“All the things men do to show you how much they care.”
Writer(s): David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Director: Tim Van Patten
Plot: Ned heads south to King’s Landing with Arya, Sansa and Robert; Jon Snow and Tyrion head north to the Wall with uncle Benjen; Daenerys begins to learn the ways of the Dothraki; Catelyn investigates the truth behind Bran’s fall and makes plans to follow Ned on his journey south.
THREE-EYED-RAVEN WARNING: DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALL SEVEN SEASONS OF HBO’S GAME OF THRONES.
The defining quote from ‘The Kingsroad’ is present in what is perhaps the least eventful scene of the episode, at least in terms of incident. In what we’ll soon realise is a rare moment of humanity for Cersei Lannister, she visits Catelyn Stark in her chambers while she frets over Bran’s health following his fall. Since the deaths of the three children she had with Jaime, Cersei has become evil personified, but at this stage — and especially in this scene — her affection and love for her children is so incredibly humanising. While Bran is comatose, she recounts to Catelyn the tale of when she lost her first child with Robert. “All the things men do to show you how much they care,” she says, “Robert beat his hands bloody on the wall.”
With this single line of dialogue, she displays a tragic understanding of a world built by honourable men and the trappings of hypermasculinity: they do their utmost to provide and protect, proving themselves worthy by riding towards danger and death, beating their hands bloody on a rock surface, completely debasing themselves if need be.
It’s Ned’s conversation with Jon on the Kingsroad that retrospectively enriches his character and displays the extreme lengths he’s willing to go to in order to do each of those things: raising Jon as his bastard son, admitting to an act of infidelity he did not commit, potentially sacrificing his reputation, and all to keep his sister Lyanna’s Targaryen son protected from harm. Their conversation takes place as Ned faces south towards King’s Landing and as Jon turns north to the Wall — men riding towards danger to carry out unspoken commands they still feel obligated to obey. During their meeting, Jon enquires about his birth mother: whether she knows about him, whether she knows he’s alive, anything at all.
In this moment, Ned looks upon a lifetime of isolation stored in Jon’s expression. He’s a boy who has been punished throughout his entire upbringing because of choices Ned made. There’s Catelyn too, who believes to this day that her husband fathered the child of a “tavern wench” some seventeen years ago when he rode off to war. But most importantly, perhaps, Ned is granted the opportunity to finally provide a sense of belonging to the boy he raised as his bastard son, right before he leaves to fight at the end of the world. Instead, Ned bites his tongue and promises that, when they reunite, Jon’s lineage will be the first point on the agenda. Despite his considerations, he thinks only of his dead sister’s plea as her final words pass through his own lips: Ned must promise to raise Jon as his bastard, and Ned must promise to uphold this secret for the rest of his life, no matter the weight of the burden.
Despite seeming to promise that Game of Thrones will ultimately be defined by men who gladly accept their predetermined role in society, ‘The Kingsroad’ subtly introduces the resilience and defiance of the women whose mission it is to break free from theirs. Take Catelyn Stark, a woman who, from the outside, appears to be living the passive life expected of her: she’s hundreds of miles from her family home, living with the spectre of her husband’s infidelity, all whilst raising six of his children.
Cersei’s words from earlier ring in her ears as Ned asserts he has no choice but to head south with Robert. Already emotional from sitting in Jon’s presence, the result of what happened the last time Ned accepted duty’s call, Catelyn speaks her mind. “That’s what men always say when honour calls — that’s what you tell your families, tell yourselves. You do have a choice. And you’ve made it.” Ned might sit idly by as his devotion to duty washes over him, but she has no intention of repeating his mistakes.
Later, as she once again sits by Bran’s bedside, a dagger-wielding cutthroat sent to kill him remarks that she’s “not supposed to be here.” It’s the first time we see Catspaw, Petyr Baelish’s fateful weapon, but this is Catelyn’s scene. She warned Bran against climbing but was powerless to stop his fall, so she takes matters into her own hands this time. Throwing caution and expectation to the wind, she thrusts herself into the path of the blade and grasps it tightly, almost slicing her hands to the bone in the melee. She halts the assassin until Bran’s direwolf Summer can maul him to death. The following day, she scours Winterfell for clues, and finds enough evidence to suggest the Lannisters are behind the attack. She gathers her son and her advisors and informs them of her intentions to follow Ned south. This is what she does to protect those she loves, this is what women do.
In addition to this, ‘The Kingsroad’ spends its time further exploring the nature of the characters whose eventual mission will be to flip this world on its head. Daenerys has had to endure her brother her entire life, so she’s already mastered the art of patience, but Khal Drogo is the leader of a tribe of wild horsemen and a different prospect entirely — whilst Viserys will continue to dance around, boasting about a reign he’s yet to start, Drogo will continue to rape her until he can be tamed. Following some timely advice from her handmaiden Doreah, she does tame him and begins to assert her influence upon him. It’s advice that sets her on a path from Drogo’s wife into a Khaleesi, and eventually from a Khaleesi into the Mother of Dragons.
And Joffrey, immediately presented as a sexist, sadistic piece of filth, is reigned in quite spectacularly by two characters whose alternative views of the world have put them amongst this saga’s most endearing people: Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark. First, Tyrion comically slaps the Prince and warns him to mind his behaviour. Once a man of voracious sexuality and insatiable wit, Tyrion’s sharper edges have lost their bite ever since the early days of season five, so revisiting his devilishly delightful introduction in such detail during this episode is an absolute pleasure.
The second time Joffrey has his violent side curtailed is also the first time Arya is shown to be fierce and, frankly, dangerous, as opposed to “tomboyish”. Joffrey and Sansa stroll by the river and happen upon Arya and her friend Mycah, playing with wooden swords. With perverted callousness, Joffrey begins to slice Mycah’s cheek open. Arya’s direwolf Nymeria sinks her teeth into Joffrey’s arm, and in the chaos, Arya steals his sword, throws it into the river and stands over him. It’s not quite murdering Meryn Trant by stabbing out both his eyes, gagging him, and slicing his throat to finish the job, but it is the first window into her lethal potential.
Joffrey’s craven snivelling in response to these two characters’ actions are why, three seasons on from his death, he remains a more multi-dimensional — and let’s face it, better — villain than either Ramsay Bolton or Euron Greyjoy. There was a subversive quality present in Joffrey’s villainy, constantly serving as a reminder that while he was an evil boy, his weaknesses were almost as tangible as his malevolence. In Ramsay (at least since he overcame his daddy issues) and Euron, there is sadly no such depth. They’re good for archetypal one-note wickedness, but it’s one-note wickedness all the same.
It’s Joffrey’s pathetic whimpering, and Cersei’s thirst for an immediate reprisal, that results in the execution of Sansa’s direwolf Lady. With Nymeria nowhere to be found, Cersei demands retribution of any kind — Lady is unfortunately placed in her crosshairs. Ned attempts to defend his daughters, questioning the command that Robert was reluctant to give in the first place. Unable to muster a strong enough defence, however, Ned carries out the sentence himself.
In an episode that analyses those who passively take the bullshit in Game of Thrones and roll with it, it’s those who get served the bullshit, but wake each day to rally against it (“Speaking for the grotesques, life is full of possibilities”), who leave the strongest emotional impact. While Catelyn lunged into the face of death to protect her son, and while Daenerys put herself through emotional turmoil to increase her leverage in this world, it’s Ned who bowed his head to the orders of his king, letting his children down in the process. The things men do, indeed.