You know nothing, Jon Snow.
Why being a Stark gets you betrayal.
Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t watched up to season six of Game of Thrones — and want to — stop now.
I’m constantly in search of mental models to help me understand how the world actually works. Having the correct frameworks allow me to pilot myself and navigate the world around me. Relying on the wrong ones result in disaster. I look for useful frameworks everywhere, including fiction and entertainment.
That’s why I hate simple Good vs Evil narratives. It’s America’s favorite story. The good hero prevails over evil because he’s stronger and more honorable than his villains. The only application of this narrative is pushing nationalist propaganda to the masses. George W. Bush brilliantly diverted the emotional fallout of 9/11 to invade the oil-rich “Axis of Evil” Iraq. Comic book superheroes like Captain America and Superman were created as propaganda tools to aid the World War II effort. Simple narratives don’t match our complex reality. Applying this to our lives is not only useless, but also dangerous due to the tribalism it inspires.
That’s what I LOVED about Game of Thrones. (I’m a little saddened that Season 7 has turned into a mindless guilty pleasure.) Each character has their unique motivations and values. Not having the correct approach results in real consequences. By studying the characters (prior to this season), we can build a mental model closer to our own reality. In turn, we can make better informed decisions and have a better chance at achieving our goals.
I relate to the Starks because I’m dumb too
In any other fictional story, Ned Stark would be our hero. The Starks have a very black and white worldview due to their isolated environment. Their sense of honor and justice come from the meritocracy of surviving the long winters. When Ned left for King’s Landing, he had to navigate a world run by humans. The rules of the game changed, and he refused to adapt.
This is why the Starks keep getting betrayed. The Starks can’t and don’t try to understand what other people want. Ned’s complete lack of empathy led to his betrayal. His inability to understand the motivations and incentives of others got him killed. Robb and Jon were betrayed for similar reasons.
I love Sansa’s character arc. She started out with a simple idealistic narrative that didn’t reflect her reality. Through hardship and failures, she was repeatedly forced to reexamine her worldview. She continuously learned and adapted to each crisis out of necessity. Returning home to Winterfell, her sharpened framework enables her to protect her family.
Why the Tyrells are smart
It’s fascinating that the power of the Tyrells stems from its matriarchy. The women run the show. Their non-animal sigil — a pliant rose with thorns — symbolizes their avoidance of confrontation in favor of far more productive moves. Margaery impressively navigates three marriages with very different men — Renly, Joffrey, and Tommen. She understands that the best way to influence someone is through emotional connection. She gets people to trust her by understanding and empathizing with others. This is what makes her so persuasive.
A Lannister always pays their debts
Tywin Lannister was a master at commanding respect. At a young age he was forced to watch his house nearly brought to ruin through his father’s actions. Tywin took it upon himself the task of restoring his house’s dominance. He gained power by building a reputation of wealth and strength.
Cersei Lannister borrows her father’s model for power. To get others to do what she wants, Cersei mimics his display of wealth and strength to rule by fear. Cersei only has a surface-level understanding of where Tywin’s power comes from. Her whole life, she’s borrowed her influence from her name and position. She’s never had to understand the perspective of others. There’s no flexibility or nuance to her actions. Her only move is to raise the stakes to force people to do what she wants every single time. Someone is bound to call her bluff. Once people recognize the facade, her power will dissipate.
While Tyrion has the Lannister name, he’s never been able borrow power because his father hates him. As a dwarf, he’s had to learn how to build influence on his own. He’s become a master at getting people to do exactly what he wants. He does this by asking one question, “What do you want?”
Tyrion finds a way to put the strength of their own desires inline with his own goals. Tyrion shows us that influence isn’t about convincing people to change what they want. It’s about showing them that by following you, they can get what they had already wanted.
The TRUE players of the Game of Thrones
Tyrion. Varys. Littlefinger. It’s telling that the best players in the game are ones that faced the most adversity at an early age. Understanding what it feels to be powerless, they’ve had to build their own models of where power comes from. They’re forced to identify the motivations and perspectives of others for survival. How do you get others to listen to you when they don’t have to? Understanding other people.
Littlefinger grew up as a foster child in House Tully and was in love with Catelyn Tully. Catelyn was married to Ned’s brother, Brandon Stark. He believed he could win Catelyn through honor and courage. So he challenged Brandon to a duel and was almost killed. Catelyn had to beg to spare his life. His love for Catelyn drove him to obsess over gaining power and influence. Littlefinger builds his influence through manipulation and financial ability. He joins the Small Council as Master of Coin.
Varys was a born a slave and was sold to sorcerer that made him a eunuch. To survive in the streets, Varys became an excellent thief. He soon found that stolen information was far more valuable than physical goods. He founded a spy network and worked his way up through the slums. He became a master spy and information trafficker. His influence and reputation grew so great he joined the Small Council in the Seven Kingdoms.
They are the true masters of the game. If you pay attention, Littlefinger and Varys are driving everything that’s happened thus far.
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Dig Deeper! Watch all them all!
How the Starks Play
How the Tyrells Play
How the Lannisters Play
How Tywin Lannister Commands Respect [13:25]
Symbolism: The Lannisters [8:42]
Why Tyrion Can’t Be Killed [11:21]
Why Tyrion Will Win The Game Of Thrones [14:39]
Tyrion Lannister — Game of Thrones: How Power Really Works [11:02]