Redefining the Hero Archetype: The Genius Writing in HBO’s Game of Thrones
by Brad Windhauser
Warning: this post is crammed with plot spoilers for HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you haven’t seen the show and plan to, you might want to read this at some other point.
I don’t have HBO, so it wasn’t hard to avoid HBO’s Game of Thrones. Still, the series caught on, and it was difficult not to read about this show’s growing popularity. And then came the ninth episode of season one. The writers did what? I thought when I read about the killing of Ned Stark, THE protagonist of the series, if one could be said to exist. This character was even the face of the series in its first season ads. Among other things, this identified the hero for the audience. With his grizzled features, solemn expression and sword in hand, he certainly fit most people’s conception of a hero.
In a narrative, the hero’s presence is announced in a number of ways—through noble actions, the presence of wisdom-endowed dialogue, and perhaps good looks. We also know his/her story: a humble person called to action, about which he/she reluctantly accepts, and, after a series of trials, he/she comes out the other end changed, for the better (usually).
The hero most certainly NEVER dies.
When I learned that the writers of this series subverted this archetype rule, I had to get the DVDS. I watched through season 3 (with a little help from a friend’s DVR) and I am glad I did. This show is a writer’s dream. This series boasts daring, remarkable writing that is not afraid to mess with audience expectations, especially if these get in the way of the ultimate message relating to archetypes that is emerging. This message (which I’ll get to in a minute) could not be possible without the writers knowingly messing with archetypes in general and the hero archetype specifically.
So in episode nine our season one hero is beheaded. Why in the world would a series kill off such an integral character?!?! When a writing decision is made, if it bucks convention—or in this case seems to betray an archetype—the first question to ask is why? The answer in this case speaks to the moral heart of the show. Sure, Ned Stark possessed the essential hero qualities: strong moral compass, clear sense of bravery, integrity, and loyalty; qualities almost every other character, especially those in other families, was missing to some degree.
But the way in which one of these qualities is handled leads DIRECTLY to his death: loyalty. You could argue about where his loyalty rests, but in the end it’s pretty clear that it rests with principle: Joffrey is not the rightful heir; therefore, he should not be king.
So this gets him killed? Not exactly.
As he cools his heals in the castle dungeon for not accepting Joffrey as king, he receives ample time to stew, and as he is often provoked about his decision by Lord Varys—oh, can’t you just look away and let life go on? No, he cares nothing for his life. He cares for honor. He is loyal to justice, to the Realm. But what about your daughters, your family? Lord Varys asks. This gives him pause. His ultimate loyalty to his family—I need to be around for THEM—causes him to renounce his honor in favor of appeasing the new king. THIS decision gets him killed. Would he have been killed otherwise? Who knows, but that’s not important. The decision he makes leads to his death.
So here we have a clear cut message about what it means to be a hero: turn your back on your honor, your word, your loyalty for any reason and you will pay. The show’s writers (which apparently stay true to Martin’s books) are not about to soften this message just to conform to an audience’s attachment to the show’s hero.
The show’s message: Bad decisions earn dire consequences, and being a “hero” won’t spare you.
But this is not the end of the road for a hero in this series. When the hero vacuum opens, Ned’s oldest son Robb steps up.
This show makes clear: when one falls, there’s another to take his place. Robb is a hero-in-training in the first season. Notice how the writers have him stand next to his young brother Bran as his father carries out a beheading for desertion. He’s stoic and he even has his sword close. So when the time’s right—Father is dead, Winterfell needs a man of the house, and the North needs a king—he’s ready.
And like all heroes, he’s about to be tested.
In season 2, Robb leads his armies from the North against the Lannisters and towards King’s Landing—his father will be avenged. Now this plot line suggests that maybe Robb was the hero for the series all along: he’s the one who will be tested and rise to the occasion, bringing justice to the Realm. His character has just been waiting to have his destiny revealed.
Aside from the battles he wages (and usually wins), the biggest test of his hero status arrives when, pressed for time, he and his soldiers need to cross the river. To do that, they need help of Lord Frey. Easy, right? If only his parents had been on good terms with the man. Have no fear, Catelyn (mama) Stark brokers a deal. All Robb has to do is promise to marry one of Frey’s many “eligible” daughters—none of whom are presented as attractive, a characterization his mother’s reaction confirms. He is a hero, after all, so he sucks it up and agrees. We feel his pain but also respect him more as he embraces a sacrifice, which are often asked of heroes.
Oh, if only a lovely field nurse did not catch his eye. What will our hero do? Will he keep his word? And pass up such a beauty? Their wedding occurs at the close of the second season, against his mother’s dire warning: his word is all a king (and a hero) has.
But who is he—and by extension we, the audience—to stand in the way of love? Does being in love justify a hero going back on his word? We want the hero to find love, right? So we side with our hero. But the writers have something else in mind.
The third season continues to test Robb—mostly because the people under him make ill-advised tactical decisions. A crucial one leads to his doom. One of his main lieutenants (if such a rank existed in the show) avenges his son’s murder by Jamie Lannister by killing two young Lannister cousins (who had been Robb’s prisoners). How to handle such treachery? In a move that echoes a Season 1 scene, Robb beheads the man—such actions must not go unpunished. He undertakes this decision knowing its potential repercussions: he might lose the loyalty of half his army, the half belonging to the Karstarks. Which it does.
Needing to recoup his forces, he decides to reconcile with Lord Frey. After some ass-kissing and hand-wringing, they strike a deal: Robb’s uncle’s son will marry one of his daughters and the two sides will make peace. Seemingly, our hero has dampened a potential disaster.
Well, then we reach the third season’s ninth episode, and the scene that was so intense a number of people have reportedly been so incensed that they will stop watching the show: the red wedding.
With everything running along merrily, the bride and groom having been whisked away for some quality time, food and drink and plenty, Catelyn notices a few things: the musicians seem odd, someone just locked the door, and the man talking to her is wearing chainmail. The slaughter ensues. Every person related to the Starks—his family, his army—is butchered, including Robb’s pregnant wife, his mother and him.
Wait, the writer(s) of this show (and novels) did this again?? They even took it up a notch by killing the innocent wife and child of our hero? Perhaps you could make a case that Catelyn Stark messed up by releasing Jamie Lannister from captivity, but what did his wife Talisa (or her unborn son) do? Well, she pays the price for Robb. This entire punishment happens because our hero turns his back on his word. A bit harsh? Absolutely.
The show is making its point: the hero gets punished if he turns his back on his honor.
But how will this shocking turn of events inspire the next hero to surface? Young Arya was so close to being reunited with her family that she now seethes with even more anger. Will she become the series hero? And if so, will she make better decisions? And what about Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons? She’s been slowly assuming the hero role and consolidating her power since the death of her husband in season 1. Will she become the series hero, thereby demonstrating that a strong woman will redefine this hero archetype? Or will it be the Stark bastard son Jon Snow, growing into his role as a member of the Night’s Watch? Or will it be Bran Stark, who is inching his way towards and then over the Wall to fulfill his destiny? This will be hard to do, since he’s been crippled since season 1. Can you think of a disabled hero assuming the hero role in this type of series?
Those who have not seen the show have missed out on expert handling of character and a dazzling display of gutsy writing that is not afraid to manipulate archetypes and the messages about what it means to inhabit the role of a hero. Those who have sworn not to watch again will never find out in which daring directions the writers take these characters.