Sunday, June 7, 2015

Who's the most evil character on Game of Thrones?

This is a toughie.

There are lots of rotters on the show (and I'm explicitly discussing the television adaptation here), from icicle Night Kings to face swapping assassins and sadistic tyrants.

Complicating things further is how you define evil. Is evil in the intent, or the outcome? Is it the scale of the horrors inflicted, or the depths of sadism reached?

We'll try and balance between the two.

Without further ado, here are the candidates and their tongue-in-cheek rating:

"Hey baby, I'm the king. Want to go torture some kittens with me?"

King Joffrey
One of the most hated characters on television in his prime, King Joffrey was our go-to guy for on-screen cruelty. He was a petty, vicious little sadist, and therein lies his saving grace: he thought small.

Going out of the castle and conquering and exterminating entire peoples was out of his comfort zone. He'd be perfectly happy staying home, eating cake and torturing people to death.

Think about all the nasty little things he wanted to do to Sansa, such as presenting Rob Stark's head to her in a box at their wedding. Clearly the little inbred bugger put a lot of thought into that idea. He was inordinately proud of it.

He liked to torment the people around him, emotionally and physically, and the intimacy of their individual level suffering is what he fed off of. The bigger stuff was just a distraction from his real, petty interests.

Besides that, he was a sniveling coward.

So while Joffrey is still my favorite character to hate on the show, his evil is narrow, petty, and small in scope. He's most dangerous to the people in his immediate sphere of influence, not necessarily to the country as a whole, which he mostly left to his grandfather, Tywin, to administer.

Evil Grade: A-

"What do you mean? I AM smiling."

Tywin Lannister
A nasty piece of work, Tywin was smart enough to reign in his viler impulses, subordinating them to a sense of duty and obligation to family. He hated and detested Tyrion, for example, but refrained from killing him because he believed family ties took precedent. This restraint makes him one of G.R.R. Martin's most interesting creations.

A Machiavellian long term thinker, Tywin was tremendously effective and made alliances with his enemies whenever it suited his purposes, then broke them when they didn't. He advanced the interests of the Lannisters Clan with tireless, ruthless, methodical efficiency and got Joffrey, his grandson, seated on the Iron Throne.

A spiritually ugly person, personally immoral and politically amoral, he nevertheless had an interest in maintaining peace and stability in Westeros. He would be what is referred to as a 'Stationary Bandit': it was in his interest to protect the lives of the citizenry. He can't tax dead people. Only the White Walkers can do that.

So he doesn't make the cut either.

Evil Grade: B+
"Don't you know who I am?"

Cersei Lannister
Nasty, petty, and mean, Cersei believes herself immune to repercussions due to her position of status and power. Her thwarted ego makes her feel simultaneously both persecuted and privileged. More focused on small slights and winning control over her brood, Cersei lacks the reptilian emotional disconnect of her father, and is positively indignant when she doesn't get her way. She believes she can play with the best power brokers, but she is too focused on short term gain, and inclined to let emotion taint her judgement. She arms the faith militant, for example, which gains her immediate benefit (bringing down her rival for Tommen's favour) but at a huge long term cost.

Unlike Tywin, she's not able to parse consequences clearly, and as a result hobbles herself.

She wants what she wants when she wants it. And that's generally where her thinking ends.

On the other hand, she did have her husband King Robert murdered, setting into motion a chain of events that would convulse Westeros and lead to tens of thousands of deaths. So that counts for something.

Evil Grade: C+

Oh Ramsay, you are such a wag.

Ramsay Bolton 
A man who gives Joffrey a run for his money in terms of sheer depravity. Ramsay is more hands on than Joffrey, and takes greater risks. He's willing to get his hands dirty, get down in the muck and blood and hack heads off. He enjoys hunting human beings. He spent an entire season torturing Theon, cut the fallen aristocrat's wang off, and then ate a sausage in front of him. Don't say he hasn't got a sense of humor.

But like Joffrey, Ramsay is limited by his own petty, sadistic pursuits. He'll get his hands dirty if he has to, but he'd much prefer to spend his time inflicting emotional and physical pain on people under his immediate control. Every season he spends torturing one guy in his keep is one season less he spends laying waste to the countryside. Nor does he initiate high level action, unless it is practically forced upon him.

He's not a strategic thinker.

He's got potential, though, and his story hasn't yet been brought to a close.

But the odds are against him.

He's clever, not smart.

Evil Grade: A-

Even he looks bored.

Roose Bolton
The man holding Ramsay's leash, he's a colorless calculating machine who'll do whatever is necessary to advance the interests of his house. Practical and opportunistic, but not a high level manipulator. He parasites advantage off the machinations of his betters.

He's got the imagination of a brick, and everything he does is reactive.

A harsh ruler, he just lacks the depraved zeal for evil of Ramsay or Joffrey, although flaying people alive as a house practice takes him from a C to a C+.

Evil Grade: C+

The alpha ape stare.

Gregor Clegane
Otherwise known as The Mountain, Gregor is a beast of a man, but ultimately he's just hired muscle. He might as well have mush for a brain, because he's just going to do what Tywin tells him. Of course, Tywin's a good judge of men, and he knows what Gregor is good for: raping, killing, pillaging, burning, and busting sh*t up. The Mountain enjoys it, and Tywin has need for it. It's win-win. The Mountain is a tool for enforcing the Lannister 'peace', nothing more.

Interestingly, the difference between the living Gregor and the undead, Dr. Franken-Maester monster Gregor is mostly in the complexion.

Evil Grade: C+

"Big brother barbequed my face."

Sandor Clegane (The Hound)
A brute and a thug who believed he lived in a dog-eat-dog world, and had the experience to back up that cynical world view. His brother shoved his face in a fire when he was a kid for taking a toy, and his dad didn't seem to have much of a problem with that. But he grew and grew and went on to be an enforcer for the Lannister clan, like his big bro. He's seen, and done, nasty stuff. While no one would ever call him refined or tender or particularly nice, he had a conscience.

Evil Grade: E

Should I have the chicken, or the beef? Where are my advisors when I need them?

Stannis Baratheon
Stannis is a stiff, colorless and uninspiring. When growing up and playing with his brothers, you can imagine he was always the last kid to be picked to be king. Ambitious and rigid and a stickler for the rules, Stannis is torn between ambition and entitlement and what remains of his tortured conscience. Stannis internalizes events. He can psyche himself up to commit evil acts if he convinces himself it necessary (killing his brother, burning heretics alive, including his wife's brother. Best not to be a brother around Stannis), but his conscience always comes back and nags him.

I'm betting the guy doesn't sleep very well.

He's willing to listen to advice, which is wise, and relies heavily on two people: Melissandre (dressed in blood red) and The Onion Knight. One represents ambition and power and the other conscience and decency.

Eventually Stannis will break with one of them.

The great complicating factor here is that Melissandre believes the real struggle is going to be against the White Walkers. The fire god obviously has a role to play in this battle (as do a certain three dragons), with the fate of humanity at stake. So one could argue that the small scale evils Mel demands (all the human sacrifice, burning people alive, killing your brothers) are small potatoes when the lives of everyone on the planet are at stake. Very Cabin in the Woods. And 'The needs of the many outweigh…'

As is typical, Stannis hasn't made his final decision yet, but I suspect he will have to sooner or later, pushing his grade up or down.

Ultimately, I suspect he's just too conflicted to really, wholeheartedly endorse a path of untrammeled evil.

UPDATE: Wow, was that the wrong call. Mel did warn him he'd have to betray everything he'd ever loved to be king, in which case, why would you want to?

But Stan ruhly, ruhly wants to be king.

I wonder if it will taste like ashes?

Evil Grade: A

"I wants it, I wants it right now. Now, now, NOW!"

Viserys Targaryen
Mad, bad, and entitled, Viserys would have been a great monster if he'd been given the chance to bloom into full adult awfulness. Unlike Joffrey and Ramsay, Vis thought big. And he was a selfish, egomaniacal brat, a preening narcissist who he was willing to sell his own sister into sex slavery to advance his own bid for the Iron Throne. I mean, this guy literally pimped out his sister to conquer the world.

He combined the best of micro and macro level evil.

If he'd managed to lead the Dothraki back into Westeros, you can be sure he would not have been kind to the people he conquered.

There's just one problem: Viserys was an impatient idiot with the emotional sophistication of a five year old. And there are inanimate objects smarter than he was.

His irrepressible sense of entitlement and gargantuan emotional need for recognition and power vastly exceeded his ability, and he just couldn't wait to grow into his ambition. He wanted everything now, now, NOW. Ultimately his ADD egomania undermined and cut short a very promising career in evil.

Sure, petulance and lack of self-control got him a gold crown; it just wasn't the kind he was looking for.

Badly fumbled.

All need, no ability.

Evil Grade: D for dumb

"Would you like to see my boobies?"

A sorceress ('She's a witch!'), dedicated to the Lord of Light, Stannis Baratheon the-one-true-king, and burning people alive, Melisandre likes to screw people and produce murderous shadow demon babies. No one uses sex as a weapon quite like our red hot religious fundamentalist tamale. Or rather, the offspring of sex as weapons.

And yet, ultimately she may be acting to save humanity from extinction, if her one-true-god really is true and a god. The Lord of Light is not a nice god, however, demanding human sacrifice and burning heretics at the stake. But if you have to choose between total extermination at the hands of the White Walkers and the loss of a few gay aristocrats to leeches and shadow demon babies, well, I imagine most people in Westeros are willing to have a few less in the ruling class.

Cabin in the Woods, however, made the opposite choice, picking total extermination.

It's an interesting and ugly moral question: how morally compromised can you be and keep living?

In the world of Westeros, pretty damned f*cking compromised.

But it doesn't get Melisandre any higher a grade.

She's a servant, acting not for her own glory or advancement, but on the instruction of higher powers. She expends lives when it is useful, and is intolerant of other faiths.

Of course, Melisandre's god may just be an evil poseur, and the real salvation will come in the form of Danerys and her dragons. I'm not sure that would surprise me. But Game of Thrones leans dark, so…

Evil Grade: C+
"My distant ancestors will become used car salesmen."

Now here's a guy who marries Machiavelli with the impish charisma of a Baltimore politician. He seems so obsequious, like the Brit star of the original House of Cards. So unctuous he sets your teeth on edge, yet at the same time he's manipulating rings around you.

If Ned Stark thought one step ahead, Cersei thinks two steps ahead, Danerys thinks five steps ahead, and Tywin thinks ten steps ahead, then Littlefinger thinks a hundred ahead. He's figuring out the end of the chess game from your first move.

Littlefinger has been manipulating events in Westeros from the very beginning. He was in on getting Robert Baratheon assassinated (which got the whole bloodbath-brawl for the crown going), betrayed and brought down Ned Stark, and helped kill King Joffrey. He's had his sticky little digits in just about every murderous machination in the last five seasons.

G.R.R. Martin has set up Littlefinger and Varys as polar opposite manipulators in the Royal Court: Varys represents order, and Littlefinger chaos. It was spelled out in no uncertain terms when the two sparred over their visions for the country in an otherwise empty throne room. Littlefinger says flat out he views chaos 'as a ladder' and as such seeks to foster and benefit from it as much as possible.

And he's right. Chaos is a ladder. A mechanism for injecting murderous psychopaths into the very top rungs of society, because the rules fall into abeyance, social niceties no longer need be obeyed, and the most ruthless and cutthroat can unleash their inner monster and let it run roughshod over the world. Which is why someone as conniving, ruthless, amoral, ambitious and manipulative like Littlefinger likes disrupting the status quo. The system would otherwise freeze him out.

As an outsider, Littlefinger had no chance of ruling Westeros. Under King Robert, it was unipolar. By killing the king, the country became multipolar, divided, and chaos unfolded. Pieces were removed from the board one by one in a very bloody process, as we've seen unfold over the last three seasons.

Now he's closer to actual power than he ever was before.

Littlefinger's willing to murder both intimates and faceless millions so long as it advances his agenda and clears out the corrupt aristocracy in the process.

But he cannot be trusted at all.

Littlefinger is smarter than Tyrion, more manipulative than Cersei, more ruthless than Tywin, more charismatic than Roose, more likable than Ned, and more resourceful than Varys.

Unlike many of the other characters, Littlefinger has taken a weak hand and turned it into a strong one. He's like the McGyver of chaos, able to bring down governments using an elastic band and piece of chewing gum. His competitors, such as Joffrey, wouldn't be able to seize power and influence unless it was handed directly to them.

Littlefinger creates opportunity (ie. chaos).

He's the uber character, and the recent wars in Westeros wouldn't have happened without him.

Unfortunately, Littlefinger's incredible skill set make him come across more as a plot device, an engine to move the plot forward, than a real human being. Ultimately he is too cool a cucumber, too perfect in his manipulations to seem fully real compared to flawed, fallible characters around him. His abilities are preternatural, and his inside knowledge of the world seems more like that of the writer himself than a character contained within it.

He's flat.

But that's just a quibble.

Evil Grade: A+
"Yeah, that's right, look what I can do, biatch."

The Night King
The big bad of the entire series, the 'ice' in A Song of Ice and Fire, the Night King's full potential is yet untapped. He hasn't had more than two or three scenes in five seasons, so his ability to express his inner evil has been seriously limited. Stuck in the barren tundra, he hasn't been given the opportunity to shine, at least, not yet.

The question is whether or not we should judge him as a character or as a force of nature. We know so little of the White Walkers. What are they? Can we judge them as humans, or are their interests so different that the ordinary rules no longer apply? Do they think, or just act? Does the guy even talk?

Does it even matter?

His capacity for destruction is obviously great, as we saw with the zombie avalanche last week. But what about betrayal? Lies? Deceit? Sadism? Cruelty? All those evil things. Does this guy do anything other than kill people and raise them up from the dead to kill more people? That's evil, but it's kind of boring, one-minded evil.

I mean, why is he even doing this? Will we ever know? Does he even know? Does George?

I suspect the White Walkers are more of a primordial force, an expression of Thanatos itself, much as The Lord of Light is an expression of fire, the passion of life, which puts them outside our usual moral evaluations.

The effect of a meteor strike might be described as evil, but as a force of nature there was never any intent. It had no choice. No free will.

The lack of motivation and the single-mindedness of The Night King's actions makes him less interesting than Littlefinger, his nearest human competitor.

The worst thing would be if Littlefinger became The Night King.

Now that would be delightfully bad.

Being determined and focused in your evil can be a good thing for a villain, but The Night King takes this too far and becomes less interesting because of it.

Evil Grade: A

So there you have it.

Littlefinger is, hands down, the most evil man in Westeros. He's a medieval fantasy world mish-mash of Machiavelli, Josef Stalin, Mao, and Hitler all rolled into one compact, mousy package.

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