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Game of Thrones is better when there are more Starks on screen

Even after all this time, the family remains the heart of the story.

Game of Thrones
Sansa has turned out to be a more important player than we might have imagined.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. First up this week is culture editor Todd VanDerWerff.

Todd VanDerWerff: If you break down "The Door" on a scene-by-scene level, the episode spends far more time with the Starks than any episode of Game of Thrones since probably mid-season four. (I didn't go through and rewatch all of them, but based on a quick scan of plot lines, it's been a while since we've seen anything so Stark-heavy, especially given that Bran sat out season five.)

Some of this is due to the happenstance of Arya, Sansa, and Bran all having major storylines in the same episode (with Jon sharing the screen with Sansa for much of her running time). When we weren't with them, we were with Dany, Tyrion, or the Greyjoys, but the weight of the hour tilted Starkward because the three eldest surviving children of Ned and Catelyn Stark were all making major discoveries about themselves.

And this has me thinking that, for as much as Game of Thrones was about the Stark family being utterly dismantled for a while there, season six has shown itself to be about how said family might put itself back together again. Sure, Rickon is being held captive by Ramsay, but Sansa and Jon are plotting to retake Winterfell, Arya is becoming a deadly assassin, and Bran has discovered the ancient wisdom of the universe.

In some ways, I wonder if this is the show recognizing something fundamental: For as many sidebars and tangents as the narrative wanders off on, and for as enjoyable as many of those storylines are, Game of Thrones has always been the story of two families, the Starks and the Lannisters.

The books came to that conclusion a bit more slowly. In the first one, there are six Stark point-of-view characters (Ned, Cat, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Jon) to the one Lannister point-of-view character (Tyrion); Daenerys is the only point-of-view character from neither family. And even though the Starks are separated by many miles in that book, they have their dream of home and family to cling to.

Naturally, that dream is shattered after Ned's execution. And though Cat and Robb (the Stark brother who isn't a point-of-view character in the books) are also killed, the Starks have actually proved to be quite good at surviving the Westerosi turmoil that surrounds them at all times. Sure, one of them has decamped for another continent and another has been living in a tree, but now that they've emerged from their period of training, they're ready to burn the world to the ground.

Game of Thrones gets lots of credit for not employing the traditional hero's journey in its storytelling, but when you look at it a little more closely, that's because all the characters who are actually going on hero's journeys within it (both on screen and on the page) aren't the typical white male protagonists you'd expect.

Sure, Jon, right down to his bastard lineage, fits that template, but the others tend to be women, or have a disability, or are a little person. There's an early episode of the show called "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things," and the implication of that title seems clearer now: The unexpected will inherit the Seven Kingdoms.

The TV show obscured the "Stark hero's journey" aspect of the books, because after so many Starks died (and so many of the rest were scattered), it started setting more and more of its action in King's Landing, among the Lannisters. This was, I think, a natural choice, and one that has borne some rich fruit. But the Lannisters' goal has always been to hold on to power, which is ultimately less dramatically interesting than an unexpected hero coming to wield the great power he's only recently learned he has.

Add to this the fact that the sequence where the hero is trained is such a bland part of the hero's journey that many films dispense with it in a montage, and you can hopefully see what I'm getting at. George R.R. Martin's fourth and fifth books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, are more ruminative, much more about the parts of the journey where the hero doubts herself, only to emerge stronger on the other side. And that's anathema to a TV show, which requires constant forward momentum.

So seasons four and five of the show often got bogged down in pointless narrative games and endless status shifts. But now, in season six, characters like the Starks and Daenerys have finally emerged from the underworld of doubt and stepped back into the light. It's taken forever for them to arrive, but now that they're here, it feels all the more earned.

Read the recap.

Last week's discussion.

Watch: The secret about Game of Thrones