Game of Thrones is largely populated by the nobility and the knights who fight for power, but it’s often the most low-born characters that truly leave a lasting impression. Yoren, a rough-speaking ranger who travels Westeros gathering new recruits for the Night’s Watch, is one such character. Brought to life by Irish actor Francis Magee, the wandering crow is as blunt and impatient as he was in George R.R. Martin’s novels, but Magee added new layers to the gruff watchman who becomes Arya Stark’s second mentor. He may be the finest example of the television series making a character from the books even better.
We first met Yoren in “Lord Snow,” joking with Tyrion Lannister about the strangest things they’ve ever eaten. (Bear testicles and Dornish girls, respectively.) Until Yoren arrives on the scene, the Night’s Watchmen appear to be grim, unsmiling men with a militant air. The plain-speaking recruiter injected a much needed shot of warmth to the watchers on the Wall, and Francis Magee’s easy rapport with Peter Dinklage won Yoren fans from the beginning.
Like many, he assumes Arya is a boy when he first encounters her, but after she loses her father, he becomes the only person who knows who she really is. His quick thinking most likely saves Arya’s life after Ned Stark’s execution, and even as he is roughly hacking off her hair, he is taking care of her. Yoren is instrumental in Arya’s development, becoming a parental substitute when she’s desperately in need of her family and stability.
He takes over as guide where Syrio Forel left off. Syrio taught Arya how to dance, and Yoren teaches her to adapt and hide. Magee shows the concern, fear and resolve of the veteran Night’s Watchman as the crow risks it all to take a very dangerous charge under his wing.
As we find out, Arya isn’t the only risky recruit and Yoren refuses to back down when confronted about Gendry by the Gold Cloaks. People make much of the nobility of knighthood, but in Game of Thrones, it’s a common-born man who defends the innocents, ultimately with his life. Under Magee’s deft touch, Yoren is foolishly brave and crafty all at once, when he responds to the Gold Cloaks with a clever remark and a well-placed knife aimed at the femoral artery.
In a brilliant new scene created for the show, we are told how Yoren came to be in the Night’s Watch after avenging the murder of his brother. We see in Magee’s nuanced performance that he understands how haunted Arya is by her father’s death, and in his face, we see the possibility of her heading down a similar path of self-destructive vengeance.
Francis Magee conveyed the complexity of a seemingly coarse man who is more kind when hollering obscenity than most people in Game of Thrones are when they are speaking politely. It’s no small feat to come off caring when you’re shouting to teenagers, “Get up, you lazy sons of whores! There’s men out there who want to fuck your corpses!”
But he pulled it off every time, and Yoren died with style, swinging his sword and taking several soldiers with him. To put it bluntly, it was the definition of badass. It takes a crossbow, several spears, and a sword to bring the ranger down, and it’s only in death that he goes on his knees before House Lannister. Even as he’s facing the end, Magee grits out Yoren’s last quip with all the guts and snark the character deserved.
“I always hated crossbows, take too long to load!”
It’s through characters like Yoren, and performances like Francis Magee’s, that we understand it’s the common people of Westeros who are capable of the most extraordinary acts.