Powertalk in Action

A while ago, I put up the above clip as a demonstration of powertalk in action. However, I feel that I was remiss in not analyzing exactly what about this scene makes it such a good demonstration of this particular form of verbal maneuvering. Today, I remedy that.

There is much to analyze in this scene, but for our purposes here, only the words that are spoken will be examined. There is much to learn about how powertalk in action actually works. I hope you find it illuminating.

Prince Oberyn.

Lord Tywin.

The two players exchange acknowledgement of each others’ presence without giving ground. It’s time to play.

May we have the room?

Tywin wants the following conversation to be private. Oberyn sees that the man is very serious, and it’s going to be best to go along with his request. You see how Tywin is already setting the tone for the resulting exchange.

Game on.

Would you like to sit?

No, thank you.

Some wine?

No, thank you.

Polite pleasantries on the surface, but what is happening is that Oberyn is testing Tywin to see if he will break his stern countenance and submit to the prince’s attempt to display authority over the situation. Doing so would constitute a gesture of submission to the younger man, and make it that much harder for Tywin to enforce his will over the situation and get what he wants. Tywin, being a master statesman, does not go along with this.

I’m sorry about your grandson.

Are you?

I don’t believe that a child is responsible for the sins of his father. Or his grandfather…

On the surface, more pleasantries, but Oberyn barely disguises his thrust. Oberyn despises Tywin, and being the less subtle of the two, he has no problem implying that he thinks Tywin is the one who should have died, and not Tywin’s grandson, the former king. This is another attempt to throw Tywin off of his game and expose some kind of weakness that can be exploited.

…an awful way to die.

Which way is that?

Are you interrogating me, Lord Tywin?

A normal person would have agreed with Oberyn that the king died in an awful way. A normal person would have let the flow of the conversation slip away from him. Tywin is trying to retain control of the conversation, and he also knows that Oberyn is going to be hostile and minimally co-operative. As such, he dispenses with the cooperative assumption of normal conversational implicature and tries to pin down Oberyn and get him to say exactly what he thinks.

Some believe the king choked.

Some believe the sky is blue because we live inside the eye of a blue-eyed giant. The king was poisoned.

“Some people believe this possibility that obviously didn’t happen. This is the last chance for you to retain plausible deniability before we move out of the preliminary proceedings and begin the main part of this conversation.”

“We are not some people. We both know what really happened. We will take this conversation to the next level and talk as men who know what really happened and we will not dive into discussion of things that did not happen.”

This marks a shift in the conversation from feeling out each other’s frames into a discussion of the matters Tywin wishes to discuss.

I hear you studied poisons at the Citadel.

I did. This is why I know.

Tywin is implying to Oberyn that he might be a suspect in the murder of the king. It’s an attempt to rattle him. Killing a king is a great crime, and bad things happen to those found guilty of it. In order not to lose face, Oberyn has to show that he isn’t rattled. It’s easy for him, because he isn’t. This time, it’s Tywin who fails to perturb his opponent.

Your hatred for my family is rather well-known. You arrive at the capital an expert in poisoning. Some days later, my grandson dies of poisoning.

That is suspicious. Why haven’t you thrown me in a dungeon?

Oberyn takes note of the implied threat and calls it out for the bluff that it really is. He knows that if Tywin was really planning on arresting him, he would already be sitting in a jail cell, not hosting orgies with his paramour. Oberyn still doesn’t know what Tywin wants, but at this point he knows that despite Tywin’s fearsome demeanor, there is no intention of hostile action on the part of the old lion.

You spoke with Tyrion in this very brothel on the day you arrived. What did you discuss?

You think we conspired together?

Tyrion (Tywin’s son) is the primary suspect in the murder of the king. Tywin knows that he couldn’t have done it alone. This question could help him get some information that could be useful for the trial, but the real intent here is to assess how much of a threat Oberyn might be. For all Tywin knows, Oberyn might very well be the real killer. If that’s the case, there’s no telling who else might be next to swallow something that might fatally disagree with them. Perhaps Tywin himself is in danger. This next part of the conversation is an attempt to assess how much danger Tywin and the other members of his family are in.

What did you discuss?

The death of my sister.

For which you blame me.

She was raped and murdered by The Mountain. The Mountain follows your orders. Of course I blame you.

You’ll note that this is the first straight answer that either one of these players has given the other in this exchange. They’ve both stuck to their guns in holding frame up to this point, but Oberyn switches tactics in order to 1) remind Tywin of their mutual hostility, 2) attempt to intimidate him, and 3) see if he can get Tywin to admit whether or not Tywin gave the order to have Elia Martell (Oberyn’s sister) brutally murdered. But how many of these will hit the mark?

Well here I stand, unarmed, unguarded. Should I be concerned?

You are unarmed and unguarded because you know me better than that. I am a man of reason. If I cut your throat today I will be drawn and quartered tomorrow.

 “How far are you willing to go?”

“I may be reckless and impulsive and very good at violence, but I don’t want to die.”

Oberyn loses points here. Though his intent was to imply that he hasn’t ruled out killing Tywin at some other time, he ends up admitting that he isn’t willing to die in order to take revenge on Tywin. It’s a tactical error on Oberyn’s part, and now Tywin knows that this is not a situation in which he has anything to fear from the legendary warrior. You will see this reflected in the bold-faced lie that he will tell Oberyn very shortly.

Oberyn could have taken Tywin if it came to violence between the two. Tywin knows this, which is why he displays a certain reserved caution towards the younger, more physically dangerous man. Oberyn, in letting slip that he will not kill Tywin, has just forfeited a major psychological advantage that he had been holding up until that moment. This permanently shifts the balance of power between the two. For the rest of this exchange, Tywin is in control, and Oberyn finds himself fighting from his back foot.

This could have been avoided if Oberyn had ignored the bait and had kept talking about his sister, but his hatred for Tywin drove him to run full force into the trap that the other man had set. Massive points to Tywin here.

Men at war commit all kinds of crimes without their superior’s knowledge.

You deny any involvement in Elia’s murder?


We see immediate effects from Oberyn’s display of weakness. Tywin realizes that he can defect without fear of punishment in this prisoner’s dilemma, and he promptly does so. Oberyn told Tywin what he and Tyrion had discussed previously because he thought that he could then get Tywin to admit that Elia had been murdered on Tywin’s orders. Oberyn offered up truthful information, but Tywin reciprocated with a lie, and Oberyn knows it. This reneges on the offer of fair play that Oberyn had implicitly granted by accepting Tywin’s frame and then speaking truthfully. Oberyn, on hearing the obvious lie, realizes his mistake, but he also knows better than to push the matter.

This is the end of this phase of the conversation. Tywin is gaining massive momentum. All that is left for him to to clean up and extract the concessions he needs.

 I would like to speak with the Mountain.

This is Oberyn’s attempt to recover from his slip-up and reclaim some sense of authority over the situation. Gregor Clegane (aka The Mountain) is on his hit list, and there’s practically nothing that Oberyn wouldn’t give for a chance to kill the man. With good play, Oberyn can still salvage this situation and extract an opportunity to take revenge on the object of his ire. It’s clear that this line of thought is running through his mind.

I’m sure he would enjoy speaking with you.

He might not enjoy it as much as he thinks he would.

“I’m sure The Mountain would be willing to let you try to kill him. You do realize who we’re talking about, right? The guy is an enormous, inhumanly strong, nigh-unkillable human being. He could eat you for breakfast and still be hungry.”

“Tell that giant, freakish, rapey, eight-foot tall cunt that I will fucking end him as slowly and painfully as I can manage before my self-control gives out and I put him in his fucking grave. I could kill him easily and I know it.”

I could arrange for this meeting.

But you want something in return.

Clegane is offered up as a bargaining chip. Oberyn wants to know what is being bargained before he takes it. He still feels the sting of the preceding moment when he charged ahead without thinking. He won’t make that mistake a second time.

There will be a trial for my son, and as custom dictates, three judges will render a verdict. I will preside. Mace Tyrell will serve as the second judge. I would like you to be the third.


Tywin dangles a prize in front of Oberyn, but it’s not much of a prize. Oberyn isn’t going to snap at such meager bait. But why is Tywin asking him to do this? What is really going on here? Oberyn wants to know.

Not long ago, the Tyrells sided with Renly Baratheon — declared themselves enemies of the throne. Now they are our strongest ally.

So you make the Tyrell girl a queen. Asking me to judge at your son’s trial isn’t quite as tempting.

The backstory here isn’t important. What is important is that Oberyn isn’t going to dance for Tywin just for a few ceremonial honors. He knows Tywin really wants to win him over, and he’s not going to sell himself for such a low price.

I would also invite you to sit on the Small Council to serve as one of the new king’s principal advisers.

Boom. This is a big offer. Very big, and now Oberyn is very curious. Tywon wouldn’t offer this up unless he really needed Oberyn for something…something important. Now the prince knows that something big is going on that he doesn’t know about.

I never realized you had such respect for Dorne, Lord Tywin.

Dorne is the region of the empire from which Oberyn hails. The other kingdoms that compose the realm tend to look down on it for its loose sexual attitudes and (on a relative basis) progressive attitudes towards social issues. Tywin himself has indicated (to Oberyn’s face) a certain distaste for the region’s cultural norms. Thus, painting this offer as a reflection on Tywin’s views toward Dorne is an attempt to draw out exactly why Tywin is so keen on allying himself with Oberyn. As it turns out, this is about winning over Dorne, and not Oberyn in particular, but Oberyn doesn’t know this yet.

We are not seven kingdoms until Dorne returns to the fold. The king is dead. The Greyjoys are in open rebellion. A wildling army marches on the Wall, and in the east, the Targaryen girl has three dragons. Before long she will turn her eyes to Westeros…

Blah, blah, blah, backstory. Basically, the Kingdom is fucked unless all the bickering, feuding families who hold power can come together, stop all their plotting and backstabbing, and deal with the perfect storm of existential threats raging outside (and inside) the borders of Westeros. Tywin is being honest and straight-talking here because:

…only the Dornish managed to resist Aegon Targaryen and his dragons.

This is Tywin’s moment of weakness. This is why he’s spent all this time trying to assert his power over Oberyn. Much as he may dislike the Dornish, they were the only people who were able to hold out the last time the Targaryens decided to fly their dragons into Westeros and take over. This is Tywin at the height of his statesmanship. He knows that he needs an alliance with people he dislikes if he is to even have the faintest chance at preventing the realm from descending into anarchy.

This sentence gives quite a bit of power back to Oberyn, which is why Tywin tried to accrue as much as he could in the previous few minutes. He doesn’t want to lose any more power than he has to here, because he’s the only one with the capability to keep the kingdom together and fend off the threats that would destroy it. If he shows too much weakness and appears too vulnerable, his rivals (such as Oberyn) might try to remove him from his position as regent and kill him. If that happens, all Westeros is likely to be destroyed. For the sake of his own position (and thus, for the sake of the realm), he needs to make this request from a position of strength. He’s been setting this up ever since he walked in the room.

You’re saying you need us. That must be hard for you to admit.

 “That must be hard for you to admit” is unnecessary here, and it exposes Oberyn’s insecurity at not being in control of this exchange. It’s very effective as a personal jab, but it’s a sub-optimal rejoinder by the standards of powertalk. It shows that Oberyn feels his control over the situation slipping away, and now he’s lashing out in an attempt to score a few more points.

It still hits the mark, but the prince of Dorne would have done better for himself had he been a little less quick with his tongue. That said, this moment is still a minor victory for Oberyn. He definitely hit a nerve with Tywin on this one, as Tywin hates to admit any weakness.

We need each other…

 No, they don’t. Tywin needs Oberyn but that need isn’t mutual. This is classic politician-speech. It’s an attempt to save face. I actually can’t tell if Tywin is just trying to reframe the situation or if he’s trying to convince himself here that both men need each other. It’s probably a bit of both.

…You help me serve justice to the king’s assassins and I will help you serve justice to Elia’s.

Is the personal political? Yes and no, but by helping Oberyn get what he wants in the personal realm, Tywin gets what he needs in the realm of the political.

Final verdict? A remarkable level of play by both participants, but with the edge to Tywin for not only his masterful display, but also his success in getting everything he needed out of the interaction for the price of mere promises.

This is one of my favorite scenes from Game Of Thrones because it’s such a superb display of negotiating and politicking between two powerful men who know how the game is played. As such, it is a rich treasure for those who enjoying studying this particular aspect of human interaction.

Wrapping this up, I will point out some principles that are at work throughout the entirety of this interaction. You will also notice that both men do their utmost to avoid answering any question directly. Doing so would do what I warned against in my last Friday Night Fragments: playing a game when you aren’t the one setting the rules. Both men here are seeking to impose their will on the situation and they are no fools. They know the pitfalls to avoid.

Why does Tywin not just come out and say all that he needs to directly? He could, but he would suffer a loss in power and reputation by doing so, as the admission that only Oberyn can help him places Oberyn in a position of power over him. These delicate maneuverings are essential to making sure that the overall balance of power between the two men remains, at worst, neutral. It also has the added side effect of making Oberyn think that he is getting what he wants in a fair trade, while also increasing the prince’s opinion of Tywin and enhancing Tywin’s reputation as a strong, forceful man. Tywin could have gotten what he wanted by sacrificing some political and social capital, but by going about things in this way, he gains in stature. It is by playing games like this that he is able to project strength and head off potential challenges to his power and authority. Were he to be straightforward and honest, his political capital would be slowly chipped away until he was seen as nothing more than an old, toothless lion, and there’s nothing like the perception of weakness to make all those with even a hint of ambition feel bold enough to strike.

And that’s just how the game is played.

Now, I suppose you could argue that this is a work of fiction and that there is absolutely nothing that you can take away from this, but you’d be wrong. Good fiction is not just grounded in real-life truths, but is immersed in it, and scenes such as the above differ from reality only in regard to the most minute of details. There are a multitude of lessons that can be learned from this material and many others like it, and you’re a fool if you think otherwise.

Besides, if you really read all of this, you don’t actually believe there’s nothing to take away. You just think you do.


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