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.