The Pack Survives: Starks, Lannisters, connections

Ever since the first season of Game of Thrones, the Starks and Lannisters have been enemies. With the new Queen Cersei preoccupied with enemies in all directions, the situation is not expected to improve any time soon.

As if the great Houses’ mutual antagonism weren’t a serious enough problem, the surviving members of each family are turning on each other.

Having just recaptured Winterfell from the Boltons, King in the North Jon Snow needs his half-sister Sansa Stark to present a united front with him for their bannermen. Sansa has her own ideas of how to handle unreliable vassals, and rather than ask Jon for a private discussion, she second-guesses him in front of the lords and ladies they need the most. This is not a good look for the brand-new Stark royalty. It’s exactly what Littlefinger wants her to do, as he skulks at the edge of the room and sizes up his players. Outside, Sansa tells Jon he’s good at ruling and she’s clearly trying to be a loving sister to him, but she also wants him to be more interested in her advice about things like Cersei Lannister demanding their oath of fealty. She asks Jon to stop trying to protect her because no one can protect her.

We cut straight from the Stark siblings’ tensions to Cersei and Jaime at the Red Keep. The Lannisters have been collapsing under the weight of their own dysfunction since early Season 4, but now the twins’ disagreements have moved from subtext to open antagonism. Cersei wants to talk about things like Jaime’s culpability in Tyrion being an ally to Daenerys Targaryen, and all these enemies in every direction. We don’t quite know how much Jaime knows about the Sept of Baelor explosion, but he knows Tommen committed suicide, and he wants to talk about that. He looks openly repulsed when Cersei mentions Sansa Stark as one of their enemies. He wants to talk about practical things like how they’ll feed their army in winter, and the fact that Cersei is queen of “three kingdoms, at best,” and they appear to be the losing side.

Not that he’s the least bit impressed with Cersei’s idea of a new ally, either, as he’s openly contemptuous of Euron Greyjoy’s spiel of murdering their family members. Jaime tries to draw Cersei’s attention to the Greyjoys’ history of burning the Lannister fleet, and she has no reaction. Euron makes his not-subtle remark about having two good hands, and Jaime looks ready to smack someone while Cersei still has no reaction. Euron goes so far as to advise Cersei to murder her own brother, with her twin standing right next to her, and again he waits for her reaction. Again there is no reaction. Cersei is not even making a cursory effort to maintain Jaime’s loyalty. Their little brother is working with the enemy, and now the twins are barely even keeping up the appearance of a family.

Later, we go back to Winterfell, where Sansa and Littlefinger observe Brienne training Podrick Payne for combat despite Tormund Giantsbane’s unwelcome attention. Sansa, who just told big brother Jon no one could protect her, tells Littlefinger she’s safe with Brienne protecting her from all harm. She is openly uninterested in Littlefinger’s attempt at conversation, but when Brienne comes up and scares him off, she still needs an explanation of why Littlefinger continues to stay at Winterfell. Sansa has an answer for that, but her reassurance of knowing exactly what Littlefinger wants, leaves Brienne looking concerned. The one thing she can’t do is protect Sansa from herself.

In A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the series A Song of Ice and Fire, there is a scene in which Brienne of Tarth, not yet having met Podrick Payne, happens upon a group of hedge knights by the road in the upper Crownlands. She is wary of their invitation at first, as hedge knights have an unsavory reputation, but she joins them, they don’t do anything to hurt her, and they share their trout with her for breakfast. In return for the breakfast trout, she buys them a meal later in the day at the nearby inn. The conclusion is that these hedge knights are decent guys after all.

This episode begins with Arya pulling off the mass murder of what appears to be every adult male member of House Frey via poisoned wine. Revenge for the Red Wedding. The North Remembers. They stand together, and they choke and die together. With that out of the way, it’s time to ride for King’s Landing and get rid of Cersei, just in case she doesn’t drink herself to death first.

Thus, while Brienne is trying to keep Sansa from playing into Littlefinger’s hands, Arya is drawn to the sound of Ed Sheeran’s velvet voice singing about the warmth of a woman’s hands. The book scene of Brienne with the hedge knights becomes Arya joining a clutch of young men around their evening cookfire. She’s wary at first, but Ed Sheeran and friends soon put her at ease with their generosity and friendliness. Arya could justify killing them all, as these young men are not civilians, and they are not Stark allies.

They don’t know she’s a Stark, but anyone would recognize them by their armor as Lannister soldiers. They’re on their way to control the power vacuum resulting from Arya’s serving up the Arbor Gold Kool-Aid at the Twins.

Thus, while the Starks are not on the same page, and the Lannisters are held together with toothpicks and desperation, Arya Stark enjoys a very pleasant little meal with some Lannister troops. They don’t have enough food for everyone, but they still share with her. They miss their families and they want to go home. There’s the guy who wants to see his newborn child, hoping it’s a girl so she won’t be sent off to war. There’s the kid who wants to be there for his dad and makes a tasty blackberry wine. They all cackle jovially when Arya announces her intention to kill the queen.

It’s one of the warmest, gentlest, purest scenes in the show’s history, and it’s all about a revenge-driven Stark hanging out with some Lannister soldiers. They offer her a bit of hospitality just because it’s the right thing to do, and she enjoys their music, their company and their kindness. Who knew a group of Lannister troops could make Arya smile like that?

Back home at Winterfell, Arya’s big sister relies on the protection of a Southern lady who carries a Lannister-branded sword and works with a Lannister-affiliated squire. Arya rejected Brienne for her connection to Jaime, but Sansa trusts her arguably more than she trusts Jon. The theme of these interactions is that the Starks and the Lannisters don’t need to keep fighting each other. Cersei continues to be a problem, but Jaime is in command of their army. Jon’s reaching out to the kids in charge of the Umbers and Karstarks sets the tone: the war is not between one family and another, but between life and death. When the Starks say the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives, that does not apply merely to individuals within a family, it means everyone. The wolf and the lion can band together and help each other through the war for humanity’s survival.

That is, assuming they don’t destroy themselves first.