In 'God of War,' Moms Come Last
In a game very much about fathers and sons, the role of a mother is to be invisible or toxic.
Spoilers for God of War, including the game’s ending, ahead.
This piece carries a content warning for transphobia and abuse.
God of War begins with a handprint. A testament to where a woman—a mother—once stood and thought about her child. It’s a marker, we learn, that says “I was here to keep you safe,” as much as it hides “I was here to restrict you.” It’s our first taste of how, in God of War, mothers are interchangeably flat, and come in two varieties: dead or alive. But one thing remains constant—mothers keep secrets.
In fairness, everyone in God of War is keeping some kind of secret. The narrative overemphasizes Kratos’ secret, but it is the secrets mothers keep that form its core.
Faye is Kratos’ wife and Atreus’ mother. Secretly a giant, and a former warrior. Faye gave Kratos her legendary axe, and to her son, the knowledge of hunting, tracking, and comparative linguistics.
She’s also very dead.
We never see her outside of her linen funeral wrappings, but we know her handprint. The tree she marked is one of several she told Kratos to use for her pyre. Her reasons for this―another secret.
Faye’s handprint created a threshold of protection around her home, hiding her son away from the vindictive, xenophobic Norse gods who wouldn’t take kindly to his existence. But with her death, her job was done. Now Kratos would have to usher a son he barely knows into manhood. And in chopping down those marked trees, Kratos breaks the protective barrier of motherhood. Her marked treeline is a fence, a cage, and an umbilicus. In a sense, this is Kratos’ cutting the cord with the very axe his wife had gifted him when she had to stop being a warrior to become a wife and mother.
Atreus, armed with the skills his mother taught him, must face the dangers of the world. But for that to be possible, her role is to die. In the world created by God of War, sons have to be separated from their mothers to become men. The contribution of men is to perform the final test―the viability of a son in the world. Rearing and nurturing is women’s work, but also letting go. If a mother can perform her role and depart she’s succeeded, and with a little luck her son will pass this fatherly test and become a man. But if, as in Freya’s case, she is unable to relinquish control, to let her son experience life without a tether , then she has failed, and with her, her son. As a result, Baldur is not the gilded god from myth, but a cruel sadist.
Faye is deemed a success, she’s lauded and mourned throughout the narrative. Even Kratos, who already has one dead wife in his past, allows himself to grieve. He praises her as a warrior and survivor and makes use of the skills she passed on to her son. Faye is a “good” mother, a success, practically a saint in the game’s eyes.
Freya, (the only other key woman character in the game) on the other hand, is set up to fail, astoundingly. She initially presents herself as The Witch of the Woods, a friendly (if terse over her animal friends being hunted for practice by Kratos and Atreus) woman of obvious magical capability. Freya is presented as an archetype of femininity that exists outside of male-dominion―the classic isolated witch. But really, she's a goddess, and her secrets don't end there. She's also the mother of Baldur―the raging, invulnerable, tattooed berserker who assaults Kratos early in the game.
A remnant of the regressive ideas that permeate the early God of War games―ideas that this offering claims to grow out of, it’s a duality of motherhood through a misogynistic lens. The benevolent nurturer who knows when and how to wean (and depart her child's life entirely) , and the possessive monster who can’t let go.
Freya is not only alive, but the embodiment of overprotective motherhood, one that is desperate, manipulative, weak, and secretive. Having escaped her abusive marriage and giving up everything but her son, her only reason for living, she uses her magic to make him immune to harm, but as a consequence it numbs him to the pleasure of living.
In the Prose Edda, Baldur, one of the most beloved gods and Odin's son, is described as having a harrowing dream of his death. He takes his dream to the Æsir who decide they should “request immunity for Baldur from all kinds of danger.” Frigg (Baldur’s mother who has been collapsed into another Norse goddess, Freya, for God of War) then sets about gathering these promises from all manner of things, with the exception of the mistletoe which she deems too young to be of danger. The gods then revel in Baldur's newfound resilience, performing all manner of violence to his body that Baldur merrily shrugs off. Until Loki discovers Frigg has failed to request protection from mistletoe and tricks the blind god Hodur into firing a fatal mistletoe arrow at Baldur.
Frigg in her sorrow offers all her love and favor to any Æsir willing to brave Hel and return Baldur to life. An agreement to allow Baldur and his wife (who died in grief over her husband's death) to return to life, fails due to an often-assumed meddling by Loki.
As Cameron Kunzelman describes, there’s a certain comedy and hopefulness to Baldur’s story, with his return and the birth of a new world after Ragnarӧk. It’s also a story about a mother who sets out to make the world safe for her son―and the tragedy of that impossibility.
In God of War, no one wants Baldur to come back. Any new world he would usher in would be a nightmare. He’s damaged goods. We’re shown how broken he is from his very introduction, and of course, it’s his mother who broke him. Freya works her magic directly on the body of Baldur, and she does so seemingly without his consent, for her own personal interest—something she freely admits to Kratos.
Towards the end of the game, a moment in Helheim gives us a shadowy glimpse at a long ago confrontation between Freya and Baldur. He begs her to undo her spell. She pleads for him to understand, willing to suffer all his anger, that she must keep him safe.
For three days in 1999, my mother and I didn’t speak to each other. She’d narc’d on me to my guidance counselor, who pulled me aside, made me rinse off my makeup, tame my hair, and said, “your mother doesn’t want you acting like this anymore. Don’t you want to be a good son?” Naturally, on the drive home, I unleashed the hell only a petulant teenage girl can. I went through the side entrance to my room, locked it. Then slammed the door leading into the house and locked that, too.
I drew my boundaries by declaring war.
It never occurred to me what she was enduring. She’d just been through a second brutal divorce and spent the summer gutting two houses, while finding a new job, and a new home for us. My mother was also tasked with caring for my baby sister and my grandmother who was rapidly deteriorating from sudden onset of Alzheimer’s. All this while watching her sister slowly die from cancer. Dealing with my unruly, mentally ill teenage ass using a “goth phase” as cover for grappling with gender and sexual identity issues would be a death blow to our relationship.
But I told her to fuck off. To get the fuck out of my life, I knew what was best for me and she needed to get with the fucking program. When I slammed that door, it was done. And though I thought the impervious self-righteous armor of an angry child blasting Skinny Puppy on giant fuck-off headphones, I found out I wasn’t nearly as invulnerable as I thought.
Doubt peeked through the window, guilt crept through the space under the door. I spent the next two days stress puking the empty contents of my stomach. But I never apologized. I never took it back, made amends. Three days after severing what I thought were the last tethers connecting me to my mother, she asked me if I wanted to get Taco Bell.
That’s what we did. We’ve never talked about that day. She didn’t need to. It was just another part of being a mother. My rage was a storm she had to weather. And in her life, she’d gotten very good at weathering storms.
In making Baldur safe from the world, Freya has robbed him of not only death, but of the thrill of battle, sex, feasting—the things that God of War feels are the hallmarks of masculinity. But he does feel rage, betrayal, shame. His mother has made him impotent with her refusal to let him become more than her son.
Freya hides her knowledge of a way to break her spell. But rather than portray this as the misguided love afforded to the curt and restrictive love of Kratos, it becomes paranoid, needy—a self-serving, asphyxiating love. Loss is a powerful emotion, and the fear of loss can lead us to irrational, often harmful actions.
Behind every secret is a fear of loss.
I hid being trans for years, even after I learned the language for it. Oh sure, it peeked out here and there, I found ways to channel those feelings of dysphoria and being out-of-sequence. But I buried it inside of me until one day I just couldn’t, and I went back to seeing a therapist.
“What’s the worst thing that could happen if you told people?” he asked.
We sat in silence for a moment and as tears broke from my eyes, I said, “they’d stop loving me.”
Handing me a box of tissues, he dared me to try anyway. So, I did. I was a mess getting into my mother’s car, and as she drove me back towards my apartment, I confessed my secret. The thing I was sure would make me unlovable. Through ragged hyperventilation I unburdened years of shame. For decades I thought was I keeping a secret from my mother. And, it turns out, she was the one keeping the secret from me.
“When you were little, I went to a psychiatrist and he told me you were transgender, that children like you all kill themselves if they aren’t made to conform to their birth sex.”
Even as my mom comforted me, I couldn’t not feel betrayed. I was owed the early girlhood stolen from me. The neverending team sports, the athletic camps, the pressure to form male friendships, and rigidly enforced masculinity of prep school? She’d been trying to save my life, to keep me safe from the world.
I was furious, but I understood her reasons. I’m not sure I’ll ever really get over it. Not completely. But it’s a decision I can square with. Mothers make decisions, mothers keep secrets—not because they want to, but because they must. Real mothers have to be imperfect. It’s the only way they can keep their children safe. It’s the agency they’re allowed.
As I watched the game’s climax unfold—I knew it. I remembered my own mother’s desire to protect her child, and how devastating that was.
Despite Baldur’s inability to offer more than rage, and both Kratos and Atreus’ insistence he has to die, Freya believes in finding any path that will keep her child alive. With all the pain she’s caused, what good will it be if Baldur dies? Right up until Kratos snaps Baldur’s neck, Freya seeks reconciliation with her son. And with his death, she is bereft of purpose. She only has the rage that grief can bring. As Atreus takes this moment to question the continual parricide God of War’s pantheons thrive on, Kratos, ever the stoic, is open about his violent past and promises “we will be better.” He’s speaking only to his son, of course.
Atreus is a man now. Having been party to killing Baldur, he’s crossed a final threshold into manhood. With his father’s hands embracing his shoulders, while a mother cradles her dead son in the background—Atreus is no longer capable of feeling sorrow for Freya. He questions if she’s become evil. He can’t wrap his head around why Freya’s grief would wound her so deeply. Mimir has to explain “You killed her son,” but offers that she’ll come around and her rage will quiet. Surrounded by men, Freya is alone in her sorrow. And as Kratos and Atreus continue their quest, she is utterly alone, save the lifeless body of her son and her anguish.
Mothers are fine when they are exclusively in service of the heroism of their sons and husbands. Their secrets will be not only forgiven but embraced, only so long as they inspire a call to adventure, the creation of space for men to do violence, to conquer. And in God of War—mothers can only do this in death. They are too imposing to exist in time with men. Their secrets too potent, too destabilizing, too much their own. Men, in God of War, need women to arm them and then diminish, for their secrets to be set free.
And, in a way, she’s fine with this. She’d kill Kratos and Atreus to keep her son safe, betraying an alliance formed earlier in the game. She’d let her own son kill her if it could make him feel whole. Even the possessive, paranoid Freya comes to understand God of War’s thesis: a child’s mother can’t remain.
In my mother’s house there’s a huge box, and in it a 3” x 5" photograph buried with countless others like it.
My mother holds me so my head can rest on her shoulder. We’re flanked by my aunt and uncle, their bodies wrapped protectively around us. Bundled from the cold. I know most of my mother’s photographs by heart, all their stories. But this was a void for me.
“That’s the day we ran away from your father,” she tells me like she was reading off a gallery plaque. As if this is a simple memory of a small thing I’ve forgotten, like where my keys are.
And while I was intimately familiar with my father’s abuse, in three decades, I’d never heard this story. Not once. Not from anyone. My mother knew who my father really was. She hoped I’d forgotten, and that keeping these secrets would keep me safe.
And as stunned as I felt from these revelations. Despite all the pain I endured because of her secrets and decisions—we came to understand each other. She made space for me to be wounded, and I made space for compassion. We made space for each other to exist together.
In real life, children and mothers are allowed to reconcile. Mothers can be imperfect. They can exist outside the binary of saint and monster. They can be present in the lives of their adult children.
It’s not a resolution the world of God of War can even consider for the monstrous Freya or the saintly Faye.
Faye’s final revelation is a mural etched in what is now little more than the cavernous vestibule to the graveyard that Jötunheim has become. It tells the story of Atreus, how his name among the giants is Loki. Kratos remarks that was a name Faye wanted for him. The mural also describes every major step of the journey they’ve taken even the death of Baldur. Faye knew this would all come to pass, long before she died—a secret she only reveals well after her death. For all the torture secrets have caused, this only stirs a slight bemusement from Kratos or Atreus. And given what Baldur’s death and the onset of Fimbulwinter portends—it’s a secret with traumas not yet experienced. But neither Kratos nor Atreus question this. It’s time to leave Faye behind for good.
On the bluff overlooking all of Jötunheim, the two men scatter Faye’s ashes. Father and son are united and reconciled with this ultimate disposal of Faye. They say goodbye and embrace. Kratos tells the story of how Loki was named Atreus. It’s the closest to vulnerability he allows himself, recounting a valiant warrior’s life and death to his son, now a man and warrior in his own right. Atreus notes now that their quest is over, they can go home, or on more adventures—that’s what his mother would have wanted for them.
Neither aware of the doom their actions have accelerated. But it doesn’t matter, the men have an unrestricted field now, no longer beholden to anyone. God of War begins marked with a handprint, a message that says “I was here to keep you safe. And I hope my secrets didn’t hurt you.” It’s ending marked with a handfuls of glittering ash carried away on the wind.
And so, whether good or bad, mothers have to disappear.
Only fathers can remain.