Watching Game of Thrones this season was an emotional journey, but the trip was less like a jaunty march down the Kingsroad and more like the White Walkers tossing their army of zombies off a cliff. From Sansa to Cersei to Stannis, many characters hit their lowest points yet. Are they all permanently trapped in a depressive tailspin, or is there a dragonfire at the end of the tunnel?
To answer that question, I turned to the person who’s spent the past few years helping me try to answer it for myself: my therapist, Dr. Margie R. Solovay, Ph.D. A psychologist in private practice in New York City for 30 years and a veteran of the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, she’s also a Game of Thrones fan, which is a definite plus when you treat a TV critic.
Below, she helps us rank 14 of the Game’s major players — including a few dead ones, since otherwise it would be a really short list — by their potential for long-term happiness. In the process, she offers some sharp insights into the interpersonal dynamics at work in both Westeros and the real world.
14. Stannis Baratheon
Power-hungry characters are not happy ones. Not to stereotype, but it’s an almost caricature male thing. There are women like that, too, but you know, the masters-of-the-universe, Wall Street types. I do believe that people who are so driven by power feel not very good about themselves at a deep level, and that’s their only way to feel worthwhile. It’s not like they need more money — it’s the power, the status, controlling things. Stannis was always so intense and driven, but it’s not clear why he felt like he had to be. It certainly didn’t seem like he couldn’t wait to be in charge. It may just be that he’s a really rigid thinker — “I must seize the Iron Throne!” — and that’s not a good way to go through a world that’s always changing. If you’re rigid, you can’t adapt, and he doesn’t. I’m biased — how could he do that to his own daughter? — but he almost seemed happiest when Brienne was about to kill him. He got to the point of, “Okay, it’s over, I can take a break.”
13. Jorah Mormont
When you build your life around someone you’re in love with and it’s unrequited, that’s a very heartbreaking way to lead your life. I say that there’s no “one and only” for anyone, but if you have your mind set that there is and you don’t move on, you’re stuck in a problem that you just won’t let yourself get out of. He’s like that. It gives him some purpose, though. I don’t really understand his disease, but if he feels that he can do something for Daenerys, he’ll at least do something for his loved ones before he succumbs. But I would not put him on the happy list.
12. Brienne of Tarth
She’s someone who’s looking for a purpose all the time, and serving people helps her feel like she has some self-worth. At least she does it in a positive way. She picks positive people and tries to really help them, to the point where even after Catelyn Stark is killed, she’s still going to do what she promised her and watch after her kids. But it’s tough on her. And what’s her sexuality? What would she prefer in a partner or love interest? She knew Renly was gay and still loved him. If he was content not to live in a sexual relationship and they could have had a companionship love, maybe she would have been happy with that, but I don’t know what she really wants. There’s no real place in the world for her, so she tries to serve someone who can appreciate it to compensate. It’s a sad compromise she makes.
11. Cersei Lannister
Talk about a power type. She just wants to rule like a despot, and she has no empathy. People like that can be happy because they basically care about themselves and do whatever it takes to anyone else, but I don’t know if they can be happy in a way you and I would want to be happy. And she has all sorts of personality issues besides the lack of empathy that would make it hard for her. She’s always plotting and planning, but it’s never enough. And she’s always in conflict with so many people. Look how many people were happy to kick her when she was down! Her lack of empathy may actually help her recovery: It was a humiliating experience, but she doesn’t care as much as many people do about what people think of her — she cares more about dominating them. If she were humiliated but somehow gets back into power and can really punish various people for it … I don’t know if you’d say she’ll get over it, but I also don’t know if that’s the main damage in her life, anyway.
10. Tyrion Lannister
Somebody who’s rich and privileged but is ignored or abused by their parents is often much worse off. Other people think, Oh, poor little rich kid! but it really doesn’t matter: If you have hardships that are too hard, then it’s very difficult to get over that. Tyrion’s doing better now, but his early hardships really hurt this guy. They made sure he knew he killed his mother in childbirth. His sister wants to kill him. His father was embarrassed of him and was ready to kill him, too. I’m sure he feels at least intellectually justified in killing his father, so he was probably more traumatized by murdering his ex-girlfriend. I guess he felt like he had to, but I’m sure he hasn’t totally come around on that. He may get happier, but I don’t think [he’s] ever gonna be on the top of the happy list. He has so much stuff to deal with, and it’s real.
9. Jon Snow
The suffering hero. Power was more of a burden to him than something that would make him happy, but he felt like he had to use it because he had an obligation to do the right thing. People who feel like they have to change the world because there’s so much wrong with it also have to learn to think about themselves and their own needs. You can’t be completely self-sacrificing unless you want to lead a life where you’re tormented and tortured. It’s an imperfect world — you’re never going to totally succeed, so there’s always going to be this feeling like you’ve got to fix things. And you make imperfect choices, so there will be people hurt along the way, and Jon really feels that. People like that are very likable to other people, but for themselves, it’s hard to live in their inner world.
8. Arya Stark
She’s much angrier than her sister, so I think it would be harder for her to come back around if things went well. Raging types aren’t happy ones, and she’s had it terrible. And she’s younger, too: Sansa had a better life for longer until things started to fall apart. But they’re both very strong girls in different ways, and Arya’s scrappier. Though I’m not sure what this guy she’s hooked up with, Jaqen H’ghar, is all about. Does she even really know what she’s signed up to do right now? It’s like she has no choice. She’s on the run, and I’m not sure how much she’s been indoctrinated versus how much this was just a safe place for her. However, Arya really admired her father, more than Sansa did. That’s why I think she’s not been completely taken over: She looked up to her father, who was really good. It’s dormant right now, but if she were in a different situation, it wouldn’t be so hard to disentangle her.
7. Jaime Lannister
Jaime started out seeming really smug and self-satisfied, but he was overcompensating for his power-hungry father, whom he probably had to strut around to impress. He was his father’s favorite, so he played the role. But while he has a lot of baggage weighing him down, like the incest with Cersei, there’s a little less now that he doesn’t have to strut around so much. He doesn’t seem to feel he has to be an asshole anymore — he can be sweet as well. He saved Tyrion from being executed, which he probably wouldn’t have done a few years earlier. And it was freeing to him that his daughter told him she knew he was her real father, and that she loved him. He’s being redeemed, and he’s better, but he’s such a mess already, and he’s got a lot to live with. I don’t know how he reconciles loving his sister, who’s so cruel, with trying to get his own life on track.
6. Daenerys Targaryen
She’s an interesting one; I’m not really sure about her. Again, she wants to do stuff for the greater good — she feels her family was terrible and wants to show that they can be better. But she doesn’t seem as self-sacrificing as Jon Snow or Ned Stark, so she’s more balanced in that way. She takes care of herself. And she has some ego, but there are all these fantasy things they throw at you with her: She walked through fire, she has dragons who sense when she’s in trouble and breathe fire on her oppressors. So it’s like, how much of this is in her head and how much is true? She’s the Mother of Dragons! She’s got some potential, but she’s a question mark. It’s hard to know.
5. Sansa Stark
Sansa’s got the potential to be happy. First of all, she’s matured a lot. She actually liked Joffrey at the beginning! And given how terrible it’s been for her, she’s not doing too bad. I think that for her, it’s possible to recover from trauma. They show her to be that type. I mean, she’s pretty tough. She never got to the point where she just gives up. She thought everybody in her family was dead, but when it looked like Theon would light that candle and she would be saved, she really thought she was going to be okay. It didn’t go well, but even now she’s got hope again, now that she’s found out her little brothers weren’t killed. And also, she chewed Theon out, but then when she found out her brothers weren’t killed, she backed off. She’s not so angry and vindictive that it’s destructive. She’s appropriately so.
4. Samwell Tarly
This guy has peace. With his background of being bullied, he’s unusual because he doesn’t seem overly insecure. He’s not trying to prove to people, “I’m not really such a wimp!” He does stuff when he has to, not just to prove things. It’s not the usual outcome of his whole set of features for him to be comfortable with himself, but he is. He loves his girlfriend, he loves the baby she named after him, he has purpose, and he’s very comfortable with that. It’s not the overly driven ones who are happy, it’s the ones who find peace within. It sounds so trite, but it’s true.
3. Daario Naharis
It always is better, I think, to go from having less to having more than vice versa. You can be fine depending on your temperament and your experiences. If you have it too hard, then it’s terrible: You can have post-traumatic stress, you can get really damaged emotionally to the point where it’s hard to get over it. But while it’s bad to have hard scars, it’s good to have callouses. Then, if you get more, you’re happy about it, but you know how to do without. So by going in that direction, Daenerys’s lover seems pretty happy.
2. Bronn of the Blackwater
People who take life as it comes and go with the flow tend to be happy. Bronn tries to find the good things, the happy things, in whatever he’s doing. He flirts with one of the Sand Snakes because she happened to be there and she’s pretty and she’s paying attention to him, you know? He’s going to meet life and go for it, but not fight against people to get there. These other people have their plans, and you know the expression, “Man plans, God laughs”? Whether there’s a God or not, the universe laughs. You can’t really plan, obviously — they keep showing that over and over. You make general plans and you constantly adjust. Bronn has that style.
1. Shireen Baratheon
It’s certainly not a happy bunch of characters, but Shireen, the little girl they burned at the stake, was happy. This girl’s really got that temperament, for whatever reason — a real look-on-the-bright-side attitude. People vary naturally, I think. Obviously their circumstances can change or modify that, but she just must have been way over on that side. She was happy doing her thing in that isolated room, helping Davos when he’d come to visit. She wasn’t interested in impressing people. She wasn’t so upset about the damaged skin on her face. She’s had a pretty depressing existence, objectively, but she doesn’t look at it that way. It goes to show that it’s not about objective reality at all. She was one of the few happy people on this show, I’d say. Until they burned her.