Keeping Up With the Starks, Part One
Excited for season 8 of Game of Thrones? Of course you are. You, like the rest of us, have been waiting a thousand years to see how the epic series is going to shake out in its final season. But do you remember all the intricate plot details that might come into play? Of course you don’t. Don’t pretend. No one is that good.
Even this author, resident Game of Thrones expert, had to do a significant amount of research to prep. And I noticed something: when the show’s intense plot is broken down chronologically, episode by episode, it’s still pretty hard to track. So I’ve prepared a three-part summary of the plot of Game of Thrones so far, each part focusing not on a set of seasons, but instead a set of major characters. Want to know the entire plot of season 5? No, you don’t. Want to know Sansa Stark’s entire character arc? Of course you do! And I’ve got you covered.
The first segment of this series focused on the Lannisters. This second part follows the plots that revolve around the major players of House Stark: Sansa, Arya, Bran, and erstwhile bastard Jon Snow, now officially Jon Stark. Don’t need or want a detailed summary? Scroll to the end of the article for tl;dr (too long; did not read) version, key players, and burning questions. Because the Stark plot is so complicated, I’ve broken their journey into two chunks; this one covers the time leading up to the infamous Red Wedding, and part two of part two is soon to follow. Here’s part two, part one:
House Stark is, for many viewers, the heart of the show. The world of Game of Thrones recalls the dark ages of Europe in its brutality, and the Starks are its honorable knights-errant, standing for the truth and justice of the Old Gods. At least, in the first season they are. But Starks lead with their hearts, and that has been their downfall.
Before we get into that, some history: the Starks are northmen, fief lords of the region of Westeros that has its northernmost border at the Wall. The Wall protects Westeros from Wildlings, the savage nomadic tribes of the frozen north; it’s kind of like Hadrian’s Wall, except that it is entirely made of ice, because Game of Thrones is really just the War of the Roses as interpreted by a symphonic metal band. Beyond the Wall live not only Wildlings, but also giants, mammoths, ancient mystical beings called the Children of the Forest, and–crucially–unstoppable necromantic ice demons called White Walkers.
So: suffice it to say, the Starks’ geographic position as the last holdout of ‘civilization’ (such as it is) in the face of the wilderness has made them unique among the lords of the Seven Kingdoms. The Stark holdings, generally just referred to as “The North,” were once one of the “seven kingdoms,” really independent city-states, conquered and united by Aegon Targaryen (about 300 years before the events of the show). When Aegon and his dragon-led army marched on the North, they had already massacred two great Houses that had refused to surrender. Deciding not to risk the annihilation of his people, then-King in the North Torrhen Stark swore fealty to Aegon in order to protect them and to cement the Starks as Wardens of the North.
That, more or less, is where things stand at the beginning of the show: the Starks, Wardens of the North, follow the rulers of the Seven Kingdoms more or less by mutual consent, proud because, with their essential position on the border, they are necessary to its safety, and for the same reason feared as a threat to the unity of Westeros.
Fifteen years before the start of the show, the “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen sat on the Iron Throne. His eldest son and heir, Rhaegar, was everything his father was not: handsome, wise, fit to rule. So it was a brutal shock when Rhaegar apparently kidnapped Lady Lyanna Stark, daughter of Rickard Stark, then-Warden of the North. Don’t worry, I promise there’s a point to this. To protest the kidnapping and attempt to ransom his daughter back, Rickard, accompanied by his eldest son Brandon, went to the Red Keep to reason with Aerys. But Aerys was too far gone; in his unhinged cruelty, he ordered that both Rickard and Brandon be burned alive on the spot, in the throne room. (A young Jaime Lannister witnessed the event, and this influenced his later decision to assassinate Aerys). Furious, the eldest remaining Stark son–Lord Eddard (Ned), now suddenly Warden of the North–joined his friend and foster-brother, Robert Baratheon, in his campaign to overthrow the Targaryens. For Robert as well, the motivation was intensely personal: Lyanna, aside from being Ned’s little sister, was Robert’s fiance, and the love of his life.
Robert and Ned quickly won the day, assisted by House Lannister’s betrayal of the King they had till recently served. Robert was crowned King, but he never achieved his goal: though Rhaegar was eventually caught and killed, Lyanna died with him. Robert married Cersei Lannister in a political alliance that pleased neither of them, and Eddard returned home to his wife Catelyn and their son Robb, bearing a new burden: an infant called Jon Snow, whom he claimed as his bastard son. Catelyn was horrified by Ned’s adultery, and treated the child coldly; still, his older brother Robb, as well as his soon-to-come younger siblings Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon, loved Jon as one of their own. So it is that Robert comes upon a relatively affectionate domestic scene when he returns to the Stark castle, Winterfell, at the beginning of season one.
At the beginning of the show, a teenage Robb is in training as Ned’s heir while his younger (legitimate) siblings pursue their educations and Jon Snow prepares to journey north to join the Night’s Watch, the monastic warrior order that defends and maintains the Wall. Jon is sad to leave his family, but being an adventurous boy, excited to join the noble brotherhood he has been raised to admire. He is closest of all to Arya, for whom he commissions a little sword as a parting gift. Arya names the sword Needle, an ironic reference to her elder sister’s fondness for embroidery. This is not the only parting gift from Jon; he and Robb, journeying back from a bannerman’s manor with their father a few days before, found a dead mother direwolf surrounded by six living pups. The direwolf, a mythical creature that is, in essence, just a really big wolf, is the symbol of House Stark, and there are four male pups and two female. This looks like fate to Jon and Robb, who beg their father to let them take the pups home to distribute amongst their siblings. The Stark children form instant, almost psychic bonds with their new pets, who quickly begin to match their masters in personality.
Whilst his children are enjoying their new bonds, Ned comes home to shocking news: Jon Arryn, who was his and Robert’s foster-father, Robert’s top advisor, and Catelyn’s brother-in-law, is dead. Robert has come to Winterfell to share his grief with Ned and to ask Ned to replace Arryn as Hand of the King. Robert and Ned have grown apart over the years, and Ned hates the capital city with a passion, but for reasons both personal and political, he cannot refuse Robert. Bran, Sansa, and Arya are set to journey south with their father, but something goes wrong: Bran, who has a rebellious habit of climbing the towers of Winterfell, stumbles upon Queen Cersei and her twin brother Jaime having sex in a remote tower, and Jaime pushes Bran out the window, intending to kill him. But Bran is left in a coma, and three grieving Starks join two on-edge Lannisters on a tense journey back to King’s Landing. Things are made worse when Sansa wanders off with her fiance, Prince Joffrey, and they stumble upon Arya practicing swordplay with a servant boy. Joffrey threatens the servant boy, and Arya threatens Joffrey, and Arya’s direwolf Nymeria humiliates Joffrey in an attempt to protect her mistress. Furious, Joffrey retaliates by blaming Sansa’s gentle and well-mannered direwolf, Lady, who is sentenced to death. In order to make the death as painless as possible, Ned performs the wolf’s beheading himself.
Yeah, Ned Stark is exhausting.
But pay attention: fearing for Nymeria’s life, Arya banishes the wolf from her presence, and she escapes into the woods. Like Arya’s sword, which you’ll recall is called Needle, this detail is important. Also important: meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister joins Jon Snow on his journey to the Wall, and Tyrion’s well-read cynicism prepares young Jon for the bleak reality that the Night’s Watch, once a noble brotherhood, is now essentially an underfunded chain gang, stocked with condemned criminals who chose the Wall over death. Lord Commander Jeor Mormont is one of the few people there more or less by choice, though he is disgraced due to the shameful banishment of his son, Jorah, who was caught trading slaves. He and Jon, both noble and idealistic and unwanted, form an instant bond, as do Jon and Samwell Tarly, the younger son of Lord Randyll Tarly, a southern Lord who has time only for war, not gentle and bookish souls like Sam. Taking pity on good-hearted Sam, Jon begins teaching him to fight so that the two will be able to take their vows together.
Back at Winterfell, when Bran awakes from his coma, he finds his mother already gone; she has stopped an attempt on Bran’s life at his bedside, and after Bran’s direwolf, Summer, killed the assassin, Catelyn decided to ride to King’s Landing with the distinctive dagger he had attempted to use. (The dagger is made of Valyrian steel, making it a rare and ancient artifact almost certainly owned by a noble family). Tyrion Lannister, returning from the Wall, finds a bitter and lonely Bran neglected by his overwhelmed brother and offers the boy some words of encouragement, along with a blueprint for a special saddle that will allow Bran to ride a horse again.
Bran won’t be interesting again for a few seasons, so I felt these things were important to establish.
Let’s speed up: back in King’s Landing, Catelyn finds her childhood friend Lord Petyr Baelish (called “Littlefinger,” due to his short stature and the insignificant size of his domain, the Fingers) and, knowing he has his, er, finger on the pulse of the capital from his position as the King’s Master of Coin, asks him to identify the dagger. Littlefinger claims that the dagger belongs to Tyrion Lannister, and a furious Catelyn, after visiting her husband, returns to Winterfell. On the road, she meets Tyrion and captures him, taking him to her sister’s nearby castle to stand trial. Lysa Arryn, Catelyn’s sister and Jon Arryn’s widow, has gone insane; isolated in the Arryns’ mountain keep, the Eyrie, she clings to her son Robyn, whom she still breastfeeds despite his being around Arya’s age. Still, creepy and cagey though she is, Lysa loves her sister, and is more than happy to imprison and eventually try Tyrion for her nephew’s sake. She says.
Tyrion is by no means sure of a fair trial in such a situation, despite being innocent, and so he decides to demand a trial by combat, naming a mercenary he recently befriended as his champion. Catelyn’s champion is killed in the ensuing dirty fight, and Tyrion walks free, leaving a frustrated Catelyn to return to Winterfell, where things do not improve for her.
Back in King’s Landing, things are getting weird for Ned. His daughters are thriving; Sansa’s courtly dreams seem to be coming true as she is taken under beautiful and elegant Queen Cersei’s manipulative wing, and Arya is delighted with Syrio Forel, the swordsmanship tutor Ned has hired for her. But Ned himself is caught in a tangled web, discreetly investigating the possibility that Jon Arryn’s death was a murder, and in the meantime discovering the horrifying secret behind it. To no viewer’s surprise, Prince Joffrey and his younger siblings Myrcella and Tommen are not actually King Robert’s children, but rather Cersei and Jaime’s. Jon Arryn realized this, and it becomes obvious to Ned that the Lannisters had his foster father poisoned (it is eventually revealed that Lysa, who carries a torch for Littlefinger, poisoned her husband at Littlefinger’s suggestion, but Ned never learns this). Ned, who, as I mentioned, is exhausting, makes the worst decision in the entire series when he decides to tell Cersei that he knows her secret, urging her to flee before he outs her and Jaime, presumably believing he is saving her life. At the same time, King Robert discovers Daenerys Targaryen lives and is pregnant, and orders her assassinated to deter the threat to his throne. Ned is disgusted and decides to leave King’s Landing, but Jaime intercepts him in a worrying show of force. Shortly after, Robert is mauled in a hunting accident (helped along by the drugged wine Cersei fed him via her spineless cousin Lancel, Robert’s squire). Before his death Robert names Ned regent until Joffrey comes of age, but the Lannisters declare this a lie, having Ned arrested for a supposed plot to usurp the throne. Despite this being patently ridiculous, Ned is coerced into publicly confessing to protect Sansa and Arya. King Joffrey, however, withdraws the mercy he had promised to Ned, and has his headsman, Ser Ilyn Payne, execute Ned on the spot.
Sansa is on the stage at the time, in her spot at Joffrey’s side, and Arya is hidden in the crowd. So it is that both sisters witness their father’s murder, but while Sansa is trapped, Arya is able to escape the capital after her tutor Syrio fights and apparently dies to protect her. Arya dresses as a boy and joins a fellow named Gendry, who happens to be Robert Baratheon’s bastard son, on a journey north, ostensibly to join the Night’s Watch. Meanwhile, a furious Robb, not yet knowing of his father’s death but aware of his imprisonment, gathers his bannermen to march on King’s Landing. Walder Frey, an extremely gross, elderly lord with about fifty daughters and no decorating taste, owns a crucial piece of land Robb needs to cross, and he agrees to let the army cross it, but only once Catelyn and Robb promise that Robb will marry one of Walder’s daughters on their return.
Back at the Wall, Jon’s uncle Benjen—an important ranger in the Night’s Watch—has disappeared, and the party that goes Beyond the Wall to find him brings back nothing but the frozen corpses of a few other rangers. These rangers reanimate and attack Lord Commander Mormont, and only Sam’s arcane knowledge combined with Jon’s quick thinking saves him. Jon becomes Lord Commander Mormont’s steward, and Mormont gives Jon his family heirloom sword, Longclaw. This iconic sword—the one with the wolf’s head on the pommel—is an ancient Valyrian steel artifact that would have been passed down to Mormont’s son (remember the banished Jorah?) had he not been disgraced.
Take a breath. Now we can finally move onto season two. Robb’s bannermen crown him King in the North, implicitly turning his military action into an all-out civil war. Balon Greyjoy, lord of the untrustworthy Iron Islands and father of Robb’s foster-brother Theon, refuses to join Robb, declaring himself (as countless lords of the Iron Islands have over the centuries, to little effect) a King in his own right. Robert Baratheon’s elder brother Stannis and his younger brother Renly are also making separate claims to the throne. Stannis is an ascetic warrior who has recently converted to the worship of the Lord of Light and trusts the priestess Melisandre above all his other advisors; Renly, married to southern heiress Margaery Tyrell and in love with her brother Loras, is good-natured, spoiled, and mostly harmless. The two brothers just can’t find the common ground they would need to work together. So it is that Robb Stark, Balon Greyjoy, and Stannis, Renly, and Joffrey Baratheon all claim monarchical rights in what comes to be known as the War of the Five Kings.
Arya and Gendry find themselves imprisoned by Lannister men at the half-ruined castle Harrenhal, alongside Jaqen H’gar, whose life Arya saved on the journey. Jaqen is an assassin, and he offers to kill three people for Arya in exchange for her deed. Arya uses the deaths to allow herself and her friends a chance to escape, and before they part, Jaqen offers Arya a coin that will grant her passage on any ship to the Free City of Volantis, where the headquarters of his assassins’ religious order, the Faceless Men, will offer her training.
Robb and his men engage in a few battles, eventually capturing Jaime Lannister. Catelyn goes to Renly’s camp to negotiate an alliance, and is in his tent, along with Renly’s faithful knight Brienne of Tarth, when a shadow monster created by Stannis and Melisandre attacks and kills Renly. Catelyn returns to Robb’s camp, and a devastated Brienne goes with her. When Catelyn discovers that Jaime is their prisoner, she breaks him out (against Robb’s wishes) and sends Brienne to King’s Landing to exchange him for Sansa (and Arya, whom she believes is also Cersei’s prisoner). Since Catelyn disobeys direct orders by doing this, Robb feels he has no choice but to imprison Catelyn, because Starks are exhausting. Imprisoning his mother leaves the teenage Robb without desperately needed parental guidance, and he makes poor decisions. On the battlefield he meets a nurse, Talisa, with whom he falls in love. Then he marries her. Not a great strategist, is Robb Stark.
Back at Winterfell, Bran and Rickon are largely undefended. This turns out to be a problem when Theon Greyjoy gets it into his head to prove his worth to his father. See, Theon was a foster-brother to the Stark children, but to Ned and Catelyn, he was a prisoner of war, a “ward” that the Starks took from Balon Greyjoy to induce good behavior. The awkwardness of Theon’s position is made very clear when he returns to the Iron Islands and finds himself embarrassingly unaware of the culture of his homeland. Balon is disgusted with him, and, ashamed, Theon turns his rage on the Starks and takes a small army to Winterfell, taking the castle and killing several of the adults who helped raise him. Bran and Rickon escape, but Theon kills and burns two other boys and claims they are the youngest Stark children, thus losing any allies he may have had. The other Greyjoys are unimpressed at Theon’s taking a landlocked castle like Winterfell–not a great strategy for a culture whose strength is in its navy–and his decision to “kill” Bran and Rickon. This starts Theon down a path of dire misfortune, but honestly, it’s hard to sympathize with him given his behavior thus far.
Beyond the Wall, Jon Snow has joined a ranging party and captured a Wildling named Ygritte. Qorin Halfhand, the leader of the expedition, instructs Jon to kill Ygritte, but he can’t, because she’s hot. Instead he tries to bring her back to the Wall as a captive. The end of the season shows us the largest group of White Walkers we’ve seen yet–the looming threat that, this early in the show, it’s honestly pretty easy to forget about. But that would be unwise.
Season three is a bad time to be a Stark. Bran and Rickon are on the run with their Wildling guardian, Osha, while Arya journeys back toward Winterfell, unaware of Theon’s takeover. Sansa escapes the fate of being married to Joffrey, but she’s still trapped. She’s forced to marry Tyrion Lannister, and while both characters are fan favorites, they are utterly unsuited and the wedding is designed to humiliate both of them, which it does. Tyrion does not take advantage of Sansa, but with her husband’s mistress Shae and her ex’s fiance (Margaery Tyrell, now engaged to Joffrey) as her only confidants, it’s not an easy life.
Treacherous Stark bannerman Roose Bolton sends his bastard son, Ramsay Snow, to take Winterfell from Theon, which Ramsay does easily. Ramsay is an unhinged sadist, and after taking Theon prisoner he embarks on a long and boring program of torture that leaves Theon flayed, mutilated, and so broken that he is utterly subservient to Ramsay. I think our pity for Theon is supposed to make him likable here, but it never does.
Really, though, this season is the Jon and Robb show. Jon continues his journey with Ygritte beyond the Wall, and the two fall in love. Jon forsakes his vow to the Night’s Watch and joins the Wildlings, gaining the respect of their King, Mance Rayder, who himself is a former Brother of the Night’s Watch. Eventually, though, Jon’s divided loyalties come back to bite him, and after a Wildling attempt on his life (he is rescued by Bran, whose growing psychic powers allowed him to momentarily control Jon’s direwolf), Jon escapes, leaving Ygritte behind. A furious Ygritte shoots Jon with an arrow, and he survives, though heartbroken. Whatever, let’s get to the good stuff.
With Renly dead, Stannis just having suffered defeat in a battle with the Lannister forces, and Balon Greyjoy on the outs, Robb has become King Joffrey’s most threatening challenger. He’s doing well in battle, winning more than he loses, but his heart becomes his downfall. Walder Frey has learned of Robb’s marriage to Talisa, and is understandably angry that Robb has broken his promise to marry one of the Frey women (remember that this is a medieval world, where marrying for love is highly frowned upon, especially for someone with as much power as Robb). Robb sends his sincerest regrets to Walder and offers an alternative: his Uncle Edmure Tully, Catelyn’s milquetoast of a younger brother, will wed one of Frey’s daughters in his stead. Walder agrees, and the whole army journeys to the Twins for the wedding.
This, of course, becomes the famous ‘Red Wedding;’ having been denied his chance to be the father of a queen, Walder has decided to side with the Lannisters, and along with his fellow traitor Roose Bolton, turns the wedding into a trap. At the feast, Edmure is captured and a pregnant Talisa is stabbed in the stomach. “The Lannisters send their regards,” Bolton famously says as he kills Robb, and Catelyn’s throat is slit only after she has witnessed her son’s and daughter-in-law’s deaths. Crushingly, even Robb’s direwolf Grey Wind gets the axe, and Arya, who has just caught up with Robb’s army and planned to be reunited that very night, arrives at the Twins in time to see the aftermath of the carnage.
With their parents and eldest brother dead, the Stark children are scattered to the winds. This is the turning point in their stories, and so here ends part one of this catch-up. Stay tuned for part two, wherein we’ll discover the fates of the Starks in the lead-up to the final season of Game of Thrones.
Tl;dr: The Starks are an honorable and proud family, and that gets most of them killed. At the end of season three, the remaining Stark children are scattered and angry.
Key Players: With parents Ned and Catelyn and elder brother Robb dead, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon, and bastard son Jon Snow are all still in the running at this point.
I’ll save the burning questions for part two. Stay tuned!