It's time to reconsider Ned Stark's legacy on Game of Thrones

It's time to reconsider Ned Stark's legacy on Game of Thrones

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by Anna Nordberg

It’s been seven seasons since Ned Stark lost his head, but as Game of Thrones draws to an end, his legacy still looms large. For years, Ned has been a cautionary tale: Holding to your principles is a noble aim, but expect others to follow your lead, and you stand a good chance of winding up dead. The show’s most successful operators—Cersei and Tywin Lannister, Lady Olenna Tyrell, Littlefinger, Roose Bolton—were amoral and calculating, acting always out of self-interest for themselves or their families.

But those characters are dead now too. The strongest of the great houses, after a brutal culling this season, is House Stark. The Baratheons have no one but Gendry, Robert’s bastard. The Tyrells are gone, the Martells of Dorne have been decimated, and the Greyjoys and Lannisters are down to one heir apiece. Daenerys Targaryen remains closest to the Iron Throne, but she’s isolated and apparently unstable, vulnerable despite her military might. This is a surprising turn of events, especially after the bait-and-switch of the show’s early seasons, which set the Starks up as the protagonists and then ruthlessly cut them down.

For years, the show suggested that Ned’s brand of idealism came at a terrible cost, and much of the narrative of “The Bells” reinforces that. Daenerys incinerates the rooms where, years ago, Ned argued with Robert and the Small Council not to assassinate her. If you follow an ends-justify-the-means philosophy to the point of killing teenagers who have done nothing to you, that’s a problem. But as Daenerys turns innocent children into ash, you can see Robert’s point too.

The episode also shows Jon rebuffing his legitimate claim to the throne twice, doggedly insisting that Daenerys is his queen. Throughout, he sounds like his surrogate father, Ned, who refused to back Renly Baratheon for the throne after Robert’s death because Stannis, Renly’s older brother, was the rightful heir. The circumstances are reversed, but the principle is the same. Ned can’t dishonor himself by going against Stannis’ claim, even though part of him knows Renly is the more practical contender. Jon won’t pursue his birthright because he’s given his word to Daenerys, even though his true parentage gives him the stronger claim.

And yet, despite Ned’s disastrous turn as Hand of the King, we’ve seen his worldview play out, in subtler ways, to more advantageous results. As Warden of the North and leader of Robert’s armies, Ned excelled, more beloved to Robert than his own brothers. Before he was beheaded, the Northmen risked being branded as traitors to march to his rescue. And over eight seasons, as the realm has moved from “backstabbing and scheming,” as Robert put it in Season 1, to the kind of epic conflict that defined Robert’s Rebellion, the Starks have fared better. Robb, until his fall, was tremendously effective as a commander, adored by his men. Jon is the one who is able to unite Wildlings, Northmen, and Daenerys’ forces to face the Night King. In battle, you have to hold together, to trust your fellow man or woman to stand by you, and in those kinds of life-or-death moments, people want leaders like the Starks. When you add to that the fact that pure schemers like Littlefinger haven’t survived, you could argue that the Iron Throne needs a leader with a grasp on both principle and strategy, one who trusts wisely, not blindly.

To understand how Ned’s legacy has defined his children, it’s essential to look at him and Catelyn as parents. They brought these kids up, and whatever you might say about their mistakes, how they raised their children was not one of them. The Starks, including Jon and even Theon, who was fostered at Winterfell, are resilient—just look at what Sansa and Arya have overcome, or Theon, who has the only truly redemptive arc on the entire show. They have the armor of a happy childhood.

Then look at Dany. No one on the show has more tenacity and grit than she does. But her childhood as an orphan was indescribably painful; she spent it on the run with a psychotic brother and before being sold off to Khal Drogo, all while being fed the mythology of her Targaryen legacy. As she continues to rise, she frames herself as a messianic conqueror, the breaker of chains who will free the world from tyrants. And then, she ends up doing exactly what her father planned to do before Jaime killed him—she burns King’s Landing to the ground. Many fans are outraged at what they see as her character assassination this season, and to be sure, the storytelling has often felt rushed and sloppy. But given Dany’s childhood and the poisonous idea of dynastic fate, I think it’s heroic that she managed to keep it together as long as she did.

We didn’t question a lot of her most brutal actions—burning Mirri Maz Duur to death, entombing the King of Qarth and her handmaiden Doreah alive, crucifying the slave masters of Meereen—because they felt justified. But there was a pattern there, and the pattern was: Pose a threat or question her authority, and you will be crushed. Daenerys often speaks in those terms: crushing, breaking, tearing down. While she’s powerful, Daenerys doesn’t have true resilience, the kind that’s built on—as alien as these concepts sound to Game of Thrones—love and security.

It struck some viewers as unbelievable that Arya would turn around and abandon her vengeance quest against Cersei. But while Arya has been trained to be a stone-cold killer, she has, unlike Daenerys, experienced sustained happiness outside of the pursuit of power or revenge. She still retains much of the identity of her childhood, because that identity—the opposite of a traditional lady of Westeros—was already acknowledged by her parents, particularly her father.

In Season 1, Ned arranged Arya’s combat training, which allows her to escape when Cersei’s soldiers come for her. In Season 2, when Tywin Lannister tells her about Aegon the Conqueror, Arya responds that Aegon’s sisters rode dragons too. “Where did you learn all this?” Tywin asks. “From my father,” Arya answers. It was Ned’s belief in her that put her on the path to finally killing the Night King.

Then there’s Jon Snow. In many ways, he’s the thorniest Stark to unpack, and by the harsh realities of the show, he should be dead a hundred times over. His many head-slapping decisions—running after Rickon during the Battle of the Bastards, even though it jeopardizes his army; bending the knee to Daenerys after his people made him King in the North, and then admitting it to Cersei, of all people; revealing his true lineage to Daenerys right before the Night King attacks—should end in disaster. But they don’t.

Though he’s not Ned’s biological child, Jon is in many ways most similar to him: He gains the love and respect of the people he leads, not their fear, and he doesn’t feel entitled to power. After all, neither he nor Ned expected to rule. It’s easy to forget, but Ned wasn’t supposed to be Lord of Winterfell. His older brother Brandon was, before he was killed by the Mad King. Jon spent his whole life believing he was a bastard, not the heir to the Iron Throne, and because of that, leadership is always reluctantly thrust upon him—by the Night’s Watch, by Sansa when she urges him to reclaim the North, and now by the knowledge of his parentage. Jon has never taken power for granted or hungered for it, and if there is anything that can justify him staying alive despite his many mistakes, perhaps it’s that.

However, it doesn’t bode well for Jon that, although he is responsible for rallying Westeros against the White Walkers, that conflict is now resolved, while the game of thrones continues. For years, we thought the Night King was the threat that was going to reduce the struggle for the Iron Throne to dust. But that threat is gone, and Jon hasn’t shown the ability to navigate what leadership looks like after battle. There is one Stark who can, though: Sansa.

Sansa understands the world of tactical advantage and information, having learned from Littlefinger. But she refuses his cold worldview of trusting no one, preferring to trust wisely, which is how she overcomes her paranoia to side with Arya over him at the end of Season 7. Sansa has held onto her core dignity as a Stark through unspeakable pain, while also layering new lessons on top of it. Jon told his family his true parentage out of a sense of duty to them. Sansa tossed it to Tyrion because of what she understood it to be—powerful information that would undermine Daenerys, whom she distrusts.

In many ways, Sansa’s transformation brings us to the essential question of parenting: Can we raise our children to be better than we are? There are a lot of questions about Ned’s legacy that hang in the balance as we approach Sunday’s finale. But that, at least, is not one of them.