In “TV’s best villain,” Willa Paskin writes: “‘Game [of Thrones]’ is not interested in sympathy when it comes to Joffrey, doing nothing to redeem him. He is just a villain, served straight up.” She’s right, and this is useful because in real life there are outright villains; many turn out to be psychopaths, as John Seabrook describes in “Suffering Souls: The search for the roots of psychopathy” for The New Yorker. We shouldn’t necessarily focus on such people in our narrative art forms, but we also shouldn’t forget they exist. More importantly, we should be asking—as Game of Thrones implicitly does—how they can maintain power in the face of frequently self-defeating cruelty.
In the show and the books, virtually everyone except Joffrey’s his mother hates him, including those on his own side, but we can also see why the people on his “side” stand by and support him nonetheless (while waiting for one of them to break and finish him—which eventually happens, in book three or four; I don’t think I give anything away with this, since it’s not possible to survive in a world like Westeros when you alienate everyone). When Joffrey’s behavior is so awful that even his family, or at least a certain member of his family, turns on him, he can’t maintain power. People are only as powerful as the coalitions around them.
Part of Joffrey’s other problem is his age and power. I suspect that most contemporary teenagers would not handle near-infinite power over others especially well, because they haven’t had the life experiences to temper their egos and increase their empathy and understanding of others.
This analysis only works because, as Paskin points out, virtually all the other characters on the show and in the books are nuanced and neither purely good nor purely evil. In most forms of narrative art, cartoonishly good and evil characters aren’t all that interesting because they’re not real. But placing a single evil character in a morally ambiguous matrix makes the single evil character work out better, especially when “evil” isn’t really evil in some objective, Sauron-like sense, but a product of ego and nearly unlimited power run amok.