Spoilers for 24 and Game of Thrones.
OK, I know what you’re thinking: “What Game of of Thrones House do you belong in?” is the sort of question that Facebook quizzes are generally well equipped to answer. Here at Overthinking It, I’m hoping that we can use this question as a window into some of the deeper questions posed by 24 and Game of Thrones. The Starks and Lannisters represent dueling views of morality and ethics, and it’s worth asking where someone like Jack Bauer fits into this complex moral universe.
I am a very late-comer to the 24iverse, and only started watching 24: Live Another Day out of a desire to follow along with Pete and Ryan’s outstanding OTI:24:LAD recaps. I was at first pleasantly surprised to see such a tightly wound and entertaining season out of a show that I had previously dismissed as schlocky – and then I was completely blown away by Monday night’s jaw-dropping season finale.
24:LAD has plenty of good material to digest, but for now, I want to focus on two parallel scenes from the last couple episodes of this season. Both of the “big bads” of this half-season met their ends in a similar way – defeated, captured, and then summarily executed by an enraged Jack Bauer. What stuck out to me (and what prompted me to ask the question that is the title to this article) was the WAY that they met their respective ends.
Right around 7:55PM, Jack has saved the people of London and has the terrorist Margot Al-Harazi in custody. And then he does this:
Of course, given that Margot is played by none other that Catelyn Stark, it was hard not to immediately think of this:
At the time, I didn’t think a whole lot of the connection – Jack is clearly no Jamie, right? Then came Monday’s exquisite season finale. Once again, Jack has the big bad in his custody, completely beaten. Once again, this happens:
Jamie Lannister threw Bran out of a window in the very first episode of Game of Thrones: right from the start, House Lannister was the “guys who throw people out of windows.” Similarly, this was our first taste of House Stark:
For those of you keeping score at home:
- Defenestration = House Lannister
- Decapitation = House Stark
So this prompts me to ask: which House does Jack Bauer really belong to? The easy answer is of course “House Stark” – because, you know, good guys and stuff. But neither Game of Thrones nor 24 is that simple. Jack Bauer isn’t exactly an anti-hero, but he’s not a pure-of-heart good guy either – his defenestrating/decapitating ways kind of proves that. Likewise, despite the whole “throwing kids out windows” thing, the Lannisters aren’t pure bad guys.
The morality of 24 is an important topic: indeed, Jack Bauer’s relationship with torture, surveillance and counter-terrorism has made a powerful impact in the real-world of politics. So what I’m interested in here is the different ethos behind the dueling houses of Westeros. I’m going to have to speak in generalities here: \the general gestalt of morality and ethics behind House Stark, House Lannister, and ultimately House Bauer.
Speaking broadly, House Stark is a very Kantian House. Ned and Robb in particular have very absolute ideas of moral behavior and honor. The man being decapitated by Ned Stark above wasn’t some horrible criminal – the poor guy was (justifiably) running as far and as fast he could from the invincible ice-zombies that wiped out his entire squad of Night’s Watch. But for Ned, the Oath takes priority overall – and Ned is willing to personally ensure that Justice Is Done. Robb Stark is willing to risk his entire kingdom over his personal sexual virtue and honor.
House Lannister, on the other hand, is dominated by a much more flexible and utilitarian ethic. Jamie Lannister is the Kingslayer for a good reason – The Mad King was preparing to incinerate the entire city of Kings Landing. If a Stark had been on the Kingsguard that fateful day, it’s not impossible to imagine that their Oath would have won out – the city would have burned, but the Stark honor would be intact. That’s not to say that the Lannisters are ready to join with House Bentham or Mill – behind that utilitarian ethic is an emphasis on family. The Lannister utilititarian calculus looks something more like: “The greatest good for the greatest number-of Lannisters, with maybe a little bit for everyone else.”
So which House does Jack Bauer belong to?
Of course, we have to start with the obvious answer – “Jack Bauer, the first of his name: blond of hair.” As Ryan and Pete have discussed, the entire “family” of “Jacks” in 24 are frequently signified by their clothing and their distinctively blonde hair – Jack Bauer, Kim Bauer, Audrey Boudreau and Kate Morgan all share that definitive Lannister trait. (Of course, Kim Bauer is known for her hatred of Lions…)
More importantly, Jack Bauer is most famous for his ruthlessly utilitarian ethic – behind every torture scene is the implicit (sometimes explicit) assumption that the suffering is justified by the Greater Good. The action of torture might make us think that Jack is ready to join House Bolton (what with the “flayed man”), but torture is almost never an end unto itself – it’s a means to an end. Ser Jack of the Kingsguard would have known exactly what to do when the Mad King started yelling “Burn Them All”- Oath or no, Jack is going to do what’s right for the Kingdom.
And if the Lannisters are all about Family, then Jack is all out his Country – throughout his time at CTU, Jack has adopted America as his family. And he is willing to do just about anything to protect it. Jack “does what it takes to get the job done,” even it means getting his hands a little dirty. So while Jack = Good Guy and the Starks = “Good Guys,” Jack does not share their Kantian sense of Oaths and Duty. “Going rogue” is not something that’s done in the Stark family.
House Bauer: “Going Rogue”
All of that said, House Lannister vs. House Stark is a false choice – Jack Bauer bends the knee to no one except his own sense of duty and the President of the United States. Ultimately, Jack belongs to House Bauer. “Going rogue” is the signature Jack move – and while it’s not very Stark-like, it’s not really a Lannister trait either. Tyrion, Jamie and Cersei each have their own rebellious streak, but working outside institutional channels is not really an option for a Lord or Lady in Westeros.
Further, Jack Bauer is deeply and emotionally committed to his missions. Both the Starks and the Lannisters are more dispassionate. Even in anger, the Starks steely resolve just gets steelier, and the Lannisters are usually too imperious and haughty to really get angry (though, like Jack, they are really good at the one-line insult). In House Bauer, on the other hand, Jack frequently activates his RAMPAGE MODE.
Ultimately, Jack’s ethos and morality is much more complicated than even the Lannisters. At the outset of 24:LAD, he has gone undercover to pursue a terrorist, basically because he literally doesn’t know what else to do – when asked why he was pursuing Margot in the first place, he explains that he’s “doing this one for me.” It’s difficult to imagine ANY Game of Thrones character saying something like that, much less a Lannister.
Even the scenes that inspired this comparison – the deaths of Margot and Cheng – are difficult to square with the ethos of either House Lannister or House Stark. House Lannister is entirely too practical to kill a potentially valuable captive for no good reason, and House Stark is too honorable to murder a bound captive when the law requires that he be left alive.
What makes Jack interesting is that he freely jumps from House to House and ethic to ethic as the situation demands, drastically changing moral and emotional gears numerous times throughout the course of the same day. He is both deeply committed to the democratic process and and completely dismissive of the rules that democracy imposes on people like Jack; he is both an unfeeling killing machine and a man who can put immense pathos and emotion into a whispered “Dammit.”
Ultimately, Jack Bauer couldn’t exist in Westeros. George R.R. Martin’s universe is defined by the mundane humanity of its characters. The most distinctive thing about A Song of Ice and Fire is a ruthless willingness to kill off main characters – with or without its heroes, Westeros moves on, flawed heroes and human antiheroes ready to take up the dramatic baton.
Jack Bauer, on the other hand, is a force of nature. The entire 24iverse bends around him, like a star bending the fabric of space. The mere existence of House Stark and House Lannister imply a multi-polar world, with many sources of power and agency, intersecting and colliding in complicated ways. But in 24, it was always about Jack.
With that said, there’s only one thing left to discuss – what does House Bauer’s sigil look like? What’s the motto? I polled OTI writers, who came up with the following suggestions:
Sheely: A long sleeved t-shirt on a black-denim banner; House Motto: DAMMIT
Pete: A Mayfly (which lives for only one day); House Motto: JUST GET IT DONE
Pete: A mailed fist on a table; House Motto: BUT YOUR HAND IS
Richard: A digital clock face; House Motto: THERE’S NO TIME
Ben: A Chrysler 200; House Motto: IT’S THE ONLY PLAY (House Bauer is a fully branded enterprise)
What do you think should be on the House Bauer sigil? Maybe, like every other character in Game of Thrones, you have a theory that Jack’s really a secret Targaryen? Sound off in the comments!