Essays · TV

In the Game of Thrones, You Love and You Die

The first rule of ‘Game of Thrones’ is “Don’t fall in love.”
By  · Published on May 10th, 2019

All’s fair in love and war, they say, but nothing seems fair in Game of Thrones. This goes double when it comes to love, and might be true now more than ever. “The Last of the Starks” saw four major couples torn apart by circumstance, one just a few scenes after they had finally gotten together. The HBO flagship series has a long history of killing off characters who are in love, almost always rewarding intimacy and vulnerability with betrayal and tragedy.

Ned and Catelyn Stark were the series’ original doomed power couple. They aren’t as sexy or shippable as some of the duos that came afterward, but theirs was a stalwart love, built on trust and years of partnership. In the series’ debut episode, Ned seeks Catelyn’s counsel after he’s chosen as Hand of the King, and while other core relationships like Daenerys and Drogo or Cersei and Robert demonstrate gendered power imbalances, the lord and lady of Winterfell appear evenly matched every step of the way. These two lovebirds form the foundation for what we come to view as the values of the North, namely self-reliance, deliberation, modesty, and protectiveness over one’s family. Of course, before the series is halfway over, Ned’s lost his head at the sept of Baelor, and Catelyn has been executed at the Red Wedding, so those values only worked so well outside of Winterfell’s secluded ecosystem.

Several other couples flourish and perish throughout the seasons, from the underrated (Loras and Renly) to the narratively underserved (Oberyn and Ellaria), to the unbearably bittersweet (Tyrion and Shae). In terms of narrative significance, few will ever top Jaime and Cersei, whose incestuous relationship kick-started the War of the Five Kings, but Robb and Talisa’s star-crossed romance comes close. The eldest Stark son and his bride were perhaps the most in love of anyone in the series, all giggles and caresses, but Robb’s affection blinded him to the repercussions of breaking a promise to allies. The result, the execution of Robb, a pregnant Talisa, and Catelyn during a seemingly peaceful wedding celebration, drew a clear if cynical connotation; love leaves you vulnerable. Domesticity and marriage are centered in “The Rains of Castamere” even as they’re undercut by violence, inextricably linking death with love for the rest of the series.

No strangers to death themselves, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are two of the only characters in the series who have serious on-screen love interests before finding one another. Dany’s arranged marriage to Khal Drogo brought the series’ cardinal sin–its controversial portrayals of rape–into the spotlight for the first time, but it’s more often remembered for the power and ruthlessness that Khaleesi traditions inspired in Dany. Throughout her marriage to the Khal, she eats a heart, learns a language, and attempts to bear a child for him. Looking back on his death with eight seasons of hindsight, it feels less like a tragedy and more like an unwitting sacrifice, his strength reborn in her.

Meanwhile, Jon’s first romance–with wildling Ygritte–has the opposite effect of Dany’s, exposing his inner softness and unwillingness to fully let go of his ties to the Night’s Watch. At first glance, Jon and Ygritte are a dynamic couple, with chemistry strong enough to transfer off-screen into a relationship between the actors. Ygritte repeatedly reminds Jon that he should be true to her alone, causing an undeniable tension in their courtship that makes it feel doomed from the jump. Ever the angsty hero, Jon tries to have the best of both worlds and ends up on the wrong side of Ygritte’s bow for it. Later, Jon’s trust in the Night’s Watch quite literally gets him killed.

Ygritte Death

For a show that values its shock factor, Game of Thrones’ final season seems equally invested in clicking together pieces that make sense, letting bookends fall into place. One of these is inevitably Jon and Dany’s relationship. Her, progressively hardened by circumstance and personality, shaped by the fire that she refuses to let burn her. Him, eternally trusting and loyal, the wrongs that were done to him shaken off like so much powdered snow. There’s a reason the entire series A Song of Ice and Fire is named after this couple, and it’s not compatibility so much as volatility.

“The Last of the Starks” saw Jaime leave Brienne, Arya leave Gendry, and Missandei executed in front of Grey Worm. At this point in the game, power inexorably trumps love, and everyone we’ve grown to love seems caught in the crossfire. The episode also saw the slow-motion unraveling of Jon and Daenerys, whose increasingly tense relationship seems able to thrive only in the vacuum of romantic dragon-riding getaways. The Iron Throne has always been the shiny prize of Game of Thrones, but the interpersonal has long-since been as interesting as the political, so it’s worth rooting for some couples amid chaos. Pod’s recent rendition of “Jenny of Oldstones,” a hauntingly sorrowful song about the ghosts “who had loved her the most,” doesn’t bode particularly well for any of the major players, but if the series follows the spirit of George R.R. Martin’s story through to the end, some lovers may be left alive yet. And if all else fails, there’s always Sam and Gilly.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)