At about 9:56 pm EST last night, Twitter exploded with approximately a bazillion people all tweeting something along the lines of “YESSSSS SUCK IT JOFFREY!!!1!11!!” It’s probably the greatest outpouring of TV-based schadenfreude since — well, since Jesse got his revenge on Todd in Breaking Bad, at least. Yes, not-at-all good King Joffrey finally got his comeuppance, getting poisoned at his own wedding and bleeding his last out through his eyeballs as the Internet whooped and cheered in delight. Sometimes, the bad guys do get what’s coming.
In a way, though, it’ll be a shame to see the back of Joffrey, if only because his utter revoltingness provided something of an anchor in a world of moral ambiguity. Pretty much everyone else on Game of Thrones has their good and bad points, but Joffrey was always awful, and only got worse as the series went on. More than that, though, he was surely the most compelling TV villain of the last few years, a memorably ghastly little shit who inspired loathing in pretty much everyone.
One of the pleasant things about Game of Thrones is the way it subverts fantasy clichés as much as it embraces them. There are plenty of fantasy novels that involve a plucky hero staging an improbable triumph over an apparently all-powerful villain: Sauron, Voldemort, the White Witch, and innumerable others. On the whole, while those villains might be evil and murderous, they’re also formidable opponents, worthy of respect and a certain rueful admiration, if nothing else.
Joffrey is none of those things. He’s a coward and a bully, only eager to inflict his sadistic urges on those who can’t fight back. But the other thing that makes Joffrey such a compelling villain is that, hey, who didn’t go to school with a kid like him? You might not have an evil overlord in your life, but you’ve almost certainly come across a spoiled, unpleasant prick on whom you could never wreak righteous revenge because his dad was someone important.
And it does all come down to fathers. Clearly only George R.R. Martin knows his characters’ motivations, and I’ve not read the books, but in the TV show, at least, I’d guess that many of Joffrey’s issues stemmed from being rejected by his father (or, at least, the man he thought was his father). The late Robert Baratheon was a man’s man, a war hero who took far more pleasure in fighting than he did in ruling, an alpha-male type whose favorite pursuits included hunting, drinking, and bashing people’s heads together on the battlefield. You can imagine what he made of his “son,” an effete, pretty blond boy who displayed animal cunning but not physical strength.
It’s worth noting that Joffrey’s cruelty only really manifests fully once Robert dies. The obvious reason, of course, is his ascent to the Iron Throne, but it’s also, I suspect, because he feels free to reject the other authority figures in his life as a sort of belated revenge against the man who rejected him. His nastiest actions are designed to stick it to people who think they can control him — forcing the prostitutes Tyrion sends him as a present to torture one another, betraying his promise to Sansa and his mother to spare Ned Stark’s life, and so on. His loathing for his uncle Tyrion largely stems from the fact that he shat himself at the Battle of Blackwater, leaving Tyrion to save King’s Landing while the King hid in his room — and both of them knew it. But it also came from the fact that Tyrion refused to acknowledge his authority, and by implication, his manhood, instead treating him with the same contempt his father did.
A feeling of unwantedness, a sense that nothing you can ever do will be enough to match up to the man your father was, is something that has afflicted innumerable boy children over the generations. Of course, not all of them develop into monsters like Joffrey, who is also clearly mentally ill, and whose sociopathy may well have manifested in any sort of environment. But combine fatherly rejection with a complete lack of moral structure, a penchant toward sociopathy, and a position that allows you to do pretty much exactly as you please, and you have… well, you have the most memorably punchable TV villain of our time, but also, perversely, one of the most human.
Joffrey is a terrifying and chastening demonstration of how far those in power can go when their actions are unchecked, but he’s also just as much a product of circumstance as any other character on the show — a child of incest, raised in privilege but without love from the man whose love he craved most, a character who was, in his own way, just as doomed as those who fell victim to his cruelty. Farewell, King Joffrey, we hardly knew you — but then, you hardly knew yourself. Still, don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out.