In the Game Of Thrones episode “Hardhome,” from season five of the HBO fantasy series, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) recounts her day to Jaqen H’ghar, the mysterious man who runs the House Of Black And White, temple to the many-faced god. She is creating an alternate identity of Lanna, a girl selling mollusks out of a wheelbarrow in Braavos. She tells him of her routine, and he gives her new orders. There’s no sugar-coating, and no explanation given. Change a few words, and the exchange wouldn’t sound out of place from a particularly stand-offish corporate coordinator giving a fellow employee an assignment.
Only one episode prior, Lady Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), the so-called “Queen Of Thorns,” met with several important men: The High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) and Lord Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillen). In both of these meetings, just as in her encounter with Cersei Lannister the previous episode, Olenna is respected, both for her position of authority and her fierce intellect. Even when sparring verbally with her, Cersei is duly egalitarian, just as the High Sparrow is when responding to Olenna’s threats in kind, or Baelish acts in his strategic subservience. Each encounter leaves Lady Olenna more informed and less at risk.
These two situations, though not key moments, share one trait: They both involve a character either very young or very old being treated as an individual, not an inferior. Arya is approximately 15 years old, and Olenna, though her exact age is unknown, must be roughly in her late 60s. It’s not noteworthy in the world of the series to have such encounters, where the young and old alike are dealt with simply as fellow people, but that’s exactly what makes it so striking in the world of television. On TV, kids and the elderly aren’t characters of a certain age so much as they tend to be characters who exist in order to be a certain age. In the world of the small screen, as in life, ageism is rampant, and that’s what makes the treatment of age in the Game Of Thrones universe so impressive.
Certain forms of pop-culture ageism have been called out repeatedly in recent years—primarily, Hollywood’s treatment of women as they get older, which gets the bonus “-ism” of also being appallingly sexist. Whether it’s Amy Schumer celebrating Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ “last fuckable day” or Meryl Streep and Jessica Chastain calling out the way women past a certain age are treated, the doubly unfair standard applied to women is at least recognized, even if it’s difficult to measure progress in that arena. Television, in that realm, is leading the way to a degree, with new roles for older women and increased visibility for those who have been relegated to the margins in cinema. From Viola Davis on How To Get Away With Murder to Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin headlining Grace And Frankie, the small screen has proven at least slightly more welcoming for these actors.
But children and the elderly receive no such awareness campaigns. This is, in part, understandable: Young people are not exactly being discriminated against. Popular culture is largely about catering to the tastes of youth, and the need to educate children—though it prevents them from being subject to the same expectations as adults—is a laudable goal. Studies differ on the degree to which children’s brains are still developing, but it’s safe to say teenagers shouldn’t be considered fully mature individuals (unless, of course, some get-tough-on-crime asshole is out to make an example of them). But the University Of Rochester Medical Center says the rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed until around age 25, and let’s be honest—no one is out there treating Daniel Radcliffe like he’s still not capable of being mature.
But children on television are largely there as children, not as individuals interacting with others on an equal footing. Plots on everything from Modern Family to Grey’s Anatomy revolve around dealing with kids as those not able to make responsible decisions. Nearly half of the stories of sitcoms like Last Man Standing or Malcolm In The Middle depend on kids making stupid decisions for the simple reason that they’re, well, kids. This might be a wholly reasonable way to deal with young people in real life, but it’s a hell of a thing to be so universally applied to small-screen storytelling.
The case for the elderly, however, is much more damning. As legendary TV producer Norman Lear noted during a recent interview for CBS News, “Where are the old people?” He pointed out the pervasive lack of any sustained depictions of older people on American television—and when they do show up, it’s to be relegated to the patronizing margins, as kooky neighbors or out-of-it grandparents. Consider the grandparents on, say, Everybody Loves Raymond, who primarily exist to deliver biting wisecracks, as though they vanished in a puff of smoke whenever the other characters weren’t around. This is the norm, not the exception. It’s been a long time since The Golden Girls were a force to be reckoned with in primetime.
But Thrones, possessing HBO-backed credibility combined with its singular source material, treats age in an incredibly progressive way—for good or ill depending on your point of view. A lot of the credit, obviously, should go to George R.R. Martin and his series of novels. In his books, kids are given no quarter simply for their youth. It’s a reflection of the cruel, capricious world Martin set out to create: We talk a lot about protecting the young, but are they really ever any safer or less likely to accidentally die in random or accidental tragedy? Martin takes that reasoning to its logical conclusion in A Song Of Ice And Fire, where if you’re old enough to talk, you’re old enough to be put to work, or make decisions, or live and die like anyone else in the harsh environs of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond.
A quick assessment of some of the show’s longest-running protagonists is testament to the relegation of age as merely another factor in a character’s identity, rather than their defining quality. Consider Sansa Stark, a young woman often pitied for the seeming unending series of misfortunes visited upon her. Regularly overlooked is her resilience in the face of such traumas, proof that even when characters within Game Of Thrones disparage her as a thoughtless young woman, the program itself never does so. As The A.V. Club argued last year, “Sansa’s greatest skill has been her ability to sit and stare, sharing feast after feast with monsters while presumably finding small solace in midnight lemon cakes.” Sophie Turner herself spoke to Sansa’s strength in an interview with TV Guide:
This is what frustrates me. People don’t like Sansa because she is feminine. It annoys me that people only like the female characters when they act like male characters. And they always go on about feminism. Like, you’re rooting for the people who look like boys, who act like boys, who fight like boys. Root for the girls who wear dresses and are intellectually very strong.
Similarly, season three of the series saw Arya Stark on the run with her fellow youth Gendry and Hot Pie, after Jaqen H’ghar helped them escape from Harrenhal. There’s nothing about that sequence that disparages them as children, even if there’s the occasional immature comment from Hot Pie—and immature comments are often just as likely to come from decades-old characters. They’re simply three people on the run, and even after being taken in by the Brotherhood Without Banners, they’re treated more like prisoners than children. In Westeros, age may be a clue to abilities, but it’s rarely a trait that earns you a pass or a patronizing pat on the head. And for those who do treat them as such, there’s usually the sharp end of a knife awaiting that folly.
On the older end of the age spectrum, Lady Olenna is just one example of senior characters on Game Of Thrones being the most respected, rather than punchlines. When Jon Snow first arrives at the Wall, his mentor isn’t the greatest fighter, it’s Maester Aemon, the blind old man who embodies wisdom. Despite the other Watchers scorning him, the show treats Aemon with gravitas and dignity, right up until his death. He has almost no power—one of the only true currencies recognized in the Seven Kingdoms—yet he retains the respect and individuality afforded any other younger, more vital character. And power itself is only one factor of a person, one still outweighed by personality. Tommen, the boy king, is ignored to as large a degree as Joffrey was reviled—but never for their youth, only their demeanors. And the most fearsome man in all of Westeros, Tywin Lannister (R.I.P.), is portrayed by 69-year-old Charles Dance; the idea of anyone marginalizing him is laughable.
Game Of Thrones is the closest thing in existence to a TV show that all but ignores age as an element in the representation of characters. This isn’t to say there aren’t other cases to be found, though none so all-encompassing in treating both children and adults with equal seriousness. And just as cable and pay-TV channels often led the way in terms of broader diversity and representation, so too are streaming services now at the forefront of new advancements. Amazon’s Transparent, along with the aforementioned Netflix series Grace And Frankie, depict seniors grappling with life with all the passion and vigor of their confused and conflicted younger adults. And thoughtful series like The 100 engage teenage protagonists with all the respect and seriousness accorded its adults. But such disregard for age is rare. TV, like most storytelling formats, normally relies on shorthand signifiers to convey broad strokes about characters, and age is one of the most obvious and dependable. “Kids will be kids”; “Call this an unfair generalization if you must, but old people are no good at everything”; these are the go-to considerations of the majority of entertainment. In this arena, as in so many more, Game Of Thrones is breaking the mold.