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Thrall’s Flaws: Leadership Problems in Elemental Bonds and Orc Archaeology

July 21, 2011

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.

Elemental Bonds

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?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2011 6:55 am

    You tossed this out as an aside, but it struck me due to real life wolf conservation efforts – how do you think the Draenor wolves compare to the Azerothian ones? Are they invading habitats formerly kept by Azeroth wolves, or are they all effectively “domesticated,” living solely with the Orcs? (What happens when a breeding pair gets out in the wild? Or if they start making a hybrid race?)

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that Thrall was a relatable hero. It’s one of the biggest weaknesses of the Warcraft universe – the lack of relatability – which Thrall helped bridge the gap for. He fits in with the bootstrap ethos of american literature, and was one of the few good guys with broad appeal.

    Transforming him into Go’el/an aspect of the universe removes that relatable character. The only consolation is that we get Aggra in return, but I fear she’s not long for the world.

    I need to think more about your archy observations. 🙂

  2. perculia permalink*
    July 21, 2011 7:06 am

    Interesting question about the wolves. Maybe a parallel could be made to saber cats sold in Darnassus vs the Winterspring trainers? I tend to think that they would be domesticated on Draenor, and in a darker light, that they’d be corrupted similarly to obey their masters’ commands in battle.

    Ah yes, the ‘missing princess/queen’ trope. Common theme of Warcraft 😦

  3. July 21, 2011 3:09 pm

    I’ve been looking forward to your take on the Orc artifacts, and I love the way you’ve interpreted them in the context of the Elemental Bonds questline.

    It occurred to me just now that the Orc wolf figurine is somewhat similar, in its detail of the severed arm, to the Dwarven gryphon figurine, with its “talons sharp enough to pierce leather” and the Troll snake figurine, with its jaws that can be closed “presumably to draw blood from a finger”. All three are beautifully crafted, but with a certain amount of viciousness in the details. The savagery of the Orc and Troll artifacts might be naively expected from the stereotypes of those races, but it’s a little surprising from the Dwarf artifact. The gryphon also specifically references the Wildhammer clan, meaning that it comes from those Dwarves who were wilder than their cousins — and, like the Orcs and Trolls, tuned to all the elements, not just the earth, allowing them to be Shamans.
    Or perhaps I’m just making stuff up to try to impress you guys, because your work impresses the heck out of me 😛

  4. July 22, 2011 7:57 am

    I’ve got mixed feelings on Thrall’s storyline in Cataclysm. On the one hand, I agree that making him into this flawless, messianic figure takes away much of his humanity (for lack of a better term) and approachability, but on the other hand, it’s a major step up from the neutered, useless character he’s been since Warcraft stopped being an RTS. It’s nice to see him actually doing something instead of lounging around in Orgrimmar, doing nothing and looking the other way whenever his underlings do something wrong.

  5. Sarog permalink
    July 23, 2011 5:10 am

    Very interesting article. Working in a discussion of orcish archeology artifacts was a very nice touch.

    Thrall’s flaws have always seemed like an elusive thing to pursue. It definitely is one of the bigger criticisms that have been put to the character over the years. I like the idea of looking for them through the lens of the elements that he wrestles with as a shaman, and what they represent. I think we can use the elemental bonds quest line to look back on his time as Warchief with new eyes. The same elemental virtues and flaws which play out in this quest line about Thrall’s repressed emotions can be seen in Thrall’s time as Warchief, and can help us consider why Thrall – seemingly so flawless all these years – was less than fully successful in his political agenda.

    ”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.” As you touch on, I think it is important to be aware of just how much Thrall valued peace. When Varian Wrynn declared war in the Undercity, Thrall goes so far to say “All that we have fought for in this world is lost.” And it is clear why that is; he’s not just a political leader, but a self appointed moral redeemer.

    And yet, in many ways he is responsible for the failure of peace. It can ultimately be lain at his feet. Varian and Garrosh, fiery and confrontational as they are, have played an entirely reactionary role. Varian’s drive for war is a response to Horde aggression and continued mix signals from Horde leadership that have shaken his trust. Garrosh drive for war is a response not only to his own identity crisis, but to needs, interests, and cultural spirit of the orcs, which seem to have been compromised. Thrall’s politics and decisions are what created the reality that defines the politics and decisions of both these polarizing characters. And his elemental personality traits are the key to how this happened.

    In founding Durotar and establishing the new Horde as we came to know it in game, Thrall was taking the destiny of his people into his hands. The decisions he made would set the tone for the Horde’s political interaction with the rest of Azeroth. And his elemental personality traits were clearly at work.

    Of all Thrall’s political desires, peace… “all that we have fought for in this world”… was the deepest. And, following the nature of Water, his first major decision after the Third War was a step towards peace. The decision to settle in the near-wasteland that became known as Durotar was several things. It was a deliberate message to the rest of the world that the Horde would not intrude where it was not wanted, and it was a message to the orcs that they had inherited a burden of guilt and must work to redeem themselves. Just as he imagined himself settling down with Aggra in later years, he probably imagined the orcs settling down peacefully in Durotar; war forgotten, and living the idyllic, peaceful, shamanistic life that he imagined his father, for whom he named the land, had known on Draenor. It was a choice born of sincere, idealistic hope for a better future.

    Of course, we know that things didn’t work out like that. That the orcs had to fight for control of even such undesirable land, against the quilboar, was the least of it. Settling in Durotar created an enduring economic burden on the orcs and left them with very meager supplies. This lead the orcs to infringe where they were not wanted and push the boundaries of their new civilization just to establish themselves, with the territorial dispute in Ashenvale and the Warsong lumber industry being the greatest example. The message of “we will not intrude, we will not infringe” evaporated very quickly. Furthermore, the same economic weakness left the Horde vulnerable in the long term; and the sudden drought that preceded the Cataclysm almost spelled the end of Orgrimmar. With their nation unable to sustain them, and on the brink of famine, the orcs were presented with a choice that spelled doom to Thrall’s original desires; forward or die, conquer or starve.

    So right at Thrall’s “start” in Kalimdor, he chose to follow his deepest desires. But it didn’t really work out. It was a bad decision for the orcs, and would cause problems for them down the line. And more than anything, it was ultimately self defeating. Thrall hoped to escape war and conflict with this decision, but the conflict just continued and his people were worse off for his naivete. And it is very likely that this, and other similar decisions and their fallout, led to Thrall becoming a little bit disillusioned and suppressing his desires as his doubts become more powerful.

    Doubt is the province of air, and doubt played a role in many of his later decisions. One of the most controversial moves he has made was his decision to align with the forsaken; the group that would proceed to undermine his vision of peace at every turn and provoke Varian’s declaration of war. We know that the decision to bring the forsaken into the Horde had a lot to do with idealism of the Earthen Ring, but ultimately I think the decision to grow the Horde with a controversial ally was born of doubt. Military doubt, more specifically, since formal membership of the Horde was essentially a pledge of military support between Orgrimmar and Undercity. Though Thrall had followed his desires and tried to create an idyllic, war-free homeland for his people, he had to wonder
    if it would stick; things weren’t really turning out as peacefully as he had planned, and there many of threats in play in Azeroth. Standing together at Hyjal, the Horde and Alliance were able to thwart the Burning Legion… but what if that friendship wasn’t sustainable? What if there were more Daelins than Jainas? What if intrusion intrusion in Ashenvale ruined relations with the night elves? What if the Horde stood alone against the threats of Azeroth, or the Alliance itself?

    The decision to enlist the forsaken as a formal military ally through Horde membership must have been the product of doubt. Doubt that the friendships of Hyjal could be sustained and expressed in partnership again, and perhaps even doubts in the viability of the peace between factions that was proving so difficult for Thrall to build. And this doubt created a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the partnership with the forsaken destroyed the Horde’s chances at peace. Genocide in Hillsbrad, armed conflict in Arathi Basin, the development of biological weapons using human captives as test subjects… these all happened from underneath the Horde’s banner, and were followed by the tragic events of the Wrathgate (which interacted with the economic consequences of his Durotar decision when it caused the night elves to block trade, forcing the Horde into aggressive expansionism). Thrall’s doubts led to this partnership, and this partnership in turn gave the Alliance serious doubts about Thrall’s leadership, sincerity, and agenda.

    Thrall’s doubts also trickled down to affect his people. His intended message to his people when he settled them in barren Durotar was “we must atone”, but it was interpreted as “we must be ashamed”. His teachings were that rage should never overcome the orcs again, and that they should always look inward to ward against the rage, bloodlust and want for power that groups like the Burning Blade represented. The result was perhaps an orcish nation wherein fearing oneself, one’s own passions, and one’s own power was an expectation extending down from the top. This could be why a reinvigorated Garrosh relates so well to the orcish masses, and why Thrall noticed a gulf between how much they loved Garrosh and how much less they loved him. As we see in Elemental Bonds, Thrall used to be a tightly wound, deeply repressed individual; these are not virtues that the orcs value in their leaders, and the tone that Thrall ultimately set for his rule was a fearful one.

    Thrall’s deeply repressed emotions create another flawed aspect of his leadership. His fire, or rather his lack thereof. We know from Elemental Bonds that Thrall feels rage and fiery emotion, but that he represses it deeply. I’m reminded of Chris Metzen’s comments about how Thrall doesn’t cuss and never beats anyone down. This is very evident in his leadership. His teachings were that the orcs should never let rage overcome them again, and his own rage was buried as deeply as possible. But orcs expect fiery, passionate leaders, and it is their culture to be pushy, ambitious, and reject weakness. Taken along with earth traits, his eternal, unwavering patience… the repression of his fire becomes all too prominent in his leadership.

    One of the criticisms that Thrall’s leadership often gets is his tendency to let his subordinates get away with anything. This is the result of being too patient and too repressed; a combination that creates a leader who is overly lenient, fundamentally unassertive, and too stubborn to act in a timely fashion. This is why Varian can, quite justifiably, reach the conclusion that Thrall allows his people to run amok. Garrosh constantly undermined Thrall in front of Varian. Sylvanas’s schemes blew up to bite the Horde full on in the backside with disastrous consequences. Drek’thar slaughtered a dwarven academic expedition in an act of unprovoked territorial violence, provoking a war with a kingdom that Thrall was trying very hard to get on good terms with. Magatha lived comfortably in a Horde city while her Grimtotem tribe engaged in acts of terrorism and kidnapping throughout Horde territories. Neeru Fireblade, the Burning Blade warlock who feigned loyalty to Thrall, remained free for the duration of Thrall’s reign. These characters, and many other conflicts that arise on Thrall’s watch, go seemingly without reprimand, and their influence caused Thrall’s desires to slip further and further away from the realm of possibility.

    It seems like the elemental components in Thrall’s soul have been out of balance for quite some time. His fire was locked away beneath the patient earth while the storm of his doubt raged overhead and his desires trickled slowly downhill. His leadership was compromised because his mind was in disorder, and the political landscape of Azeroth today is the result of lack of harmony within Thrall’s soul.

    The Shattering detailed the beginning for Thrall’s journey towards the harmony that he’s been lacking, and 4.2 was another step. What is interesting is that the closer Thrall comes to inner harmony… the more his identity changes. The building blocks in his soul are rearranging into a more healthy order, and as they do “Thrall, Warchief of the Horde” fades away to be replaced by “Go’el, World Shaman”. He’s chosen shaman over Warchief, chosen Go’el over his slave name, and rejected much of what used to define him. Metzen made the Clark Kent comparison, and it is becoming more apt. Instead of taking off his glasses and changing in a phonebooth, Thrall has removed his armor and given up his throne, throwing off the weaknesses that plagued him as Warchief… and it looks like this Go’el he is now is who he was always meant to be.

    This comment turned out much longer than I’d planned, but the subject matter is interesting and hopefully my perspective is cohesive enough.

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