The Four Stark children defeated their own individual tragedies
Game of Thrones ended as it began- focusing on the Stark children. While Daenerys, Tyrion and others were thrown into the mix of true top tier characters the show at its core has always been about the Starks. They were the family we were first introduced to, the home in which we as viewers grew. The spark of the entire series was the patriarch’s beheading, and how that act threw all of them to the corners of the wind.
Finally, at the end of it all, they reunited only to split once more, but on better terms than before. Each of them now has a new adventure, and as the fitting final shots showed (Sorry Bran), each of them has managed to conquer their individual tragedy. Tragedy is not a rare commodity for any character in Game of Thrones, but these four have had some of the worst. Each defined by their personal arc, the end of ‘The Iron Throne’ was a victory roll for our most beloved. Hence, I wanted to outlay here exactly what each of them beat.
Although Sansa gets the jump on the others (as usual), Seasons 7 and 8 are where the Starks make their way back to each other, and back to home. As it is, only one of them ends up there, and none of them remain together. I believe this to support the idea that it was the Stark family’s role to protect people and fight the Others in the Long Night. Obviously, they each had their roles both in the build-up to and the actual fighting of the battle against the dead. But how about what got them there, and what made them into the new individuals they were on returning?
For Bran, it occurred in the pilot episode. His crippling erased his dreams of knighthood, made him less than a real person in this society’s eyes, and kept him anchored to Winterfell when the majority of his family left. Much more than that, it set him on the path of becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, a path that removed him further from civilisation than anyone else on the show. It also seemingly cost him his very humanity, as when his powers grew his being Bran diminished. A boy already physically detached from everyone become so emotionally and mentally too.
Arya’s journey also began with a kind of exile. In order to survive she had to immediately part with her name, her family, and her identity. That was only a beginning. As with all four of the children the situation only became worse through the years. Arya was witness to multiple atrocities in Harrenhal and around the Riverlands. Mixed in with that was the fact that she, as a young girl, was forced to kill. Before long, she wasn’t so much forced to as chose to. As her deadly skills grew she appeared to mirror her younger brother; we also watched as the Arya we knew shrunk into a vapid shell of her former self. She became a loner, a shadow, just as much as Bran was.
The theme of isolation continues. Sansa was hardly ever physically isolated. She spent most of the series in some of the most famous castles Westeros has to offer. Yet she was alone in a crowd, which as we are so often reminded is much worse. If only loneliness had been Sansa’s only contention. Perhaps if it had not been mixed with physical, emotional and mental torture she might have stood a stronger chance. She suffered in unimaginable ways, all as an innocent child who’d previously believed she was coming to a city of wonders. As she grew older and the Stark family dwindled, Sansa’s surname became ever more important. She went from mere hostage to a very valuable pawn, and soon found herself thrown from Tyrell to Tyrion, from Littlefinger to Ramsay, suffering worse and worse at each hand. Sansa was, at best, a valuable commodity. At worst, a plaything for psychopaths. At all times, a prisoner.
Jon Snow’s life was already defined by being set aside, so isolating did him no great harm. As a Snow, he was already more than comfortable in that life. In fact, his troubles came to the opposite. As much as he sought solace and peace he kept being dragged back to the limelight, again and again, by the anchor that is duty. Instilled by the lessons of honour of Ned Stark, Jon often threw himself into centre stage by his refusal to look the other way, but glory was never his motivator. Jon, more than anything, tried to do the right thing. And he paid for it. Again and again the choice of duty came to haunt him. He had a duty to protect the realms of men and kill the wildlings, but that was quickly scuppered by a duty to Ygritte. He had a duty to lead the Night’s Watch, but also a duty to the Wildlings stuck on the other side of the Wall. And we all know his final duty in King’s Landing. Again and again Jon suffered. He had his losses, same as the other Starks, but he also had to deal with his own power. Bran, Arya and Sansa were given few choices throughout the series. Jon had many, but their presence weighed as heavy as their absence for the other three. So much so that Jon’s choices even lead him to be killed. Likely, he would have left it there. But other duties came calling. A duty to defeat Ramsay, to defeat the Night King, and eventually…Daenerys.
All of them, once laughing children in the yard of Winterfell watched over by smiling parents, changed immeasurably. The reality of this world threatened to shred their souls or take them away completely. It doesn’t need to be mentioned the realities were so cruel that their two brothers didn’t even live long enough to make it that far. The children (who really aren’t children anymore) we saw in the closing shots of the finale are people who have been through the worst and defeated it. Bran, Sansa, Arya and Jon have all mastered and escaped the personal chains that bound them.
Let’s discuss Bran first, seeing as he didn’t get to be in the final shots. Bran, who has really travelled closer to the ends of the ‘earth’ than anyone has come flying back from outside the arena completely to now be at centre court. Valid questions rose about Bran’s use after the defeat of the Night King. It seemed as though his arc had come short, as if he has served his purpose and was now relegated to being a witness. It is not as though he was really included in any conversations. Bran himself told us not to envy him, that he mostly lived in the past.
Now flip it 180.
Bran is the most important man in Westeros. He is at the centre of all decisions, he controls a nation, he literally could not live anymore in the present. No longer is he the forgotten brother people try and ignore; he is the man all eyes are on. His childhood dreams were to be a knight. He won’t be a knight, but technically he’s skipped a whole step. Where he might once have gone redundant with no Night King to battle he can now put the skills of the three-eyed raven to ultimate use.
But that is all secondary. Bran’s tragedy was the loss of the little boy we once knew, the filtering out of his personality. His final moment on screen, a coy reply on Tyrion, is not exactly going to match Tormund on the out-going scale, but it’s a hint. A hint that now, surrounded by friends and purpose, bits and pieces of the humanity within will begin peeking out.
While Bran has hints, Sansa has been showing her turn-around for a while now. It is brazen, out there, and glorious. Sansa was ahead of the curve. Was it because she wasn’t granted mystical powers or the ways of an assassin? Was it because the torments she suffered were the worst of all? Regardless, Sansa took control in Season 6 when she ushered in revenge on Ramsay. Since then, Sansa has made the critical move into being ‘a player’. The skills she had been learning since she arrived in King’s Landing finally came into fruition, and while there was some scrabbling to find her footing and one last little finger to deal with, she got there. She became Lady of Winterfell and we were treated to an entire final season of Sansa running the castle, the kingdom, and was not turning down the chance to make sure it was known that the north was the source of her concerns. Undoubtedly, it was mesmerising.
If we needed further proof, ‘The Iron Throne’ provided. In the Great Council of the Dragonpit we are blatantly reminded of the relationships Sansa has forged. Have a think. She had the ability to get Brienne, Davos, Sam, Robin, Yohn, Gendry and Edmure there and likely on her side (Tyrion is also a fan). It would have made sense for her to be voted Queen outright but being in the north is what she cares about now. Think of when she was last in King’s Landing…she was used as a murder weapon, swept away with promises of escape, a crying mess who could trust no one. Now she’s back there and is essentially running a Great Council meeting that decides the fate of all Westeros.
Putting her feet down and demanding northern independence whilst Bran is voted King catapults Sansa to the most powerful women in Westeros. She is a Queen, a Queen who is loved and loves her people in turn. A competent Queen. A Good Queen. Sansa was always the pawn, the piece, the collateral. Now, after becoming the ultimate player, she wears a crown. She has the opportunity to continue the legacies of Robb and Jon, but more than that, she has her own legacy to forge. She is, after all, the first QUEEN IN THE NORTH!
Arya has similarities to both. Like Sansa, she began steering her own ship back in season 6. But like Bran, though she was sailing in the right direction, just how much of herself she was bringing back was a legitimate question. While her ability to very easily kill people was exciting to watch, it also had to be remembered this was a teenage girl willingly slaughtering people. In Season 7, as she made her way home, she seemed just as cold and empty. Season 8, thankfully, reversed the trend.
She sees dragons and we see wonder on her face. She sees Jon Snow and our hearts start winding up. She meets him again in the godswood and the waterworks begin. Arya’s emotion was finally on display. She was a 3-D character again. She was back. This continued with her reconnection with Gendry and the death of Beric. Even after she saved the world by killing the Night King we see her have an incredibly emotional moment with Sandor Clegane, which is the real catalyst for her escape. After Sandor imparted his wish that Arya not live a life ruled by revenge we saw Arya with her soul laid bare as she slogged through the catastrophe that was Daenerys’ burning of King’s Landing. The horrors she witnessed there had her dancing on a knife edge. Would she ignore Sandor’s final words and kill Daenerys? Or would she give herself the freedom to walk away?
In the end, she sailed. By staying true to Sandor’s wish Arya is finally free. Her list is done, her enemies defeated. There is no longer any call for revenge. She doesn’t have to become the female version of the Hound. She is Arya Stark, she is herself, and she is free.
Jon Snow, technically, is the opposite of free. In the eyes of the world at large, anyway. They sent him back up north to what is essentially the Westerosi prison. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. But to get there Jon had to perform one final duty, his heaviest yet. As we mentioned above, duty has always been Jon’s great anchor, but he has never had to wrestle with one so much as Daenerys. The idea of murdering an unarmed woman- a woman he is in love with– would have been so amazingly haunting to someone like Jon it’s beyond my description. Add to that the fact he had to break his prized honour to do it, he had to trick and lie to Daenerys in order to murder her, and you’ve got one hell of a heartache.
The pressure has always been there for Jon. He didn’t want to be Lord Commander; he didn’t want to rush into a fight with the Boltons. I’m going to guess he would have rather had someone else have to lead the fight against the Night King. He certainly did not want to be a Targaryen and the true heir to the throne. Pressure built, and built, and built, and Jon only just got out alive.
Yet he did. The final Jon we see is one returned to his beloved north, to a close friend, and far more importantly, to Ghost. There is some contention about whether Jon is leaving with the wildlings or staying at Castle Black. To me it is clear as day- when Jon watches the gate close behind him it is equivalent to a message being hammered on our heads: the gate is finally closing Jon off from the weight of the duty. From the horrors he suffered and witnessed in the Battle of the Bastards, the Battle for the Dawn and down at King’s Landing. He’s saying goodbye to a land where he had to hang boys, cut down his own soldiers, and kill the woman he loved. He is free of those horrors, his duties, the land that named him ‘bastard and ‘king’ in the same breath. Jon is free of his own bloodline. Now he can return to the place where he was happiest. He even told Tormund this is what he wanted.
He, along with Ghost, can be wild again. As if we needed any more convincing, we almost get a smile.
These are all far, far cries from what Catelyn and Ned would have wanted for their children (and nephew). The things that have happened to them would be enough to break anyone. Yet somehow these four have made it through. Not just made it through but were each instrumental in the saviour of humanity. It seems fitting that they were each granted release from their own personal long nights.
There was no better final shot to have than Arya sailing free, Sansa ruling her home, and Jon being wild. The images will stay with me for the longest of times.