When you think of “Game of Thrones,” you probably don’t necessarily think about motherhood first. You probably think of all the violence, power struggles, nudity, sex, and the violence. And oh yeah, did we mention the violence? At the heart of the show, however, is the exploration of the complicated relationships mothers have with their children—and more significantly, with themselves.
Despite its occasional lack of subtlety, GoT actually does a good job of portraying mothers in all their complexities–and how the job and role of being a parent can both be empowering and victimizing, bringing out the best and worst in a variety of characters.
For instance, there’s Catelyn Stark, who suffers loss after loss after loss (her son Rob is murdered after her husband is killed, her daughter Sansa is sent to marry the sadistic Joffrey)–and remains a sort of quintessential courageous, fearless mother for her children.
And yet, her role and identity as a mother is what ultimately kills her. We hardly ever see Catelyn with any other identity–illustrating to the audience that while she is a fierce mother, who is she otherwise? In a brutal world, mothers are sacrificed to protect their children. Don’t mothers deserve to have more than one identity? The show aptly raises these questions, intentionally or not.
Then there are the mothers who aren’t as protective and attentive, notably, Selyse Baratheon who willingly allows her daughter to be sacrificially burned alive for her husband’s kinghood. She is brutal— but she survives, unlike Catelyn.
Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies the maddening, fascinating Cersei Lannister, who by all means, could easily be seen as a monster. In many way, she does monstrous, bone-chilling things (like murder people)–and yet, we also find ourselves sympathizing with her, with her ironclad love for her children and her willingness to do anything for them (which is typically why she does awful things).
Cersei becomes the iconic example of someone who is at once an abuser and victim–indeed, her position as a mother allows her to be manipulated and attacked, strikingly vulnerable to her enemies, but also allows her to lash out with the excuse that she’s doing it for her offspring.
Cersei is self-aware of her predicament. She advises Sansa, for example, not to love fully because to love makes you weak, adding that mothers can’t help but love their children, meaning that children are a weakness, a burden.
Joffrey is a burden for Cersei in particular, because he’s completely unstable–and she often has to deal and clean up his messes. Even with her other child, Marcella, she suffers the loss of her daughter who is promised to be married to off to a foreigner (and then later killed). Like Catelyn, Cersei is bound by her role and identity as a mother–the only difference is that Cersei isn’t dead (yet?) and she eventually loses all her children.
Instead, when her third child, Tommen, dies by suicide, Cersei rejects her previous life as a mother–whether or not that is a “morally” sound choice for her to make (and in many ways, what else can she do, but survive?). Cersei’s strength–her calculation, cunning, and need to not just survive, but thrive–is also her downfall, as she eventually becomes the same kind of abuser the men in her life have been to her.
While there are few happy endings and resolutions in the show, and very few shining examples of women being truly empowered, isn’t that true to reality? These women and mothers, while often making choices out of extreme hurt, isolation, and manipulation, also show what they are willing to do for those they love. Their roles as mothers make them powerful and powerless in turn, the ultimate symbols of dualities in a show, and universe—where nothing is black and white, good or bad, or simple in any way.