It’s no happenstance that so many of the major characters in “Game of Thrones” are young people. Whereas Season 1 felt like it was much about Ned, Robert, Catelyn, Cersei and the past, this season is more about their sons and daughters. It’s about Robb and about Joffrey and Sansa and Arya and Theon and Jon Snow and Dany – the heirs to the War of the Usurper and the choices that have made the world they live in and fight for. It also provides the creators with the opportunity to touch upon one of George Martin’s running threads in “A Song of Ice and Fire” – the dangers to young people to who they are and how they define themselves.
Take Theon Greyjoy. Raised in Winterfell alongside Robb Stark and Jon Snow and trained by Ser Rodrik Cassell. We know he’s a good archer and fighter and he’s got a good head for tactics. But he’s a young man who is desperate to define himself: while he was at Winterfell or rode with the Starks, he was a Stark man. The moment he’s back in the Iron Islands, he’s back to being an ironborn. This is what Ser Rodrik couldn’t see in the young man who was clad in armor and proclaiming himself prince: He was no longer the boy he had trained or seen ride with Robb. But if Theon thinks that taking Winterfell and chopping Ser Rodrik’s head off for his impudence makes him a Greyjoy, he is wrong. As Maester Luwin tells him “he’s truly lost.” Theon is a man who has no sense of who he is or how to define himself and he’s looking for that definition to come from some greater man than he – whether that was Eddard Stark, Balon Greyjoy or anyone else.
Theon is not the only one who risks losing himself though. Arya dares to go beyond her cover by stealing a note from Lord Tywin’s table – and this only after she had escaped Littlefinger’s attention and recognition. When she’s caught by Ser Amory Lorch, she is forced to run and beg Jaqen H’gar to kill him immediately with the second of her three deadly wishes. She escapes notice but for how much longer? She’s creating a whole new identity to fit her lie of who she really is. Anyone who has lied for a long time knows it gets harder and harder to live those lies and keep them all straight. How long will it continue for her?
Meanwhile Dany was forced to accept that none of the identities she carries mean much. “Wife of Khal Drogo?” But he’s dead. “Khaleesi?” She has no khalasar of warriors to make her will a reality. “Heir to the Iron Throne?” She’s never sat the Iron Throne, has no allies in the Seven Kingdoms and most everyone who lives there cares nothing for her or her claim. Worst of all, as she calls herself “Mother of Dragons”, someone is murdering her people and carrying her dragons away. Dany’s loss of identity is extremely dangerous to her because, if she has no dragons and is not the “Mother of Dragons”, then what reason exists for anyone to care for her? She and her few remaining people could be in danger of becoming slaves or losing their lives. What will she do in order to regain her identity as “Mother of Dragons”? Will she brave the House of the Undying?
Facing threats to life and limb are one thing. It’s much more difficult to face a threat to our sense of self. Sansa Stark was nearly gang-raped, mutilated and beaten by an angry mob, but was saved at the last by the actions of The Hound, Ser Gregor Clegane. Everyone can recognize the heroism in Clegane’s actions – even if he would be the first one to denounce killing defenseless fools as an act of heroism. Who he is is not defined by his actions, he carries who he is within himself. Sansa, on the other hand, still remains defined by others as nothing more than a beautiful highborn girl who is valuable because her brother is a rebel King who holds the great Jaime Lannister as a hostage. Even expressing her own opinions, like her hatred of Joffrey, is tantamount to a death sentence if the wrong ears hear them. Can she remain herself in a world that loathes everything she is and denies her any chance to grow? How can she remain herself and not become lost?
Her half-brother, Jon Snow, might be finding out the answer far beyond to the North. He has been forced to abandon all the dreams and fantasies he had about the Night’s Watch. As Qhorin Halfhand tells him, even the false comfort that anyone below The Wall cares for their sacrifice and recognizes its value is a lie. He fights for a realm that doesn’t care about him or his Brothers – that sees him as a nice place to send their outcasts and their criminals to die. So why should it matter if he slays a thousand wildlings? They’re his enemies.
But Jon takes a different approach to his first encounter with the long-standing enemies of the Night’s Watch – and I don’t think it was just because his first encounter was an attractive redheaded girl. In himself, Jon carries a sense of who he is. Yes, he is a Sworn Brother. He has said the words and taken the vows. But none of those words call for him to take life without care. There is a difference between cutting down an armed opponent who would do you harm – even take your life – and an opponent who is lying prone on the ground, unarmed and defenseless.
Does Jon’s sense of who he is get him into trouble? Absolutely. The expedient thing would have been to take Ygritte’s head and eliminate the threat that she presents. Instead he’s forced to chased after her, losing track of his brothers. Out in the frozen North, with a dangerous captive daring him to forego his vows, Jon will be tested as much as Sansa, Dany, Arya or Theon were. The stakes for him are as they are for the rest – life or death. But there are deaths and there are deaths. It is one thing to lose your life. It is another to lose yourself.
The Seven Kingdoms haven’t recovered from the war that made so many of its leaders and rulers lose themselves. Who knows how things would have been had Robert not been forced to take the Iron Throne, if Jaime Lannister hadn’t been forced to cut down King Aerys, if Ned Stark hadn’t married Catelyn Stark and become Lord of Winterfell. Their children will face many of the same choices their parents had thrust upon them – and worse. Who they are – who they choose to be – will impact the fate of Westeros.