Keeping Up with the Starks, Part Two
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.
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 seasons four through seven, from the fallout of the infamous Red Wedding all the way up to present day. Missed the last part? Go read it. I’ll wait. Good, now let’s move on to part two of part two:
Season four sees Sansa Stark, miserably surrounded by the people responsible for her parents’ and brother’s deaths, joining her husband (Tyrion) at the head table during Joffrey’s wedding to Margaery Tyrell. The feast is cut short at the first toast, when Joffrey chokes to death, his wine clearly having been poisoned. A grieving Cersei blames Tyrion, while Sansa is spirited away by Littlefinger, who vaguely acknowledges he had a part in the plot and hurries her onto a ship headed to the Eyrie, home of Sansa’s aunt Lysa. Lysa’s price for offering shelter is that Littlefinger marry her at once; as Lysa informs Sansa, Littlefinger was in love with Catelyn, though it was Lysa who always loved Littlefinger. Sansa experiences this drama firsthand when Littlefinger, in a disturbing instance of transference, kisses her in the throne room; Lysa sees this and fights with Littlefinger, who pushes her through a trapdoor to her death. This leaves a vulnerable Sansa in the hands of Littlefinger, who preys on her while betrothing her to her much-younger cousin Robyn as a way to cement his hold on the Vale (Lysa’s territory).
Meanwhile, Arya has been found and captured by the Hound, a former Lannister bodyguard, who may or may not have her interests at heart. The Hound (real name Sandor Clegane) has been a loyal Lannister retainer till recently, so much so that he’s on Arya’s kill list. Still, he bonded with Sansa in King’s Landing, and now he and Arya bond as well. At the beginning of the season, they stumble upon a group of runaway soldiers that had been amongst Arya’s captors at Harrenhal; one of them carries Needle, Arya’s sword. Working together, Arya and the Hound slaughter the men and reclaim Arya’s weapon. Over the ensuing episodes, the two embark on a journey in which enmity becomes tense companionship and, eventually, tentative friendship. Of course, there’s still the fact that the Hound is on Arya’s death list–a fact of which she baldly informs him–but their relationship remains one of the best-loved arcs on the show. It is put to an end when Brienne, seeking to protect the surviving Stark children per her promise to Catelyn, finds them and engages the Hound in battle. After Brienne badly wounds him, Arya refuses to kill him, but coldly leaves him for dead nonetheless. However, she turns away Brienne’s aid as well and leaves both adults behind, heading to the nearest harbor, where she uses the coin Jaqen gave her to buy her passage to Volantis. The next time we hear Arya’s kill list, the Hound’s name is no longer on it.
Bran and crew meet up with Bran’s childhood friends Jojen and Meera Reed, children of Ned’s friend and compatriot Howland Reed (still living, though yet to appear on the show). Jojen is like Bran: a “greenseer” who has visions and can sometimes control animals. Bran and Jojen realize they have been sharing dreams, and the three decide to separate from Osha and Rickon and, with beloved Stark servant Hodor carrying Bran, they journey to the Wall, then beyond it, to find another seer who has been appearing in their dreams in the form of a three-eyed raven. In the course of this journey, Bran and Jon are nearly reunited, but Bran prioritizes his mystical duties, and they skip the reunion to continue north. At the end of the season, Bran and his companions are attacked by White Walkers, but are rescued by the Children of the Forest, who take him to the cave where they have been sheltering the Three-Eyed Raven himself. Jojen dies in the attack, but Bran, Meera, and Hodor live to see another season. Not next season, but…another.
Not much of interest happens at the Wall in this season. There are more fights with wights and Wildlings, and in a climactic battle, the Wildlings are defeated and Ygritte, now fighting against Jon’s forces, is shot and killed by a new member of the Night’s Watch (Ollie, a preteen boy violently hated by fans). She dies in Jon’s arms. My mother thinks I should be more upset about this than I am.
Season five is a persistent bummer. We’ll start with Jon this time, as he actually does get quite a lot done this season. Stannis Baratheon–still quixotically insistent upon continuing to fight the War of the Five Kings–has arrived at the Wall, Melisandre at his side; they are the only army currently willing to give aid to the Night’s Watch. They arrive just in time to see Jon elected Lord Commander following the death of Jeor Mormont in last season’s battle. Jon’s election is a divisive decision, many brothers reacting violently against his insistence on allying with the remaining Wildlings against the White Walkers. Just as immune to popular opinion as his father and elder brother were, Jon joins Wildling frenemy Tormund Giantsbane in a journey North of the Wall to negotiate a treaty. Having achieved his goal, Jon leads his new Wildling allies to the crumbling Night’s Watch station Hardhome, which, to few viewers’ surprise, has already been overrun by White Walkers. A battle ensues in which many Wildlings die, and as Jon leads the survivors away, he sees the Night’s King (or Night King, White Walker head honcho) simultaneously transform all the dead into wights. While Jon is gone, Stannis is in charge at the wall, and he is desperate to regain his place in the political sphere. Melisandre suggests he sacrifice something precious to him, and together they choose to burn Stannis’ ten-year-old daughter Shireen to death. On his return, Jon orders the Night’s Watch to let the Wildlings south of the Wall, despite their concerns about the safety of the Westerosi citizens who live there (draw your own political commentary from that). Furious at the rapidity of the change, a cabal of mutinous brothers (including young Ollie) stab Jon to death. Stannis, in the meantime, rides to take Winterfell, and is defeated in battle by Bolton forces. Exhausted, he has the bad luck to run into Brienne, who kills him to avenge Renly’s death (remember season two?).
Meanwhile, Sansa is having her worst-ever season. She meets up with Brienne, but refuses her aid. Luckily, Brienne decides to follow and guard her anyway. This could not be more timely. Littlefinger decides to secure his political position by marrying Sansa off to Ramsay Bolton, who now holds Winterfell and–unbeknownst to anyone outside–Theon as a prisoner. Sansa is horrified when she meets Theon, whom she grew up with, but who is now a subservient and traumatized husk. The horror is compounded when (trigger warning for sexual assault and bad writing) Ramsay rapes Sansa on their wedding night with a silent Theon looking on. He keeps rubbing salt in the wound as he repeatedly betrays Sansa to Ramsay, but he does find time to tell her Bran and Rickon are alive, which, given her captive state, really isn’t a huge comfort. Fortunately, Sansa and Theon are able to escape Winterfell at the end of the season, and run into Brienne shortly after.
Arya reaches Volantis, where she enters the House of Black and White: the temple of the Faceless Men, a cult of death-worshiping assassins who can change their appearance using a room full of disembodied faces in an unclear magical ceremony. Yeah, it stays pretty confusing. Jaqen H’gar is there, and along with an annoyingly terse acolyte, begins to train her in the murderous arts of their order. Arya, however, does not cleave well to the self-effacing motto, “a girl has no name,” which she is being trained to embody. On assignment, Arya finds Meryn Trant, a former member of King Robert’s Kingsguard, the man who, after Ned Stark’s death, was sent to capture Arya. This is the man who fought and apparently killed Arya’s tutor, Syrio Forel; he has been on Arya’s death list since it existed. Arya is unable to resist the chance to kill Trant. As punishment and to teach obedience, the Faceless Men take away Arya’s eyesight.
Bran is not in season five at all (small mercies), so this is the point where we move on to season six. We start, as necessary background, with Ramsay Bolton. Ramsay’s father, Roose (Catelyn and Robb’s betrayer, from the Red Wedding) has just had a baby boy with his wife Walda (one of Lord Frey’s daughters). Fearing the threat to his inheritance of the Bolton lordship, Ramsay returns home to murder his father, stepmother, and baby brother, which he does with aplomb. Winterfell is now undefended.
Meanwhile, back at the Wall, Melisandre is getting ready to work her magic. Davos, Stannis’ former right-hand man, asks her to resurrect Jon, which, luckily, is exactly what she planned to do. Now back from the dead, Jon brings law and order back by…executing every single one of the conspirators who stabbed him, including a teenage Ollie. Shortly after this, he hears that Winterfell is currently undefended by the Boltons, and decides to leave the Night’s Watch to take back his childhood home. He names his longtime friend “Dolorous Edd” Tollett Lord Commander and heads back home, Stannis’ army at his back.
Brienne leads Sansa and Theon to Winterfell, where Sansa finally meets up with Jon, marking the first time any of the scattered Stark children have been reunited. The happy family times are cut short when Ramsay writes, revealing that he has Rickon (the youngest Stark brother, offscreen for several seasons) captive and will kill him unless Sansa is returned to him. Instead, Jon and Sansa (shortly joined by Littlefinger, who arrives at Winterfell with the most half-hearted apology in history) decide to stand against House Bolton. This leads up to a battle that had been long awaited by fans: the “Battle of the Bastards,” in which Jon Stark (formerly Snow) faces off against Ramsay Bolton (formerly Snow). Ramsay begins the battle by ‘freeing’ Rickon, forcing him to run across the no-man’s-land between the two armies in an attempt to reach his family before he is killed. Rickon is, obviously, killed. There follows an incredibly bloody battle that ends with heavy casualties on both sides and a victory for the Starks. At the end of the episode we see a victorious Sansa feeding the captured Ramsay to his own dogs, which he starved so that he could use them to torture and kill his own prisoners. It is a fitting end for the Joffrey of the North.
Arya is not having a great time at the House of Black and White. While her eyesight is restored after a few episodes of posing as a beggar girl, she finds that the life of an impartial assassin is not for her. She is given the assignment to kill an actress called Lady Crane, famous for playing the role of Arya’s own mother, Catelyn, in a dramatization of the Red Wedding. Arya is moved by this performance, and presumably by the actress’ resemblance to Catelyn, and decides to speak with her before going through with the assassination. Lady Crane bonds with Arya, eventually going so far as to offer her a place in the acting troupe. Arya realizes that she cannot kill Lady Crane, but, in a very typical move, also declines her help. She chooses to leave the Faceless Men, reclaim her sword Needle (which she had hidden rather than throwing it away as the Faceless had instructed her), and return home.
This season also sees the dramatic return of Bran Stark, who has spent the intervening year since his last appearance being trained as a seer by the Three-Eyed Raven, really a treebound spirit who was once one of Bran’s Stark ancestors. As Meera becomes more and more restless in a confined space with the strange and frustrating Children of the Forest, Bran sinks deeper into the dangerous practice of “warging,” that is, possessing animals so he can see through their eyes and control their actions. This comes to a head when White Walkers attack their hideout, and Bran wargs into Hodor’s mind to help him hold the door against them. Bran was, at that moment, engrossed in a vision of Hodor’s childhood, and we discover that Hodor’s speech disability–the inability to say anything but the word “hodor,” over and over–is actually due to time travel, his ten-year-old self experiencing his adult self’s death as he is instructed to “hodor”–“hold door”–in order for Bran and Meera to escape. So yeah, Bran is back, but turns out he sucks. He and Meera escape, while their companions all die, and they wander North of the Wall bearing grief and disturbing new knowledge: the Children of the Forest admitted right before the attack that, thousands of years ago, the Children created the White Walkers in order to protect themselves from invading humans. The pair runs into an enigmatic figure, a sentient wight (called “Coldhands” in the books), who turns out to be Bran’s long-lost Uncle Benjen, because of course. Between Benjen and Meera, Bran is well-protected as he dives further into the past, and at the end of the season he discovers an explosive secret: Jon is not Ned Stark’s bastard son, but rather his sister’s, Lyanna Stark’s. We still don’t know who the father was, but we do know that Ned witnessed the birth, and Lyanna’s subsequent death, with Meera’s father, Howland Reed, at his side.
So we come to season seven. Arya has arrived back in Westeros, and her first stop is at the Twins, home of the Frey clan. She kills Walder, uses his face to disguise herself as him, and then holds a feast for the whole clan, where she proposes a toast for the Frey men–forbidding the women from drinking. The wine is poisoned, and Walder’s sons and grandsons all die. She tells the surviving daughters and wives that “the North remembers” before slipping away. Journeying south, she runs into her friend Hot Pie, a baker who was captive with her and Gendry at Harrenhal in season three. Hot Pie informs Arya that Jon and Sansa are at Winterfell, which they have taken back for the Starks; Arya changes course and, finally, heads for home. On the way she briefly meets her once-pet direwolf Nymeria, who, it turns out, is now leader of an unusually large pack. The two recognize each other, and even though they go their separate ways, most fans think this foreshadows Nymeria coming to Arya’s aid in the final season. Arya arrives at Winterfell, and is finally reunited with not only Sansa, but also Bran, who arrived in the meantime. Jon is away North of the Wall, so his and Arya’s reunion must wait. As the three siblings reconnect, Bran has a vision of the Night King and sends out ravens to all the maesters in the Seven Kingdoms, asking for aid. At the Citadel, a sort of abbey for the pseudo-monastic order of the maesters, Jon’s friend Samwell Tarly is unable to convince the leaders of the order to take the raven seriously, and in frustration, he leaves with his Wildling wife Gilly and their young son, Sam Jr., to rejoin Jon. In this midst of this political turmoil, Sansa and Arya, who never got along well as children, appear to have grown even further apart. Sansa, feeling jilted by the Stark bannermen’s declaration that Jon should be King in the North, even though she is the eldest legitimate Stark, is withdrawn and playing a cold political game. Arya, on the other hand, has become the warrior she always aspired to be, but replaced the honor she once idolized with a ruthlessness forged by the difficulty of her life. The distrust comes to a head when Littlefinger plots to drive a wedge between them, but rather than falling for it, the two sisters publicly expose and execute him. Specifically, Arya kills him with his own Valyrian steel dagger, the same one that was used in an attempt on Bran’s life in season one. Sansa and Arya share a look of sweet triumph. Aww, sisterhood.
Jon, meanwhile, is now the King in the North, Jon Stark. Daenerys has now arrived in Westeros, reclaiming her ancestral home of Dragonstone, and has sent a message to Jon demanding that he acknowledge her as Queen. Curious, and desperate for allies in the war against the White Walkers, he goes to meet her. There, he reunites with Tyrion, whom he tentatively befriended in the first season, and is impressed with Daenerys, though slightly put off by her pride. Still, Daenerys takes the threat of the White Walkers seriously, and with her promise to vanquish them, alongside some astute words from Tyrion, Jon is convinced to bend the knee to Daenerys. Now allied with the Mother of Dragons against the encroaching winter, Jon takes a team North of the Wall to capture a wight, by which they hope to convince the other leaders of the Seven Kingdoms (okay, mostly Queen Cersei) of the severity of the threat. His allies, aside from his now-close friend Tormund, are mostly comprised of the Brotherhood Without Banners, a vigilante religious group led by rogue knight Beric Dondarrion and the priest Thoros of Myr, of the same religion as Melisandre, who uses the power of the Lord of Light (supposedly) to bring Beric back to life every time he is killed in battle. The Brotherhood, conveniently, now counts Arya’s old pal (and Robert Baratheon’s bastard son) Gendry, and Sandor Clegane, or the Hound, amongst its members. This star-studded crack team goes to capture their prey and, predictably, ends up in battle with the Night King’s forces. They are surrounded–and Thoros killed–by the undead, but then Daenerys, who has heard of their dangerous mission and rushed away from the aftermath of a battle to come to their aid, brings her dragons to fight the White Walkers, a long-awaited moment. The dragons cause enough destruction to allow Jon’s team to capture a wight and escape, but at a heavy cost: one of her dragons, Viserion, is killed, and the Night King reanimates him as a wight. In other words, we now have a zombie ice dragon to contend with, because this show is awesome.
Jon and Daenerys and their team take the wight to King’s Landing, where they meet with Cersei and other Westerosi worthies in a very tense summit. Upon seeing the wight, even Cersei shows some fear, and she agrees to ally with the others against a common threat, a promise which nobody present actually takes seriously, including Cersei herself. On the journey back to Dragonstone, Jon and Daenerys give into their romantic tension and get up close and personal. As they do, we learn from one of Bran’s visions of Jon’s true parentage: he is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. Rhaegar, who was accused of kidnapping Lyanna, had actually run away with her. They loved each other, and when Rhaegar’s wife and children were tragically killed in a routine war atrocity, they took the opportunity to be secretly married. Robert Baratheon killed Rhaegar in battle, and Lyanna saw which way the wind was blowing. It wouldn’t do for there to be a legitimate Targaryen heir on the map, so when Ned found her just as she was bleeding to death after giving birth, she made him promise to claim Jon as his own and never reveal his true parentage.
Rhaegar, of course, was Daenerys’ much-older brother, making her Jon’s aunt. While this is definitely a huge squick for any modern viewer, it also has implications for the succession to the throne: with an implied marriage between the only two living Targaryen heirs, no other players can make a claim as strong. But then, we find ourselves wondering if this matters at all, in the wake of the final scene of the season: the forces of the Night King breach the Wall and invade Westeros.
Claim to the Throne: Jon Stark (formerly Jon Snow) is our main contender here, given that it is revealed at the end of season seven that he is the son of Lyanna Stark and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, making him not only Daenerys’ husband, but also her nephew. Yeah, gross. In terms of the title of King in the North, any Stark could lay claim to that, but it is Sansa, as the eldest and canniest, who is most likely to take the position of either Queen in the North or Warden of the North, depending on how things play out.
Major (living) players: Jon, raised as a bastard brother to the others but now revealed to be their cousin by their father’s sister; Sansa, once a sweet courtly lady, now a ruthless politician; Bran, whose “greenseer” superpowers have made him distant and amoral, though he still loves his family; and Arya, everyone’s favorite girl assassin, now growing into a woman assassin.
Associates: The Starks are annoyingly good at making friends, but I’ll try to be brief. Theon Greyjoy, a nasty lordling brought low by torture and mutilation at Ramsay Bolton’s hands, grew up alongside the Stark children as a foster brother; Brienne of Tarth, who once served Catelyn Stark, now serves Sansa; Samwell Tarly, Jon’s gentle and well-educated friend from the Night’s Watch, is married to Gilly, who is uneducated but one of the smartest characters on the show, and they are currently travelling with their infant son to Winterfell; The Hound, through his show-long redemption arc, has bonded with Sansa, Arya, and now Jon; Davos Seaworth and Melisandre, Stannis Baratheon’s former retainers, hate each other but both loyally serve Jon; and Meera Reed, daughter of Ned Stark’s old friend Howland Reed, has a fraught and potentially romantic friendship with Bran.
Burning questions: More than I can list. What will Jon and Daenerys do when they discover they’re related? Will Jon end up on the throne, either as King or as Daenerys’ consort? Will Arya finish her death list, and particularly, will she achieve her goal of killing Cersei? What part will Bran’s mystical powers play in how the show ends? And will Sansa ever get to be the Queen she’s always aspired to be? (Fans also wonder if, now that Sansa is an adult, her sham marriage with Tyrion could be rekindled into a partnership of equals).
Stay tuned for the final part of our game of catch-up, a brief and exciting history of the Targaryens, before season eight premieres!