"Lost Girls: ‘Mad Men’s Sally Draper, ‘Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark, And What It Means To Lose A Father"
I’ve written a great deal this season about the ways in which prestige television, traditionally considered the provenance of middle-aged male anti-heroes, is actually strikingly attentive to the experiences and worldviews of young girls. And as Game of Thrones closed out its third season on Sunday, and as Mad Men reached a high point of its sixth year with Sally Draper’s discovery of her father’s latest infidelity, they seemed to be strikingly in parallel. Both shows have many concerns. But among them is what happens when girls lose their fathers, whether to death, divorce, or simply grown-up incompatibility.
Arya Stark loses her biological father Ned Stark to violence, specifically to an execution ordered by King Joffrey Baratheon. Joffrey’s a vicious young boy who’s entirely out of his depth in his role as king of Westeros, but he has father problems of his own. The man who raised him as a son, Robert Baratheon, dies in the first season of Game of Thrones after he’s gored by a boar on a hunt, his reflexes dulled by the wine his wife Cersei has encouraged his squire to overserve him. And Joffrey’s dogged by rumors (which are, of course true), that the violent, mercurial, unfaithful Robert isn’t his biological father at all, but instead, that he’s the product of the long-running sexual relationship between his mother Cersei and her twin brother Jaime. Jaime is lost to Joffrey in the swirl of the War of the Five kings, captured by the Starks in battle, disappearing into the countryside on the run with Brienne of Tarth after Catelyn Stark frees him, stripped of his sword hand by Locke, and ultimately come home a changed man. When Joffrey orders Ned Stark killed, he’s doing so to kill his own doubts about his parentage, his legitimacy, his right to the throne on which he sits, as well as to commit an act of cruelty against Sansa Stark, who is naive enough to have condemned her father to prison, and then naive enough to believe that she can save his life.
But while Sansa doesn’t acquire another father figure, instead falling into the custody of her prospective mother-in-law Cersei Lannister, and then the bevy of Tyrell women, Arya gains and loses several other older men in her life throughout the course of the series. There’s her dancing master, Syrio Forel, the former First Sword of Braavos, who is hired by Ned to instruct Arya in swordplay when they move to King’s Landing. To a certain extent, Syrio’s a surrogate father, proving Arya company that Ned’s unable to give her while he’s tied up with the duties that come with being Hand of the King. And he also does what Ned can’t quite do directly, training Arya on the basis of her talent, rather than her gender. And Syrio doesn’t just give her lessons: he also gives Arya the beginning of a new philosophy and a relationship to death, a defiant “not today!” a force that many other women in the series feel powerless against. When the knights of the Kingsguard come for Arya as part of the Lannisters’ attempt to sweep up the Starks in a single set of operations, Syrio acts more like a father than an instructor, giving Arya the opportunity to flee, even, it seems, at the cost of her own life.
She runs into the arms of the man who will become her second surrogate father, Yoren, a Brother of the Night’s Watch who’s come to King’s Landing on a recruiting mission that’s largely been a failure. Yoren’s decision to take Arya in is impulsive and decent, but they’re matched in many ways. Like Syrio, Yoren’s willing to treat Arya like a boy, cutting her hair, urging her to keep her gender a secret. And he trains her like a boy, too, sharing with her the story of his own childhood family loss, and teaching her the mantra of revenge that sustained him until he was able to avenge that loss and run off to join the Night’s Watch. But he dies, too, in an attack on their party, and Arya’s left alone again.
After those three men come into and go out of her life, Arya becomes more hardened and suspicious. She never particularly confides in Jaqen H’ghar, a criminal who was in Yoren’s party on the way to the Wall, and who blends into the forces at Harrenhal, promising her three deaths there. Rather than risk having him taken from her, she orders him to kill himself on her behalf, to hide knowledge of their collusion, though she withdraws the request. Arya lies repeatedly to Tywin Lannister, who seems aware that she’s lying to him, even as he appears to enjoy her company. Unlike her sister Sansa, Arya’s never innocent enough to believe that she might be compliant enough to be protected. And the closest she comes to tenderness with the Hound is a hand on his back when he explains that there are far worse men than himself and promises to take her home, a willingness to give back the knife she stole from him to kill the Frey men who mocked her mother’s death. With her mother dead, and all of her father figures gone, Arya’s no one’s daughter now, both by biology and choice, interested in winning admiration, but not love.
Sally Draper, by contrast, is both luckier and less fortunate than Arya Stark. Her father, Don, and her mother, Betty, are both alive. But since we’ve met Sally, she’s been losing her father in stages. He buys her a dog for her birthday when he’s absent. He’s home late. He leaves for California for prolonged stretches of time. And when Don and Betty divorce, he leaves Sally and the suburbs for New York City. But where Arya has closure, however terrible it is, in her father’s death, leaving her to avenge the people who killed him, and everyone else who has done her family harm, Don is Sally’s green light at the end of the dock, and the further he recedes from her, the more desperately she reaches out to him.
Where Arya’s relationship to her father and her father figures is repeatedly based on her ability to fit into the world of men, whether she’s nailing a bullseye, absorbing Syrio’s lessons, proving she’s tough enough to be part of Yoren’s caravan North, or impressing the Hound, Sally’s attempts to woo her father are more feminine. She fixes Don drinks. She makes him waffles and tops them with rum, innocently thinking it’s maple syrup. She runs away from her mother’s house to ask to live with her father instead. And in both his relationships with Faye and Megan, Sally is a rival with these women for her father’s affections, rather than in league with Don the way Arya’s interest in weapons put her in cahoots with her father against her mother’s will.
When Betty remarries Henry Francis, he doesn’t become a replacement for Don. Instead, Sally’s conflicts—and bonding—with her new family occur along same-gender lines again. She rejects her step-grandmother Pauline’s food at Thanksgiving, spitting it back onto her plate in a display of nausea. When Sally complains about Pauline’s treatment, she does so to Don, rather than to Henry, who she doesn’t seem to particularly consider as a potential confidant or ally. But she and Pauline ultimately bond over Mystery Date and sleeping tablets, and perhaps most importantly, a shared contempt for Betty.
And while Arya gets to live with the memory of her father as an honorable, generous man, Sally is robbed of that when she catches Don in bed with Sylvia Rosen, and robbed of it again when he tells her the all-too-transparent lie that he was “comforting,” Sylvia, insisting that the situation is too complicated for Sally to understand, when of course it’s an injury because she understands it all too well. Sally caught Don precisely because she was trying to manage her own, very nascent sexuality by getting back the note that her friend left for Mitchell Rosen. Sally may be willing to experience the bravado of saying she likes the cut of Mitchell’s jib—or trousers—but she also understands that she isn’t ready to pursue the implications of that bravado. Don has always been mysterious to Sally, something she confronts him about after “Grandma Ida” robs their apartment in part by lying to Sally about Don’s childhood. That she breaches his secrecy, rather than having him open up to her, that what she discovers is disappointing rather than revealing in a way she might have hoped, and that rather than treating her like an adult, Don lies to her is all devastating not just because of what Sally learned, but because the chain of events makes clear to Sally that her efforts to win her father’s affection and trust have failed.
Arya Stark lives in a far more dangerous world than Sally Draper, even as New York experiences riots and crime waves. And in certain ways, Arya’s disappearance from King’s Landing and from the official roles of Westerosi society have afforded her more freedom than Sally Draper, in her white go-go boots, can ever imagine, and more responsibility than she’d ever want. But as terrible as Arya Stark’s young life has been, Game of Thrones has afforded her one kindness that a more generous, cosseted, middle-class world denied Sally Draper: her father may be lost to her, but he never betrayed her.