What marks the difference between loyalty and betrayal?
In Season 2, Theon Greyjoy appeared to be loyal to the Starks when he first sailed for the Iron Islands. He brought Robb Stark’s letter to his father, and he seemed determined to be the bridge between the Starks and the Greyjoys that Robb needed. Soon enough, though, Theon switched his loyalties and pulled the rug out from under Winterfell. As reprehensible as his decision was, and as destructive as his actions turned out to be, Theon’s betrayal of Robb came from a place of very human need.
Theon wanted to be part of a family.
They had always taken good care of him, but he grew tired of being told how lucky he was to be held hostage by the Starks. Thus, when Balon Greyjoy told him what he needed to do to be part of the Greyjoy family, Theon was vulnerable to his original father’s demands. He turned his cloak to the detriment of Winterfell and ultimately himself, all because he was trying to be a good son.
Only after Theon had been prisoner by the Boltons did he admit to himself that Ned Stark had been a better father to him than Balon Greyjoy could ever be. He betrayed his adoptive family in favor of his birth family. As a consequence, he lost both those families and much of himself.
There are many characters in Game of Thrones who are defined by their loyalties, whether genuine or false, to other characters. There are the players, and then there are many more who act in support of the players. Sometimes, those supporters turn out to be the players’ worst enemies.
A Place in the World
For those who act in support of the players, they have their own needs motivating their loyalties, and usually, those needs are fairly simple to understand and easily met. There are many characters who need a secure place in the world, a job to do, or a sense that they are working for good people. The Starks have a varied array of people working for them, including Hodor and Maester Luwin. A recent addition to their family’s support system is Osha, who wants to stay south of the Wall and grows attached to her “little lords.”
In Dorne, Prince Doran Martell has his guard, Areo Hotah, to help him keep the peace. Across the Narrow Sea, Grey Worm and Missandei are loyal and capable supporters to Daenerys. They want to be good at their jobs, but without being enslaved, and they pledge their loyalty to the woman who gave them ownership over themselves.
The most loyal of the supporter characters is Ser Davos Seaworth. He grew up in poverty and became a smuggler, which provided the skill set he used to come to Stannis’ aid during the Siege of Storm’s End. This good deed gave way to Stannis’ famous balancing of scales, in which Davos was rewarded for his service with knighthood and lands, and lost four fingers as punishment for smuggling. Because Ser Davos wanted a better life for his children, he accepted Stannis’ offer and became the most loyal landed knight in the Seven Kingdoms. He remains convinced, over a decade later, that Stannis is the last, best hope for Westeros, because he gave Davos the means to keep his sons out of Flea Bottom.
Good at Their Jobs
There are those who want a job to do and choose to serve the people who give them the means to do their best work. Barristan Selmy was not ready to retire as a Kingsguard knight when Queen Cersei dismissed him, so he sought employment with Daenerys Targaryen, whom he loyally advised and protected until his death in Season 5. Ser Barristan may have also been acting on guilt over Rhaegar’s death, and saw Rhaegar’s sister as his chance at redemption. Syrio Forel was a loyal and dedicated teacher to Arya Stark—teaching children how to water dance was what he did best. Qyburn is a loyal advisor to Cersei because she gives him space to do his experiments.
Podrick, the most loyal squire of all time, wants to be a knight, and to make that happen, he needs to learn by serving competent people. He gave 100% with Tyrion because Tyrion was a capable statesman who taught him all about politics and gave Podrick the sense of being in a good place and doing good things. When Tyrion warned him to get out of the city, Podrick still needed to work for and learn from someone, and because Tyrion was a gentle master, Podrick still sought connection with the Lannisters, so he must have gone to Jaime for a new job. Jaime didn’t need another squire, but he did know a capable fighter who was about to head north on a new mission. Podrick’s combat training was inconsistent up to that point, so he jumped at the chance to work with Brienne.
When she opened up to him following their encounter with Littlefinger and Sansa, she gave him what he’d been waiting for all that time: she would teach him how to ride a horse and fight. As such, Podrick is interested in being a loyal and diligent squire first, and in serving the mission second. Podrick’s thoughts on pursuing Sansa Stark were ambivalent in Season 5, but when he saw Stannis Baratheon’s army approaching Winterfell, he made sure to tell Brienne right away. He is loyal to Brienne first and concerned about Sansa later, and he is loyal to Brienne because she is helping him become a knight.
Finally, there’s Tyrion in his role as Dany’s new advisor. He liked his job as Hand of the King, except for the part where he had to deal with his revolting nephew, the vicious idiot King Joffrey. He sees a chance to play a similar role with Dany, so he takes that over drinking himself to death, and if helping Dany means waging war on his sister, that doesn’t bother him.
There are those who choose their allegiance in the interests of completing their mission. The Reed siblings know they need certain things to be done, and getting those things done requires Bran to develop his magical powers, so they have made sure to get Bran the training he needs. Their father, Howland Reed, is an old friend of Ned Stark’s and may be emotionally invested in the Stark family, but so far he has not shown up on Bran’s journey. With Jojen being so fragile, he and Meera must have had reason to help and guide Bran beyond a desire to please their father.
When Arya Stark came to Jaqen H’Ghar’s aid at Harrenhal, he was determined to help her in return, but it’s no coincidence that his helping her led straight to her joining his order of assassins in Braavos. His idea of helping the girl was to kill people, and the conclusion of his helping her was to teach her to be a killer.
Varys gave up his seat on the Small Council when he escorted Tyrion Lannister across the Narrow Sea, and when they arrived in Pentos, Varys revealed what his interest in the realm had been for years: he wants to bring about a regime change in Westeros. He sees Daenerys as a correction to the mistakes of Robert Baratheon’s reign of neglect and indifference. His interest in Dany is in the good she can do for the Seven Kingdoms.
The most notorious example of a character whose loyalty is determined by a mission is Melisandre. She saw Stannis as the subject of a prophecy, and as a true believer in the Lord of Light, she invested herself in Stannis’ campaign for the crown and served him accordingly. At some point, she realized she needed to be serving someone else, and she subtly guided Stannis into destroying his family. She was always loyal to her beliefs, her god and her prophecy, and the moment she realized Stannis Baratheon did not play a role in that prophecy, she became his worst enemy.
Ellaria Sand was perfectly honest from the start that she wanted war as revenge on the Lannisters for Oberyn’s death. In her campaign for revenge, she pretended to be repentant just long enough for Doran Martell to let her out of his sight, and then she went right ahead and poisoned Myrcella, which is not what Oberyn would have wanted.
Not that Oberyn is such a good example of a character with the most well-advised motivations. When he volunteered to be Tyrion’s champion, it was partly to defend an innocent man against injustice, but it was mostly to get revenge on Gregor Clegane and confirmation of Tywin Lannister’s role in the deaths of Oberyn’s sister Elia and her children. Oberyn put up a surprisingly capable fight against the Mountain and probably would have beaten him if he hadn’t been so eager to put on a show and force a confession from his opponent. Instead, he waited too long and lost his chance to deliver the killing blow before the Mountain crushed his head. He died because his vengeance for a sister who couldn’t be brought back to life was more important than justice for an innocent man who still had a life to live.
Some characters want power for themselves and their families. When it comes to them, any supposed friendship can be used as a weapon. There are two characters who are excellent examples of those who are most loyal to the pursuit of power: Littlefinger and Lady Olenna.
They both claim to be allies to the Lannisters. In Olenna’s case, she’s loyal to them as long as her grandchildren aren’t in danger of violence. She saw Margaery about to marry the notoriously sadistic Joffrey, and she conspired with Littlefinger to kill him before he had time to consummate his marriage. Littlefinger knew perfectly well that the circumstances of Joffrey’s death would lead to Tyrion’s arrest, which suited his plans to fit Sansa Stark into his campaign for world domination. Olenna didn’t seem to mind that an innocent Lannister was being tried for his nephew’s murder.
When Cersei orchestrated Loras and Margaery’s arrests by the Faith Militant, Littlefinger helped her by providing Olyvar Frey as a witness, thus proving he’s no more loyal to the Tyrells than to the Lannisters. Following her grandchildren’s arrests, Olenna threatened to expose Littlefinger’s role in Joffrey’s death, thus proving that she knows not to trust him any farther than she can watch him with her own eyes, and he responded by giving her the gift of information that led to Cersei’s arrest. Littlefinger’s language to Cersei in Season 5, Episode 6 is revealing: “I know how hard it is to lose both parents at a young age.” This is not an observation so much as a threat. He fully intends to put Cersei in an early grave, and in that much, he has Olenna’s cooperation.
The Lannisters may prove a more complicated target than the Starks, who’ve already fallen victim to Littlefinger’s machinations. Ned Stark lost his head due to a confluence of factors, including making the mistake of trusting Littlefinger to direct the City Watch to his benefit. Catelyn Stark found out about Littlefinger’s role in her husband’s death, but Sansa Stark still doesn’t know how Littlefinger’s betrayal led her father’s arrest and execution. She trusted him long enough to let him deliver her to the Boltons at Winterfell, not knowing he was busy hatching another plan involving Cersei naming him Warden of the North.
I’m sure Sansa understands now that trusting Littlefinger was a bad idea, if for no other reason than that he doesn’t know the Boltons as well as he thinks, but what she may not realize is that Lady Olenna was no true friend of hers, either. When Lady Olenna asked Sansa about Joffrey, she was doing so in the interests of Margaery’s welfare, and with Sansa’s account of Joffrey’s cruelty in mind, Olenna helped Littlefinger arrange Joffrey’s death, which led to Tyrion’s arrest, which made Sansa a fugitive from the royal family. Neither the Lannisters nor the Starks are safe from Littlefinger and Olenna. The latter is loyal to the interests of her family, which means keeping others under control. The former is loyal to himself, and he believes knowledge is power and chaos is a ladder.
Also worth mentioning as loyal to his own power is Roose Bolton. He appeared to be loyal to the Starks at first, and up to a point, he may have been sincere, but at some point he realized Robb Stark couldn’t win the war, and he began making other allies, including his new wife’s grandfather, Walder Frey, and the Starks’ chief adversary, Tywin Lannister. Roose is loyal only as long as he feels he’s on the winning side. He’s willing to cooperate with those who seem to be able to help him get and keep power, and the moment they seem to be falling apart, Roose helps them into early graves. He drove his sword through Robb Stark’s chest, he wrecked his alliance with the Lannisters by marrying Sansa Stark to his son Ramsay, and he clearly doesn’t trust Littlefinger any more than Olenna does, which is probably still too much.
There are some whose primary concern is being on the winning side. Grand Maester Pycelle insists to Tyrion that he serves House Lannister, which in his case means serving the interests of whoever is most powerful at the moment. At that time in Season 2, that was Cersei. Now that Cersei has done her Walk of Shame, Pycelle is no longer there for her. It doesn’t help that she’s treated him so unkindly ever since she met Qyburn. Now that Cersei is no longer in charge, we’ll probably see Pycelle at Ser Kevan’s service in Season 6.
Then there’s “the late” Walder Frey, famous for that time he brought his troops to battle only after the battle was finished. Lord Walder may be described as “risk averse,” and with that in mind, it was quite an achievement by the Starks to get him on their side for as long as they did. His willingness to commit his castle, lands, family, and gold to the Starks’ cause depended on certain rewards, such as the promise of having one of his daughters married to the King in the North, which meant he would have a grandson as a king. The Starks did a much better job of winning battles than fighting a war, and when Frey heard of Robb being married to some foreigner, he lost interest in committing his resources to the Starks’ less-than-organized campaign for independence. Instead, Lord Frey made arrangements with Tywin Lannister and Roose Bolton to get rid of the Starks and imprison Edmure Tully, which put Riverrun under control of the Freys and made Bolton the new Warden of the North, with Lord Frey’s granddaughter Walda as the new Lady Bolton. Walder Frey was never loyal to the Starks or the Tullys. He was loyal to the idea of himself being among the winners.
When we think of a person being loyal to another person, we’re usually thinking in terms of loyalty as an emotional connection. There are plenty of characters in Game of Thrones who choose their loyalties, or appear to do so, based on such connections. Sam Tarly is the most straightforward example; he’s the best friend Jon Snow could ever ask for. It was arguably not in Jon’s best interest when Sam campaigned for him to become Lord Commander, but he could always count on Sam’s support no matter where he was. Most other characters in this category are acting on motivations that are harder to pin down.
Sandor Clegane could have gone on comfortably employed with the Lannisters, but somewhere along the way he decided he preferred Ned Stark’s daughters to Joffrey, so when he was asked to fight a battle with wildfire lighting up the sky, he deserted. He abandoned a prestigious position in the Kingsguard and asked Sansa to come with him when he left the city. She declined, so he made her wild little sister Arya his new traveling companion until he was wounded and she left him to die. I am sure he is still alive, now learning how to live without fighting, and when we next hear him in his own words, he’ll want to know how his Little Bird and She-Wolf are doing.
Jorah Mormont is an especially tricky case. He was initially interested in getting a pardon from Robert Baratheon, the idea presumably being that he’d return to Westeros and resume his life as a nobleman. However, he soon became loyal to Daenerys. Even after she banished him, he could have chosen to return to Westeros, but instead he applied himself to winning back her favor so he could go back to serving her. He’s obviously in love with Dany, which complicates his return to her service; he wants to be near her, but doesn’t want her to know he has greyscale. What did Daenerys offer him, without even knowing she had competition, that he didn’t get from the Baratheon regime? Connection, a sense of doing something great and being on the right side of history, and the music of dragons.
Daario has also grown very fond of Daenerys, and while she hired him as a fighter, not an advisor, he still sees fit to tell her how to rule.
Ser Bronn of the Blackwater has been known as Tyrion’s friend since late in the first season, but he would not have been available to do the things he’s done had Tyrion not paid him a living wage for his services. Bronn needs a steady job. He’s not a young man, and his goal is to attain a life of wealth and stability, with a wife and children and his own castle in which he can drink his own wine. He would have gotten that from a marriage to Lollys Stokeworth, which is why he accepted Cersei’s deal and agreed not to testify on Tyrion’s behalf, much less fight for him against the Mountain. Tyrion thought he had Bronn’s loyalty as a friend, but that wasn’t enough to convince Bronn to risk his life. He really had Bronn’s loyalty as an employee, and when that was taken away, his loyalty as a friend wasn’t quite enough to get Tyrion what he wanted.
That said, Tyrion’s friendship with Bronn turned out much better than his love affair with Shae, who wanted to be with him and didn’t take it well when Tyrion told her to get lost. Perhaps if he’d found a way to cut her out of his life without telling her she wasn’t fit to bear his children, she wouldn’t have been vulnerable to Cersei’s demands. It was a genuine, loving connection while it lasted, but the connection put her life in danger, so Tyrion thought he was saving her life when he spurned her. Instead, his attempt to save her life ironically led to her being his first murder victim.
With the possible exception of Jorah, the character who experiences the most emotional turmoil when it comes to choosing loyalties is probably Brienne. Her talk with Podrick in Season 5 showed us what really drives her: having been treated like a “great, lumbering beast” all her life, she wants to be accepted and appreciated. Renly Baratheon had no business making himself king, but because he came to her aid when she felt like the “ugliest girl in the world,” she fought for a place in his Kingsguard and was still convinced as of the Season 5 finale that he was the “rightful king of the Andals and the First Men.” Because he underestimated his brother, he died in Brienne’s arms, and because she was the one in the tent when it happened, she took the blame for his death.
She had to go somewhere following his death, and the surest and closest connection was with Catelyn Stark, who saw how Renly died and made Brienne feel wanted and cared-for at the worst time of her life. She immediately threw herself into serving Lady Catelyn and eagerly took up the assignment of trading Jaime Lannister for Lady Catelyn’s daughters. The mission didn’t go as planned, and because Jaime opened up to Brienne in his time of vulnerability, she became his new best friend.
Because of Brienne’s friendship, Jaime became interested in protecting Sansa Stark after her escape from King’s Landing, so he gave Brienne a priceless sword made from Ned Stark’s steel to look after Ned Stark’s daughter. Because of the memory of her connection to Catelyn, together with Jaime’s trust in her, Brienne accepted the mission on both their behalves: “I’ll find her. For Lady Catelyn. And for you.”
All that time she traveled north with Podrick, the memory of her connection to Catelyn kept her going. She followed her lady’s daughter Sansa up to Winterfell, she made a plan, and she stood out there in the wind and snow, all day, every day, for weeks on end, waiting for a candle to light up in that tower. We are left to wonder when exactly Brienne had a chance to do things like sleep while she devoted herself to her promise to become Sansa’s protector.
The first time Brienne spoke to Sansa, Littlefinger made sure to remind her that she had been accused of Renly’s murder. I don’t think he even believed she was guilty of such a thing, but Brienne knew there were others who thought she was Renly’s killer. She would have died for her king had it been possible, and by allowing Brienne to take the blame for his foolish little brother’s death, Stannis did profound harm to her sense of herself as a good person who does the right thing and keeps her promises.
Brienne framed her decision to kill Stannis in terms of having sworn vows to Renly, and it’s true that in Westerosi culture, most knights would agree she had a duty to avenge her fallen king. The memory of her connection to Catelyn, the idea of her bond with Jaime, and the possibility of Sansa lighting her candle in the tower at any second were not enough to keep Brienne standing there at that spot for one more moment when Stannis showed up with his army. When Brienne walked away from her spot in view of the broken tower, she was not only doing her duty by Renly, she was fighting for the part of herself she lost when she took the blame for her king’s death. When she interrogated Stannis about his brother’s murder, it was not simply an accusation, but a question. Those two simple words from Stannis—“I did”—confirmed to Brienne that she was not crazy when she saw Renly being stabbed by a shadow, that no other human protector could have saved her king, and that she had finally found his true killer. In exchange for Stannis giving her a prompt, honest answer, Brienne gave him a quick death when there was no one left to fight for him.
I doubt Brienne feels much better now that Stannis is dead, but no part of her promises to protect a living girl offered her a chance to reclaim the part of herself that Renly’s murder took away. The conflict between her vows to Renly and her promises to Catelyn was an example of Jaime’s pronouncement in Season 2: “So many vows. They make you swear and swear. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.” While Brienne fulfilled her duty to Renly, Sansa finally sent her distress signal, and Brienne couldn’t fulfill her duties to Catelyn and Jaime. When no one broke through the battle to storm the castle, Sansa joined hands with Theon and jumped off the wall.
Speaking of Sansa and Theon jumping off the walls of Winterfell, that suicide attempt was an act of defiance against their mutual abuser Ramsay Bolton, and a tremendous turnaround for Theon. Since the end of Season 3, Theon has given every appearance of having surrendered his identity to Ramsay, but his was the behavior of a traumatized torture victim, not a devoted servant like Hodor. Ever since he witnessed their wedding night, Theon was pulled in one direction by Sansa demanding his help, telling him he was Theon Greyjoy, and in the other by Ramsay making sure he was still Loyal Reek. Before the battle outside Winterfell, Sansa scored an unexpected victory over her sadistic new husband when she screamed at Theon to “look me in the face and tell me they weren’t your brothers!”
That act of boldness won her the gift of knowing her little brothers were still alive. When she yelled at Theon about what he had supposedly done to Bran and Rickon, she reminded him of the truth he had waited too long to accept in Season 2: he had a family in the Starks. If Bran and Rickon were his brothers, then it followed that Sansa was his sister. When she stood up to Myranda and stared death in the face, she gave Theon another gift: the idea that there may still be some of him left, and he could still keep Ramsay from taking it away. Given the choice between the woman who was involved in his castration, and the girl who insisted he still belonged to himself, who told him her family was his family, and who believed he could help her, he pushed the former to her death and joined hands with the latter. By marching Sansa up to the wall from which they jumped, Theon reclaimed a part of himself that he had believed up until that day was lost forever. When he chose Sansa over Ramsay, Theon may have expected to die, but he knew whose side he was on.