Game of Thrones Recap: The Kids Are All Right
In the very first episode of Game of Thrones in 2011, the very first scene at Winterfell was about the children: Septa Mordane praising Sansa for her elegant embroidery; Bran trying and failing to land an arrow in a target while his brothers laughed; Arya showing him up from twice the distance, hitting the bullseye with a cocky smile. When news arrived that a deserter had been captured—running from the White Walkers, who were only a myth then—Ned brought Bran along for the execution. He wanted him to see.
Now that the three living children of Ned and Catelyn Stark have finally returned home, the contrasts are inevitable—they are different people now. But for all their otherworldly visions and mass assassinations, if you draw lines from the children they were to the people they have become, you'll find them parallel and true: They have become more of themselves, not less.
Bran was a climber, hanging from the parapets of Winterfell by his fingertips, running along the ridges of its roofs. Was it the climbing he loved, or was it how the world looked from so far above? How small everyone looked from a distance, how far he could see? Now he sees so many things: past and future, here and everywhere. It makes the person he used to be feel so much smaller: “I remember what it felt like to be Brandon Stark, but I remember so much else now,” he tells Meera.
As the Iron Banker tells Cersei elsewhere in the episode, it is simply a matter of arithmetic. If 100 percent of the young man's mind was occupied by Brandon Stark before and, say, only 30 percent of it is now, who is he? Like a living ship of Theseus, his psychological real estate has been replaced bit by bit with so much other knowledge that what remains is not so much a person as an organ: an eye. Or, rather, three of them. Eyes open, standing on the roof of the world, taking it all in. Arya once danced around the precipice of being No One before turning back. Bran jumped off; he was never afraid of falling.
If Bran sacrificed his personhood for his destiny, then the two Stark daughters did the opposite. They used to be two little girls who were treated largely as a joke: Sansa, the romantic, dreaming of a future where she would be Joffrey’s queen and have his babies and Arya, sparring with a stick at enemies made of shadows. Even the sword-fighting lessons were the gift of an indulgent father to his tomboy daughter, a bit of play before she was finally old enough to put childish things away. But chaos is a ladder, and the Stark women have climbed. Now Sansa is the Lady of Winterfell, shimmering with iron in every step, and Arya is one of the greatest assassins the Seven Kingdoms has ever known, dancing in the water of life and death.
Ned Stark once imagined that both of his daughters would marry lords and rule their castles, would bear sons who became knights and princes. Being the subordinate, connective human tissue between one generation of great men and another was the most they could hope for—it was what would make them happy. He was wrong on all counts. Sansa’s marriages have given her none of the things she dreamed about: neither power, children, nor happiness. She has become the lady of a great house not by becoming the helpmate of a great lord, but by becoming a great woman. She has become what all of the great men in her life could never be, with all their brittle, masculine armor—someone as calculating as she is honorable, someone as pragmatic as she is wise.
Arya learned to be what all of the men in her life were, but better. Where they could not find a way to extinguish the enemies that would later take their heads, she was more morally flexible, more supple. She danced and they died. How do you turn power against itself? She found the spaces in between, the places where they were too proud to look for their enemies, holding cockles and poison and knives, and stepped inside holding death.
When Arya and Sansa meet each other again in the crypt, the way Ned and Robert met each other after so long, they see each other first as they were: as the children who threw food at each other, who teased each other, who were playing a kind of game. Arya raises an eyebrow just for a moment when Sansa says she rules Winterfell; Sansa laughs when Arya says she has come to kill their enemies. They are as wrong as their father was, as their entire world was, though it takes them a moment to realize it.
After, Arya walks into the courtyard of Winterfell. Where she spent a childhood dreaming about holding a sword, she finally gets to hold one against another great warrior of the Seven Kingdoms: Brienne of Tarth. A noblewoman who, like Arya, grew up knowing that she deserved a sword and not an embroidery needle, not because there was anything wrong with choosing either tool, but because one of them simply was not her. It takes them a second to know each other in that most intimate of dances, but when they do they smile.
Daenerys does not wield a sword. She wields a dragon, a nuclear weapon with wings. There is no dance when it arrives at the Lannister caravan from Highgarden—just death: hundreds of men transformed instantly from flesh into ash, fluttering away in the wind. Men laughed at her once too, when she was a beggar queen being bought and sold like a horse; they laughed at Cersei as they forced her to walk through the streets naked. Most of those men are dead now, consumed by one kind of fire or another.
As much as this episode brings us full circle finally, it also reveals exactly how much has changed and how the institutions and identities of the past have started to flake away. When Arya says they should have found someone who knew Ned’s face to sculpt his funereal statue, Sansa replies that everyone who knew his face is dead. An entire generation of lords, of power, wiped from the board of the great game. Bran tells Meera that he isn’t really Bran, not anymore, just as Brienne tells Pod for the thousandth time that she isn’t a Lady—those old words have never worked for her. When Jaime jokes about confessing his sins to the High Septon, Bronn reminds him that there is no more High Septon, that a vast cultural institution is now little more than a hole in the ground.
If the Stark children have become who they were always meant to be, Westeros is becoming something that none of its former patriarchs could have foreseen: a land where almost all of the power has fallen into the hands of the women they once mocked and condescended and feared, one that they may need to rebuild entirely once the waves of fire and ice have finally passed over it. It’s a question that remains little more than an intellectual exercise, even to us: what would the world look like if its institutions and laws and tools were built as much by women as they are by men? And given how poorly the world is currently being run by the oversized masculine egos who prefer self-aggrandizement over serving their people, why are we still so afraid to find out?
Game of Thrones: Dragon Effects Exclusive
Daenerys Targaryen's dragons on HBO's Games of Thrones are fan favorites, and WIRED has an incredible, exclusive look at how they were brought to life with feature film quality by the visual effects artists at Pixmondo. Virtual wind tunnels, water simulations and real world references all played a part in constructing their realistic behaviors.