Ned Stark is an asshole, and so is his family.
They can’t help it. House Stark upholds honor above all else. Starks claim to fight for justice. They avenge those who can’t fight for themselves.
But their rigid adherence to an absolute ethical code leads the family to make some disastrous decisions. They’ve resulted in the deaths of themselves and those they love, the destruction of their home, and possibly the downfall of Westeros.
Let’s start with Ned. The Stark patriarch, ostensibly the protagonist of Game of Thrones, got his head chopped off by the sadistic boy king, Joffrey, in season 1. The execution sparked a chain of events that forced his heirs to fight for survival. Now, if any of his children make it out of this alive, it will be not because of their family name but in spite of it. The Starks who cling to their house are destined to die.
Eddard Stark, the patriarch of doom
Lord Eddard was one of the most honorable men in Westeros. Now he’s the most honorable head on a spike in King’s Landing. He had it coming.
A quick refresher: Ned was called upon to serve the realm as Hand of the King. But when Robert Baratheon was gored to death by a wild boar, Ned had a chance to imprison Cersei Lannister and rule the Seven Kingdoms as Joffrey’s regent. Instead, he let Cersei flee—the noble thing to do. Betrayed, he was forced to sign a false confession of treason to save his family. Then Joffrey chopped his head off.
Ned knew he had no claim to the Iron Throne. He never wanted it. But, stupidly, Ned put his strength behind the man who deserved the throne by law, not the man whose rule would be best for the Seven Kingdoms. Ned supported Stannis Baratheon, Robert’s brother, the most unpopular man in Westeros. He shouldn’t have. Let’s look at the opportunities he botched: controlling the throne behind the scenes; marrying off the three Baratheon kids to Robb, Sansa, and Arya; and ousting Joffrey as a product of incest so Renly, Robert’s charismatic and widely loved brother, could rule.
Ned Stark is an asshole, and so is his family.
Instead, Ned dies. Joffrey drives the kingdom into chaos. Arya flees, plotting murder. Sansa, a young girl, gets held in marital bondage, forced to court Joffrey (who kills women for fun) and later Tyrion. Bran and Rickon run north into White Walker territory. Winterfell, the Stark homestead, eventually gets held hostage and scorched.
But even before the destruction of Winterfell, the children of House Stark began forging their own paths, untethering themselves from the Stark name and redefining their lineage. Destroying their Starkness is their only chance of survival.
Jon Snow is not a Stark at all
Ned Stark, man of honor, has one major blight on his reputation: Seventeen years before the main events of Game of Thrones, he returned to his new wife in Winterfell with a bastard son. That son is Jon Snow, who lived as an outsider within the Stark home before heading to the Wall to join the Night’s Watch.
Despite the shame and anger it caused his wife, Ned raised Jon as part of the family in every way but his name. In the Night’s Watch, Jon’s status as a bastard doesn’t matter. He’s just another man with a sketchy past guarding the realm on the Wall.
Ned promised to tell Jon the truth about his mother, but he died before fulfilling that promise. He probably should have. Jon’s true identity is the most important mystery of the entire series. And if the theories are true, Jon’s not Ned Stark’s son. When he’s legitimized, he’ll have a surname that would grant him a direct path to the Iron Throne. That name will not be Stark.
Robb’s a bumbling joke of a leader
Jon’s older half-brother, Robb Stark, brings death to his family and his army because he chooses love and honor over duty to his family. Ultimately, his pride and stubbornness shatter his one shot at leadership and jeopardize the Starks’ chance of surviving as a family.
After a series of bumbling mistakes as a wartime general and self-proclaimed King of the North, he loses his life and gets a new head in one of the series’ bloodiest and most shocking deaths.
The Young Wolf’s problem? He doesn’t know how to lead. Like his father, he’s incapable of seeing the forest for the trees. During Robb’s reign as commander, he wins battle after battle but not the war.
Most generals would do everything in their power to protect their allies. Robb, however, puts honor over political pragmatism and executes Rickard Karstark, a distant relative, for murdering two young Lannisters. A massive contingent of Robb’s army abandons him.
George R.R. Martin is flipping tired fantasy tropes on their head.
Another major screw-up: Robb’s trust of Theon Greyjoy, a ward of House Stark commanded to protect Winterfell. Theon, of course, destroys Winterfell in an attempt to bring power to his seafaring family on the Iron Islands. Then, when he can’t murder Bran and Rickon Stark, he burns two children of the same age.
But Robb’s biggest mistake? Marrying the first girl he sleeps with. He’s betrothed to a daughter of Walder Frey, a crucial ally in the war. But he falls in love with a nurse tending to wounded soldiers, takes her virginity, and decides to make an honest woman out of her, thus wrecking the alliance with the Freys, who will eventually betray and kill him. (In the books, it’s even worse: Robb doesn’t love Jeyne Westerling; he just feels bad about seducing her, so he marries her to save her honor.)
Even Jaime Lannister, who’s hopelessly in love with his twin sister, remarks in A Feast for Crows that Robb’s wife is “not a beauty to lose a kingdom for.” Ouch.
Catelyn can’t stop f**king up
Catelyn Stark, wife to Ned, mother to Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon, makes a series of impulsive decisions before dying in the Red Wedding. She tries and fails to get justice for Bran, who was thrown from a window and left for dead; she botches a number of hostage attempts; and she never communicates with her family why and how she’s taking action.
When Ned is in King’s Landing, Catelyn kidnapped Tyrion Lannister, wrongly thought to be responsible for an assassin sent to murder Bran. It forced Ned to take credit for the kidnapping, which led to his imprisonment and execution. Catelyn brokered a marriage for two of her children in exchange for safe passage across a river, a plan Robb promptly ruined. And she voluntarily gave up Jaime Lannister, Robb’s biggest pawn in the war against the Lannisters, foolishly trading him for two daughters she would never see again.
The changing faces of Arya Stark
One of those daughters, Arya, is forced to change her name, her identity, and even her face in order to survive. She cuts her hair, wears peasant’s clothes, and at times masquerades as a poor wretch, all the while assuming the identities of multiple people. She’s driven by hate, not honor, and who could blame her? She’s witnessed her father, brother, and mother die.
Of all the Starks, Arya is the most fiercely independent. Through most of the series, nobody recognizes her as a highborn lady. Few people believe she’s even alive. Unlike her brother and father, she’s cunning and manipulative; she uses words and lies to persuade others to do her bidding. She has a bright future as an assassin.
Robb can’t lead an army for s**t.
Arya believes her family is gone, and in order to live on, she must kill every bit of the girl who was Arya Stark. Her lineage is more of a threat than a benefit, and everywhere she goes, she must lie—until she becomes someone else entirely.
Sansa Stark is never quite a princess
Sansa Stark, a smug and pompous teenager, quickly learns the sad reality of life in King’s Landing. Kept as a hostage under the guise of a bride, she soon becomes a toy for the sadistic whims of King Joffrey. After escaping King’s Landing and her marriage to Tyrion Lannister, Sansa is forced into hiding. She, like her sister, adapts a new persona, knowing that living as a Stark would mean marrying Tyrion and resigning to a fate that is, to her, worse than death. So it’s funny, then, that Sansa is only able to realize her true potential by trusting Littlefinger, one of the men responsible for the betrayal of her father. Sansa no longer lives as a Stark, but as a relative (and crush object) of the man who helped crush her family.
Two brothers lost to the North
Bran lost his Starkness before any of his siblings when he was pushed off a tower in Winterfell. Named after Bran the Builder, the ancestor from whom House Stark descended, he is the polar opposite of his namesake. While Starks are fierce warriors, Bran is crippled. Starks stand and fight; Bran has to ride on the back of a simpleton.
Bran and his brother Rickon are the only ones left at Winterfell when Theon tries to conquer it. And because he wants the brothers dead, two young children are burned in their place. As the strangers burn, so too does the legacy of Bran and Rickon Stark.
Now they join their siblings as homeless wanderers, fleeing family ties that no longer exist. Bran crawls north through a realm of zombie skeletons—one of whom kills his friend—in search of a wise tree. Young Rickon (book spoilers here) is off to a land of cannibals.
GRRM is trolling all of us
A Song of Ice and Fire can be read as George R.R. Martin’s attempt to flip tired fantasy tropes on their head. In a break from tradition, Martin manipulates the protagonists into being too good—the good guys are so noble they’re actively bringing death upon those they love. In Martin’s world (as opposed to, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s), there’s no dividing line between wrong and right, good and bad. Family members from all houses are just despicable in different ways. And the series begins where most fantasy novels end: a king on the throne, fat, drunk, and bored, presiding over a kingdom that’s about to erupt into chaos again.
Illustration by J. Longo