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Family Ties: How Blind Loyalty To Bloodlines Means Doom In Game Of Thrones

As the sixth season premiere approaches, a reminder about how important (and deadly) clan identity can be in Westeros

Last year, Game of Thrones finally introduced its two greatest contenders to one another in a cross-dynastic summit the show spent nearly a season hyping up. Tyrion’s first meeting with Daenerys took place in Meereen, but both their minds were on the Seven Kingdoms. The last known Targaryen (R.I.P. Aemon) wasted no time in bringing up her clan’s natural grudge against their usurpers. “If you are Tyrion Lannister,” says Daenerys, recalling her father’s assassination by Tyrion's brother, “why shouldn’t I kill you to pay your family back for what it did to mine?” But Tyrion’s sin — the snarled histories among Westeros’s noble lineages — is also his saving grace. “You have no one at your side who understands the land you want to rule, the strengths and weaknesses of the houses that will join or oppose you,” he proffers, summarily diagnosing her most glaring shortcoming as a conqueror. The North remembers — and everyone else does, too.

Season 5 was largely dedicated to chronicling Game of Thrones’s many faiths: Melisandre’s Lord of Light, the Sparrow sect in King’s Landing, Arya’s service to The Many-Faced God. But ancestry is the one cult to which most Westerosi pledge themselves — and the HBO series is remarkable and singular in its ability to depict the centrality of genealogy and family history in our conceptions of who we are. If our identities are essentially stories we tell ourselves about where we stand and how we should act in relation to the past and the present, Game of Thrones uses its vast, pointillist canvas to observe how we become the people that we are — and to caution against the dangerous tribalism such a reliance on tradition can engender.

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Across the world in Winterfell, Sansa Stark (it just feels wrong to call her Sansa Bolton) is reminded during a visit to her family’s catacombs of the abduction of her aunt Lyanna. Then betrothed to Robert Baratheon, Lyanna was taken by Rhaegar Targaryen while he was married to Elia Martell. As payback for seizing his fiancée, Robert took the Targaryens’ throne — an event that ultimately led to the death of Sansa’s father, Ned. That we’ve never met most of the people involved in that original love quadrangle is the point. In Game of Thrones, to quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The extensive histories of each house demand quite a bit of homework on the part of viewers, but the show generally rewards such effort because the characters are so often driven — or, like Shireen Baratheon, doomed — by them.

Venerated with sigils and slogans, the show’s bloodlines are one of the main sources of pride in Westerosi society. And yet loyalty to those bloodlines has doomed character after character: Robb Stark’s plans to avenge his father's death ended in his own, the Lannister twins’ incestuous love for one another has rendered them privileged pariahs, and Theon’s attempt to live up to the Greyjoys’ house motto of “we do not sow” led to his extreme humbling as Reek.

In fact, it’s straying from one’s family tree that most ensures survival. “My ancestors would spit on me if I broke bread with a Crow,” declares one Wildling, resisting the Night’s Watch’s offer of help in Episode 9. In one of the smartest sentences ever uttered during the course of the series, another Free Folk responds, “So would mine. But fuck them; they're dead.” She doesn’t survive the invasion of the undead body snatchers, but at least her children do. In contrast, the characters without allegiances — Varys, Littlefinger, and, increasingly, Arya, who’s repeatedly asked to give up her identity and punished when she can’t let go of it — are the ones most likely to endure, no matter who sits atop the Iron Throne.

If Daenerys and Tyrion’s seemingly unbeatable alliance is any indication, Game of Thrones isn’t only about the long journey toward just (or at least more tolerable) rule, but about the transition from medievalism to modernity, when such tribal divisions should matter less. Revenge seems natural, as it did for Robb and Theon and still does for Arya — there’s something gutturally true about an eye for an eye. But after five seasons, we’re firmly in the “the whole world’s blind” phase of that philosophy, and that’s not even counting how house mottos like “a Lannister always pays his debts” have allowed characters to justify committing cruelties that have hollowed out their souls. Honor may be noble, but it can’t be counted upon as a tool of governance.

Most of us can’t relate to our family histories the way the Starks or the Martells or the Targaryens do (thank goodness). But ancestry and family history remain important cruxes of our identity formation, whether that’s refracted through immigration, persecution, military service, regional heritage, ethnic traits, or what have you. Genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the U.S., according to some. Not for nothing did Ben Affleck ask Finding Your Roots producers to omit his slave-owning ancestors from broadcast. No one blames him for the sins of his forefathers, of course. More notable is the apparent shame Affleck felt about what was lurking in his family tree, especially since the actor sees himself and his family as committed to social justice.

Fealty to one’s family and tribe (however that’s defined) right, but, as Game of Thrones illustrates brutally over and over again, it’s not what makes for a great society. The looking-out-for-our-own clannishness of the Seven Kingdoms has cycled through three kings (with four pretenders of varying legitimacy) and a quintet of hands over five seasons. Daenerys and Tyrion are poised to save the Seven Kingdoms from itself, but the Mother of Dragons is far more likely to convince us of her fitness to govern based on her principles than on her birthright. The Dany/Tyrion coalition’s modernity — the forgiving of past wrongs and the belief that rulers and citizens should care about people beyond the ones they’re related to — represent Westeros’s best hope. It’s an ideal we still have difficulty living up to — but one we can’t afford to give up on.