The Long Shadow of Ned Stark

Ned Stark

The season finale of Game of Thrones has come and gone, but everyone is still talking about it. In terms of shock value this past season did not have the same impact as some of its former seasons. George RR martin’s masterpiece has always been hailed for its subversive nature. It has always been a tale that defies the expectations of its readers and watchers, but maybe it has just demonstrated that its most genius subversion is of itself. After all, Ned Stark died in season 1, but as season 7 has shown, he still wins and maybe Game of Thrones is not as unconventional as we would like to think.

Spoilers a-head… get it? because Ned Stark lost his… oh forget it.

The Disemboweled Head of the Family
Season 1 is all about Eddard Stark, the noble head of the most noble house in Westeros. Ned is strong, and brave, and caring, and everything you could want in a hero. He is honorable and trustworthy to a fault. He dies because of it. The first season of the shows gives us a pretty compelling argument that Ned Stark’s inability to adapt and scheme are what get him killed. He fails because he is too intractable in his morals and too unwilling to do unsavory, but necessary, things. Because of this, his family falls apart and the Starks -the oldest house in the seven kingdoms- are nearly wiped from the face of Westeros. Thus, season 1 sets up the main narrative of the show, where the moral die and the schemers gain power.

Except, no they don’t. Season 7 is a subversion of that very premise. If there is one thing that sticks out in this past season it is the lack of gut-wrenching turn of events. There were no Red Weddings or exploding churches, or any “Episode 9 Surprises.” Of course, there was no Episode 9, and this could -at least- partially be blamed on the fact that HBO has exceeded Martin’s original vision, -and is now purely writing Game of Thrones for viewers to enjoy- but we think there is more going on. After all, take a look at what happened in this season, the Starks are winning again. They are stronger than ever before.

Ned Stark may be dead, but his children are succeeding based upon the lessons and bonds that he taught them. To Ned, the idea of family was always the most important thing anyone could value. That was why the “argument” between Sansa and Arya never felt right through the entire season. Yes, they were two very different little girls, but nothing we knew of them suggested that either could be coerced into killing one another. That is because Ned Stark created a family bond that defied the scheming of Littlefinger, and in the end it was Petyr Baelish who finally got what he deserved, at the point of his own dagger. Granted they had some help from Professor Brandon Xavier, but it was still the values of Ned Stark that kept the sisters strong through suspicion.

You Know Nothing, Cersei Lannister
Jon Snow basically spent this entire season of Game of Thrones Jon Snowing his way through every situation. We may have learned that Jon is not really Ned’s biological son, but he is the most Ned Stark-like character on the show. His unbending morals and trustworthy nature could have gotten him killed more than once, but those were the very traits that saved him. At the beginning of the season he went to Daenerys, unarmed and virtually alone -except for Davos. All indications in past Game of Thrones episodes tell us that that is always a bad idea. Yet, Jon did it, and he not only got what he wanted, but that relationship of honor and trust -and unbridled Snow lust- is what got the Dragon Queen herself to come swooping down to save his beautiful cold behind when he was trapped by the Night King’s army.

At the climax of this past season, Jon refused to lie to Cersei. He refused to compromise his honor, which is the very thing Ned did in season 1. The elder Stark was killed because of it, but Jon was not. In fact, despite his unwillingness to lie, Cersei still -kinda- pledged her armies to fight the Night King, and Jon cemented his bond with Daenerys. Thus, he managed to not only avoid being killed by the meanest woman in Westeros, but won the love of the most powerful woman in Westeros. Maybe what George RR Martin -or at least HBO- is trying to tell us is that the kind of honor and loyalty displayed by the Starks may not always win in the short term, but in the long run it is the very thing that builds stable societies and earns trust among the powerful and the peasants alike.

The schemers like Littlefinger may win for a time, but in the end they get what they deserve. Cersei may rule -for a time- but her reign is like a castle made of sand. Once all the scheming is done you are only left with paranoia, fear, and a very small circle of people who are only invested in keeping you in power for their own benefit. Paranoia grows, fear fades, and eventually a better offer is going to come along for those she trusts. Even Daeny is more of a conqueror than a ruler. She earns the love of the people, but Game of Thrones has demonstrated that that is not enough. Jon Snow, with the lessons taught to him by Ned Stark, earns the respect of both noblemen and small folk. Honor and nobility are not easy. They are not shortcuts to power, but in the end they are the foundations that build kingdoms.

A Dragon! My Seven Kingdoms for a Dragon!
Now, you may have found this past season to be a bit of a let down. After all, Game of Thrones is supposed to be shocking. We are supposed to be constantly afraid for our favorite characters, and maybe we -secretly- even get a little satisfaction from external confirmation that strong morals only lead to disaster. Well, if history has show us anything it is that, such upheaval does not last forever. The interregnum always comes to a close, sooner or later. If you don’t believe us, than believe Shakespeare. Season 7 has really begun to remind us of the last half of Richard III.

For the less cultured out there, it is the play about a scheming Richard III who masterfully manipulates himself onto the throne of England. Unfortunately, once he reaches that position of power he learns that scheming is not enough to be a leader. He becomes consumed with paranoia, plagued by his past deeds, and eventually faces rebellions and desertion. He dies on the sword of a much more fit and honorable (and exiled) ruler. Does that sound at least a little familiar.

So, yes, Game of Thrones has spent six seasons subverting our expectations of heroes and villains and narrative story structure, but now it is subverting our expectations again. It turns out, that it is just a story, where there are heroes and villains and narrative structure. We are running out of main characters who can safely die without affecting the story’s ending, and we are learning that Ned Stark was right. His brand of honor may not always win, but it is the very thing that will restore peace and stability to Westeros. The Seven Kingdoms need a leader they can rely on and trust, like Ned Stark and like Jon Snow. Cersei and Littlefinger may kill, and scheme, and succeed in the moment, but in the end it is the memory and lessons of Ned Stark that will carry -not just Jon Snow- but the entire realm through the Long Night.



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