My colleague and pal Jeff Spross disagrees with me about Ned Stark’s strategic incompetence. Since this is a magnanimous blog, I’m giving him some space to make his case — but as the picture here illustrates, I’m not giving in.
By Jeff Spross
As a new entrant into the Game of Thrones world — I’ve watched up through the crushing finale “Baelor” and have just begun the first book — I want to lay down a defense of Ned Stark’s decision-making. Alyssa has tagged him as sentimentalist with an over-weening concern for process, a good subject of the law but not a interpreter or strategist of it. Similar critiques have popped up in Vulture’s recaps. I think this is wrong on several levels.
Alyssa and her commenters have already dived into this somewhat, but it’s worth considering the counterfactuals. Had Ned simply told Robert that his children were Jaime’s, the deaths of Cersei and Joffrey would likely have followed, along with civil war against House Lannister. Had Ned informed a third party, how many in King’s Landing could be trusted to not hand Cersei and Joffrey over to Robert themselves, or to not be bought off? As for a coup to put Lord Renly on the throne, how long before that led to civil war as well? Even if your moral assessments are purely utilitarian, it’s not clear Ned’s other options would have panned out any better.
Nor should the role played by stupid, random chance be forgotten. This entire conversation would be rendered moot had it not been for a king’s over-indulgence in wine and one particularly determined wild boar. And then there’s Jorah Mormont’s decision to protect the queen he has been reporting on, Tyrion’s escape thanks to the duel at the Eyrie, and the spectacular manner in which the attempt on Daenery’s life backfires. And on and on it goes.
The titular game of the series is not merely played between the various characters, but against the world itself. And the world is not only a cruel place, but a fundamentally ironic one. Westeros’ ruling class forms a system of egos, relationships, tribes and biology that lies irretrievably beyond any one person’s ability to comprehend or control. Even the most amoral and coldly tactical attempts to direct events will inevitably twist back upon themselves. It’s easy to assume Cersei’s cunning and lack of conscience are advantages over Ned, yet all of her political skills are bent towards the self-contradictory goal of maintaining the rule of her self-indulgent and stupidly destructive son. (As Adam Serwer observed, Joffrey’s decision to execute Ned proves to be a monumental strategic blunder.) For Joffrey to not be as he is would almost certainly require that the woman who raised him not be as she is. So even Cersei finds her strengths inextricably bound up with a critical self-defeating weakness.
Honor begins with the understanding of all this. Ned’s moral lines emerge out of ideology and principle, but also out of the recognition — perhaps explicit, certainly instinctive — that crossing those lines guarantees him nothing. He is neither a sentimentalist nor a narrow moralistic thinker, both of which imply a failure to recognize the character of one’s fellow humans or the nature of one’s circumstances. Ned fully recognizes the nest of vipers in which he finds himself, but is unwilling to sacrifice his ethics in order to just spin his strategic wheels.
Even if a man decides that gaining the world is worth the price of his soul, that does not mean the transaction will go through. And even in the pinnacle of worldly success, disease, chance, old age, and death still await — for him and his loved ones. As for the social level, every institution that is built and defended comes tumbling down, sooner or later. Thanks to enlightenment, we modern Westerners tend to place a high premium on managing the systems of the world for social betterment. Which is a noble thing itself, but it must be tempered by a kind of metaphysical humility. And Ned’s particularly poignant embodiment of that humility is what I suspect drives a lot of the show’s viewers to frustration. But winter is coming, as Ned well knew.