Blatant traitors and why we put up with them

A while back, someone pointed out that my Twitter Klout score (a measure of what you are supposedly "influential" about) listed Transformers as one of my influences, and that I should clearly write about Transformers more to make sure it sticks. Now, I don't really care about Klout, but a challenge to write about Transformers? How can I resist?

However, rather than delve into a Transformers-centric post which would probably appeal to myself and no one else, I'm going to look at one of the central personality concepts presented in Transformers and see how it relates to the Warcraft universe. It's one of my favorite character traits, and it even has a trope named after it: the Starscream.

In some stories the Big Bad casts a shadow over everyone: They might be afraid of him, they might be his minions, or they might be the heroes trying to defeat him.

A certain type of character falls outside this pattern: a villain too ambitious or individualistic or just too stubborn to accept the supremacy of the Big Bad. Instead, this villain actually dreams about overthrowing the guy everyone else fears and taking his place. Sometimes he is a (grudging) servant of the Big Bad; sometimes he is entirely outside the established power structure. Either way, if the Big Bad ever stumbles or shows weakness, the Starscream will be there, ready to pounce.

Depending on the nature of the character, he may be an over-optimistic fool or someone who might actually be able to pull it off. If the character is badass enough, the heroes might be forced to try and stop him from toppling the original villain. Usually fond of playing contrarian to their boss' schemes (deservedly or not), who will normally intimidate/threaten them into kowtowing to their will. It can be hard to justify why the Big Bad keeps them around, but it may most commonly be so the Big Bad has a reason to always keep his guard up (and thus can rest assured that he will never become too complacent).
-paraphrased from

In Transformers, Starscream (pictured above) is second-in-command of the evil Decepticons. Throughout the series, he repeatedly and openly plots against his leader, Megatron, and makes no secret of his ambitions to overthrow him and seize command of the Decepticons for himself.

What's interesting about their relationship is that Megatron doesn't really mind. Whenever Starscream tries to take over (usually in disastrous fashion), Megatron simply punishes his treacherous lieutenant with some minor abuse or assigns him some menial, humiliating tasks, despite the fact that Starscream had often literally just tried to kill him.

So what happened in the end? Surprise, surprise, in the animated movie, Starscream successfully tosses a battered Megatron out into space and, seconds later, nominates himself as the new Decepticon leader. It really makes Megatron's decision to keep him around seem rather foolish.

Now granted, it's a kid's show, so I probably would have been shocked and traumatized if Megatron had just executed Starscream the first time he tried to rebel. But I was still fascinated by Megatron's bizarre attitude, even as a youngster. Why didn't he just get rid of Starscream, who clearly wasn't learning his lesson or changing his ways? For me, this unexplainable dynamic was the most interesting personality trait in the entire show.

So how does this apply to WoW? Well, the theme of the ally that is absolutely, without-question going to betray you - and why you permit them to hang around - is a fun one. It's one thing to team up with someone you don't trust because of extenuating circumstances, all the while suspecting them to turn on you. We see these uneasy, wary truces all the time. But it's something else entirely to make such an alliance when you KNOW your "ally" will stab you in the back, and furthermore, THEY know that YOU know.

Why would you ever do this? Why would you keep a known traitor around?

Well, there's a few reasons.

Because It Wasn't Actually Obvious

This isn't so much a reason as it is a disclaimer. Some Warcraft traitors seem completely obvious to us now, but in reality, were not actually openly treacherous in-game. Grand Apothecary Putress was creepy as hell, but prior to the Wrathgate he seemed completely loyal to the Forsaken cause. And Archbishop Benedictus? Name aside (Benedictus? Really?) there was absolutely nothing in-game to suggest that this highly regarded and respected priest would switch sides.

Finally, everyone's favorite grump, Fandral Staghelm, was irascible and cantankerous, but he wasn't actually a traitor (at least, not that we knew of). Sure, we find out LATER that he'd been up to all kinds of bad stuff, and he is appropriately punished as a result. But before that? We may not have liked the guy, but we didn't actually know he was a bad guy.

To Groom a Successor

One of the more interesting theories about Megatron/Starscream is that Megatron kept Starscream around because he wanted Starscream to keep trying to overthrow him. After all, in their tyrannical, evil organization, what he was doing was pretty much the epitome of their cause. Ruthless, heartless, treacherous, and power-hungry? That's the perfect resume to lead. And perhaps Megatron believed that eventually, if Starscream was ever smart and/or powerful enough to actually defeat his commander, he deserved to lead.

Pretty philosophical for a group of evil cartoon robots.

In a way, it's very similar to the classic alpha male hierarchy found in barbarian cultures (or wolf packs?), where challenging the leader is not frowned upon, but applauded. In such social settings, who leads? The strongest, because they must be responsible for the welfare of the rest of the clan/pack. And if anyone thinks they are stronger, they are welcome to challenge them for rulership.

We don't see this a great deal in Warcraft, since most factions/races don't have a great deal of inner turmoil/enmity towards their leaders. But it definitely exists. In Tides of Darkness, Orgrim Doomhammer tires of answering annoying questions from one of his subordinates, Rend Blackhand, and asks Rend if he is challenging him for leadership of the Horde.

"But we could have marched around the mountains," Rend pointed out. "A longer route but less difficult."

Doomhammer sneered at that. "Are you afraid of a challenge, then?" Several of the other chieftains laughed, and Rend bristled.

"Of course not!" he snapped, raising his one fist, clearly ready to fight anyone who claimed otherwise. "I am up to the task! I was right behind you the entire climb!" No one dared point out that he had used a rope, while Doomhammer had not. The Blackhands were fearsome warriors and widely respected, another reason Doomhammer allowed them to ask so many questions.

"Then you do wish to challenge?" Doomhammer asked quietly, his voice dropping. Rend backed away quickly, paling as he realized what he had almost said. The Blackhands wanted to lead the Horde, but they would have to challenge and defeat Doomhammer in combat to do so. And they all knew he would kill them, even if they both attacked at once. A part of him kept hoping they would try. Then he could replace them with a more reasonable Black Tooth Grin chieftain. But so far they had always backed down.
-Tides of Darkness

Another memorable example is the relationship between Thrall/Garrosh. While their clashes were never as volatile as Megatron/Starscream (Garrosh never actually hated Thrall or wanted to take command), the son of Hellscream very clearly believed he would make a better Warchief. And though leadership of the Horde was not on the line, Garrosh certainly did not hesitate to step into the arena with Thrall to fight him back during the Wrath of the Lich King launch events.

The dynamic between Thrall and Garrosh continued all throughout Wrath, with Garrosh constantly interrupting neutral meetings, causing pointless fights (in Trial of the Crusader), and in general just being a nuisance and malcontent. We often lamented his very existence/presence, and asked why Thrall even kept him around.

Of course, then Thrall stepped down and gave Garrosh the throne, and while we may not LIKE IT, it finally made sense. Maybe Thrall was putting up with Garrosh's nonsense because he was trying to teach him, to help him mature and grow. While virtually no one agrees with Thrall's judgment, in his eyes Garrosh had grown into the leader the Horde needed - bold, strong, fearless...everything the Horde (well, the orcs, anyway) held in high regard.

To Keep an Eye on Them

Another reason known traitors might be tolerated is because they're simply too dangerous to leave unwatched. After all, why not discourage a subordinate from plotting against you by keeping them right at your side, under your watchful gaze? Maybe you hope to have a positive influence on them, or maybe you just don't trust them out of your sight. And by giving them managerial responsibilities, you can also keep them too busy to plot against you.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this in Warcraft is Magatha Grimtotem. Cairne knew Magatha wanted to be Chieftain. Hell, EVERYONE knew it. And it was always one of the most confusing questions - she wants to dethrone Cairne, she doesn't like him, she's CLEARLY up to nefarious deeds on the sly - so why was she still a prominent authority figure in Thunder Bluff?

Cairne was probably the nicest, most forgiving person on Azeroth, but he was no fool. He knew Magatha had her secret ambitions and schemes, yet still he kept her near. And I don't think it was under the naive hope that she would suddenly change her ways and start marching the Bloodhoof company line.

No, I think the canny Chieftain kept Magatha nearby expressly so he could watch her, and somewhat limit her political moves. After all, despite the heavy suspicion, Magatha never actually did anything openly treacherous, so it's not like Cairne could have justifiably banished her or anything. So instead he did the next best thing - promote her.

Being in a high-ranking public position ensured that Magatha had to maintain a civil face, and at least outwardly pretend to generally support Bloodhoof. (Not to mention keep her busy with day-to-day responsibilities and details.) We can see how much this limited her, in the older pre-Cata quests - on the surface, Magatha was all smiles and warmth, but she was always sending us to go fetch an item here, or go kill a crazy serpent-spirit of vengeance there. She wasn't able to do these things herself, because people would notice, and she'd have to explain - something she would not have been able to do. Clever move, Cairne. Clever.

Of course, such preventative measures only works when the traitor is actually afraid of making her intentions clear. In the Shattering, when Cairne challenges Garrosh to a duel for leadership of the Horde, Magatha finally openly opposes Cairne by supporting Garrosh. When Cairne sees this, he is surprised...but not that much.

Cairne's eyes narrowed as he strained to see at this distance. It was a tauren shaman who had blessed Garrosh’s weapon with words of ritual and sacred oil. That surprised and pained Cairne, who had assumed another orc would perform that rite. It was a female, black-coated...

"Magatha," he breathed. She was a powerful shaman, but so was Beram. While her blessing would help Garrosh, Beram Skychaser's blessing would help Cairne. She had to know that; it was a gesture, nothing more. All she had done was, finally, openly state where her loyalties lay.

Cairne nodded to himself, confident now more than ever of the rightness of his path. This challenge really did need to happen, before more fell under Garrosh's spell. At least Magatha now had shown her true colors. He would have to address the disloyalty; he had no choice now. The Grimtotem would need to be banished from Thunder Bluff, unless they finally chose to swear allegiance to the Horde. It had become a necessity, not a desire.
-The Shattering

Cairne wasn't surprised when Magatha made her move. He knew it had just been a matter of time. No, I think he was actually pleased that she had finally ended her little charade, after all these years, and that he could finally banish her from Thunder Bluff with just cause. (Actually, it's basically exactly what Doomhammer thought in the earlier passage, regarding Rend.)

Of course, he just had to win that duel against Garrosh first. And, well, we know how that turned out. There's a pretty good reason Magatha wasn't afraid of suffering repercussions for her treachery - she knew (or wagered, anyway) that Cairne wouldn't live to dole out punishment. And she was right.

Because You Need Them

The most pragmatic reasons to keep a traitor around? Simple. They're just too damn useful to get rid of.

Megatron may have not have trusted Starscream, but he couldn't get rid of him because Starscream - when he wasn't shooting Megatron in the back - was an extremely valuable soldier. Removing him would have severely weakened the Decepticons, and that was a price that Megatron wasn't willing to pay. I'm sure he would have loved nothing more than to blast Starscream to bits, but as a leader, he knew that he couldn't allow himself the luxury.

When Doomhammer killed Blackhand and seized control of the Horde (an act of treachery in itself, in ways), he was delighted to be able to kill Gul'dan, who he had always hated, and who had caused the death of his close friend, Durotan. But the weaselly warlock managed to convince Doomhammer to spare his life, not out of mercy or any sentimental silliness, but simply because Doomhammer - and the Horde - still needed him.

"I bow to your might, Orgrim Doomhammer," [Gul'dan] managed at last, pronouncing each word clearly and loud enough that all those nearby could hear him. "I acknowledge you as warchief of the Horde, and I pledge myself to you. I will obey you in all things."

Doomhammer grunted. "You have never demonstrated obedience before," he pointed out sharply. "Why should I believe you capable of it now?"

"Because you need me," Gul'dan replied, raising his head to meet the warchief's glare. "You have slain my Shadow Council, yes, and consolidated your power over the Horde. That is as it should be. Blackhand was not strong enough to lead us on his own. You are, and so you have no need of a council." He licked his lips. "But you do need warlocks. You need our magic, for the humans have magic of their own and without us you will fall to their power." He shook his head. "And you have very few warlocks left. Myself, Cho'gall, and a handful of neophytes. I am too useful to kill simply for revenge."

Doomhammer's lips pulled back in a snarl, but he lowered the hammer. For a moment he said nothing, simply glaring at Gul'dan, his gray eyes filled with hate. But finally he nodded.

"What you say is true," he admitted, though the words clearly took enormous self-control to utter. "And I will place the needs of the Horde over my own." He bared his tusks. "I will allow you to live, Gul'dan, you and those of your warlocks who remain. But only as long as you prove useful."
-Tides of Darkness

Now, Doomhammer wasn't stupid. He knew full well that Gul'dan was not truly loyal, or cowed. But what could he do? The Horde needed Gul'dan's sorcery, his warlocks, his Death Knights. And so he allowed Gul'dan to live, though he watched him carefully and with great suspicion. Not closely enough though, as it turns out, since Gul'dan - you guessed it - betrayed him at a crucial moment, choosing to pursue personal power instead of supporting the Horde. Because of Gul'dan's treachery, Doomhammer and the Horde were forced to retreat, despite being on Lordaeron's doorstep and on the verge of total victory. I guess that's what you get when you trust a traitor.

Another example, this time in-game, is a minor quest NPC whose story is delightfully predictable. Anyone who's quested through Mount Hyjal will probably remember Tyrus Blackhorn, an imprisoned satyr who players work with for a short time, before accidentally setting him free. From the moment you meet him, he's wildly suspicious, saying "Don't sicken me by claiming it's my redemption. I do this for my own ends," followed by a sudden unsettling grin.

What a nice fellow. I can't imagine him ever betraying me! But yes, in the year's least surprising turn of events, at the end of this quest chain Blackhorn tricks you into freeing him. What a shocker! However, before this, with his help, you do manage to quell the raging fires that are threatening the entire area. Even when you go tell Matoclaw about Blackhorn's escape, she's not too broken up about it, but more focused on the fact that you managed to extinguish the inferno.

And of course, we can't forget about the well-known "agreement" that existed for many years between Sylvanas and Varimathras, her Dreadlord second-in-command. Though Varimathras was allegedly loyal to the Banshee Queen, I doubt anyone truly believed he was actually faithful and trustworthy. After all, he only joined her ranks because she was about to kill him, so in exchange for mercy he agreed to serve her and hand over information regarding the other Dreadlords. Does this sound like the act of a reliable, stalwart ally?

There's also the minor fact that he's, oh you know, A DEMON.

So why did Sylvanas keep him around? Well, she probably knew she couldn't trust him, but clearly she figured the benefit of having him there was greater than the potential risk. A powerful bodyguard, devious advisor, as well as the provider of untold dark magics - I can definitely understand the appeal.

Was it worth it, even after Varimathras' sudden but inevitable betrayal? Debatable. On the one hand, there was the disastrous coup where Sylvanas lost control of the Undercity to Varimathras, Putress and other traitors, and was forced to ask Thrall for help in retaking her city and quashing the rebellion.

On the other hand, Varimathras and the treacherous Forsaken who followed him did manage to perfect the Scourge plague Sylvanas had desired for so long. And now all of those traitors and turncoats were outed and killed, where as without Varimathras' uprising, they would have remained anonymous and hidden within her ranks. The Banshee Queen arguably came out ahead, when all was said and done.

Speaking of Sylvanas, let's fast-forward ahead to Cataclysm. Once again, she placed her trust in an agent of dubious moral fiber - Lord Godfrey. Knowing how arrogant and dangerous Godfrey was in life, I can't imagine Sylvanas actually believed he was completely loyal, since those raised by the Val'kyr allegedly (and as we see later on, really do) have free will. But he knew the enemy forces/territory, he hated the worgen, and she knew his reappearance was bound to have a shocking/unsettling effect on Gilnean morale. Pros and cons.

And her gamble paid off. He and his cronies WERE very valuable to the Forsaken cause, and in fact, the Forsaken won the war (albeit temporarily) entirely because Godfrey was able to capture Lorna Crowley, the ultimate bargaining chip.

Of course, the drawback to Sylvanas was that Godfrey betrayed and murdered her. But hey, them's the breaks, right?

Actually, let's look at the bigger picture here. To Garrosh, Sylvanas is the lurking traitor who is absolutely going to eventually betray him and/or the Horde. Garrosh CLEARLY does not trust her, and let's be honest - for good reason. Throughout Cataclysm, Sylvanas has very blatantly pursued her own agenda, with little (if any) regard to what the Warchief thinks. She's becoming more and more ruthless, snatching up land at an alarming pace, and she's in charge of a rapidly growing army of new undead soldiers. Yeah, I'd be worried too.

On the other hand, Garrosh can't really DO anything! Like her or not, she's unarguably effective, and he needs her military might at work for the Horde in the Eastern Kingdoms, taking contested territory, pushing back Gilneas and the Stormpike dwarves, etc.

And it's not just those specific regions - the Forsaken are one of the Horde's strongest war resources. The orcs, trolls and tauren might be strong and fearsome, but the Forsaken are organized, disciplined, and perhaps most importantly, deadly. Most races rush onto the battlefield to fight and win. The Forsaken go to kill.

Garrosh may not want to admit it, but with the Horde/Alliance enmity at such an all-time high, the Horde simply cannot afford to lose their undead allies. Oh sure, there's Kor'kron guards placed in Undercity to "watch" her, but really, it would be virtually suicidal to actually sever ties with Sylvanas and her people. So Garrosh is forced to bite his tongue, glower and grumble, and hope that Sylvanas doesn't betray them least, not yet.

* * * * *

So what have we learned? Well, if history is any indication, allowing a known/highly suspected traitor to hang around is a VERY BAD IDEA. Sure, you might reap some short-term benefits, and their particular skills might come in handy. But it's only a matter of time before they make their move. You know it, they know it, EVERYONE knows it. These relationships are destined to end in only one way - with their dagger firmly planted in your back.

And really, would you expect anything else?

4 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. gravatar

    An extremely minor point, but I really think you're reading too much into Benedictus' name. Look up "Benediction" for a much more obvious reason for the name he was given.

    January 17, 2012 at 6:32 AM

  2. gravatar
    Caleb Flanagan

    Excellent post! I'm a huge Transformers fan myself, and was impressed by the comparisons and contrasts you made between Starscream's actions and those of characters in Warcraft lore.

    I'll be added you to my feeds. Excited to read more in the future.

    January 17, 2012 at 7:12 AM

  3. gravatar

    So what you're saying is that Thrall is going to make a deal with an Old God, then come back with a new voice actor as Galvall to destroy Garrosh?

    ...Yea, I'd buy that.

    January 17, 2012 at 9:25 AM

  4. gravatar

    You did a great job here! Thanks for putting together a couple of my favorite things, Transformers and WoW.

    Well done.



    January 17, 2012 at 10:16 AM