Spoilers up through the end of Season 5 of Game of Thrones, of course.
Game of Thrones dazzles you with grand battles and dramatic contests of strength. Ignore them; it’s a ruse, designed to delude you into thinking that the wars of Westeros can be won with physical power alone.
Suddenly, as we go into the sixth season, the greatest warriors of the land are dead: Gregor and Sandor Clegane, Robb and Ned Stark, Renly and Stannis Baratheon, Barristan Selmy, Khal Drogo, Oberyn Martell, and Jon Snow all lie in their graves, returning to the series only by flashback or magical resurrection. Their strength and battlefield prowess won them nothing.
The remaining players owe their position to something other than physical strength: their ability to do the emotional labor necessary for success, or at least, their ability to rely on others to do it for them. Rather than force, this kind of emotional work will win the war.
In short, emotional labor is the work of managing other people’s emotional lives. Emotional labor is often coded as feminine—women are the ones expected to make sure the others in their lives feel content, supported, and focused. In contemporary society, women are often held responsible for emotional labor both at home with their spouses and families, and at work, ensuring cheerful coworkers, managers, subordinates and of course, customers. Like much work normally done by women, it is often unrecognized, unappreciated, and invisible—such attentions are perceived as an intrinsic aspect of womanhood.
Emotional labor follows similarly gendered breakdowns in Westeros, but George R. R. Martin works to ensure that it is not forgotten. The show not only values emotional labor by matching it with success and survival, but it also draws attention to the effort and skill required to do this kind of work.
The master, of course, is Margaery Tyrell, queen thrice over. Though her first two husbands were murdered and deposed, Margaery’s position never wavers, and her ability to do the emotional work of royalty keeps her secure without ever needing to pick up a sword.
It’s not easy. Margaery is first introduced as the new wife of Renly Baratheon, who we learn is in love with Margaery’s brother Loras. Margaery’s rise and survival depends on securing the loyalty of both men. Knowledge of their secret gives her leverage, but not support. That comes from Margaery’s care in convincing Renly that she will not expose him, a delicate act with the rash young pretender.
Renly’s death cuts off this strategy prematurely, pivoting Margaery to the young men of House Lannister. She is flawless with both Joffrey and then Tommen: studying them and carefully aligning her flatteries to their emotional needs. With Joffrey, it meant showing enjoyment for his brutality, with Tommen, she boosts the boy-king’s sense of his own manhood, winning him to her side. Given Tommen’s youth, Margaery’s seductions are an act of sexual violence to be sure—and the enormous effect on Tommen, who forsakes his own interests for his queen’s, demonstrates the immorality of that act. Margaery is caught up in the religious revival sweeping through King’s Landing, and while Westeros does not see her marriage as exploitative, there is a certain balance there.
But Margaery has done far more than massage the egos of men. She also devotes herself to becoming the people’s queen, identifying the emotional suffering of the smallfolk and tuning her public persona to make her their champion. Lady Tyrell is secure not only because she has the love of the kings, she has the love of the people as well. The Sparrows will soon yield.
Margaery’s match is Catelyn Tully, who was defeated only because she was ignored. Cat thrives in the novels, where her emotional work can be made obvious. She first demonstrates this capacity by arranging the arrest of Tyrion Lannister at an inn in the Riverlands. She has moments to secure the support of a roomful of knights, and she succeeds because she is able to remember and identify the key bonds between their houses and hers. They flock to her side.
Later, Cat builds a vast coalition for her young son Robb, an artful act of diplomacy that requires her ability to identify the many motivations of the various northmen—whether honor, greed, or ambition. All the while, she keeps Robb focused despite his overwhelming mission. Only when she is drawn away from her son does Robb throw it all away. Cat could manage Robb’s resentment to an arranged marriage—but the warriors of the North fail to anticipate the need or the consequences. Without her hand, Robb is killed and his war is over.
Margaery’s emotional labor often stems on her ability to make people love her. Cat does not work to keep such a focus on herself—instead she applies her own emotional skills to political needs, earning supporters for Robb rather than herself, while also keeping Robb on his game.
Of course, there’s no reason to think that emotional labor can only be applied to good and noble purposes, or by women only. Petyr Baelish, without wealth or sworn soldiers, rises because, unlike most men in Westeros, he is able to do the emotional work necessary to stay alive. He identifies the vanities and insecurities of the powerful in the Seven Kingdoms, while providing just the supports they need. Joffrey’s sadism is sated, just enough. Lysa is given a dose of affection. Olenna is given just enough hints of of loyalty to let her plans go forward.
Littlefinger dedicates a lion’s share of his emotional labor to the abuse and manipulation of Sansa Stark. Joffrey simply terrorizes her; Littlefinger provides a carefully-calibrated mix of hope and fear designed to gain her trust, never giving himself away as her greatest enemy. When she momentarily relaxes after Joffrey breaks their betrothal, he reminds her of the threats she still faces, positioning himself as her only ally as he yanks away her fleeting happiness. When she teeters at the point of despair, he sends her a friend in Ser Dontos, keeping her away from pure desperation so that she stays in the game. His web is showing signs of strain, but it has not yet shown a tear.
The Lannisters have more money than any other house in the realm, and their military forces are second to none. But each of these three have been able to get the better of them. Margaery splits the Lannister kings from their mother, and positions herself and her family as the highest power brokers. Cat pushes the greatest army in the land all the way to the brink, compiling an unmatched alliance which was toppled only when she was ignored. Littlefinger extracts every bit of influence he can, leaving a husk behind during his own ascendency.
And one last power has yet to take the field. Daenerys Targaryen commands the only dragons in the world, and setbacks aside, will one day return home. Where the other players are adults, who have played the same roles all their lives, Dany is still young. She still learns. During her long, slow arc in Meereen, she learned the limits of her strength—her reign could not be secured by dragonfire and invincible soldiers. She discovered that the people never yearned for their rightful queen—and she began to realize that she could only retake the Iron Throne if she could offer something more to the weary people of Westeros. She teeters on the brink of an epiphany, perhaps about to realize that if she can match her ability to use force with a degree of emotional labor, she will be the Queen. Entering Season 6, she stands alone, with one dragon. Her strength is no longer infinite. But it might be enough.