Friday, 27 May 2011

Zero Sum Games

There is no lack of themes and ideas that lie behind A Song Of Ice And Fire, but as has been pointed out several times over the course of this week, two of the most obvious are the very much linked ideas that a good man is not necessarily a good leader, and that honour can do nothing but weigh you down.

In all the shouting, bile and violence of "A Golden Crown", these ideas were very much thrust to the forefront.

(Spoilers beyond the jump)

The most obvious - and brilliant - take-away from this week's episode is that as cruel and lunatic as Viserys was, it's hard to believe that he would have made a worse king than Eddard Stark does.  Only one visit to the buttock-bruising Iron Throne, and he's already stripped a man of his knighthood without trial (even trial by combat) and given the richest man in the land (to whom the crown is three million in debt) exactly two weeks to show up in court and answer for his son's crimes, or be branded a traitor.  Clearly, Ned isn't much of a politician, or even much of a thinker in this regard.  Worse, his much-vaunted moral compass has arguably led him into a moment of supreme hypocrisy, at least assuming that the show's history follows that of the book.   After all, a major cause of Robert's Rebellion all those years ago was King Aerys' insistence that Eddard be held responsible for the "crimes" of his father and elder brother.  So last time this "sins of the family" approach was taken, it led the Seven Kingdoms into a war in which thousands died. Ned and Catelyn's similar application has already led to three dead Stark guardsmen (and five of their Lannister counterparts), the brutal killing of Ser Vardas Egan (more on which later), several needlessly butchered soldiers sworn to Tully bannermen, and at least one peasant village burned to the ground.  Ned's plan?  Let's escalate that shit.

Of course, Eddard's thinking mirrors that of us all (or almost all of us).  Sending out knights to burn villages as part of a political point is clearly morally reprehensible.  We want Clegane and his master (whether that proves to be Jaime or Tywin in this case) to be brought to justice, just as much as Ned does, making his "Damn the torpedoes (catapults?)" approach all the more interesting. In 99.9% of fantasy, sending a force of noble knights after the mad butcher of children will inevitably (if not immediately) lead to the villain's downfall.  Game of Thrones is smarter than that, though.  Depending on how things turn out, he may have ensured no-one's downfall but his own.  He may even have managed to take down House Baratheon with him.

In short, this show isn't just about politics, but about realpolitik. By ordering a military force to strip Clegane of his rank and lands, and demanding Tywin Lannister be held accountable for what has transpired, Ned may well have guaranteed that neither of those things will happen. Whatever else one can say about Littlefinger, he did at least try to teach Ned that much, to no avail.

So, whilst Ned Stark might bean honorable man, a loyal friend, and a wise lord, he's a shitty, shitty king. "Treat others as you would wish to be treated" is a nice idea, but it only works as long as everyone else is playing the same game, and it's looking increasingly like everyone is playing the same game except for him.

Over on Essos, Viserys has the exact opposite problem; he can't grasp the fact that how one is treated cannot be independent of how you treat them, even if you're a king [1]  Approximately three episodes to late, he finally realises just how high Daenerys has risen in the affections of her adopted people, but he still can't grasp the reasons for what has happened.  Even his language is a clue as he talks to Mormont: "No-one has ever given me..."  That's what he isn't able to work out; Daenerys has earned what he craves, whilst he has merely demanded it.  Moreover, Viserys can't see any of this as anything but a zero sum game, every step up that Daenerys takes is another level of respect and devotion to which he cannot be a party (I'm not sure how Dothraki culture would treat a Khaleesi's brother, but I imagine it would be better than how they treat a whining, petulant prick with an unbearable sense of entitlement).  It never occurs to his twisted brain that he can get exactly what he wants (an army of Dothraki screamers) through Daenerys, that their sway with the horde is cumulative.  Coming first is all that can ever matter to him.

So, Eddard demands honorable conduct, and Viserys demands love and fear.  Obviously, this has ended spectacularly badly for the latter (and it's a good job none of the Dothraki actually got round to tasting the stew Drogo threw out of that pot, since presumably it would have melted their face before they took their second mouthful), and the Stark approach, as enacted by both Eddard and Catelyn (originally a Tully, yes, but I suspect in this she has gone native to some extent) isn't exactly paying dividends, either.  Contrast this with the much more morally flexible Tyrion, who deliberately buys his freedom by the death of another human being, even if he had intended Jaime to swing the sword rather than the (rather undeveloped) Bronn [2].  Not exactly grade A hero behaviour, of course, but then his stunted back was very much up against the wall.  You do what you have to in order to survive.

The overall theme, here, of nobility (whether it be Eddard's sense of honour or Visery's sense of entitlement ) versus pragmatism is encapsulated, very deliberately, in the fight for Tyrion's life.  Honour, we learn, weighs you down. Following the rules weighs you down. Inflexibility weighs you down.  Even carrying the history and symbolism of your house (or in Egan's case, the house of your liege lord) weighs you down as well.  None of that make it wrong to do so.  As much as Tyrion makes sense when he professes his innocence (well, his innocence of anything that doesn't involve brothels, goat shit or an impressive list of onastic metaphors), Bronn's victory over Ser Vardas isn't the right result.  It's just what happened.

If there is anything to be drawn from this episode that defines the entirety of this season and beyond, that is it.  What will happen will be neither the right result, nor the wrong result. It will merely be.
[1] Note how Viserys can't even work out the difference between being a king and being the king - even his unshakable belief in his right to the love and obedience of Westeros doesn't explain why he's so convinced he can do whatever he likes whilst in the sacred city of the very much independent Dothraki).

[2] One criticism I've seen of this episode that I definitely agree with is that not enough has been done to explain who Bronn is, and what he's wanting here.  Obviously, saving an exceptionally rich man whose family has a reputation for debt repayment isn't a totally ridiculous idea, but given we're introduced to him at an inn crowded with men loyal to Catelyn's father, his sudden willingness to risk his neck (against a man who as far as we know is an entirely unknown quantity to Bronn, for all he knew Egan could have been just as good a fighter as Jaime) is a little difficult to follow.  Maybe our next encounter with Tyrion will help clear things up, assuming the hill-tribes/shadowcats don't do for them first.

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