By Alyssa Rosenberg
As always, spoilery discussions are fine, just label them as such at the outset, please.
One of the things I like best about Game of Thrones is the way the series deals with people who don’t fit into the roles proscribes for them by society. Fantasy stories typically deal with people who are a little bit different, the girl who wants to fight like a man, the poor boy elevated to kingship, the power that feels like a curse but that turns out to be a gift. While achieving those dreams or adjusting to those unexpected transitions isn’t automatic, it’s generally relatively simple: you go on a quest, you achieve some sort of great feat, and people learn to tolerate your unusual ambitions, or even to embrace them.
But one of the things the Game of Thrones universe does best is to shake up the fantastical expectation that it’s reasonably easy for unusual people and people with unusual ambitions to make a place for themselves in rigid societies. The show insists that it’s difficult enough to fit into pre-approved roles if they’re available to you, and even harder to find a place for yourself if you’re unlucky enough not to slot into a pre-approved role at all.
There are all kinds of ways to be an outcast, of course. Jon Snow is an acknowledged bastard, but growing up as the shade of legitimate children has left him unable to function either as a nobleman or as an ordinary person. Gendry, the king’s bastard we meet in this episode, may be a mere blacksmith’s apprentice, but he’s not wracked with the discontent John feels. Samwell Tarly isn’t just his father’s legitimate son, he’s his heir, but his father hates him so much he tells Sam he has to take the black or “If you do not, he said, then we’ll have a hunt. And somewhere in these woods, your horse will stumble, and you’ll be thrown from your saddle to die. Or so I’ll tell your mother. Nothing would please me more.” It’s not enough to have your bloodlines intact, to be born into a role: you have to fit it exactly, or be cast out of it.
Even given all of that, if you’re illegitimate, awkward, fat, criminal, or cast out of polite society, there’s a place for you, a society you can integrate into, as long as you’re an able-bodied man. If you’re a dwarf like Tyrion Lannister, you can’t make another life for yourself as a hedge knight, or a man of the Night’s Watch, or an outlaw—things are expected of you, so you have to stay in polite society, but you can either claim your outcast status, or suffer through it. If you’re a woman like Sansa Stark, who takes well to the circumscribed role of a noble lady, you still have to live with the terror of the part of your role you can’t control: whether you’ll have children, and whether they’ll be the right kind of children. And if you’re a girl like Arya, you can say that it’s not for you to be the lady of a holdfast and bear knightly sons, but rejecting that leaves a big blank in your future. The show (and the books) have a real respect for all these dimensions of difficulty.