HBO’s Game Of Thrones: House Stark’s Ten Biggest Mistakes
Spoiler Alert: This article discusses major plot points in HBO’s Game Of Thrones, Season One to Three.
The long grueling wait in between seasons offer fans plenty of time to reflect upon the intricate plotting and fascinating characters that populate HBO’s Game Of Thrones. Of the major houses vying for the Iron Throne, many fans championed House Stark Of Winterfell above all by virtue of the Stark’s deeply rooted values of honor, love, family and loyalty.
An ongoing theme of Game Of Thrones is how good, well-meaning leaders make poor choices as best exemplified by House Stark. Years of bad decision-making culminated in their tragic, shocking demise at the end of Season 3. What makes the Stark’s downfall compelling is that as a viewer, we always understand the context of why characters make the decisions that they do. Some decisions are only mistakes in hindsight, others are terribly misguided, a few are better described as a turning point than as a mistake, while many set off a chain reaction of unforeseeable events.
Ned Stark’s Biggest Mistakes
10. Dismissing Renly’s Advice – “He who holds the King, holds the Kingdom.”
Imagine how events would have played out if Ned took up Renly’s offer of a hundred men at his command to take Joffrey into custody. Who wouldn’t love to have seen Joffrey dragged out of his bed, kicking and screaming? Even if Renly’s advice serves his own interest to be the next King, Ned should have taken some sort of decisive action at that point in time if he wanted to prevent Joffrey from taking the throne.
9. Trusting Littlefinger – “I did warn you not to trust me.”
Ned was well aware that despite King Robert’s document which appointed him the Protector of the Realm, he needed the loyalty of the City’s Watch. Bribing would be too dishonorable for Ned to do himself, but why entrust this responsibility to Littlefinger who previously cautioned him, “distrusting me was the wisest thing you’ve done since you’ve climbed off your horse”? When the time came to seize Joffrey, Ned found himself with Littlefinger’s knife pressed to his throat and his guards slain by the gold cloaks.
8. Confronting Cersei – “You win or you die.”
Oh Ned, so much for keeping your cards close to your chest … and keeping your head. To say that the Lannisters are dangerous is an understatement. Threatening to reveal Cersei’s dirty incestuous secret, telling her to get out of King’s Landing and renouncing Joffrey’s claim to the throne … Ned should have expected ‘the pointy end’ in retaliation. Cersei even warns Ned with what has become the show’s most famous quote, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die”.
Catelyn Stark’s Biggest Mistakes
7. Freeing Jamie Lannister – “You are a man without honor.”
Exchanging Jamie for her daughters was a mother’s desperation play that largely depended on Tyrion honoring his end of the bargain. As events turned out, Tyrion lost his position as Hand Of The King and married Sansa, the key to the Lannister’s claim to the North.
Catelyn’s act of treason destroyed the trust and what little influence she had with Robb, who sacrificed two thousand men to capture Jamie in the first place. This also spurred Lord Karstark’s blood thirst for vengeance having lost his sons to Jamie which eventually snowballs into one of Robb’s worse moves. The upside to Catelyn’s decision is it led to one of the best story lines of Season 3 – Jamie and Brienne’s trek through the Riverlands.
6. Capturing Tyrion Lannister – “I call upon you to seize him.”
In defense of Catelyn, she didn’t have any intention of apprehending Tyrion until he noticed her in the inn despite trying to cover her face. By the time Tyrion saves her from the mountain men of Vale she knows Littlefinger’s lie about losing his dagger to Tyrion has too many lapses in logic to be believable, but she’s already past the point of no return. Capturing Tyrion provokes Jamie to attack Ned Stark and incites the Lannisters to raid the Riverlands who were already raring to go to war.
Robb Stark’s Biggest Mistakes
5. Miscommunicating with Edmure Tully – “I could have his head on a spike by now.”
Our first and lasting impression of Edmure Tully is his incompetence. With this in mind, Robb should have explicitly communicated to his inept Uncle the plan to lure and ambush the Mountain’s army in the Westerlands.
Instead, Edmure lost a couple of a hundred men protecting a stone mill that had no strategic value. Edmure boasts of capturing two Lannisters in the battle, however they are only distant child relatives of Tywin. These two child prisoners inadvertently become the catalyst for Robb losing a significant portion of his army (see below for details). To be fair, Edmure Tully also deserves to blamed for not following Robb’s commands to the letter.
(Note: Read “Walk Of Punishment” wiki on how this mistake has even greater consequences as described in the books.)
4. Sending Theon Greyjoy to Pyke – “What is dead may never die.”
Ignoring Catelyn’s advice, Robb put his trust in Theon to seek an alliance with Balon Greyjoy, Lord of the Iron Islands. Inflicted with a pathological inferiority complex, Theon betrays the family that raised him and ‘pays the iron price’ by capturing Winterfell. As far as the North can surmise, the Iron Islanders burnt down Winterfell (but it’s actually Ramsey), chopped off Ser Rodrik Cassels’s head, stabbed Maester Luwin and murdered Bran & Rickon.
3. Beheading Rickard Karstark –“Kill me and be cursed.”
After Lord Rickard Karstark murdered the Lannister boys in their prison beds, Robb had several possible courses of action to consider. Sending Rickard to the Wall might have been viewed as weak punishment for a man who defiantly committed treason. On the other hand, holding Rickard as a hostage to force the Karstarks to continue fighting for the North would have been a shrewd decision but not the kind of justice Robb believed he deserved.
Although on the TV series Robb held onto the slim hope that Bran and Rickon were still alive, it hit close to home when another two boys are killed beneath his roof. Robb couldn’t bring Theon to justice but Lord Karstark got what he deserved which is likely the same decision his father Ned would have made. Against the advice of his inner circle, when Robb beheaded Lord Karstark, he lost almost half his army – many of whom were already losing faith in the Starks.
2. Trusting the Boltons – “The Lannisters send their regards.”
Perhaps Robb should have been a little suspicious that in spite of sending Roose Bolton’s bastard son and a few hundred men to retake Winterfell, his home still ended up in ruin and with no word on Theon’s fate. Like a flea that leaves a dying host, Roose senses the Stark’s descent and negotiates a contingency plan that would appoint him Warden of the North and ensure he is not held responsible for the loss of the Kingslayer’s hand.
After Roose’s double cross at the Red Wedding and delivering Robb’s death-blow, the Boltons should be added to Arya’s names of people she wants dead. It may be unfair to fault Robb and Catelyn for trusting their banner men but ultimately they put themselves in a position to be blindsided by betrayal. For more details on Lord Bolton’s treachery read the Battle Of Duskendale which was not covered on the TV series.
1. Marrying Talisa – “Walder Frey is a dangerous man to cross.”
Because of Robb’s youthful infatuation and lack of political acumen, he dismissed Catelyn’s dire warning that Walder Frey is a dangerous man to cross. In Westeros, marriage is a form of political alliance and a way of ensuring peace between families. Breaking his oath to Walder Frey with his reckless marriage to Talisa is Robb’s ultimate undoing. Robb was undefeated on the battlefield but he lost the Freys, Karstarks, Winterfell and the North.
From Walder Frey’s perspective, despite raising his family to prominence, there is a long-standing history of being looked down upon by the great Houses of Westeros, in particular when Hoster Tully refused to marry Edmure to a Frey bride. The prospect of marrying one of his daughters to the King of the North would have appeased his prideful nature and give his family its rightful honor. By allowing the North to cross the bridge in Season 1, Walder Frey took a risk because he knew it would not go unforgotten by the Stark’s enemies ie. the powerful Lannisters. At the Red Wedding, Walder Frey gets his retribution and solidifies his alliance with the Lannisters but by breaking the sacred guest protection rights, he dishonors his family’s name. The North will remember.
What do you think led to House Stark’s demise? What decisions should Ned, Catelyn and Robb have made differently? Which House or characters are you rooting for?