Private Investigator on 'Game of Thrones' & human nature

What makes Tyrion blush? Becnel knows
Courtesy HBO
Editor's Note: The following is a guest post by Philip A. Becnel IV, a private investigator and Managing Partner at Dinolt, Becnel & Wells Investigative Group LLC. He is the President of the Private Investigators Association of Virginia and author of two influential investigative books: Principles of Investigative Documentation and Private Investigator Entry Level (02E). The latter is the only textbook for the entry-level course required for all private investigators in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He joined us to write about what political-fantasy show Game of Thrones -- which has its third season premiere on HBO, March 31, 9 p.m. ET -- can tell us about human nature.

I was interviewing this woman about how her husband, whom I suspected she poisoned, liked to wear diapers during sex, but all I could think about was how badly I wished I was home reading A Game of Thrones. I’m a private investigator who spends most of his time interviewing people about sundry legal issues ranging from multi-million dollar fraud schemes to incredibly sordid sexual escapades to mass murders. I’ve interviewed enough rich, smarmy criminals in tailored suits to fill King’s Landing, and once I interviewed a transgendered prostitute with no arms who would have made Tyrion Lannister blush. I interrogated the suspected poisoner for hours, but even though I delved into the details of her private life as far as I could go, she never confessed to the killing or showed a hint of emotion. Her bizarre and inaccurate statements, however, led the family of the victim, my clients, to pursue a civil lawsuit. I closed my investigation and moved on to my next case.

Humanity’s capacity for wrongdoing and weirdness stopped surprising me a long time ago. Investigations have a way of exposing the scandalous secrets that most of us have in the same way that a writer exposes the lust, greed and wrath of his book’s characters. Conducting investigations, like writing, is also a relatively solitary exercise; we conduct our interviews with poker faces, and we’re not supposed to talk about the things we see and hear with anyone outside of the legal team. We tend, therefore, to internalize our omnipresent cynicism, to bury it deep down inside. It only bubbles up to the surface when we’re pointing out the preposterousness of almost every Hollywood crime drama ever made, where everything is black and white—you know, the stories that have a villain who willfully makes the choices that society universally finds abhorrent, and a hero who struggles to make the correct moral choices and who then prevails to save the day. Instead of talking about our jobs or watching ridiculous simulacrums of investigations on television, we look for distractions elsewhere. I know many investigators who drink a lot.

I turn to reading to help me unwind from my days spent interviewing people in high-stakes situations. My latest interest has been A Game of Thrones series. When I read the first book in the series I couldn’t identify what I liked so much about it. All I knew is that it made a great distraction. By the time I got to A Dance with Dragons, however, I realized what it was: I know these characters. The story is an affirmation of what I as an investigator already knew about human nature but could never fully explain.

The way I read it, the story is about how three forces ingrained in human nature make the world go around: the drive to do the right thing, indulgence of desire and obsession for power.

Of all the characters in A Game of Thrones, I feel the most affinity to Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell, one of only a small handful of truly honorable people in the series. Most investigators and other would-be do-gooders probably associate most with Eddard too, at least for the first three years of their careers. It’s during this time that every investigation is a noble cause. If you’re in law enforcement, all suspects are guilty. If you’re working for the defense, all defendants are innocent. Everyone else is merely a witness—like the transgendered prostitute with phocomelia, who witnessed a drive-by shooting—or they don’t matter. Every investigator carries with them a sword, like Eddard’s Ice, that symbolizes our place beside the scales of justice. In my experience, the real world is full of characters like the Lord of Winterfell—people who are generally honorable but who are apt to make mistakes wrought by weakness, such as following ill-conceived orders or trusting the wrong person. If my career has taught me anything, it’s that people are mostly good; they mean well, and they try to do the right thing, but they rarely know what the right thing is. The problem is that our desire to do the right thing, our belief that we are in fact right, and the trust we hold that everyone else essentially wants to do the right thing too, leaves us open both to our own infallibility and to manipulation by people with other motives. The fact that Eddard’s head was chopped off in the first book is a fitting illustration of what often happens to people who see the world too altruistically. This is particularly true of investigators.

See, as my cases have proven to me, the world is also full of Jamie Lannisters and Sandor Cleganes—vane people, angry people, people with problems spawned from some past trauma—and what makes these characters all the more complicated and dangerous is that they aren’t exclusive from the people who want to do right. The main problem with believing we can always wield our swords justly is that we’re all exceedingly bad at separating our desires from our ethics. Desires can take many forms: a desire to eat, a desire for vengeance, a desire to indulge a particular sexual fantasy. I’ve interviewed thousands of “ethical” people who’ve done incredibly strange and self-destructive things because they couldn’t resist their desires—police officers, for example, who’ve committed murder, sold drugs and molested children. A hungry child will steal cake regardless of what her morals say about thievery. A man with a propensity to wear diapers during sex will do so, even as he imagines how he must appear through his wife’s eyes and loathes himself. Investigators come to expect, after years of witnessing people succumb to their weaknesses, that base desires trump ethics in the end nearly every time. When you’re having an incestuous relationship with your sister and a neighborhood boy threatens to expose your secret, you’re very likely to push the boy out the window. Indeed, these are the things we’re all capable of doing for love, and to appease our desires, whatever they may be.

And then you have characters like Cersei Lannister, Walder Frey and Roose Bolton—sociopaths, ruthless people hungry for power who will stop at nothing to get what they want. These people have base desires aplenty too, just like everyone else, but there is no real conflict between their myriad desires and their ethics. For them, the only ethical framework is one that sees other people as objects to achieve what they want, even if it involves killing their parents, slaughtering their dinner guests or flaying their enemies alive. I’ve worked cases that have involved all these things. Some studies suggest that about four percent of the world population is made up of sociopaths. These characters are most likely to get the public’s attention when they overplay their hands and wind up in the news, charged with committing some atrocity in their lust for power. As an investigator, however, I interview sociopaths nearly every day, as they tend to be disproportionately represented in the legal system. They’re the people who rig bids with envelopes stuffed full of cash, refuse to pay their employees government-mandated minimum wages and otherwise screw regular people over every day for no reason other than that it benefits them. Sometimes they kill too, but more often they don’t have to kill to get their way, particularly when they cloak their true motivations in the banner of a just cause. The sociopaths I meet in my investigations are far more likely to be in positions of trust and authority—or someone known by their victims—than an archetypical villain who deals death and mayhem from the shadows. What better way to get others to rally for your cause than to fly the banner of House Stark (or to wear a badge or a wedding ring), even as you pillage their castles and rape their children?

The world is full of people carrying different banners, most striving to do the right thing but often finding they’ve chosen the wrong side of the battle or letting their desires get the better of them. Then there is a minority among us with undue influence over the world, who in their lust for power will lie, cheat and kill without feeling a thing about it. In my fourteen years as an investigator, I’ve interviewed everyone from numerous defendants facing the death penalty for heinous crimes to countless petty lords and would-be kings, many with seemingly boundless potential, who’ve found themselves in the unlucky position of sitting across from me for one reason or another. And the truth is that I can barely tell the characters apart anymore. Each of us is innocent and imperfect, guilty but complicated. The banners we carry are worse than meaningless; they’re deceptive, a mummer’s farce. It’s in this way that A Game of Thrones really has humanity pegged. The reason it offers such a perfect, frivolous distraction for me after a day of deciding whom to believe, is that I know when I turn the next page it won’t be my head on the chopping block, this time.