April is here and April showers bring May flowers, so now seems a reasonable time to talk about the flower-themed queen from Highgarden: Margaery Tyrell.
(If not everything in the above sentence makes sense to you, then you are behind on your Game of Thrones watching and should correct that before reading this post.)
Margaery Tyrell is one of those rare Game of Thrones characters who has more depth and dimension on the television show than they do in the books.
To be fair, that’s probably because in the published books so far, the Highgarden celebrity has never had a point-of-view chapter. She’s certainly an important character in the books, but she’s clearly only a secondary character.
On Game of Thrones, she’s a player.
Littlefinger: Do you still want to be a queen?
Margaery: No. I want to be the queen.
Margaery Tyrell was no stranger to the art of recognizing how power works. It’s not a mystery that she was married to not one but three kings. (That might be a record?)
Of anyone in the Seven Kingdoms, she might have been the only person with the skill set to blunt Joffrey’s sharp edges. (Lady Olenna, Margaery’s grandmother and mentor, arranged things so Margaery would not have to. But still…)
Popular with people, the daughter of a great house that was keeping the smallfolk from starving, possessing interpersonal skills and benefiting from the experience of the Queen of Thorns, Margaery Tyrell entered the game in King’s Landing with quite a leg up on previous newcomers who waded in with less success. Like Ned Stark.
Ned rolled in to King’s Landing with few advantages and many liabilities. As Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, he was accustomed to having things done his way, rather than compromising. Subtlety was not Ned’s strong suit. Beyond the authority granted by the king, he had little support and no real loyalty from the Crownlands populace. His adherence to honor was not necessarily an asset as things fell apart around him in King’s Landing.
It’s no wonder he under-performed playing the political game, where Margaery was a much better player.
But was she?
Cersei: When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.
Working from that simple rule, Margaery and Ned performed exactly the same. They both died.
I’ll admit that that’s a bit too facile a measurement. Valar Morghulis. Everyone dies.
But if we look at the balance sheet comparing Starks and Tyrells, the Starks are currently holding their own and seem to be on a return arc, where House Tyrell has essentially been wiped out. (It’s unclear in the universe of the show if there are any Tyrell cousins or whatever who can keep the family name alive.)
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Margaery, despite her political savoir-faire, made mistakes. They just happened to be the exact same mistakes that Ned did.
- Mistake: Underestimating Cersei Lannister
- Mistake: Having a false sense of security
I’ve defended Ned Stark before, not only in regards to his giving Cersei a chance to flee King’s Landing, but also the steps he took against Tywin Lannister’s aggressions prior to Robert returning, mortally wounded. I’ll not rehash all that here entirely, but I’ll just sum up that Ned Stark, as Hand of the King, was operating from a position of strength and had Robert returned healthy to the capital from his hunting trip, things would have been very different.
But Ned underestimated the amount of control that Cersei had in the capital, or rather how weak King Robert’s true authority was.
Likewise, Margaery did not properly assess the lengths that Cersei would go to to keep influence with (and control of) her son Tommen Baratheon, and although Margaery had a talent for making the best of her situation, ultimately her allies and those who should have shielded her either could not or did not.
Let’s break some of this down.
Margaery Phase 1: Joffrey’s Betrothed
Margaery didn’t make any initial egregious errors herself while in the capital, waiting for her marriage to Joffrey. In fact, she brought her A-game in building a rapport with the little sociopath. But the difficulty level in marrying into the Lannister family increased proportionally with Cersei’s fears of the Tyrells making a power play. Olenna was trying to effectively steal the North from the Lannisters by marrying Sansa to Ser Loras, and Cersei’s mood did not improve with Tywin marrying Sansa to Tyrion in exchange for a political marriage planned between Ser Loras and Cersei.
This established the early declaration of a cold war between Cersei and Margaery, when Cersei recounted the story of House Reyne and suggested that she might have Margaery strangled in her bed. Shots fired!
Margaery Phase 2: Margaery the Queen
With her second husband murdered at their wedding reception, to maintain the Tyrell/Lannister momentum Margaery transitioned from being the widow of Joffrey to being the wife of young Tommen. Tommen was a rather impressionable young lad, so to cut out any influences from Cersei the young queen suggested to Tommen that maybe things would be more romantic and spontaneous if perhaps his mother returned to Casterly Rock.
Margaery felt secure enough in her position to ramp up some passive-aggressive mean-girl vibes with her mother-in-law.
Was this a mistake? It’s hard to say conclusively. Cersei already had some enmity towards Margaery, but it’s possible that had Margaery kept things a bit under the radar she might not have spurred Cersei into kicking off the plot with the Faith Militant.
If Margaery can be faulted at all in this period, it was probably her reliance on her position as queen. When Loras was incarcerated by the Faith Militant and she was summoned to testify, she apparently had no idea that she could also end up a prisoner of the Faith.
This isn’t really an unreasonable assumption on Margaery’s part. She was the queen. The king would be with her, as well as members of the kingsuard whose mission includes protecting the royal family from harm, not just the king.
Margaery: You can’t do this. I am the queen!
Tommen: Gosh! If only someone could do something!
Unfortunately, Tommen was too timid to choose violence, and neither Margaery nor Olenna thought to bring along some flower-helmeted henchmen. Would Tyrell men-at-arms as escorts been appropriate? In past seasons, Cersei often strolled around with Lannister soldiers at her heels, so I doubt there would have been any real issue with Lady Olenna being escorted by Ser Horas and Ser Hobber (look at me, naming the Redwyne twins from the books!)
Ned Stark relied on Robert Baratheon for his authority and believed that others would respect that. Like Ned, Margaery discovered that power does not always reside where one expects it to be.
Margaery Phase 3: Margery the Faithful
While a prisoner of the High Sparrow, Margaery probably did her best performance in convincing the powerful holy man that she had essentially been born-again in the light of the Seven. Determined to save herself, she secured her own release by assisting in the religious awakening in her husband, King Tommen.
This simultaneously freed her from the bowels of the Great Sept and also short-circuited a more confrontational plan championed by Cersei and Jaime to besiege the High Sparrow’s HQ, an action that would most likely have resulted in Ser Loras’ death.
Margaery’s focus had always been on protecting her brother Loras, but now had expanded to include destroying Cersei. With Tommen under the influence of the Faith, Cersei’s preference for a trial-by-combat had been taken off the table, likely assuring her a grim judicial verdict.
If I can speculate on what Margaery had planned out: once Loras had been freed, Cersei had met her punishment, and Jaime stuck dealing with the siege of Riverrun, I assume Margaery had a not so pleasant fate in mind for the High Sparrow.
But this carefully orchestrated scheme fell prey to Cersei’s desperation when the Lannister queen skipped her trial and detonated the cache of wildfire that was hidden under the sept.
Margaery played the Game of Thrones.
There is no middle ground.
Although I do defend Ned’s actions, I am not going to argue that he was a better or equal player of the game than Margaery. It’s unfair to her to say that she blundered along the same way Ned did.
But I feel Margaery’s experience is a good example of how you can play the game, play it well, and end up just as dead as a lesser player. I’m not so sure that Ned would have fared much better, even if he had better plays to call upon. Sometimes stuff happens.
Sometimes you can play the game badly and succeed for awhile. Jon Arryn was allegedly as honorable as Ned and despised the game and all those that played. He somehow was in a position of power as Hand for many, many years.
Cersei herself isn’t really that great a player, right? She’s made tons of mistakes, but circumstances have allowed her to essentially fail upwards. (And maybe she isn’t really winning: the Lannister family itself is not doing very well.)
So, RIP Margaery. It’s a shame that we won’t see her adorable smirk in seasons Seven or Eight. (Unless Bran wargs back in time to when Lady Olenna was just a young thing. They should totally cast Natalie Dormer in that role.)
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.)
I make no claim to the images, but some claims to the text. So there.
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