By Nick Kazden
More than any other symbol, direwolves — and the Stark sigil they inspire — play a significant role in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire mythos. Yet, despite how synonymous their image is with the series, the beasts are underappreciated in Game of Thrones.
With the Night King defeated, the focus of the series is pivoting from magical forces to the political complexities of ruling and rebuilding. In the most recent episode (Season 8, Episode 4, "The Last of the Starks"), Jon sends his direwolf Ghost beyond the Wall — or what's left of it — with Tormund and the rest of the freefolk. The "lackluster goodbye" was criticized by fans and critics alike.
But in the books, the relationship between Stark and direwolf runs much deeper. It’s implied that all of Ned Stark’s children have warging abilities, and each of them, sans Sansa, have embodied their direwolves at certain moments. In an effort to emphasize Bran’s transformation into the Three-Eyed Raven, the remaining Starks’ magical abilities were suppressed on television. While that did help distinguish Bran as destined for mystical greatness, it also had the unintended consequence of diminishing the direwolves overall presence in the show.
At the beginning of the series, the Starks discover a dead wolf and her six pups, one for each Stark child to raise as their own. So far in the books, only Grey Wind, Robb's wolf, and Lady, Sansa’s wolf, have actually died. Their deaths in the show, practically identical to the books, reinforce how meaningful the links between the wolves and their caretakers are. Grey Wind is restrained during the Red Wedding, but he can sense something wrong with Robb, sending him into a violent uproar. In death, the two are even sewn together and paraded around to mock the slain Young Wolf, an image that symbolizes just how interconnected the two were. Similarly, Lady's untimely death foreshadows Sansa’s entire arc, the loss of innocence and the foregoing of childhood dreams to survive a harsh world. Unfortunately, ever since the show ran out of directly adaptable direwolf moments, the canines’ significance has slipped.
After the events of Season 5, the show officially surpassed the source material of the books. And while showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are following Martin’s overall plan, they're taking narrative shortcuts to get there. The deaths of Shaggydog (Rickon's pup) and Summer (Bran's wolf) may be inspired by future books, but their demise in the show is handled in a flat, impersonal way that makes it hard for the audience, or characters, to have an emotional reaction to their passing despite how instrumental they’ve been to the story since the beginning.
As early as Martin's?A Clash of Kings, rumors circulate Westeros that a wolfpack, led by a massive beast readers infer is Arya's freed wolf Nymeria, is running wild in the Riverlands. After Nymeria attacks Prince Joffrey and is ultimately forced to flee early in Season 1, the wolf disappears from the show. Instead of referencing her intensifying actions, a parallel for Arya's budding adventure, throughout the series, Nymeria’s ignored until a brief scene in Season 7 that feels more like fan-service than a significant reunion. Nymeria and Arya perfectly mirror each other — two fiercely loyal and wildly independent creatures who rose above society's restrictions to become the strongest version of themselves — but the show never highlights that ongoing connection.
Warging aside, the series has undervalued Ghost, arguably the most important direwolf from a narrative perspective, for years. In the books, Jon repeatedly reflects on how he sleeps better with Ghost by his side, how the wolf is “wiser than men,” and capable of sniffing out opponents who “hid their enmity behind smiles.” In short, Ghost is a trusted ally of the true heir to the throne, but in the show, he is depicted as a background pawn who simply stalks around and fights when told. Their relationship has been so undervalued that Jon could send Ghost away without even saying goodbye to his longtime partner.
Speaking to The Huffington Post, David Nutter, director on "The Last of the Starks," blamed CGI restrictions for Ghost's limited presence in the episode and his subdued send-off. At this point, 72 episodes in, the creators should understand their production constraints and write around them, especially since writer Bryan Cogman had similar complaints about an emotional Jon and Ghost scene being cut from Season 7. Seeing ?CGI dragons fly across Westeros is cool, but it doesn’t add much to the story anymore, at least in terms of emotional resonance. It's unfortunate that the show would rather use its final hours showcasing intense spectacle rather than quieter, character-driven moments.
With two episodes left until the series finale, Arya and Nymeria may cross paths again and Jon could reunite with Ghost north of the Wall, but it seems unlikely. The Starks are essential to the story of ice and fire, but it seems that the dragons are better suited for TV than direwolves.