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Sympathy for the Warchief

I have a weird personal quirk -- I can't really handle playing evil characters.

Part of it is that I feel like I've seen enough cruelty and evil triumphant in the real flesh and blood world I move through every day. From petty, small viciousness to boorish rudeness all the way up the ladder, with stops at knee-jerk offense for offense's sake, lying, stealing, racism, sexism, and it just keeps going up and up and up. I don't play World of Warcraft or other games to revel in that kind of behavior, because I see entirely too much of it (and worse) in my day to day. I play the game to escape those things, for at least a little while.

Now, I'm neither arrogant nor self-centered enough to demand that the game be tailored to me, or conform to this tendency. I get that there's a catharsis inherent in playing the black hat for some folks. I even get that there are shades of grey and interesting challenges to be had in coming up with reasons and motivations for people doing the worst things. Conflict helps create interesting stories, and you can't have conflict without opposition. I get all that. But I admit, I'm still rendered somewhat uncomfortable by people who get excited about evil, who use terms like deliciously wicked - in my experience, evil is far more often banal and tedious, wickedness usually the work of dull, plodding and inflexible minds.

Therefore, I'm surprised to find myself sympathizing more and more with Garrosh Hellscream as this expansion has unfolded.
It's fairly clear that much of his tenure as Warchief of the Horde has been a tumultuous one, he's made some spectacularly bad decisions, and as his ladders are all gone and we lie down where all those ladders would have started, in the fel iron wrought bone shop he's made of Orgrimmar, I can't shake this feeling of sympathy. Garrosh Hellscream has become the villain of his own story. Had he died in Northrend, we'd still tell stories of how he rallied the Horde and helped defeat the Lich King. Had he perished fighting on his flagship over the Twilight Highlands, we'd share tales of how he kicked a dragon off the ship by himself.

Now we're just going to kill him.

There are those players and commenters who believe Garrosh's personality has taken some huge turn over the course of Mists of Pandaria, but I categorically disagree with those who make this argument. Garrosh today is the Garrosh who picked a fight with Thrall in Orgrimmar before the attack of the Lich King, the Garrosh who impatiently argued with Varok Saurfang in the Borean Tundra about pushing the Alliance out of the way. He's the orc who started a fight inside the Kirin Tor's sanctum with Varian Wrynn and who insulted the Alliance in the stands of the Argent Coliseum. (To be fair to Garrosh, that whole tournament was perishingly stupid.) His actions in Cataclysm showed some depth to his character - his initial hesitation to take on the burden of Warchief, his panic at the idea of having slain Cairne Bloodhoof dishonorably, his anger at a subordinate having murdered Horde civilians in his name - but these elements only enforce Garrosh's portrayal. This is an orc who has embraced his people because they have embraced him, who wanted to belong, to surpass his effectively unknown father and prove to the world, and to himself, that he is the son of Hellscream. His wearing of Mannoroth's tusks is just one sign of this obsession - he borrows the trophies of his father's deed to cloak his own deep insecurity over his own.

The Garrosh who killed Krom'gar did so for many reasons. He killed him for acting without orders. He killed him for dishonoring his Warchief by proxy. He killed him for his actions against Horde civilians, and his misuse of a Horde weapon. And he killed him because of one question - "Am I a murderer?" Garrosh Hellscream aspires to much, but he does not aspire to be a murderer. He would have killed Cairne in the Mak'gora, yes, although he didn't seek the old bull's death, but he never sought to murder the tauren. Similarly, while killing Alliance (civilians or not) is part and parcel of the ever expanding war with that faction, killing Horde at that time was not war, and as such, had no honor, could bring no glory. In a way, Garrosh must be relieved that Vol'jin has finally raised the flag of rebellion against him - now, at least in Garrosh's eyes, killing the troll and his followers won't be murder, but war.

Garrosh's insecurity and aspirations fascinate me because they've led him, step by step, down the path that brings us here. He wanted to be his people's savior, to liberate them from the privation of their lives toiling in a desert for subsistence - and in many ways, he's made strides towards doing exactly that. Garrosh pushed the Alliance back from the very gates of Orgrimmar by conquering Azshara, once a night elf territory and now fully Horde. He made inroads deep into Ashenvale and Stonetalon. He may not have actually conquered Gilneas, but his support made sure that the Worgen who joined the Alliance did so as nationless refugees unable to contribute the resources of their native land to the fight. His destruction of Theramore pushed a major Alliance threat off of the continent, even if it ultimately rebounded to his disadvantage. Through it all, Garrosh's strengths were offset by the very weaknesses he protested to Thrall when he was appointed. He is not a politician, and leads in the style of a general commanding a military. This was sufficient in the time of Doomhammer, because the Horde then was a purely military machine, composed primarily of Doomhammer's own people.

Where Garrosh has failed, he's failed because he was trying to lead the Horde of his father's time. And it's sad, really, to see him lose his grip on the Horde because he never really understood it - he was an orc who grew up in the shadow of a dreadful figure suddenly relieved of a lifelong burden and thrown into a position he had no experience with, finding himself heir to his father's skill in battle and also, perhaps, his lack of patience. Garrosh isn't his father - for one thing, he's physically bigger than Grom ever was, a hulking, massive brute where his father was described as lithe for an orc - and in many ways its that struggle between who he wants to be and who he actually is that has caused him so much grief. If only Thrall had appointed someone else to lead the Horde and left Garrosh as supreme commander of the military, one suspects that everyone involved (even Garrosh himself) would have been happier.

Instead, now we're just going to kill him.

I don't think, even at this late juncture, it's fair to call Garrosh Hellscream evil. Perhaps that's why I am so sympathetic towards him, while viewing pretty much his entire reign as Warchief as a cavalcade of disasters and horrors. To be fair, Garrosh is racist, petulant at times (his killing of Krom'gar in particular strikes me as a panicked reaction to the idea of his own dishonor and not a measured response to a subordinate's failure) and is as ruthless as Doomhammer, willing to commit atrocities and use any resource necessary to win and heedless of the cost. And ironically, like his father, Garrosh will embrace even the foulest means to achieve victory. There's a lot to hate about the son of Hellscream, and yet, I don't hate him.

In the end, Hellscream's ultimate enemy was, in fact, Hellscream.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Lore, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria

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