With it recently being Father’s Day in the United States, I saw this meme graphing the alignment of fictional movie and television parents, evaluating them on a scale from good to bad on the x-axis, and also on a scale of lame to cool on the y-axis. Distinctly on the good side, but also distinctly on the lame side are both Catelyn and Ned Stark, the main parental figures of the show.
And I think this meme actually opens the door for a lot of interesting comparisons among the fathers on Game of Thrones. Fatherhood, and family, is a particularly relevant theme throughout every season of the show. Perhaps when the theme of fatherhood became most relevant was in 2014, when the Season 4 finale aired on Father’s Day, and depicted Tyrion killing his father, Tywin.
There’s the first category; a whole swath of Game of Thrones dads who are just indisputably terrible people and terrible fathers, with absolutely no redeeming qualities. There’s nothing to like about Balon Greyjoy, or Randyll Tarly, or perhaps most of all, Craster. They’re all varying degrees of terrible, and don’t care about their children, again to varying degrees. To that extent, I don’t think there’s anything interesting to be said there; they pretty much just hate their kids. But I think there’s a lot to be said about the other fathers of Game of Thrones, good and bad; though, mostly bad.
An interesting case of fatherhood is Robert Baratheon’s relationship with Joffrey. Robert’s while character is focused by the fact that he doesn’t want to have any responsibilities, so the way he practically neglects Joffrey comes as no surprise. All King Robert does – and wants to do – is to “eat, drink, and whore [him]self to an early grave.” So much of Robert’s scant screentime in those first seven episodes is spent on his comedic lines that it’s easy to forget that he’s got some actual moments of dramatic depth; one of Mark Addy’s best scenes during his run on the show comes at Robert’s deathbed as he apologizes to Joffrey:
“I should have spent more time with you, shown you how to be a man. I was never meant to be a father. Go on, you don’t want to see this.”Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 7: “You Win or You Die”
Robert recognizing that he’s a bad father actually lands him in the top 60-70% of Game of Thrones dads. The bar is fairly low. (And also, it’s worth noting that in the books he’s described as having a positive relationship with his first bastard, Mya Stone, when she was a baby. But, Robert doesn’t have any relationship with his bastards in the show.)
Hear me out, as far as bad people who are potentially good fathers go: Roose Bolton. Roose is a pretty terrible person, there’s no disputing that – but there are a lot of moments where Roose genuinely tries to include Ramsay in his grand vision for House Bolton as the wardens of the North, sending him on missions to reclaim castles and even legitimizing him towards the end of Season 4, which would much improve Ramsay’s life. That scene where Roose tells Ramsay he’s been legitimized is actually fairly emotional, and might be satisfying if both characters weren’t two of the show’s most terrible people. And we do get to see the various parts of their relationship; with Roose often reprimanding Ramsay, which points to a better, more balanced parental relationship than most others – but that didn’t stop Ramsay from murdering Roose… Whoops!
Maybe the most interesting case is Tywin Lannister. I think that an essential clue to Tywin’s identity as a father comes from his dialogue with Arya in Season 2; he says of his father Tytos “He loved us. He was a good man. But a weak man; a weak man who nearly destroyed our house and name.” And that ends up being the opposite of the relationship Tywin has with his kids. He doesn’t seem to love his children, nor does he seem to be good, but he would gladly destroy his kids for his house and name. It’s fascinating because Tywin strives for “Family” as an abstract concept, but doesn’t focus on his true family – namely his three children. Tywin is pretty consistently disappointed in Tyrion and Cersei, and for almost all of Season 4 he doesn’t think much of Jaime. Tywin talks at length about the Lannister family legacy and trying to establish a dynasty that will last as long as the Targaryen’s. And again, he so consistently invokes these abstract concepts that it’s hard to tell if his goal a family legacy stems from any love of his father or his wife or his children, or if it stems instead from his desire to be remembered in the history books.
Someone who briefly appeared to be a good father – only to have it go up in smoke – is Stannis Baratheon. In their relationship with their daughter Shireen, Stannis ends up playing good-parent-bad-parent alongside his wife Selyse, who consistently hates Shireen and calls her an abomination. That being said, Stannis doesn’t exactly win father of the year, for reasons that should be obvious. He’s generally always nice to Shireen, and even has one particularly touching scene in which he happily recounts the story of the efforts he went to to cure her of her Greyscale disease – but that’s obviously undone when he sacrifices her to the Lord of Light. Up until that point, they have what is arguably one of the best father-child relationships in the show. That Greyscale story is genuinely touching, and is a hint of their relationship in the books; their relationship in the books is strong enough to the point where I doubt Stannis’ campaign in the North will end the same way.
Also on the graph above is Ser Davos, who like Ned and Catelyn, is in the “Good/Lame” quadrant. I object to Davos being Lame; he’s quite funny and used to be a smuggler. What’s lame about that?! But he is certainly a good father, frequently offering guidance and comfort to those who need it. He serves as a father figure to Shireen, and as a father figure to Gendry, and to a certain extent, as a father figure to Jon – and it’s surrogate fatherhood for three children of different ages. What’s less memorable is his father figure role for Matthos – casual viewers might forget about Matthos so as just a reminder, let’s reiterate that that’s Davos’ actual son (his only son on the show, but he has more kids in the books). The way he acts in regards to Matthos is similar to Jon, Shireen, or Gendry, which is to say rather fatherly, but he notably doesn’t really think about or mourn Matthos. There’s some weird, offhand mention of him in a Season 7 conversation with Tyrion, who he basically accuses of murdering his son. Davos is a great surrogate father, but the fact that he mourns Matthos for a short amount of time is a bit odd.
So this brings us to Ned, who has a good relationship with all his children, including Jon. And including Theon, who had no relation to him! The biggest thing that Ned does that gets him credit as a great father is taking in Jon – who was the child of his sister and Rhaegar, but lying about him being his bastard to protect him. He compromised the thing he was best known for – his honor – to protect Jon. Really, really great stuff.
In the grand scheme of thing, we don’t see Ned interact too much with his kids, but we can see the lessons he taught many of them guide them along their journey. But we also see the way his death impacts his children, with almost all of them mourning in unique ways; Robb fights to bring justice for Ned, Arya fights to avenge him, Jon seeks to be honorable through service, Sansa does everything she can to survive – on the other hand, Bran and Rickon mourn Ned in a more traditional way (because they’re kids). Ned’s a great father, and we cans see that from the impact he has on his kids. We can see it from the way that Theon tells Ramsay about him, referring to Ned as his “real father.” More than any other character, Ned’s impact lasts far beyond his death – it’s a legacy that his children carry with them throughout their journey.
So, to answer the question in the title of this post: No, he’s not the only good dad since Davos is also a really good father. But it pretty much ends at Davos. And I think comparing the reasons why these characters are bad fathers is where things get interesting; disliking your son because of an attribute he was born with like Tywin, or creating a bad environment which allows them to act out like Roose, not being for there to support and guide them like Robert, or… um, burning them at the stake like Stannis. Whereas the lessons we get from Ned and Davos are pretty straightforward – support children, guide them, and be there for them,