The hardest choice I had to make was ranking the four characters in the second and third tiers. Many of them are very close in skill level, and it’s hard to choose a clear victor in a hypothetical duel among them. However, I placed Brienne and Ned in tier three because they represent the perfect middle of the pack – they are both very capable swordsmen who never lose a fight on screen but would definitely fall to the best. The fighters in tier three are powerful, well trained, resilient, and experienced. However, they are too slow to effectively handle a quicker opponent. Just as Daario Naharis explained to Hizdahr zo Loraq at the Great Games, I believe that an adequately agile fighter, perhaps a water dancer, would be able to work their way inside the tempo of Ned Stark or Brienne’s broad attacks. This is not to say that they are sluggish or that they waste an unreasonable amount of time in battle, but other characters in the higher tiers are definitely quicker and would be able to use that to their advantage. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we have reached the point where characters are not flawed so much as they’re simply not as good as those in the next tier.
We only see Ned fight once, and the fight ends in a stalemate. However, the minute details of this duel with Jaime Lannister are very telling. We learn that Stark is just as fast as Jaime, but he threw his weight into every single one of this attacks, throwing him off balance. This plus the fact that he used two hands to hold his sword compared to Jaime’s one indicates that Ned’s fighting style is severely self-limiting. If he maintained his balance and used one hand instead of both, he would be much quicker and probably would have won the fight. Rather, he continued to beat down on Jaime, forcing the kingsguard to adapt with a two-handed grip of his own.
Ned swung his sword around a bit too much, but not nearly as dramatically as some others, so he is not needlessly endangering himself. He still employs a masterful grasp of distance and timing, and his attacks are incredibly powerful. However, he exerts himself a great deal with every blow. For all of Ned’s strength, Jaime had him beat when it came to balance and poise. Had their fight not been interrupted, Jaime would have eventually outmaneuvered Stark.
Opposite from Stark’s finely-controlled strength, Brienne of Tarth uses her strength and resilience to brutally beat down her enemies. Brienne represents the true middle ground for this tier list – she never loses, but she always takes a lot of abuse along the way. Brienne’s strategy in combat, whether it’s intentional or just a happy accident, consists of getting beat up early on and then adjusting based on what she learns about each opponent. She is unbelievably powerful and her ability to take a punch and keep swinging is unparalleled.
Against both Loras Tyrell and a weakened Jaime Lannister, Brienne is initially outmaneuvered on all fronts. Her attacks are too big and too slow, which gives her opponents plenty of opportunities to attack into her tempo. However, halfway through each fight Brienne makes a shift, indicating that learning has occurred. Once Brienne finds Tyrell’s tempo, she no longer has any trouble avoiding his attacks and disarming him with her own. The same adjustment happens when she remembers that she merely has to injure or disarm rather than kill Jaime. For the rest of the fight, Brienne uses Jaime’s exhausted momentum against him, merely redirecting his attacks with parries and knocking him over rather than trying to find a way through his defense.
At his best, Jaime probably could have taken her, but that doesn’t matter for my purposes. Brienne’s fight against Sandor Clegane follows the same format. Brienne and The Hound are evenly matched in strength, but Brienne is just a little bit quicker. As did her other adversaries, Clegane manages to kick the literal shit out of Brienne before she suddenly adapts in the later stages of the fight and claim the victory. However, it’s unclear if this is due to learning and analysis or pure rage and adrenaline.
Ultimately, Brienne demonstrates that she is able to learn about her opponents and the circumstances of their fight and use it to her advantage. Brienne shows a great deal of cleverness when she creates chaos by panicking the horses of Petyr Baelish’s escort and tips the odds of the fight in her favor, but this sort of tactic would be less useful in single combat. Unfortunately, Brienne fails to defend herself while she learns and analyzes her opponents – someday Brienne will meet the fighter who can incapacitate her before she is able to get a read on them. As I explain later, I fully believe that the high-tier fighters would be able to pull this off.
I believe that Brienne will meet her match against a fighter who kills her before she can adapt to their tempo and style. Ned Stark is not this person. Brienne handily disarms Jaime Lannister after noticing that he was putting his weight into all of his attacks. Brienne knew that if she could make a simple parry, Jaime would be unable to control his momentum and he would continue to stumble forwards. This is the problem with throwing your weight into an attack: you can only succeed if you are stopped either by the mass of your target or their weapon if you’re blocked. If your momentum is redirected, as was Jaime’s by Brienne’s parries, then you are vulnerable for however many tempos it takes you to recover your balance. Again, this is Newton’s First Law at work. Because Ned Stark throws his weight into all of his attacks, Brienne would have no problem claiming a quick victory in the exact same way.
I know, I know. I’m not happy about Alliser being included here either. However, his brief duel against Tormund Giantsbane was the inspiration for this whole essay. From a technical standpoint, it was nearly perfect. From a performing standpoint, it looked more realistic than any other fight in the series, and just about every other fight in media. The battle between Thorne and Giantsbane is all the proof I need to claim that you don’t need ridiculous premises and useless flashiness to make an entertaining fight scene if you have real and convincing technical mastery. The fighters in tier two earned their spots because they are capable of making quick and rational tactical decisions that would serve them well in a realistic battle.
The faceoff between Alliser and Tormund is incredibly convincing. Both combatants look like they actually mean to kill each other – the choreography is so transparent and subtle that I fully believe that this exact fight could have happened, save for when Alliser practiced his “Singing in the Rain” impression by swinging around on a pole.
Thorne occasionally made excessively large attacks, but he had good enough distance control that he wasn’t putting himself at risk by doing so. Those two points plus the simple fact that Tormund won is the main reason that Alliser is in the second tier while Tormund has yet to be placed. Most of the reason that Tormund came out victorious is more of a compliment to him rather than a complaint against Alliser’s fighting, so I’ll save the rest of my analysis for when I’m writing about Giantsbane.
Even I wouldn’t sin so much as to keep Jaime Lannister from the top of the list. But even so, there are a number of reasons that we don’t see him reach the top tier, the most unfortunate of which is that we only see him fight once before he’s captured and tied to a post for the better part of a year. We only get to see Jaime the legendary swordsman in one quick duel before he becomes Jaime the malnourished prisoner and then Jaime the lefty. However, this is a different situation from that of Barristan Selmy and Ned Stark, who we never see at their alleged prime. Because we see Jaime Lannister in both conditions, I can analyze him as he was in season one simultaneously with his abilities in season five. He will never be as good as he was, but I have no problem viewing a past season as if it were the present. After all, three dead men made it to tier five, and two more will earn honorable mentions.
Jaime is quick, intelligent, and very well-trained. There is no doubt in my mind that he, as an unscripted combatant, could have easily defeated Ned Stark in a matter of moments, had that been his objective. Before we get to that, let’s look at how Jaime handles Ned’s guard, Jory. While this is technically a fight against an extra character, it displays complete mastery on Jaime’s part. When Jory commits to a strong attack into which he throws all of his momentum, Jaime simply parries, allowing that same momentum to temporarily disable Jory. Holding the line of his parry, Jaime makes a quick and simple riposte with his dagger. Done and done. On to Stark.
I would have loved to see this fight play out as if Jaime really intended to kill Ned. Unfortunately, Tyrion’s capture made this impossible. Therefore, even though Ned throws his weight into all of his attacks, albeit less drastically than Jory but still in an ill-advised way, Jaime won’t claim the same easy victory that he did moments earlier. Jaime could have made his point by hurting Ned in the same way without killing him, but Jaime’s tactics suggest that he merely intended to tire Ned out and embarrass him. Why do I believe this? The duel starts with Ned holding onto his sword with two hands against Jaime’s one, and yet they are evenly matched in terms of speed and nearly matched in terms of strength. So while Jaime has every advantage, he decides to double up as well, indicating that he means to out-endure Ned rather than kill him using a superior tempo. I conclude that Jaime felt so comfortable with his ability to beat Ned Stark, a member of tier three, that he was able to calculate and decide among a number of strategies to ensure the best outcome for himself. No other fighter up until this point has had this level of comfort or security, indicating that Jaime Lannister is undeniably superior to the characters in the lower tiers. Even after being tied to a post for a year, Jaime is able to hold his own against Brienne. Clearly he is no longer fighting at his best, but Jaime is able to get a read on Brienne’s style and makes the calculated choice to switch to bigger, broader attacks — which are easier for him to make considering his fatigue — once he knows that Brienne won’t interrupt his tempo.
Though I’m mainly assessing Jaime as he was prior to being captured, it’s important to point out his left-handed battles. Though Lannister is horribly outmatched when sparring against Bronn and against the Dornish rangers, he manages to hold his own in the skirmish with the Sand Snakes. Even though he will never be as skilled as he was with his right hand, this demonstrates that Jaime is still capable of learning and adapting to his situation.
I believe that Jaime and Alliser would have a very long fight, assuming that Jaime was at his prime and not the left-handed-but-not-totally-useless combatant we see in season five. Perhaps I’m biased because we see more of his fights, but I believe that Jaime would come out on top. If Jaime fought as he did against Ned, I think he and Alliser would have a seemingly endless duel that Alliser would probably end up winning. But that completely fails to account for how quickly and readily Jaime can kill someone when his image or family’s reputation isn’t on the line. Alliser tends to make the same sort of oversized attacks that Ned, Brienne, and other characters do. Thus, Jaime would have plenty of chances to break inside of Alliser’s tempo and make that same parry-riposte action that served him so well against Jory.