Many viewers of Game of Thrones have of late been rather upset by the recent actions of Tommen of House Baratheon, first of his name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. As a result of deal that he has recently made wth the High Sparrow, chief priest of the Faith of the Seven, they think him weak and foolish; they believe that he has become a puppet of sinister forces, and that the Realm will suffer for it. But that, of course, is because they’re a bunch of plebeians who don’t understand how power works. If they did, they’d see that what Tommen did was a masterstroke on the part of the young king, and the best piece of statecraft that has issued forth from the Iron Throne since Aegon V occupied it. While I understand that my readership is comprised of only the finest thinkers and aristocrats of the soul, with not a single plebeian among them, it still seems worthwhile to elaborate on how exactly King Tommen worked his way out of a bad spot with a huge victory in his hands, and perhaps thereby to make a point or two about how power really operates.
What plebs get wrong about being king – or, indeed, being a leader of any kind – is that they think it’s all about barking orders at people; orders that they have to obey or else. But where exercised wisely and competently, leadership almost never relies upon this approach. Instead, good leadership rests primarily on teambuilding, inspiring others by example, negotiation, mediation, and dealmaking. The last of these deserves special emphasis. Dealmaking has gotten a bad name on the right in recent years, and not without some good reasons. First, because “conservative” leaders don’t know how to make deals. They know how to surrender in exchange for empty promises that they know will never be fulfilled, or just as likely, in exchange for nothing at all, but that’s not the same thing as shrewd and wise dealmaking. Second, and most importantly, because they are used to dealing with the left, which is a movement of fanatical utopians who believe that the inherent rightness of their cause writes them an unlimited license to lie, to cheat, to defraud (and to torture, to murder, or to commit genocide as well). This means that leftists do not negotiate in good faith; every deal that they agree to will be broken the moment that they believe they have the power to do so with impunity. Obviously, making deals with such people is a fool’s errand. But this should not blind us to the fact that in normal times and under normal circumstances, dealmaking is a critical part of leadership.
Plebs, because they lack any of the important qualities of leadership, don’t understand that a leader who gets what he wants – who has to get what he wants – by shouting orders has already demonstrated that he is unworthy; that he is unable to get things done in a way that is more harmonious, more stable, and more sustainable. To plebs, the difference between an enlightened leader and a tyrannical despot is merely a matter of how much they personally agree with the orders being shouted and how much they dislike those who are compelled to obey. But let us ask some important questions: Did Joffrey not shout enough orders? Did Aerys II? What happened to them in the end? And to their kingdom as a result of their rule?
Well, it’s no secret at all that the Seven Kingdoms have been ruinously mismanaged by the nobles who have run it ever since the Tragedy at Summerhall. There was the War of the Ninepenny Kings, Aerys II’s disastrous reign, Robert’s Rebellion and Robert’s subsequent semi-benign neglect of his kingdom’s increasingly shaky circumstances, the War of the Five Kings, the effective collapse of the Night’s Watch as a combat-capable fighting force in the face of an impending whitewalker invasion, Danerys Targaryen’s acquisition of a kingdom of her own in Essos (and of an army and three dragons to boot), the introduction of a troublingly fanatical strain of the religion of the Lord of Light into Westeros, the ruin or outright extinction of multiple ancient noble houses, treason, riots, famine, connivance, corruption, sedition, scandal, machination, mutiny, and murder. And through all of it, as the nobles fought their wars and played their power games, it was the smallfolk who suffered most of all.
And so, finding himself in an unenviable situation involving the High Sparrow, King Tommen decided that instead of charging in with swords drawn, he would make a deal. The particulars of that deal are as follows:
• King Tommen got his queen back, with no Walk of Atonement required. This importance of this as a face-saving measure cannot be overstated. It was a major – and necessary – concession on the part of the High Sparrow, and the most important diplomatic victory scored by Tommen in this entire situation. Furthermore, by binding the Throne to the Faith, the degradation of one becomes the degradation of the other; it makes the High Sparrow unlikely to try to further degrade the power of the Throne, because he has now hitched his own fortunes to it. If nothing else, renewed hostilities between the Throne and the Faith would mean an admission of diplomatic failure – which would be a severe blow to the reputation of all involved. And, of course, would also be a disaster for the Realm; they really are the twin pillars on which the Seven Kingdoms stand, and having them act together is critically important.
• King Tommen gets to be a uniter instead of a divider; he has turned enemies into allies. This is important because his kingdom is in shambles and under severe threat from multiple directions, so he needs all the allies he can get. Winter is coming. Danerys Targaryen is coming. The whitewalkers are coming. Melisandre and the man-burning fanatics who follow R’hllor are coming. Jon Snow is coming, and nobody knows whether he will stop once he’s taken Winterfell. Speaking of which, The North, for the moment, is being run by a psychotic madman. The Vale of Arryn is being run by a mentally unstable child in the thrall of a scheming liar who has ambitions that run all the way to the Iron Throne. The Reach may end up with no legitimate heir to the Lord of Highgarden. The Iron Islands are in open rebellion (again). Dorne is in the hands of a cabal of assassins. And with Tywin Lannister dead, Tyrion in exile, Kevan and Cersei at court in Kings Landing, and Jaime on campaign at Riverrun, does anyone even know who’s running the Westerlands? The Seven Kingdoms need more dealmaking and alliance-building, because there’s enough war and chaos on its way, at the hands of enough enemies, as it is.
• King Tommen managed all of this without any bloodshed – he came off looking like a peacemaker, because he actually was one. Not only did he defuse a conflict that was about to make the streets of the city run red with blood (for the third time in recent memory), but he did it with serious theatrical flair in front of an enormous crowd of common folk. He and his queen walked away from the Great Sept of Baelor looking virtuous, humble, and reasonable. The crowd cheered with genuine love and admiration, and it isn’t difficult to see why. After years of suffering and hardship caused by the greed, pride, and power-lust of kings and nobles (including Tommen’s putative “father”, Robert Baratheon, who tore the Seven Kingdoms apart due to what was ultimately a dispute over a woman), the smallfolk finally see a king who is willing to swallow a little pride for the good of the Realm – for the good of the people – and they love him for it.
• King Tommen ended up having to throw some subordinates under the bus to achieve this, but in the end, subordinates should be willing to take one for the team, especially when it comes to the stability of an entire kingdom. Lady Olenna complained that the High Sparrow beat them, but really, it was Tommen who did that. Publicly upstaging them all makes him look mature and independent, which is especially important considering that the previous generation of leaders of the Seven Kingdoms are the ones who caused all this trouble in the first place. Besides which, tallying up the damage done to all involved shows that most of it is minimal, manageable, or richly deserved on the part of those receiving it. Jaime and Cersei end up looking terrible, but deserve to. Working out a deal to get Ser Loras sprung and back to The Reach is a priority, but Lord Mace is healthy and an heir isn’t needed right away, so that can wait a while. Speaking of Lord Mace, he comes out looking okay enough; a bit foolish, but only out of fatherly love, so his reputation will recover. Lady Olenna goes back to Highgarden, which is honestly for the best for everyone – overbearing mother figures are unlikely to be very helpful in the times to come. In the end, it’s all a more than acceptable price to pay, from Tommen’s perspective.
• King Tommen banned trial by combat, which put his mother in a bad spot, but was a sensible and humane step that should have been taken ages ago.
And so King Tommen has done well, and finds himself in an excellent position. Other than figuring out some way to get Ser Loras back to Highgarden, only a few small things remain in order to secure the victory he has won:
Speaking of the last two points above, Cersei must be shipped off back to Casterly Rock right away. She shares Joffrey’s worst tendencies (though not in quite as much excess), in that she is impulsive, ruthless, and stupid. As long as she remains in Kings Landing, she remains a danger to herself, to her son, to the city, and to the Realm, not to mention to the Faith, to the Throne, and to the precious but still precarious deal between them. The king can take a cue from his how his wife handled things with her grandmother. Sometimes it really is better to ask forgiveness than permission, so to King Tommen, I’d advise this: send Cersei back to the Rock under guard, then apologize to the High Sparrow for letting her “escape”. Tell him you’ll be happy to let a panel of septons back in Lannisport put her on trial (being locals, they’ll almost certainly let her go, but it will be hard for the High Sparrow to find reason to object, and besides, by this point it will be a fait accompli). If he pushes the issue, remind him what he said about the Mother’s mercy and throw yourself at his feet for forgiveness. But whatever it takes, just get rid of her, and fast, before she causes real trouble.
Next, the king must shore up his position. Don’t violate the truce, but find ways to be ready in case the High Sparrow either goes back on his word or, in the mold of Darth Vader in Cloud City, decides to unilaterally alter the deal. Whatever precautions you decide to take, do it quietly, slowly, and with layers of plausible deniability built up around it. Be patient, and remember that this is a strictly defensive measure – the deal that was made is a good one that benefits the Realm, and should be maintained
Lastly, write a letter to Danerys Targaryen inquiring about the possibility of settling the dispute over the Iron Throne by the other time-tested way of ending disputes over succession – by a marriage between royal children. Remind her that it was the marriage of the first Danerys (the daughter of Aegon IV) to Maron Martell that finally succeeded at uniting the Seven Kingdoms by bringing Dorne into the fold, after nearly two centuries years of war had failed to do so. A marriage of Tommen and Danerys’s children will return a Targaryen to the Iron Throne, with face saved all around. And it will provide King Tommen with another alliance – one that brings a Dothraki horde, an army of Unsullied, and three dragons to his side precisely at the point at which they would be extremely helpful.
Another deal, yes – because shrewd and wise dealmaking is at the heart of good kingship (or leadership of any kind). Perhaps diplomacy is not so exciting for audiences to watch (as their reaction to The Phantom Menace shows), but as the old saw teaches us, for the smallfolk of any kingdom, living in interesting times is a terrible curse. And for a king who is shrewd and wise – as King Tommen has lately shown himself to be – it is a fine way to come away from conflict looking like a boss.
UPDATE: Yes, I know what happened in the final episode of the season. Scroll back up and you’ll see that I made a point of saying that sealing victory required getting Cersei out of town as quickly as possible. Tommen didn’t follow this advice, and all of his hard-won gains came to grief because of it.
Also, I’ve made a YouTube video that includes my reactions to the season six finale of Game of Thrones, along with thoughts on the series in general and how it connects to the history and philosophy of our own world. I believe that any fan of the series will find it worth listening to.