Most fathers do not gift their children pups with the following loving refrain: “Train them yourself, feed them yourself, and bury them yourself if they die.” But it’s evident from the start of Game of Thrones that Ned Stark (Sean Bean) isn’t your usual TV father, and the puppies he bestows to his six children in the opening episode aren’t going to grow up to be your typical pet.
Because this mythological breed of canine was the official symbol of the Stark family, direwolves were a key component of the show’s symbolism from the first episode. But, beyond the family’s flag, direwolves offered more than just a foretaste of the magical elements that would soon come to dominate the story. Because what’s fascinating about the show’s treatment of direwolves is how they end up functioning as a microcosm of both the best and worst elements of Game of Thrones.
Ned and some of the younger Starks are coming back home after a day of fugitive when they come upon a dead direwolf in the woods in “Winter Is Coming.” Ned’s first thought is to put her orphaned pups to sleep, but Jon Snow (Kit Harington) persuades him to give them to the Stark children instead, because there are five puppies and five Starks. (As befitting a member of the Stark family, Jon is given the white runt discovered minutes later.)
Scenes featuring the Stark direwolves provide immediate insight into the show’s deeper layers. For example, Theon’s (Alfie Allen) attitude at the scene where the puppies are found is a near-perfect synthesis of the character faults that will eventually lead to his disastrous future: After judging the direwolf as a “freak” at first sight, he jumps forward to kill the puppy Bran was always cradling after Ned advises that they should be put out of their suffering. He’s a boy yearning to feel like a true gentleman, lacking the the inside strength and integrity to obey his own correct path, and those qualities will start contributing to his not-exactly-unexpected demise.
But it’s the second episode in the series, “The Kingsroad,” when they really shine as a component of the tale, confirming for the audience that anyone can die at any time, and frequently for completely wrong reasons. During a rest stop, a drunk Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) gets into a fight with Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Mycah the butcher’s boy, while King Robert (Mark Addy), the Lannister clan, Ned Stark, and Ned Stark’s daughters are highway from the North to King’s Landing (Rhodri Hosking). Joffrey’s bullying is put to an end when Arya’s direwolf Nymeria attacks him, but in retaliation, the King and Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) slay Mycah and demand the execution of Sansa’s direwolf Lady.
Killing a dog on cinema is a taboo that some viewers may find so offensive that they will refuse to watch — even if it’s a film like John Wick, where the dog’s murder serves as the catalyst for the titular character’s deadly vengeance against… wow, Alfie Allen again! I guess he discovered his calling.) Despite this, everything about this story point is crucial to comprehending Ned Stark as a person, the Baratheons and Lannisters as rulers, and Westeros as a country.
Lady’s death was horrific at the time in Game of Thrones — while the actual deed unfolds mostly off-screen, those awful cries of puppy slaughter are hard to forget — yet it didn’t feel particularly gratuitous… At least, compared to what was about to happen. Grey Wind was killed by same men who killed his human partner during the Red Wedding, and his head was beheaded to create the gruesome visual of his head placed on Robb Stark’s body; Shaggydog was also decapitated when Rickon Stark was captured; and Bran’s beloved Summer can save his boy’s life one final time by having to sacrifice himself to the white walkers at the cave of the Three-Eyed Raven.
Nymeria’s disappearance in “The Kingsroad” is also significant for the show since it illustrates yet another characteristic Game of Thrones trait: the insertion of dangling story strands that will never be resolved satisfactorily. The question of whether Nymeria would ever reappear was debated for years, and was finally answered in Season 7, when Arya runs into her former dog in the wild, leading a pack of non-dire-y wolves — a total let down of a reveal that made us wonder why we cared in the first place, and a very common emotion to feel during the series’ final years.
There’s Ghost, about the only Stark direwolf to see the series through to the end. While Ghost appeared in all 8 seasons of the show, he was mostly an afterthought, owing to the fact that going to film a doggo the size of a pony (as full-grown direwolves do) is a fairly expensive visual effect — but also because, like many other characters on the show, the scriptwriters simply didn’t know what to do with them.
If they were viciously cut down to demonstrate the cruelty of George R.R. Martin’s brand of narrative, casually killed as collateral damage, or forgotten about entirely, these six puppies discovered in the season premiere represent so much about how the show seized our attention and earned our frustration. Anyway, you can watching all Game of Thrones’ series online at 123Movies.