“Bad Guys” and “Worse Guys” in Game of Thrones

DISTURBING CONTENT ADVISORY: If you haven’t seen Game of Thrones or read Song of Ice and Fire, both contain large amounts of sexually disturbing and violent material, which will be under discussion in this post and probably in any comments as well.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post will discuss both the HBO series and the original books by George R.R. Martin. This post and the comments will likely be rife with spoilers for both.

These two related works – the HBO hit Game of Thrones and the George R.R. Martin fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire – are wonderful fodder for those who, like me, tend to prefer complex characters over simple ones. In my experience, at least, villains are often painted with greater nuance than heroes, as if the author assume that we will automatically “sign on” with the causes of the “good guys,” but they have to explain the reasoning of the “bad guys” to us. The result, to me, is that villains are almost always more interesting, more attractive, and more sympathetic than heroes in speculative fiction genres.

George R.R. Martin seems to have circumvented the problem by foregoing heroes altogether, at least in the “present day” of his world. There may be heroes of the past, but even they are turning up more ambiguous than one usually finds in epic fantasy. The real brilliance of this move, though, lies in the fact that the author managed to manipulate the majority of his audience into thinking that wasn’t his intention for the entirety of the first book (a feat which the showrunners of the televised version replicated with season one on HBO).

I have had a very frustrating repeated experience when discussing these two works with people. Allow me to describe it here. And please note, this has happened even with people who normally are able to discuss literature and film with me in a rational manner. It’s pretty quick to describe. At some point, someone asks the question, “Who is your favorite character?” And I answer, honestly, “Jaime Lannister.” At this point, the conversation goes one of two ways. If the person has read or viewed past a certain point, they say, “Ah, after he lost his hand, you started liking him.” And I protest, “No, he’s been my favorite since the beginning.” At which point we get the same result as if the person hasn’t seen Jaime lose his hand at all, which is that the person promptly explodes with “You’re a horrible person!” Not “I disagree,” not “He’s a horrible person, how could you like him,” but “You’re a horrible person.”

You see, Jaime became my favorite character in the books the instant he was introduced simultaneously as “The Lion of Lannister” and “the Kingslayer,” when he first enters the feasting hall at Winterfell. Before he threw Bran out of a window, before it became apparent that he was sleeping with his sister – not that either of those was inconsistent with the portrait painted in that first snapshot. It became apparent then that this was going to be the character who would be the standard-bearer for moral neutrality and complexity, which has certainly been borne out in later revelations and events. Most readers noticed the other two events much more, due to their spectacular nature, and when I ask people why they don’t like Jaime, those are always the items they bring up. Then they bring up the issue of him having murdered his king, which is of course far more complex than the title of “Kingslayer” would grant.

So let’s talk about that particular event for a bit, because there’s one piece of information that almost everyone overlooks, and is never brought up in conjunction with it in either the show or the books. Jaime makes the snap decision to murder the Mad King Aerys, to prevent him from immolating the capital and everyone in it. Not the job of the Kingsguard, certainly, quite the opposite, but one has to wonder what the world would look like today if one of Hitler’s bodyguards had done the same thing. Would we condemn them? Probably, since we would have no way of knowing what might have been. But let’s get to that missing piece, which wouldn’t have been the case for that hypothetical German: Jaime was only seventeen years old when he made the decision to take that action and never explain his reasoning to anyone, to prevent a panic and instead take everyone’s judgment on himself.

Let’s get to the judgment side of things now. In the first book and first season, Jaime appears to be squarely on the side of the “villains,” along with the vast majority of the cast. The lines are drawn clearly, Starks versus Lannisters, good versus evil, straightforward versus backstabbing, swordsmen versus poisoners (not that this was true either, of course, but it was so easy to believe), you name it. In my opinion, Eddard Stark was the worst thing to happen to Westeros since Aerys. He’s a lousy King’s Hand, and a hypocrite who takes far too much pleasure and comfort in passing moral judgment on others to be a reasonable administrator in a complex world. (This opinion is just about as popular as loving Jaime.) He has his own moral compass, to be sure, but it isn’t what he claims it is. He works for his own honor, his own ideas of right and wrong, and places those above the good of the realm… while claiming that his greatest motivation is service to the Crown. Eddard Stark, in this, is as treacherous as the Lannisters could ever be. Robert Baratheon’s own good, the realm’s own good, were never Ned’s priorities.

The Lannisters are far better rulers. Not that this makes them “good.” Or even “good rulers.” They certainly aren’t that either. And Joffrey is a special case – there’s a reason he was possibly the most hated character on TV, and that there’s an online campaign to erect a statue of him in New Zealand for the sole purpose of publicly tearing it down in celebration. But the rest aren’t anywhere near the sadistic psychopaths that Joffrey turned out to be. Cold, calculating, manipulative, broken: these are all apt descriptions. But those aren’t necessarily all bad qualities in a ruler, which after all is the end prize of the titular “game of thrones.”

The concept of “house words” is also used beautifully to manipulate our ideas of morality in this fantasy world. An apt example is House Tully, with their words of “Family, Duty, Honor.” There’s a great scene in the show reminding us that to members of this family, it should always be “family first,” and this is portrayed as a positive quality. In a family member, it probably is – but not in the ruler of a country.

At their hearts, none of these characters are perfect rulers. None of them may even be good rulers. Quite a few might make competent rulers. But the moral rules and the logistical rules don’t necessarily match up… which is probably a good thing, since there are no “good guys” to be found, only “bad guys” and “worse guys.”

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7 Comments

  1. It’s interesting to me that we have such divergent opinions on everything else contained in this post when our favorite character is the same, and for the same reasons.

    (Mind you, though I noticed those elements in his introduction, I didn’t actually start thinking he might be my favorite until much later, when it became clear he was one of the few to have some dynamism in his character arc. But even when I didn’t expect him to amount to much, my main argument for that was throwing Bran out the window.)

    “In my opinion, Eddard Stark was the worst thing to happen to Westeros since Aerys. He’s a lousy King’s Hand, and a hypocrite who takes far too much pleasure and comfort in passing moral judgment on others to be a reasonable administrator in a complex world. (This opinion is just about as popular as loving Jaime.)”

    We must be arguing with very different people, because pretty much every discussion I’ve either seen or gotten into on the subject of either work centers on what a judgmental idiot Ned Stark is and, as a result, how he deserved what he got. I don’t see fan pages for Ned Stark being reposted all over my Facebook: I see them for Petyr Baelish and Jaime Lannister, though.

    Now, I don’t disagree with the “idiot” bit. It’s clear that Ned was out of his depth as a King’s Hand, or really out of his depth in anything having to do with politics south of the Neck. But he was at least intelligent enough to recognize that that was a strong possibility; he wavers in accepting the position in the first place, and acquiesces when it’s made clear Robert isn’t going to take no for an answer.

    On your argument about his tendency to pass moral judgment, I have more problems. I don’t disagree that Ned is trying to apply Northern morality to a world that doesn’t accept such a straightforward view of honor or duty. I don’t think he does so hypocritically, at least in that I think he doesn’t spare himself that same degree of moral judgment. From what I remember of the first book he seems fairly clear-headed on the subject of the horrors of the Rebellion, including those in which he participated.

    “He has his own moral compass, to be sure, but it isn’t what he claims it is. He works for his own honor, his own ideas of right and wrong, and places those above the good of the realm… while claiming that his greatest motivation is service to the Crown. Eddard Stark, in this, is as treacherous as the Lannisters could ever be. Robert Baratheon’s own good, the realm’s own good, were never Ned’s priorities.”

    This I take to be explaining what Ned’s hypocrisy means as far as his administration of the realm is concerned, which is obviously a thornier question than whether Ned-as-individual is a hypocrite.

    Again, I don’t disagree that Ned is imposing Northern methods of governance on a Southern world. But then, also again, he didn’t want to have that opportunity in the first place; I read into his reluctance an acknowledgment that he isn’t prepared to handle the complexities of Southern culture.

    Once he takes the opportunity, though, it’s almost like the realm could have used more, and earlier, Northern governance. We find out right from the beginning that Robert has driven the kingdom into deep, deep debt, and not as a result of anything that would actually improve the lives of his subjects for more than the few days of a tourney. Ned might have had his own ideas about how a realm should be run; but then again, presumably, so would any other man appointed to the office, and they would all state that service to the Crown is their greatest motivation.

    “There’s a great scene in the show reminding us that to members of [House Tully], it should always be “family first,” and this is portrayed as a positive quality. In a family member, it probably is – but not in the ruler of a country.”

    The thing is – and I think this is the main disagreement I have with your line of thought – that House Lannister also treats the good of the realm as “me first” or “family first.” The difference is that the Lannister family can afford to conflate the good of the realm with their own interests because they are the ruling house. Ned Stark was out of his depth not only because he didn’t understand the South, but also – and again, he seems to realize this much more than Robert ever did – because he was alone. The Lannisters held the levers of power through Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen, Grand Maester Pycelle, and the control that, as of the first book, they’ve solidified over the royal court.

    On a separate note, though, I think this idea of how the house words shape our understanding of morality in Westeros bears further exploration. I certainly wouldn’t stop you if you wanted to do more on it. 🙂

    I do think, ultimately, we are arguing slightly past each other, because we’re marshaling previous thoughts against people we’ve encountered in other discussions. You’re arguing against people who assume that Ned’s morality – private and political – is objectively “good,” and that the Lannisters are objectively “bad.” I think you lay out the case perfectly for why there is no such thing as objective “good” in either work, and how for us the readers it’s really between “bad” and “worse.” I seem to be arguing against armchair Hands of the King, who think that if they were dropped into a position of power in Westeros, they would have the required sangfroid and dispassion to be competent administrators. Their model for that isn’t someone like, say, Randyll Tarly. It tends to be more someone like Roose Bolton.

    • First, Hi and thanks for posting! We are definitely arguing with very different people – there are images extolling the praises of Ned Stark, Bastion of Honor and Virtue, all over my Facebook news feed even as I write this. They make me ill. Even if I don’t like him, I think he’s a beautifully written character, partly because of his (spectacular) flaws. To ignore those removes any reason I might find him interesting.

      I agree with you completely that the Lannisters put “family first,” or as Cersei puts it in season one of the HBO series, I forget which episode, “Anyone who isn’t us, is an enemy.” They’re just much more open about it, and because they’re in a position to actually act on this, and then because they actually do so, it’s (at least initially) portrayed as evil. But I have to wonder: what would Catelyn Stark have done, if offered the opportunity to kill one or more of the Lannister children, if it would assure (or even just make more likely) the safety of one or more of her own? Are Cersei and Catelyn really all that different? I don’t see that much daylight between them, really. Other than, you know, the whole incest thing, and the fact that Cersei happens to be Joffrey’s mother and Catelyn’s kids are more lovable. (Another masterful piece of deliberately manipulative writing on Martin’s part, I believe.) My issue with the Tullys, and with Ned Stark, isn’t with their moral choices and priorities; my issue is with the difference between their moral choices and priorities, and what they claim their moral choices and priorities are.

      Ah, let’s talk about Roose Bolton for just a second, as well, because you bring up another angle I might devote another post to at some point: the bannermen. Initially, there is a clear contrast between the bannermen aligned with the Starks (the Umbers being the first really major example) and the bannermen aligned with the Lannisters (the Cleganes being the first really given “screen time” in the books, or in the HBO version). Obviously, we aren’t meant to particularly like the Cleganes, especially before Sandor becomes remotely sympathetic, and Gregor remains hateful throughout (especially post-Oberyn-Martell, for some of us). The Umbers are the lovable northern barbarians, especially in the show. The contrast is clear.

      Until, suddenly, there are these Bolton folks, who are absolutely terrifying. Cold beyond description, with the House words “Our Blades are Sharp,” and the sigil of the Flayed Man. And Ramsay. Let’s not forget Ramsay. But Roose is no slouch in the “scary bastard” department either. And who is he aligned with? Oh, right. The Starks. I remember when people I know discovered that for the first time, either when reading the books or watching the show, and kept insisting it was a mistake in the writing, and would be fixed later. No, guys, that’s correct. And the Starks have no problem employing them and their tactics. This was succeeded by an insistence that the Starks must not know about what their House words or sigil really refer to, because that’s icky. Um, no, I actually have more respect for even Ned Stark than to assume that level of ignorance. He’s a crappy Hand of the King (leaving aside all Westerosi jokes about the job being shit) but he was a decent Warden of the North, which he could not have been while being willfully ignorant of his own bannermen.

      There’s more to do with this, I’m sure. And I may very well start brainstorming that post about the House words and what they do, because I love the whole concept and what was done with it.

      • Yeah, we’re definitely arguing with different people. The only Ned Stark I see is the “BEWARE [BLANK] IS COMING” meme. Otherwise it’s all Lannisters and Littlefinger.

        I understand what you’re saying about the difference between the Lannisters and the Starks/Tullys, but I still have a hard time applying that to Ned specifically. I don’t think you’re wrong about Cersei and Catelyn, especially taking into account the difference in their positions of power; but the example you offer (Catelyn killing or wounding one of Cersei’s children) is one where, as far as we can tell, Ned Stark’s actual morality aligns with his claimed morality; he didn’t approve of the slaying of Rhaegar’s children, and that was his first serious break with Robert.

        As for the Bolton issue, I think you’re right as far as Ned Stark’s knowledge is concerned. At the same time, I think part of the problem is how Northern law works. I just wrapped up a volume on the Norman Conquest that goes into some length discussing differences in lordly relations between the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans/Frenchmen, and the Vikings, and I believe Martin based the North on a sort of northern English/Scottish cultural and constitutional mix. It does seem as if the idea that the Seven Kingdoms should have some kind of unified law is beginning to take shape, but most of the legal problems we see are solved at sword-point.

        Under those laws, a lord like Roose Bolton would be considered all but independent during his reign; he would certainly be expected to supply part of his lord’s host and fight alongside him, but otherwise, his word would be law within his domain. There’s something about isolation that encourages this kind of independence, and we know that the North is a place of extreme isolation. I wouldn’t be surprised if, despite the Starks knowing of his tactics, they were unwilling to challenge their own custom in order to stop him, since as we’ve established they’re hidebound traditionalists.

        In general I think the reason people see the Starks as representing the side of “good” is that even when Ned puts his own morality above the dominant one in his milieu it seems that he is at least looking out for the long-term stability of the realm; in other words, he behaves a little too much like we might when discussing a modern constitutional question, like First Amendment rights. It’s almost as if Starks are so concerned with preventing bad precedent from taking hold that they can’t deal with a current situation . . . and I feel like that has something to do with their words, too. Just not sure what.

        • I agree with you 100% about Roose Bolton, and I would think you’d hit the nail on the head about the Starks’ attitude toward the Boltons’ practices, except for one thing: the point when Robb Stark specifically tells Roose Bolton to bring Theon Greyjoy in alive. He has to know what that means, and that order is an endorsement of it. That moment still gives me chills.

          Where I disagree with you is Ned’s “concern” for the good of the Realm, versus his concern for his own morality. Among other things, the issue of Rhaegar’s children: if the stability of the Realm is the only concern, Robert is right on this one, honestly. It’s unpleasant, but he’s right. And the fact that he tries to offer mercy to Cersei and her children, because it’s the “right” thing to do? Not if you’re Hand of the King and you think that the Queen is going to have said King murdered, it isn’t! At least, not if the stability of the Realm is more important to you. And this is the same issue. He doesn’t want to kill children, because it’s “wrong.” In this case, how much grief would it have saved everyone, I wonder, if Ned had just killed Joffrey while Robert was out hunting and the brat was undefended. This is exactly my problem with him.

          Also, this just hit me. You know people who post images and stuff praising Littlefinger? I don’t even think I’d know what one of those would look like. What… what do they praise? Serious question.

          • True; and yet I think that’s also meant to show that Robb is somewhat more pragmatic than his father. Obviously we don’t have much to compare it to – do we know whether Ned ever issued a similar order? – but between this and Robb’s general conduct in the War of the Five Kings, it does seem that Robb didn’t quite inherit his father’s moral inflexibility. He marches south not to delegitimize Joffrey (though that is a nice bonus) but to avenge his father’s death, and he seems most concerned about extinguishing the power of the Lannisters than establishing any kind of stable rule himself. Perhaps Robb is meant to show the façade you’re talking about crumbling when there is an obvious threat to his family.

            As far as Ned’s concern, that’s my fault for not explaining myself clearly. When I say long-term, I mean longer than the reign of a single ruler, or perhaps even royal house. Killing Joffrey might have saved the realm for Robert – but only so long as Robert’s “party” could hold onto the throne. The moment someone else came into control of it, they could seize upon a precedent Ned set to do the same thing. Thus Ned remains inflexible because (he wrongly assumes) those moral boundaries, once established, will be maintained. We don’t disagree that this makes him a terrible Hand of the King, though again, it seems like he knew this would be the problem with him taking the job.

            And as for Littlefinger, it’s mostly just “badass” lines of his like chaos being a ladder and not a pit and the things he says to the prostitutes in the brothel.

            • You may have something there with Robb, particularly since in the books (if not in the show) he’s specifically described as looking like his mother (whose House words say “family first”). It would make sense for him to be different from his father in some very important ways, with Catelyn for a mother.

              Ye gods, though, if you’re analyzing Ned’s character right, then my problem has been the desire to not see him as a blithering idiot. I’ve been trying to start with him being smarter and more knowledgeable of history than that, simply because he talks about ancestry and tradition so much. I’ve assumed he’s educated enough to realize that Robert would be neither the first nor the last to murder children in pursuit of power. I’m not sure there’s really a way to know which interpretation is “correct,” based solely on the texts (of book and show), because Ned is such a delightfully unreliable narrator (one of my favorite narration techniques and the reason I love his chapters even though I hate the character).

              Either way, he really was never meant to lead – Cersei was right about that in the show (one of my favorite scenes). And I’m not sure he does know that. I agree with you that he realizes on some level he’d be an awful Hand, but I’m not sure he’s quite self-aware enough to realize exactly why.

              On the subject of unreliable narrators, btw, if you like that kind of thing, and have a taste for Arthuriana, I highly recommend Phyllis Ann Karr’s Idylls of the Queen, which will get its own post here at some point.

              • I didn’t want to mention Robb’s appearance because – it being late at night – I wasn’t sure if the link between physical and psychological heritage was as often subverted as it was upheld, but I thought of that as well.

                With Ned, I think the thing is that he has that knowledge, but he doesn’t want to perpetuate that history. It’s implied that the person he was really disappointed in when Rhaegar’s wife and children were killed isn’t the Lannisters, but Robert, because he saw in Robert a chance to stop the abuses that the “worse” Targaryens were known for inflicting on their subjects. While you’re right that he doesn’t know exactly why he doesn’t want to be Hand, I think he at least understands that he’s not a good peacetime Hand.

                I did finally grasp what I meant about this having to do with the Stark words but I’ll mention that on the appropriate post.

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