One of the thesis under exploration by Game of Thrones lies in the interplay between those vying for power and their understanding of what that power requires. For example, we saw in last night’s episode various concepts and ideas for leadership and rule that the would-be leaders of Westeros subscribe to and how it is influenced by their personalities and their upbringing. Some are cruel and vicious rulers. Others are fair and noble. But between all these lords lies probably the path towards peace – too bad none of them care for peace at the moment.
The captured Jon Snow is brought by Ygritte and the wildlings before Rattleshirt, the Lord of Bones. He’s the wildling leader who Ygritte’s band choose to follow. In the Lands of Perpetual Winter, someone like the Lord of Bones makes sense. He is vicious and uncaring. He doesn’t hesitate to call for Jon’s head given that he’s already got Qhorin Halfhand captured. What good does it do to him to have another crow for a prisoner? Halfhand will know more about any plans the Night’s Watch has made than the pretty-but-inexperienced Snow. His viciousness is mandated by a world where resources are scarce and hard choices must be made. It’s only Jon’s identity as the Bastard of Winterfell that gives pause to Rattleshirt. But whether that will be good or ill for Jon remains to be seen.
Viciousness is something that Joffrey Baratheon seems all too keen to want to employ. His threat of “giving his uncle a red smile, ear to ear” is laughable given that Stannis is not there and that Stannis is a trained and expert warrior whereas Joffrey isn’t. His petulance, unfortunately, does not diminish his status as Lord of the Seven Kingdoms – and his value as a symbol for Tyrion to put out in the coming battle. Cersei may fear for her son – as is the right of every mother – but Tyrion is thinking about more than just one son. He’s aware that King’s Landing does not care for the rule of the Lannisters and is desperate to turn that situation around. A young king leading his army in defense of his city could be the kind of feat that could turn opinions around on Joffrey; if only he was smart enough to see it.
But ruthlessness is not enough – nor is viciousness. Otherwise Theon Greyjoy would be enjoying his rule over Winterfell and everyone would be kowtowing to him. Compare the way people respond to him to how Yara’s men respond to her. She orders everyone out of the room and her men get up and leave, without hesitation. Theon can’t get anything done without people questioning it or commit crimes without his knowledge or approval. Yara’s rule is unquestioned because it’s been honed and polished. She doesn’t see her lordship as a title to be inherited – as Theon does – but as a position to be earned. It comes from leading men into countless battles and coming out the other side victorious. It comes from earning that rule by her actions, not her position.
This is the same tactic that has propelled Robb Stark to such lofty heights during the War of the Five Kings. He leads from the front and wins on the battlefield. Furthermore he cares for his men, not because of what they can do for him, but for what they are. As he tells Talisa, he wasn’t groomed to be a king. He was taught to lead, to learn how to protect and ensure the continued safety of his vassals. Unfortunately, it may be that he cares too much.
Perhaps someone trained to be a king would have seen the distress in his mother’s eyes and feared that she might do something more drastic in “liberating” his sisters – like release Jaime the Kingslayer. Perhaps someone not interested in the first attractive girl he’s ever encountered – and thus carefully running away from his mother’s presence – would have seen it. But that’s the flaw in Robb Stark’s quality as a leader: he’s not learned to see things that extend beyond the battlefield. That might come with age, but in war, there’s no guarantee of a long life.
Ultimately this lack of vision is what hurts each of the would-be rulers of Westeros. From the minor to the major, they only see what they want to see or what they can influence. Look at how Tyrion is desperately poring over his books to figure out a way to overcome Stannis’ incoming siege of King’s Landing. When he and Varys question Bronn over his arrest of thieves, he calmly explains the realities of siege warfare in a way that speaks of experience. And few have the experience on sieges that Stannis has.
After all, Stannis held Storm’s End, the Baratheons’ ancient seat of power from forces allied to King Aerys during Robert’s Rebellion. He did it to the point of near-starvation – until Davos Seaworth smuggled in enough supplies for them to last until the siege was lifted by Ned Stark. This earned Stannis the grudging respect of lords and commoners alike – but not from Robert, who made his younger brother Renly the heir of Storm’s End. In Davos, Stannis sees a kindred spirit: someone slighted by the nobles because he’s not what they want. Maybe if he wasn’t being so caught up in his own pity party, Stannis would see the honor that Robert did him by naming him Prince of Dragonstone – it was the title of the heir to the Iron Throne by the Targaryens’ reckoning.
In the end, it always comes back to the Targaryens. Their rule collapsed not because they lost power or lost one key battle. It collapsed because the lords and peoples of Westeros began to live in fear of Aerys the Mad and took the option of backing Robert Baratheon when that opportunity arose. Whether cruel or pious or cunning, no leader rules for long if his people do not believe in that leader’s position as leader. This is why Danaerys cannot leave her “children” behind. If she loses her dragons, after losing Khal Drogo and losing many of her people, she will no longer be seen as a leader worth following.
In Game of Thrones, every ruler – whether pious or vile – seems to have their season in the sun. Robb is having his on the battlefield. Joffrey is having his sitting the Iron Throne. Renly had his leading his large army. But as Renly found out, ruling in Westeros is similar to their seasons: it lasts only for so long and there’s no idea when it will end or how. Winter is always coming for the lords of the Seven Kingdoms.