Thrall’s Flaws: Leadership Problems in Elemental Bonds and Orc Archaeology
The Orcs are a race of action, not remembrance. As one of the more dominant races in Warcraft, it’s sensible to include Orcish artifacts, but how does one quantify a race that does not value objects? With so many years of fel corruption and lack of control, the past is something best forgotten. The artifacts are practical objects with straightforward and terse descriptions. In this case, actions speak louder than words; the relics are a shadow of the battle.
The in-game artifacts cover early Orcish life as well as provide a cautionary tale on Orcish politics—pertinent to the recent power shift in Cataclysm from Thrall to Garrosh as Warchief. Since artifacts pale in comparison to the epic events they record, it’s fortuitous timing that with 4.2, the new questline about Thrall (now Go’el) and his inner turmoil is available to players. Stuck in the Elemental Plateau, it soon becomes clear to players that if Thrall will successfully function back in the living realm, he needs to make peace with his repressed worries and anger. While the questline has been derided by some as glorifying Thrall as a perfect hero without much character development, the questline is intended to show that Thrall takes a large step in turning his back on the traditional Orc cycle of hatred, rage, glory, and death, starting first with changing his name to Go’el. As the questline ends there, it’s hard to believe though that everything is solved by a name change. Also, what happened to the thwarted ceremony in Nordrassil? Ignoring unfinished business doesn’t seem like a solution to balance and better living.
The artifacts and epic questline are incomplete on their own; there are still questions remaining when analyzed comparatively, but a fuller sense of the political and current cultural climate emerges in fusing stationary objects with an epic questline. This doesn’t mean that there are tidy endings, though. Thrall unleashing his repressed memories could lead to political turmoil, not peace.
Plane of Air
The aesthetics of the Skull Drinking Cup are more in line with current stereotypes of the Orcs—brutal but humorously forgetting finer praticalities. This fierce-looking cup “has the design flaw that liquid will keep dribbing out of the eye sockets…” Like Tantalus, the Greek ruler damned to a afterlife of malnourishment for stealing and cannibalism, the owner of this cup is doomed to never drink. It’s an apt metaphor for how past Warchiefs have turned their cleverness into flaws. In the Plane of Air, Thrall worries about his insecurities and shortcomings: “Failed… I have failed this world… The elements will not speak to me… The Earthen Ring has lost faith in my leadership… My weakness has delivered Azeroth into oblivion…”
Plane of Water
The Tile of Glazed Clay refers to an idyllic time, before the corruption on Draenor. It’s similar to the visions Thrall has in the Plane of water—-a peaceful vision of family life, happy children, and reconciliations between enemies. While this tile did belong to a Draenor fortress or stateroom, it ‘depicts herd animals in a field of green and yellow glaze, much like Nagrand looks today.” The landscape would be at odds with a bloodthirsty building; before the fel corruption, the Orcs were on neutral terms with the Draenei. The craftsmanship of the tile, as well as the ‘checkerboard border of black and brown,’ also challenges the player’s current perception of the Orcs as a race that care little for culture and craft. This style of design is not seen in Thrall’s Orgrimmar and certainly not in Garrosh’s spiky additions.
In a more humorous vein, the Fierce Wolf Figurine depicts an exaggerated rendition of relations between Draenei and Orcs: “Wolves have lived alongside orcs possibly for centuries. When the orcs first came through the Dark Portal, wolves came with them. This small figurine was carved with loving detail, right down to the draenei arm clenched within tiny slavering jaws.” The Orcs didn’t naturally hate the Draenei—this artifact is a culturally informed object, a modern idyll where the two races engaged in a caricatured argument is as close to a peace as they can currently achieve.
Plane of Earth
At first, Thrall’s patience appears to be a virtue, in light of the impulsive actions of the Horde. But as the player sees from this quest, it’s a sign of stubbornness, a refusal to compromise and speak openly. Aggra comments on Thrall’s stubbornness and refusal to reflect on the thoughts of others, angered by his simple repetition of “We are patient.” Impulsive actions can stem from repressed feelings bottled up, a sign of quiet anger. Getting temporarily ahead of the archaeology plotline, the Rusted Steak Knife was used by a consort to murder a chieftan—she was viewed as a trusted person, silent until her betrayal.
Poor communication can be mistake for patience; as the Plane of Earth gives way to all of Thrall’s rage in the Plane of Fire. Thrall, always a formal and optimistic leader, expresses rage about Garrosh and his family’s past that he’s never spoken of before. In his anger, Thrall appears as a man in the early stages of grief—loudly raging to anyone in sight because he’s been silenced for so long. His legitimate frustrations towards Garrosh, a well-meaning yet insecure leader relying on brute force to hide his fear, could have prevented some political turmoil if discussed sooner. And the murder of his parents as well as his time spent as a gladiator in an internment camp is a serious issue that is best openly discussed instead of being ignored.
Plane of Fire
After Kil’jaeden convinced Ner’zhul to turn against the Draenei and drink the blood of Mannoroth, the Orcs were victims of the Blood Curse, a powerful curse that enslaved them to a life of violence and rage—leading to the mass murder of the Draenei. This led to a fraught relationship between the Orcs and demonic magic, one that eroded the core foundation of their previously noble and peaceful society. Under Ner’zhul and the later leadership of Gul’dan, the Orcs were mindless puppets, seeking the most bloodthirsty option at every opportunity until they were captured and placed in internment camps at the end of the Second War, cut off from their fel magic. The beneficial aspects of the internment camps soon disintegrated into racism, as cruel human masters such as Aedelas Blackmoore took advantage of the weakened Orcs. With so many types of bloodshed dulling the player’s senses, it’s hard to grasp the gravity of the situation—the orcs murdered the Draenei, while also being corrupted and manipulated; the humans segregated and tormented the orcs in internment camps. Besides the Draenei, nobody appears absolved of the situation—unsurprisingly this tension is part of the renewed interest in PvP in Cataclysm.
Several artifacts, as well as quotes from Thrall’s anger in the Plane of Fire, allude to the demonic influence among the Orcs. (GUL’DAN!!! If I must burn my way across the afterlife, I will find you in whatever hell you’ve hid in!) The Fiendish Whip, curiously neutral for a period of bloodshed, states matter-of-factly, without passing judgement on the gruesome following acts, “Warlocks rose to prominence among the orcs as Gul’dan rose to power. This succubus whip is formed of the plaited flesh of several different creatures, some of them likely humanoid.” It’s horrifying for sure, but who is to blame—the orcs or Gul’dan? With the tensions between the Alliance and the Horde currently, is there a peverse pleasure in having a human bounty? The whip is reminiscent of the Skybreaker Whip, a reward for completing a difficult series of aerial races on Netherwing Ledge. The whole series of Netherwing is based upon tricking a group of bloodthirsty and cruel orcs into liberating dragons—the quests have periods of humor intermixed with violence and slavery among the orcs and their peons.
The Scepter of Nekros Skullcrusher has similarly nondescript text: “The bladed scepter of Nekros Skullcrusher was often used as a weapon by the grim warlock.” Skullcrusher was the second-in-command of the Dragonmaw clan who was slain by Alexstrasza for enslaving her and killing her children. However, this information is left out of the text—perhaps the curator is too ashamed to speak openly. Perhaps with the recent new alliance between Garrosh and the Dragonmaw Clan in Twilight Highlands, it is best to downplay their past.
The story of Chieftan Hargal is one of an honorable warrior battling demons and court jealousy. It seems to be a common path for Orc leadership to take—in battling his inner conflict during the Elemental Bonds questline, Thrall breaks free of this cycle that continues even today in Garrosh. Like many other Chieftans, Hargal showed great physical prowess, in the Maul of Stone Guard Mur’og, a spoil of war from the Battle of the Black Teeth. The Gray Candle Stub, while possibly a joke on the low-level Kobolds always screaming “You take no candle!” alludes to a demonic summoning ceremony and Hargal’s triumph of the dreadlord Azagrim. Yet despite his best attempts to prevent assassinations, he was killed in a sudden fit of jealousy.
Hargal dealt with assassination threats by publicly boasting about them. In the Tiny Bronze Scorpion: “This was apparently once an actual living scorpion which was dipped in bronze to preserve it. Scrawled on the bottom in Orcish: ‘The chieftan laughs at your pathetic assassination attempts.’” From this, we learn that Hargal publicly boasted about the failed attempt, memorializing the weapon as a warning to future assassins. He let the scorpion serve as a warning to others—no doubt the assassin was killed and Hargal felt assured of his invincibility. His actions are reminiscent of Garroshs—basking in his power, intimidation, leading through visual cues like rebuilding Orgrimmar in a militaristic fashion. They’re also reminiscent of Thrall’s anger in the Plane of Fire: “King Varian…you wish to make war on my people?! You shall have your war, human! You will see the fury of the Horde rage through your cities!”
Garrosh seems like he’ll meet a similar fate to Chieftan Hargal; Thrall seems like he’s broken free of that cycle in finding balance. But Thrall’s path, if he was not written and developed as the superhero of Azeroth, would also end in tragedy.
Thrall is eventually rescued from the Plane of Fire through Aggra’s skill and dedication; the two later hold a commitment ceremony with luminaries of Azeroth present—Tyrande, Malfurion, Jaina crying in a corner, members of various Dragonflights. Thrall decides to pursue his desires seen in the Plane of Water—an excellent idea in the short-term, but his issues from the Plane of Fire remain unsolved. While it’s possible that Thrall simply let go of all his built-up tensions during the elemental process, it isn’t believable due to the ferocity and bitterness he stored up inside. Retreating from leadership will be a welcome respite—from one angle, Thrall has thrown off the prejudices and problems of the recent Horde, washing his hands of the current business with Garrosh. From another angle, Thrall will be frantic to fix problems he’s pinpointed, based on his Messiah complex. Perhaps the new Thrall will try to refrain from tampering with petty politics—but it’s likely the urge to jump in will fester in his mind.
The plotlines around Thrall and Garrosh are compelling and Warcraft knows it, developing twists for the player’s enjoyment and attention. Sometimes, that requires a leap of faith on the part of the player. Thrall is both an icon of the Horde and one who can say “I can only pray to the ancestors that I am never placed in the same position as my father—torn between what I know in my heart is right and the defense of my people. It is why I continue to strive to uphold the tenuous peace between us and the Alliance.” Garrosh, initially insecure and angry in Nagrand, becomes a jerk in Orgrimmar, then a believable jerk in Heart of War, and back to a cartoonish jerk in As Our Fathers Before Us. The Orcs make for engaging material because it’s about the underdog culture making peace with their past—there’s nobility for some players, savagery for others. But at some point you do have to wonder at the continuity—how they are used as crowd-pleasers.
Will Thrall break from the destructive cycles of Orc leaders and become a visionary leader on neutral ground? Or is this just another step in the cycle of brute force, triumph, and complacency that plagues leaders? Thrall has found balance after a near-death encounter, but his attitude shift may slide back when faced with daily life and all the unanswered problems. Pursuing his goals from the Plane of Water is but one of four aspects of his life he needs to work on. It’s improbable that Thrall has resolved his issues simply by shouting them out into the Nether; the process of anger and grief is long. However much he pursues his idyll from the Plane of Water of transcending boundaries, his rage from the Plane of Fire lurks below. It’s fascinating that Thrall did pick Garrosh as his successor; it was a poor decision, but that’s what makes it interesting. It’s less probable that Thrall raged about it once and then had the mental strength to move on.
Except, this is Thrall. He’s transcended the Horde to be a cross-faction icon, taking on a unique mission with the Dragonflights. He’s an epic saint with superhuman patience and diplomacy—until this questline called for him to demonstrate some flaws.
And the resulting flaws were deep and repressed; for a minor character, the time spent in the Elemental Plateau would have led to madness, a slow-boiling eruption of all the angry memories and aborted projects. The severity shows the player how strong and perfect Thrall is—but it requires a suspension of disbelief. We’re used to that as players in a fantasy game when it comes to dragons and epic raids, but it’s harder to process deviations from human nature. Early Thrall was interesting because he was relatable—a self-made hero mindful of his past and grappling with trauma. Thrall in his current state might already be the new Earthbinder, epic but untouchable. Aggra saves him in multiple ways–not only from the elements, but in reminding the player of Thrall’s personality. The moment where she calls Thrall out on his hypocrisy in the Plane of Earth is refreshing.
Blizzard would like us to believe that Thrall the Warchief is now Go’el, a legendary shaman. Simple and humble, in the style of the Headdress of the First Shaman. I still wonder how he’s going to handle his fears from the Plane of Air and anger from the Plane of Fire though, when the time comes. Will the puppet strings let the narrative even dance in that direction, that of a leader overwhelmed by acknowledging a slew of unsolvable problems–or will that plot arc be saved for the negative yang of Garrosh or a future corrupted boss?