wiser than his years. Both his age and his injuries preclude him from the battle with the Lannisters, but he aims to contribute in the best way he can: by praying to the old gods for safety (with the aid of caretaker Hodor, whose sudden, inexplicably naked appearance provides a rare moment of levity in a fairly dark episode).
But like Arya, Ned's imprisonment has forced Bran to grow up in a hurry. As Robb departs for the battlefield, he instructs Bran to stay in the castle no matter what, reminding him, "there must always be a Stark in Winterfell." As Osha warns Bran that the real danger to Westeros will come from the north, in the form of White Walkers and other unmentionable creatures, it's difficult to imagine how this child, even with aid, can bear the responsibility of carrying the Stark legacy and protecting Winterfell from its numerous threats.
For the first seven episodes of Game of Thrones, Robb largely existed on the periphery of the action, overshadowed by his father and biding his time as the temporary keeper of Winterfell in Ned's absence. Ned's imprisonment means that greatness has suddenly been thrust upon him, and in "The Pointy End," Robb proves impressively up to the task, as he gathers his allies and marches south to take on the armies of Tywin and Jaime Lannister.
Robb's decisive moment, however, comes when his troops discovered a Lannister scout spying on their camp. After questioning the scout, Robb ignores the advice of every person in the tent and lets the scout go. And when pressed on his decision, Robb explains, "My father understands mercy, when there is room for it. And he understands honor. And courage."
Robb is so fresh to the battlefield that it's difficult to read into his motives. Is it bravado, cunning, or kindness? Is he sending the scout back to Tywin with false information, or has Robb simply learned his father's mercy too well? As Robb speaks nobly of the mercy he learned from his father, Ned rots in a dungeon, lamenting the "madness of mercy" that led to his capture. Is Robb doomed to repeat his father's mistakes?
Can any of the Starks escape the roles that lineage and fate have laid out for them? As "The Pointy End" draws to a close, the Starks remain scattered across Westeros, fleeing, fighting, plotting and suffering, and things are bound to get worse before they get better. Every action has a consequence, and it's too late for Ned and Catelyn to protect their children from the cruelty of their enemies, or the horrors of war.
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.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.