In July of 2004, my husband and I were newlyweds. We took a road trip to Toronto for our honeymoon with a couple thousand dollars, a suitcase full of clothes, and a tote bag full of books to read. One of those books was A GAME OF THRONES by George RR Martin, an author that neither my husband nor I knew much about, but the premise sounded interesting. We’ve always been suckers for epic fantasy, and neither of us doubted that this would be a decent distraction in the evenings, in our hotel rooms.
Needless to say, we had no idea what we were getting into. At that point in time, Martin had published the first three books of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, and we devoured them, spending hours discussing our own theories and debating the finer points of each of the characters. There is something mesmerizing about the world that Martin created. That much is obvious from the way the books and later, the HBO series, have become such a phenomenon.
When HBO announced the series, when the cast was announced and the first stills were released, when the initial trailer began to air, I was giddy. I shared my enthusiasm with everyone I know, and like so many of the stories I had loved before, I was often pooh poohed. No serious person watches a show that takes place in a made-up world with knights and magic and ice zombies. My husband and I laughed. They had no idea what they were in for.
Like a wave of pop culture references and men wearing ‘sexy dirt,’ Game of Thrones rolled over the unsuspecting world. Suddenly, the masses understood the anguish that had been ours when Ned, noble fool that he was, told Cersei the truth. When The Rains of Castamere rang out during the Red Wedding, hundreds of thousands held their collective breath, while those of us who had read the books readied the tissues, alcohol, and grief-abating ice cream.
We watched a world fall in love with something that we loved, we basked in the shared history of this imperfect world, and we sat down, every Sunday night, to spend an hour in Westeros. Slowly, even the doubters came to believe, and we watched as the Stark children grew up before our eyes, ready to save their world, just as we’re asking our children to save ours.
Life in Westeros isn’t for the faint of heart, and when I pull myself back from the story, to examine the edges of the story the show has given us, I am drawn most of all to the story of the mothers who have born children into that brutal world. From Lyanna Stark to Lyssa Arryn, Game of Thrones is jam-packed with women who will do literally anything for their children, even if doing so often drives them beyond their capacity to recover.
Let’s start with the Starks, because… well, everything always does, doesn’t it? You can’t discuss the union between Ned and Catelyn without acknowledging that their entire marriage was bent around a lie. And while Noble Ned did what he did to protect Jon, and the secret his sister had died to protect, in doing so, he damned Jon to a life without a mother’s love. Cat could have been a stand-in for Lyanna, and I believe that had she known the truth, she would have without hesitation. Instead, Ned believed that the woman he loved, the mother of his children, couldn’t possibly bear the weight of that secret, and his doubt cast Jon as an outsider in his own home.
Later, we would watch Cat flee to King’s Landing to protect Ned and tell him the truth about what had happened to Bran. We would watch her arrest Tyrion and take him to the Vale for trial. We would watch her march to war with Robb, release Jaime, set Brienne on her path to protect Arya and Sansa. Catelyn Stark was never a delicate flower, and Noble Ned made her feel like less than she was, because he refused to trust her.
Daenerys Stormborn was sold to a barbarian when she was thirteen years old, violated by her own brother, raped by her husband, and betrayed by nearly everyone she ever trusted. When she tried to save Khal Drogo, the Dothraki turned against her. When she miscarried his child, she lost her place in their world. But even in her grief, she found surrogate children that gave her purpose and kept her moving forward.
Dany’s story isn’t perfect – there’s too much White Savior in her tale, too much Stockholm Syndrome, and of course, after last week, a quick fall into genocidal madness. But what rings true about Daenerys’s story is this – she loved her dragons and the people she had freed from tyranny like her own children, and when the world takes them from her, the world will pay.
Cersei Lannister may be the greatest television mother to ever grace our screens. By turns kind and generous, then drunk with power, Cersei would do literally anything for her children – even the sociopathic one. As the show progresses, we’ve watched her change from the demurring wife of a bloated, drunken King Robert to the sharp, unbending woman who has survived shame, violence, and unimaginable grief to take anything and everything that she wants. By the time The Bells rang, last week, Cersei had nothing left to lose. She’d lost all of her children (unless you believe that she was pregnant, which I’m not 100% sure of), Jaime had abandoned her, and there was no way she was going to hold onto power once Dany came knocking at the gates.
When she killed Missandei, effectively firing the first shot in the war, she was acknowledging her loss of power. But Cersei wasn’t going out quietly, and she wasn’t going out alone. She would bring about the end of the people who had pelted her with rotten fruit and called her a whore. She would bring down the Red Keep, that had held her prisoner in a man’s world while she raised its future rulers. She would take out everyone that had doubted her along the way.
Could the show have done this differently, allowing these women the agency that they deserved after years of suffering under men’s thumbs. Damn right it could have. But do I choose to remember each of these women going down swinging… every single one.
When I watch these women face murder and unnatural terrors, White Walkers and dragons, Boltons and Freys, I realize that there isn’t that much that separates Westeros from our world. Motherhood translates to every empire, in every genre. It is a universal language. You don’t have to like the characters, their motivations, or their actions to understand them. And while I’m not saying that we should climb on our dragons and head to D.C., I think I know what Cersei would do.
Raising kids in Westeros is bloody business. Raising kids in America isn’t much better, these days. From Gilly to Olenna Tyrrell, from Tammy Duckworth to Elizabeth Warren… maybe it’s time that women burn it down.
And for the record, I’d vote for Sansa any day.