“The cycle ends here. We must be better”. Those are the words that Kratos says upon snapping the neck of Baldur at the climax of 2018’s God of War, and moments later he will repeat the sentiment of “being better” to his son, Atreus. When he says this, he echoes his father, Zeus, who in God of War II said the following upon killing Kratos: “You will never be the ruler of Olympus. The cycle ends here”. These two scenes are meant to contrast with each other. They are both about the cycle of patricide in Greek mythology, and they showcase the hypothetical differences in how the two patriarchs react to it. Zeus is trying to end the cycle by killing his son. Kratos is trying to end the cycle by fostering a relationship with Atreus. Kratos wants to “be better” than his father (and his grandfather and great-grandfather before that).
The story goes that after Cronos killed his father, Ouranos, he was told that he would face the same fate, so he swallowed his children out of fear. One of those children was Zeus, who escaped this fate and eventually rescued his siblings and defeated Cronos, sentencing him to eternal torment. These are stories from Greek mythology, but they do get repeated throughout the God of War series. In these games, the cycle turns once more. Zeus fears the growing power of his son, Kratos, and attempts to kill him on multiple occasions. He continuously fails, and God of War III ends with Kratos killing Zeus.
The thing that motivates both Cronos and Zeus is fear. They understand the cycle and their position in that cycle, and they take action to prevent their fears from becoming reality. Of course, in the fashion of a true Greek tragedy, the actions they take to prevent the cycle from continuing are what cause it to continue, giving their children a reason to rise against them. Kratos has seen these two attempts to end the cycle through violence, and he has seen them fail. He knows that something needs to change. He can’t just kill his child (well…not again). But although Kratos has changed his tactics, his motivations are still the same. Kratos is still trying to end the cycle of patricide because he knows that he’s next on the chopping block. He’s still afraid of Atreus, even if he expresses that fear differently.
Kratos is a bad father. That’s not a new claim (I’d recommend Holly Green or Em for more on Dad Kratos). Even though he has been around for Atreus’s entire life, there’s this impression that they didn’t talk much until Faye, Atreus’s mother and Kratos’s second wife, died. When the game starts, they don’t seem to be that close or know much about each other. They show almost no affection towards each other. Kratos’s big emotional arcs include eventually feeling comfortable putting his hand on his son’s shoulder and ceasing to yell at him for minor mistakes. A lot of what we know about Atreus’s relationship with Faye comes from Kratos asking Atreus or, more commonly, Atreus telling Kratos and him not really caring. Kratos doesn’t care much at all about his son’s interest or his opinions. Atreus will talk endlessly about the Norse myths, but Kratos only wants to hear it if it’s helpful to their mission. And when Atreus shows interest in helping someone else (be that Freya, Brok and Sindri, or the light elves), Kratos is either dismissive or downright irritated with his son’s compassion for others and lack of focus. The greatest lesson Kratos teaches Atreus is how to kill. He teaches him to not get too attached to anyone, and he teaches him to not be emotional. All Kratos really knows is killing, and he views his own descent into genocide not as a result of that but as a result of him being too attached to the family he lost and too emotional in his lust for revenge.
Kratos is very concerned about how he’s raising his son, but he never care much about building a relationship with him. Kratos doesn’t want Atreus to be like Kratos, a person who would kill their father. But Kratos doesn’t do a whole of reflecting on how the father should act in this relationship. And I think this lack of self-reflection is shown through his unwillingness to discuss his past failings with Atreus.
Kratos is afraid of his past, and he’s trying to keep it hidden from his son. Throughout the course of the game, that becomes less of an option, and Kratos is reluctantly forced to give Atreus some information about who he is. The first piece of information is that Kratos, and by extension Atreus, is a god. It’s clear why Kratos wouldn’t want Atreus to know this. If Atreus doesn’t know his own power, then he won’t realize what he is capable of, which includes killing his father. Kratos wants Atreus to be a weak kid who is dependent on his dad for survival, when the truth is that Atreus is potentially more powerful than Kratos. This is perhaps the most cynical and self-interested thing Kratos does in the game. It is clearly better for Atreus to know who he is; this will allow him to grow and learn accordingly, and it will also help him understand why the entire Norse pantheon wants him dead. But it’s better for dad if the kid is kept ignorant.
The way Kratos reacts to Atreus’s newfound godhood is also telling. Kratos is very worried about Atreus thinking too much of his power and acting brashly. That is a legitimate concern (even if it does reiterate Atreus’s dependence on Kratos), but it’s one that Kratos only worries about when it puts their mission in danger.
When they run into Sindri shortly after Atreus learns he’s a god, Atreus verbally abuses the dwarf. Sindri is offended, and Mimir is appalled. Atreus thinks he can treat people he used to care about like crap because they can’t do anything to him. Kratos doesn’t say anything about this, basically agreeing with his son. After all, Kratos has never been nice to Sindri. He’s always just used him for his smithing abilities and gotten Sindri to agree through his menacing demeanor. When Kratos does care, it’s when Atreus kills an injured Modi. He tells his son that there are consequences to killing a god (something that he would be able to explain better if he wasn’t so afraid of telling Atreus more about his own past). Kratos doesn’t care about Modi more than Sindri. At most, he dislikes Modi and tolerates Sindri. But killing Modi is harmful to their mission, and abusing Sindri isn’t, so only one of those episodes requires Kratos to reprimand his son. Also, if you’re feeling extra cynical, you could read this as one moment where Atreus thinks he can kill somebody more powerful than him and one moment where Atreus thinks he can be rude to someone less powerful than him. Only one of those lines of thought would put Kratos at risk.
And then there’s the issue of Kratos’s past actions. When Kratos and Atreus are in Hel, they see a vision of Kratos murdering Zeus, who refers to Kratos as “my son”. Atreus clearly sees this vision, but he pretends not to. Perhaps he is scared of what his father might do if he knew that Atreus had this information. After all, that is the relationship that Kratos has intentionally fostered between the two of them.
Atreus does eventually learn that this vision was true. After they defeat Baldur, Freya forces Kratos to tell Atreus who he is. Kratos tells his son that he has killed “many people who were deserving and many who were not”, including his father. Even this admission comes with caveats. Many of the people Kratos killed are deemed “deserving”, justifying his natural tendency towards violence. Zeus is presumably included among their ranks, which means that even Kratos’s patricide, the thing that he is trying to “be better” than, is just in his eyes. Kratos’s history of misogyny is left completely off the table. And, of course, there is one thing that Kratos might never address. Kratos has opened up to Atreus, but he will not tell him about his previous wife and child that he murdered. Even as he symbolically re-equips and then releases his old burdens during the course of the game, he is afraid to revisit that moment with his son. He is afraid of how Atreus might react if he learns that Kratos did what Cronos and Zeus did before him. Kratos tells his son “we must be better”, but there is no “we”. Atreus can be better than Kratos, but Kratos has done nothing to deserve redemption. He is barely a changed man.
I mean, let’s look closer at this climactic scene. This is a battle in which the core conflict of the story is resolved by Kratos killing another god. This is despite the fact that Baldur’s mother, Freya, doesn’t want him to. Freya believes that this conflict can be solved in a different way. She is actively trying to stop your fight and wants to discuss things with Baldur. She believes that reconciliation is still an option. And she gets her shot at it. Kratos and Atreus begin to walk away from the fight, allowing Freya to approach Baldur. Baldur does not accept her offer and begins to strangle his mother. Freya does not fight back; she has decided that her first choice is reconciliation and her second choice is death. She would rather Baldur kill her, because she knows the only other option after reconciliation is her (or Kratos) killing her son. But Freya’s second choice is also overruled. Kratos grabs Baldur and snaps his neck, killing the young god once and for all. For Kratos, Baldur is, as Atreus puts it “not a threat” at this point. There are consequences to killing a god, and the death of Baldur signals the beginning of Ragnarok (something Kratos might have known if he listened to Atreus’s stories).
But this is how Kratos operates. He believes that family members cannot reconcile their differences. He believes that it is okay to dismiss the wishes of others if you know what’s best for them. He believes that complex emotional problems between people who care about each other can be solved with fists. He is cold, bloodthirsty, and merciless. He is presenting himself as a new man that his son should learn from in order to “be the gods we choose to be”. But Kratos is unwilling to examine his own past and reflect on the god that he was and still is. Atreus does have a path to familial redemption, but for now it lies entirely upon the teachings of his mother. If left to Kratos, Atreus would be just as murderous and compassionless as the rest of them.
As Freya puts it:
“You are just an animal, passing on your cruelty and rage. You will never change”.