'Game of Thrones': Who Really Holds the Power in Westeros?

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All the candidates for king are flawed in their own ways. Will anyone come out on top?

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HBO

"If wars were arithmetic, the mathematicians would rule the world."
Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish

If there's anything to be learned from the events that led to the country-spanning civil war of Game of Thrones' second season, it's that warfare is not a numbers game. The clash of kings that threatens every life in Westeros came from one fatal hunting trip and one unjustified execution. As Arya Stark says in a Game of Thrones trailer, "anyone can be killed" —and when that "anyone" is a person with power, the consequences are often severe. But if wars aren't arithmetic, which of the four "kings"—Joffrey, Robb, Stannis, and Renly—stands a chance in the game of thrones?

In this week's episode, "Garden of Bones," King Joffrey manages to find new ways to prove his unfitness for the throne. When Tyrion objects to his public dressing-down of Sansa, Joffrey replies, "The King can do as he likes"—a phrase which sums up his life philosophy, and which embodies his snottily entitled perspective so well he should have it added to his family crest. In last week's episode, Varys told Tyrion that "power resides where men believe it resides." But he wasn't quite right. Power resides where men decide it resides, and Joffrey is proving unfit enough to everyone—from the highest members of the court to the lowest-born of his people—to require a fatal demotion from the iron throne.

Ironically enough, it's Joffrey's two "fathers"—one public and one private—who prove wrong Joffrey's belief that a king can do what he likes. After all, the Mad King Aerys Targaryen did what he liked, butchering Ned Stark's father and brother in his throne room without any cause. In retaliation, he was killed by his own sworn protector (Joffrey's father/uncle Jaime) and replaced by a seemingly fitter ruler (Robert Baratheon, who believed that Joffrey was his son). Joffrey has no legitimate claim to the throne, but neither did Robert Baratheon; he took the throne by war, but held it by keeping Westeros in a state of relative peace. The king can do what he likes until someone stops him, and Joffrey's list of enemies grows longer with each of his petty (and often not-so-petty) cruelties.

But if Joffrey loses his crown, who will be there to claim it? It's a question that doesn't interest Robb Stark, who opens "Garden of Bones" with another victory against the Lannisters. Robb is content to march through the south, winning each of his skirmishes, but he's only capturing pawns, and he's put almost no thought into the endgame. Robb is naïve enough to think he can win his war, rescue his sisters, and return to the north unscathed. His situation is not unlike Joffrey's: His father died, unceremoniously and unexpectedly, and he's been prematurely forced to rule in his stead. In his mercy, Robb inherited his father's virtues, but also his ultimate downfall: He doesn't understand the way this game is played. Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and a vacant iron throne must be filled. Robb may be content as King in the North, but how long could he rule before the King in the South decided he wanted the other half of his kingdom back?

And the throne's rightful heir, Stannis Baratheon, is burning away his virtues—and the goodwill of the people. Davos Seaworth, Stannis' most loyal servant, once said "Stannis is my God" to his son, and Davos follows his orders just as unquestioningly. But the Stannis to whom Davos remains so loyal died the moment he took Melisandre into his confidence. In "Garden of Bones," Stannis chides Davos for the sins of his past—"the good action does not wash out the bad, nor the bad the good"—before immediately, unapologetically committing himself to evil, as he shrugs "cleaner ways don't win wars." By allying with a monster, Stannis has literally begat one—and metaphorically become one.

And Stannis' brother Renly—who seems content to spend his "war" watching tournaments and having sex—doesn't fare much better. In "Garden of Bones," Renly insists that "a man without friends is a man without power." But for all his bluster, he doesn't seem inclined to make any. Despite having the weakest claim to the throne, Renly refused to ally with Robb and used a parlay with Stannis to mock him. Of Game of Thrones' many kings, Renly is the only one to treat the throne like a game. For a man who's fought no battles in his lifetime, his first will likely prove a rude awakening. But win or lose, he's not fit to rule. Renly is a summertime king in a world that's about to face a long, hard winter.

With four kings of dubious claims, who really holds the power in Westeros? There are many more battles to be fought before one of the kings can be declared the King. But "Garden of Bones" offers a reminder there's at least one man who's spent his life finding a way to come out ahead the game of thrones, and he has no interest in the crown. Though he may demur, Littlefinger is a mathematician—and now as always, he's performed his calculations perfectly. History has shown that King of Westeros is dangerous work—but Littlefinger has survived the changing of seasons and kings on the Council. The iron throne was forged from a thousand swords, and the man who sits in it is the target of a thousand more. If the crown hangs so heavy, why not find power without having to wear it?

Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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