“Loyal service means telling hard truths.”
- Ser Davos Seaworth
The players in the Game of Thrones have rarely benefitted from telling hard truths. Jon Arryn sought King Robert Baratheon's bastard children and was poisoned. Ned Stark uncovered the truth of Joffrey's parentage and paid for the knowledge with his head. And Maester Cressen—who originally, emphatically gave Stannis the advice that Davos repeated in tonight's "The Ghost of Harrenhal"—died for the hard truths he offered about Melisandre. But none of the show's four remaining kings—and one remaining khaleesi—can conquer without a loyal army, or rule without loyal subjects. As the war rages on, and lines are drawn and redrawn, is there any loyalty left in Westeros? And in a world full of shifting priorities and uneasy alliances, who can each of the players in the game of thrones really trust?
It's a question that literally means life and death for Arya, who was snatched from the jaws of death and dropped into a Lannister lion's den. In "The Ghost of Harrenhal," Arya's greatest ally came in an unexpected form: Jaqen H'ghar, whom she saved from a burning wagon in "What is Dead May Never Die." As a sellsword, Jaqen's loyalty can be bought for a price. But Arya's bravery has earned her the right to a higher loyalty than money can purchase: three murders of her choice, which Jaqen offers as a kind of homicidal genie. Across Westeros, Catelyn's bravery is simailarly rewarded by Brienne, who swears loyalty to Catelyn in admiration of her "woman's kind of courage" in the face of Renly's death.
But as we learned from the opening scenes of Game of Thrones' pilot, there's no oath that can't be broken. Westeros is ruled by families, and as of "The Ghost of Harrenhal" there's no clan more powerful than the Lannisters. But bloodlines don't ensure loyalty, either. Davos' advice about loyal service could benefit each of the Lannisters in King's Landing—a city that continues to descend further and further into chaos as Joffrey deafens himself to the plight of the townspeople. Joffrey snottily (and incorrectly) insists that he's owed loyalty by virtue of his birthright. But if loyal service means telling hard truths, Joffrey has inherited a particularly disloyal King's Council. Unchecked by advisors like Littlefinger and Varys, Joffrey is free to engage in his most selfish and sadistic tendencies. There are only two advisors who have his best interests at heart: Tyrion, who genuinely wants to protect the realm, and Cersei, whose affection for Joffrey sets a new standard for the depth of a mother's love. Cersei and Tyrion's goals happen to overlap; Joffrey's ability to reign successfully requires the will of the people, and Tyrion's ability to keep the peace requires stability on the Iron Throne.
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But in the case of Cersei and Tyrion, hard truths make them enemies, not allies. After all, Lannisters always pay their debts, and Cersei is still holding Tyrion accountable for his greatest debt against their family: the loss of their mother, who died giving birth to Tyrion. And Tyrion carried the knowledge of Cersei and Jaime's incestuous affair—and their subsequent efforts to kill Bran Stark—long before their sexual habits were the common gossip of Westeros. And even with personal differences aside, all Westerosi siblings are born into competition with one another, as power and land are passed down by birthright. From Stannis and Renly to Theon and Yara, Cersei and Tyrion are in good company.
If the bonds connecting siblings aren't enough to ensure loyalty, what about the bonds connecting parents and children? "King in the North" Robb Stark took up arms to avenge his father's death, and retains his mother Catelyn as a trusted advisor—though perhaps not trusted enough. Though Robb is infinitely more sympathetic than Joffrey, there's a significant (and telling) trait that unites Westeros' two youngest kings: They each made their worst mistake by disregarding the advice of their mothers. When Joffrey had Ned Stark executed, he destroyed the Lannisters' biggest bargaining chip and provoked Robb into a war. And Robb, in turn, ignored Catelyn's warning not to trust Theon Greyjoy, who now leads a force bent on raiding and raping their way through the towns under Robb's protection. The relationships between Westeros' parents and children are rarely perfect—just look at Theon Greyjoy, who could use a couple hundred hours on a psychiatrist's couch—but in a land where a family's reputation is directly tied to its power, parents can generally be relied upon for loyalty.
But there's a final, even surer way than familial ties to ensure loyalty in Westeros: love. It's worth remembering that all the action in Game of Thrones came from "the things [Jaime Lannister] would do for love," which included the murder of Jon Arryn and the attempted murder of Bran Stark. And it's love that separates Daenerys Targaryen from her rivals in the battle for the seven kingdoms. In a speech at the end of "The Ghost of Harrenhal," Ser Jorah Mormont told Daenerys why he wanted to help her win the Iron Throne:
You may cover it up and deny it, but you have a gentle heart. You would not only be respected and feared—you would be loved. Someone who can rule, and should rule... centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world. There are times when I look at you and I still can't believe you're real.
It's the love of the people, as Tywin notes, that makes Robb a more dangerous enemy to the Lannisters than Stannis. Tyrion has already (and rightly) dismissed Joffrey as "a lost cause." There's no hope of true loyalty without love, which makes Daenerys—whose khalasar is the most fiercely loyal army we've seen—a favorite in the fight for the Iron Throne.
But for all the reasons Ser Jorah gives Daenerys, it's his final, personal words that matter most—and that make him a far stronger ally than Xaro Xhoan Daxos, who offers her a loveless marriage that would give her the resources she needs to raise an army and take the Iron Throne. But Game of Thrones isn't making a romantic argument for love; it's making a practical one. For all his gold and promises, Xaro's marriage to Daenerys would be for Xaro, not Daenerys—and if she lost her power, she would lose his affections as well. In a land as unstable as Westeros, where loyalties are constantly in flux, and where oaths and families have both been broken, love is the last safe bet that can be made—and even one truly loyal ally means the difference between life and death.
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.