If there’s one thing Game of Thrones is famous for, it’s killing off characters. From the shocking season one beheading of Eddard “Ned” Stark to the infamous Red Wedding, death has been the show’s signature move. By one count, there have been 174,373 people killed so far on HBO’s hit fantasy epic. And there’s still a season left of killing to go! Which means, if you think you’d be a good parent in the world of Game of Thrones, you totally wouldn’t be unless you happen to be someone who gives your kids murdering lessons.
The world of Westeros is a brutal place. But Game of Thrones is also a show about parenting. The war for the Iron Throne is a battle between different families that each have different values and beliefs, from the noble and principled House Stark to the cunning and proud House Lannister. When the show opens, it is the old men like King Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark, Tywin Lannister, and Balon Greyjoy who are running the show. Over the course of the seven seasons we’ve seen, the adults fade away (or, rather, get murdered) and the younger generation like Jon, Sansa, Daenerys, Gendry, Tyrion, and Arya have to take their place. But the lessons their parents taught them shaped the men and women they would become—and most of those lessons are about murder.
How, why, and when to kill is a quite serious parenting lesson for the ruling families of Westeros. In the very first episode, the Starks capture a defector from the Night’s Watch. While we the audience know the man is, understandably, freaked the hell out by seeing the evil and magical White Walkers murder his friends, Ned Stark says the defector must die because that is the law. Not only will he be executed, but Ned Stark will be the executioner while his children watch. Afterward, Ned approaches young Bran to make this a “teachable moment.” He says, “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
Ned Stark teaches his children that to kill is to take responsibility. They should only kill out of duty. It isn’t an act to take pleasure in. It’s a good lesson, as far as Westeros parenting goes. But being good doesn’t always pay when you’re on Game of Thrones. After Ned’s untimely death, Robb Stark is declared King in the North and goes to war. Despite his military success, he is ultimately undone because he follows his father’s lessons and executes one of his banner men, Rickard Karstark, for treason. This decimates his army, sows disorder, and leads to the events of the “Red Wedding.”
The second episode of Game of Thrones contrasts Ned Stark’s lawful and considered execution with Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister’s careless murdering. After Arya and her direwolf humiliate Prince Joffrey, Cersei demands that someone be killed. Arya’s wolf has fled, but Cersei says “we have another wolf”—referring to Sansa’s pet Lady—and Robert Baratheon shrugs and says “as you will.” While the Stark children are taught that killing is not to be taken lightly, Joffrey learns a very different lesson indeed. His father’s uncaring attitude tells him that as long as you’re the boss, you can do whatever the hell you want. His mother’s insistence on vengeance teaches him that protecting his name and reputation is all that matters. Truth be damned. (This is a lesson that Cersei learned from her own father, Tywin, who was fond of saying, “It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on.”)
Is it any wonder that Joffrey becomes a murderous evil tyrant when he ascends the throne? That he orders the murders his own half-brothers to protect his name and power? Joffrey’s parents taught him that reputation is more important than truth, and power is more important than the law. When Joffrey takes the crown, he decides to kill Ned Stark instead of letting him join the Night’s Watch as promised. This careless execution sends the entire realm into civil war.
Theon Greyjoy learns a similar lesson when he returns to the Iron Islands to recruit his father, Balon Greyjoy, to Robb Stark’s side during said civil war. The Greyjoys come from a Viking-inspired culture that only values raiding and pillaging. Balon thinks that the noble lessons of the Starks have turned him soft. He says that the Iron Islanders are “not subjects, we’re not slaves, we do not plow the fields or toil in the mine, we take what is ours. Your time with the wolves [aka Starks] has made you weak.” Theon’s lesson is that he must pillage and kill to earn any status in his homeland. (Talk about toxic masculinity!) Theon decides to make his father proud by sacking the Stark home of Winterfell, killing many of his old friends and even murdering two farm boys to pretend he killed the escaped Bran and Rickon Stark.
These aren’t the only Westerosi children who learn the wrong lessons about killing. Robin Arryn—whose mother, Lysa, nurses him until he’s ten years old—is taught that killing can be entertainment and shouts “Mummy, I want to see the bad man fly” as Tyrion stands near a gaping hole in the mountain castle called the Moon Door. Prince Oberyn Martell aka the Red Viper is obsessed with revenge and comes to King’s Landing to challenge the Mountain in a famously gruesome duel. His bastard daughters, the “Sand Snakes,” follow in his footsteps and also seek revenge to similarly bloody fates. (Despite his bad parenting on this matter, it is worth praising Prince Oberyn for his refreshingly progressive for Westeros view of out-of-wedlock children: “Bastards are born of passion, aren’t they? We don’t despise them in Dorne.”) Ramsay Bolton, the evilest character on the show, learns to torture and murder for fun from his similarly sadistic father Roose Bolton. Yet, ultimately, the Boltons are wiped out because everyone hated them. Apparently, peasants don’t like to be tortured and murdered all the time.
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Westeros may be a bloody place of backstabbing, Dragonfire, and war. But even in the Seven Kingdoms, how and why you kill matters. As we start season eight, most of the characters, both children and parents, have died. The kingdom has been ravaged by war, and the White Walkers threaten to bring even more death. Many of those who are left were bastards, orphans, or children hated by their parents. Perhaps they have all learned their own sense of morality. If there’s going to be any hope for the people of Westeros, it will be in the hands of the new generation who can create a more just—and hopefully less murderous—Westeros.