Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.
It’s been a few days since Sunday’s shocking Rains of Castamere episode, so maybe the Red Wedding has sunk in enough for a bit of tough talk. Although maybe not. This shocking event is, rightly, messing with the fans’ minds.
I understand why. Robb was our boy and, on paper at least, Robb totally seems like he’s the hero. He’s handsome, charming, wins every battle, and he’s got the whole “honor” thing (mostly) down. He strikes a dashing figure, what with his leathers and furs and giant pendulous sword. It also helps that his enemies are truly awful people people.
The problem is that while Robb was a good person, he was a lackluster commander and a terrible politician.
I’m sorry to say that in hindsight, his death was, really, to be expected.
His military problems are subtle, but important. Robb won every battle but for some reason he was not winning the war. Why? Robb seems to have forgotten the difference between strategy and tactics. Robb knew that this was never going to be a short war. The Lannisters are too strong, to secure, and too far away to get to. Robb also knew that his men weren’t in it for the long haul. Their blood was up but it wouldn’t be forever. So, he tried to delivered them a string of short-term, tactical victories designed to keep morale up, but that actually did very little in the long-term, strategic scheme of the war.
His military problems exacerbated his political problems. A king has to know what his potential allies and potential enemies want and need and ensure that he is strategically managing their access to those things. Being a lord also means cultivating trust. One does this by knowing who is worthy of trust and by always appearing to keep one’s word.
Does this seem like honor? Nope. It’s realpolitik. It’s an ugly way of looking at the world, but it is effective. It’s certainly the reason Tywin Lannister is doing well.
This was Robb’s major failing. He made deals with untrustworthy partners, he was seen breaking his word, and he never managed his relationship to the things his allies wanted and his enemies needed.
The Boltons, for example, are widely known as being dangerous, untrustworthy, and ambitious. If Robb needed them then they should have always been treated with (private) suspicion. However, not only did Robb accept Bolton’s support, he made him Bolton a part of his inner circle, a trusted advisor, against the advice of his other supporters. Bad move.
Second, he broke a marriage contract with Walder Frey. Yes, Frey is a piece of shit and marrying into his family was a grim prospect. Militarily, though, it was a no-brainer. Frey controlled the most strategically important location in Robb’s war, The Twins, and he had a personal army large enough to defend it. That’s a huge win for Robb’s war. Controling something of value means that you have it and others don’t. This is huge in war. Breaking the pact was, then, militarily foolish. It was also politically foolish. By breaking the marriage pact, Robb was violating an incredibly important contract. As Matthew Yglesias at Slate noted, “marriage contracts are the only means that the major houses of Westeros have for forming alliances and ending conflicts.” They are not about love. They are about building political stability (why do you think Tywin Lannister is busy marrying everyone off?) Breaking the contract also meant that Robb made himself appear to be a man who didn’t keep his word. Not good for engendering trust.
Executing Rickard Karstark was another political mistake. Obviously Karstark didn’t respect Robb’s leadership but, honestly, for good reason. In war you kill your enemies, you keep your allies alive, and you don’t allow your mother to free your enemies most gifted warrior. They had a Jaime Fucking Lannister in their hands and Robb wanted to trade him for two children? Why not trade him for the North? Why not use his capture as a tool to rally more support? Why not WIN THE WAR?
Seen this way, Karstark’s actions were not betrayal because Robb had already betrayed the North by refusing to use Jaime to win the war. Robb should have found some way for both he and Karstark to save face but instead he killed Karstark, losing his armies, alienating their remaining troops, and requiring them to lean more fully on the Boltons and to seek help from the Freys.
Robb was a good guy, like his father. His father too died because he felt that others would be as honorable as he is. But Robb’s problems run deeper. He had no wisdom. No political acumen. No strategic vision. He didn’t listen. He was a good man, but a weak leader and an incompetent politician. He’s a hero to be sure. Brave, honorable, and true. But his death was a result of his mistakes.