Power and The Game of Thrones

Soap Operas were the first television broadcast formats to use non-linear narratives. These programs have always featured interrupted story lines, shifting character focus and point of view in various episodes (and a large cast with whose characters regularly drop in and out of particular story lines), as well as alternating story arcs which advance separate but related story lines, or different characters that deal with different aspects of the same plot. There is frequent use of flashbacks, dream sequences, and other disjointed uses of time.

Popular and critically acclaimed Prime Time programs that are perceived as innovative and highly original use a combination of many of the same storytelling techniques. Why do shows such as The Game of Thrones feel fresh, inventive, and avant-garde to television audiences while Soap Operas often feel tired, old fashioned, and provincial? The answer can be found in two words– Great Characters.

If you look at the structure of The Game of Thrones it is about 80% eating or drinking and talking, walking and talking, having sex and talking, or riding and talking.  A few spectacular set pieces or violent action sequences do punctuate all of the talking but the show is primarily about relationships and power, relationships and love, or relationships and trust or betrayal.  This kind of relationship drama is the foundation of a soap.

The Game of Throne brings its relationships to life with complex characters that have a specific point of view and whose actions are always consistent with their particular way of looking at the world, their role in the world, and their philosophy of life, love, and power.

Let’s take a look at the main Game of Thrones characters in relationship to how they understand power and its use.

The first major character introduced in the series is Eddard “Ned” Stark. He is the lord of the Wintefell and head of the House Stark. He is a Power of Conscience character.

These characters know instinctively if something is wrong, unfair, or improper. They have a keen sense of justice and feel responsible for doing the greater good. In Ned’s own words: “The law is the law.” “You think my life is such a precious thing to me, that I would trade my honor for a few more years …of what?”  These characters look at power as their sworn duty to do right and take responsibility. Ned is tested by an offer to save his children by confessing to a treason he did not commit.  He believes his higher duty is to his family rather than his word.  He is beheaded any way and his children hunted down or dangerously trapped.

Catelyn Tully is the wife of Ned Stark and Lady of Winterfell. She is fiercely protective of her family. Catelyn always follows her heart rather than her head where family matters are concerned. She is  jealous of Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow. She resents that her husband brought the boy into HER family.

Later in the story, Catelyn is consumed with avenging the deaths in the House of Stark. She is a formidable adversary and, like most Power of Love characters, wields an iron fist in a velvet glove. She finds her power in protecting and pushing her family forward.

Robb Stark is the eldest child of Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard Stark. He is declared King in the North by his bannermen and family allies after his father’s execution.  He is leading forces in a rebellion to break the North from the control of the Iron Throne.

Robb is a Power of Idealism character.  He is a warrior/savant called “The Young Wolf” and instinctively knows how to strategize and win battles.  Like Jaime Lannister, another Power of Idealism character, Robb is an extraordinary warrior and believes the rules don’t apply to him.  And like Jaime, Robb is in love with someone forbidden to him.  He is a doomed romantic who secretly weds a woman who will cost him his life and his war. His power is his ability to inspire others and in his extraordinary fighting abilities.

Jon Snow is Ned Stark’s second son.  He was born of an undisclosed romantic liaison.  He, like his father, is a Power of Conscience character.  Jon feels unworthy as Ned’s bastard son and joins the Rangers to find a good and moral purpose for his life.  But, like all Power of Conscience characters, the issue soon becomes what is the higher duty or most important moral purpose?  Does he try to help and save his brother, Robb, and the Stark family?  Or does he remain true to the vows he took as a Ranger to protect only the Wall and hence the entire realm.  Jon finds power in being a good and righteous man, he often doesn’t know what such a man looks like in the dark and complicated world he faces.

Sansa Stark is the elder daughter of Catelyn and Eddard Stark. She is raised as a true high-born lady with all the traditional feminine charms and graces. Sansa is also a Power of Love character. She is a young romantic and lives for day she will marry her handsome prince and have his children.

When her Prince Joffery turns out to be a cruel little sadist she, like most Power of Love characters, believes if she loves him long enough and well enough he will have to love her back. These characters often see their own value reflected in the eyes of another.  Sansa sees her power as a dance of romance and courtly love.  But she too, over the course of the series, reveals the strength of steel inside her velvet glove.

Arya Stark is the third child and second Stark daughter. She is a rebellious, high-spirited girl who doesn’t fit in with the other young ladies of the court. She wants to excel as a swordsman and fighter.

Arya is a Power of Idealism Character. These characters want to find their special place in the word, be extraordinary, and be called to some great destiny (often as a warrior). They reject the demands of  traditional authority to maintain and protect their own individuality and personal freedom. Arya seeks the power of having the ability to be fully and truly herself.

Brandon is the fourth child and third  Stark son. He is a Power of Imagination character.

These characters can see, hear, or “feel” things others cannot. Bran has a mystical connection with his direwolf, has prophetic dreams, and has a growing access to the “old magic” as the story goes on.

He is seemingly small, insignificant, and a cripple due to a fall. But he has great inner powers yet to be revealed.  Brandon’s only access to power as a connection to the mystical, magical, and the divine.  “You can’t kill it you know, the raven is you.”

Robert Baratheon is the (late) King of Westeros. He took the Iron Throne in a war known as Robert’s Rebellion. He is a Power of Will character.

Tywin Lannister, another Power of Will character, lusts for domination and control, but King Robert lusts for wine, women, hunting, and eating.

He is a Power of Will character in the tradition of Falstaff. Robert is volatile, dangerous and is entirely ruled by his appetites.  Power to Robert is living large and lustily and answering to no one.

Cersei Lannister is the wife and later widow of King Robert. Cersei is the only daughter of Lord Tywin Lannister.  The House of Lannister is one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Westeros.

Cersei is another Power of Love character.  She exercises power through her son, Joffery.  Although she know how dark and cruel his heart is she still loves him as fiercely as a mother lion.

“Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon.”  “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.”  She finds her power behind her son’s throne.

Ser Jaime Lannister is a knight of the Kingsguard, a position he has held for twenty years since he was made the youngest Kingsguard ever. He is the eldest son of Tywin Lannister and is his sister’s incestuous lover.

He a Power of Idealism character and is acknowledged as one of the best warriors in the land.  Jamie is unique and extraordinary. He makes his own rules and follows his own peculiar code of honor.  His power is in his extraordinary and unique abilities.  “There are no men like me. Only me.”

Tywin Lannister is Lord of Casterly Rock, Shield of Lannisport, and Warden of the West. He is one of the most powerful lords in Westeros and father of Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion Lannister.

He is a Power of Will character. These characters take what they want, fight for every inch of turf, refuse to show any weakness themselves, pounce decisively on the weakness of others, and swiftly avenge any wrong (or perceived wrong). “Do you think I’d be where I am if I had lost a battle?” These characters show no mercy and expect none.  His power is in his strength and ruthlessness.

Tyrion Lannister, is the third and youngest child of powerful Lord Tywin. Tyrion is a dwarf, and is sometimes mockingly called The Imp or The Halfman. He is a Power of Truth character.

Unlike Varys who is a sly secret-keeper, Tyrion is a bold skeptic and cynical truth-teller. He often says what others are too afraid, too embarrassed, or too timid to say.

The major theme in his story going forward is betrayal or seeming betrayal by nearly everyone. Power is an illusive thing for Tyrion, it resides in loyalty and trust.  Both are so rare in Westeros as to be almost nonexistent.  He survives by his keen wit, cynical nature, and his powers of perception.

Varys is a eunuch, a secret keeper, and the Master of Whisperers (the head of the royal Spy Network). He is an advisor on the king’s small council.

Varys is a Power of Truth character. These characters believe the world is filled with hidden dangers, illusive enemies and concealed pitfalls. His philosophy might be stated: “Things are never what they seem.” “Trust no one.” “Watch out for secret agendas and hidden pitfalls.”  He believes power is “a trick, a shadow on the wall”.  Power is perception.  “It resides where people believe it resides”.

I liked what the AV Club has said about the series– “Each storyline is separated into roughly equal-sized chunks, then split between episodes. Every week, viewers drop in on one of those storylines for a few minutes, hopefully departing enticed to come back the next week by a cliffhanger (or two). Some episodes focus more heavily on certain characters, but each hour goes out of its way to drop in on as many characters as possible, just to keep the audience aware of what’s going on. As in soaps, this creates stories that don’t so much build as exist in an eternal present. The show has climaxes and traditional stories, but it seems to constantly be moving forward. There’s always something else coming, and the series has to maintain the illusion that whatever finality there is offers more of a comma than a period.”

I would add that the gaining or losing of power and how power is best used are the underlying theme that tie all the far-flung action of the show together.  This theme provides a sense of continuity to what’s going on in every part of the world and across all the battle fronts (foreign and domestic) on which the war is being fought.  Power is what binds the characters to the story and also binds the disparate action of the episodes together.

5 Comments

  1. Reply Cath Staincliffe 31st May 2013

    We came late to The Game of Thrones and spend half the time trying to figure out who all the characters are and how they connect. Your post is a boon, Laurie! And interesting too, about character types 🙂

  2. Reply Emmy Laybourne 14th September 2013

    Fantastic post! I love the show and know it (and the books) well. Seeing you identify the characters into your 9 categories really brings your work into sharp focus for me. thanks, Laurie!

  3. Reply Sepp 19th October 2013

    Dear Laurie,

    a) thanks for your fascinating approach to storytelling and the great blogs in general, I just finished the concept for a cop show and your blog on motivation of cops combined with your Power Of model helped me greatly.
    b) however, I have to question some of your valuations of the Game of Thrones characters in this blog.
    To me, Sansa is less a power of love but rather a power of idealism character. She doesn’t act out of love for others (at least not yet), she acts due to an idealistic image she has in her young mind of becoming a princess just like those in the fairytales.
    She truly “sees the world in terms of sweeping epic poetry”. She, more than any other character in the story “has to lose her innocence and gain a more complex understanding of the world” and, as the story progresses (I read the books) will do so.
    She admires Joffrey for his position and his looks and the future he seems to hold for her, but that declines quickly, when she finds out, what a little malicious shit he is. That is not love. And Sansa is not acting out of love.
    Neither is Cersei a power of love character, because this would mean that pretty much any character who is a mother automatically is a power of love character just because she loves her children (which most mothers tend to do). No, Cersei is a Power of Will character. She is her father’s true daughter, far more than her two brothers are and strives (unsuccessfully) for his recognition. She “divides the world into aggressors and victims, hunters and prey, and the strong and the weak. She believes it is better to be feared than to be loved”. Apart from her father Cersei doesn’t need and crave for the love of others (as power of love characters normally do). She doesn’t even expect her own son Joffrey to love her back for what she does for him. Cersei’s only way to wield power and exert her will is through her children, because they make her the queen regent and give her some say in a conservative society ruled by men.
    I can hardly find any character in the history of television that ever acted more on the principle of “believe that expanding her power base, extending her territory, protecting and defending what is rightfully hers (according to her) and swiftly avenging any wrong (or perceived wrong) is how one gets along, gets ahead and stays ahead in the world” than Cersei Lannister.

    Take Care and keep on your great and inspiring work.

    Sepp

  4. Reply Katharina Pietsch 22nd September 2015

    I completely agree with Sepp on Sansa and Cersei. For me, even the quote used in the article for illustrating Cersei’s Power is evidence for her being Will instead of Love: “The more people you love, the weaker you are. You’ll do things for them that you know you shouldn’t do. You’ll act the fool to make them happy, to keep them safe. Love no one but your children, in that a mother has no choice.” I don’t think that a Power of Love character would ever think of love as a weakness – love is what gives you power instead of threatening it; doing things for others is the essence of who you are and the basis for your power. But it makes total sense for a Power of Will character to see love as a weakness, as something to avoid if possible. Also, think of the scene between Cersei and Littlefinger where they talk about power. Littlefinger says that “knowledge is power”, whereupon Cersei commands her guards to cut his throat, only changing her mind at the last moment and ordering them to walk away, stating as an answer to Littlefinger: “Power is power.”

    I disagree in regard to some other characters too, for instance, I don’t think that Robert Baratheon is Power of Will. I can see that there are certain aspects about him that point in this direction, especially his “I want what I want, and since I am the king, you better give it to me” attitude, but framing him as Will neglects to take a very important aspect into account: his eternal love for Lyanna Stark. In his wedding night with Cersei, he whispered Lyanna’s name into her ear, destroying all affection Cersei then had for him. When Robert comes to Winterfell, the first thing he does is visiting the crypt where Lyanna is buried. At some point he says about her: “Seven kingdoms could not fill the hole Lyanna’s death has left behind.”
    Therefore, I find it much more interesting to see Robert as the survivor of a separated lovers story, a knight who once fought a war to rescue his beloved from the man who abducted her (Rhaegar Targaryen), won the war and the throne, but lost the beloved to death. So his story would be one of a Power of Idealism character who doesn’t know what to fight for any longer, because the love of his life is dead and the throne he won himself is much more a responsibility he does not want instead of the emblem of his glory he once imagined it to be. All he has left is trying to fill the “the hole Lyanna’s death has left behind” by eating, drinking, and hunting (without ever succeeding, of course).

    I also disagree with Varys being Power of Truth. I think, to frame him as such mainly because he is the “Master of Whisperers” and keeper of secrets means to think of the Powers too much in terms of theme. (I have the same problem with Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard – only a thematic reading would allow to see him as Power of Truth, whereas the stronger evidence is with him being Power of Reason: “Replicants are like any other machine – they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, they’re not my problem.”)
    I think Varys is Power of Reason, because for him the biggest threat is not uncertainty but chaos, as he states in the quote above: “What do we have if we abandon the lie? Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.” He serves the realm because he thinks that a stable and functioning realm is the only way to keep chaos at bay. That is why he does not act according to loyalties or honour, only according to what is best for the stability of the realm at a given moment. And to be in possession of as much information as possible is his way of determining what’s best and how to achieve it – all hallmarks of a Power of Reason character.

    Finally, I don’t think Arya Stark is Power of Idealism but Will instead. It seems as if all the Stark children start off with some indications towards Idealism. Jon dreams of a glorious future as a renowned Brother of the Night’s Watch, Bran wants to be a knight, and Arya admires the Targaryen warrior princess Visenya. But only Robb and Sansa turn out to actually be Power of Idealism, whereas Jon, Bran and Arya turn out to be something else. Since all five are children or teenagers at the beginning, it makes sense that the coming of age aspects of Power of Idealism are present somehow, but that doesn’t necessarily determine their actual Powers.
    I think Arya is Will because she is most concerned with survival, no matter what, in a world of violence and death. The things she wants most are to stay alive, to find ways to become stronger than her enemies and to kill those that brought harm to her or people who mattered to her. She does not seek glory, she is not dreaming fancy dreams like Sansa – instead, she is very good at accepting the reality she is facing and at finding ways to deal with this reality to her advantage. What keeps her going is her nightly reciting of the enemies she is “going to kill” (she says: “I can’t sleep until I say the names.”).

  5. Reply Katharina Pietsch 22nd September 2015

    Some additional suggestions for characters not covered in the article:

    Four major characters are Power of Ambition in my estimation: Joffrey Baratheon, Littlefinger, Margaery Tyrell and Theon Greyjoy. Littlefinger and Margaery are probably quite self-evident – think of Littlefinger’s answer to Varys’s “chaos is a pit” quote above – he answers: “Chaos isn’t a pit, chaos is a ladder. … Only the ladder is real, the climb is all there is.”
    Margaery is very good at being for each person what she needs to be in order to achieve her goals (a kind, gently guiding mother or naive, helpless girl for Joffrey; a caring older sister for Sansa).
    Joffrey could be Power of Will for his cruelty and sadism, but I think to actually BE strong is not his Power, instead he is more concerned with appearing strong and being acknowledged as the king. He always reacts positive to flattery, which a Power of Will character wouldn’t do.
    Theon always tries to make the best for himself out of opportunities that present itself – which usually does not turn out in his favour, but it makes perfect sense that by being Power of Ambition he is always tempted to at least try. Theon’s case is interesting because we can so clearly see where this comes from: He doesn’t know who he is because his father sent him away to be a hostage of Eddard Stark when he was nine years old, and as a grownup he turns out to be neither a Stark of Winterfell nor the son and heir of his biological father Balon Greyjoy. He has no place and no identity, therefore all he has left is trying to pretend to be something or someone.

    Daenerys Targaryen is Power of Imagination, she is the classic legendary hero(ine). When she places the dragon eggs on the funeral pyre and steps into the fire against all reason, she exhibits the complete trust in something she just knows that is typical for Power of Imagination characters.

    Jorah Mormont and Davos Seaworth are Power of Love, they are both devoted protectors and counsellors of their leaders (Daenerys Targaryen and Stannis Baratheon). Davos has certain Conscience tendencies, but I think they are more due to his fear for what the dealings with the Read Woman will cost Stannis personally.

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