After 67 episodes, Game of Thrones is quickly approaching its end. Winter has come, the Wall has fallen, and the living and the dead will finally fight for control of Westeros. This chapter could have many winners, but there can be only one MVP. Who will it be? Our staff has some thoughts on who is set up for success this season.
Chris Almeida: Sweet, idealistic, honorable Jon hasn’t always been Thrones’ most politically savvy figure; he’s always been clear-eyed about the threat at hand, and that has cost him a good bit in a world full of characters who seem like real, distracted, petty humans much more than heroes or villains. In making peace with the Free Folk, Jon got himself killed; in heading north to capture a wight as part of a plan to make a good-faith negotiation with … Cersei Lannister, he gifted the army of the dead a dragon and nearly got himself killed again. While nearly every other power player on the show seems to rationalize small, ill-advised sacrifices in pursuit of a selfish, self-defeating end—Cersei’s child-killing run to the Iron Throne, Stannis’s failed child-killing run to the Iron Throne, Littlefinger’s whole deal, etc.—Jon manages to keep the big picture in sight. He’s just a bit too direct about it.
“You could have lied to Cersei about bending the knee to Daenerys. You risked everything to tell an enemy the truth,” Theon says to Jon in the finale to Season 7 after the big reunion in King’s Landing. “We went down there to make peace,” Jon replies. “And it seems to me that we need to be honest with each other if we’re going to fight together.” Fair, but probably stupid. He’s the prototypical hero without the chest-puffing and the primary colors.
Look, we know that our good friend Aegon is going to come out of the final season looking good, one way or another. If humanity manages to save itself, it will be because Jon spent the past few years running around being fine with getting stabbed and treating everybody as an honest, rational actor. If the Night King comes out on top, it won’t be because Jon didn’t try his best.
“You’ve always known what was right,” Theon says later in that conversation. “Even when we were all young and stupid, you always knew. Every step you take, it’s always the right step.” “It’s not,” says Jon. “It may seem that way from the outside, but I promise you it’s not true.”
In a world full of cocksure charlatans, it makes sense that the north star would be a truthful, determined self-doubter. In Westeros and elsewhere, cynicism has failed us. What could possibly be more valuable now than honesty?
Ben Lindbergh: Bran has been through a lot. He sat out Season 5, which just so happens to be the consensus series nadir. (Everybody blames Dorne, but maybe missing Bran was the real problem. OK, fine, it was definitely Dorne.) He’s been sidelined for portions of other seasons, and even when he has been on screen, he’s drawn difficult assignments: learning about the birds and the bees in excruciatingly painful fashion; being bedridden at Winterfell; getting carried and dragged around hostile snowscapes; crashing in a cave with a geezer who didn’t get out much; undergoing a near-complete personality loss; and growing aggressively gangly as he hit puberty and battled the hormone monster, among many other enemies (mortal and otherwise). Bran’s siblings haven’t had it easy either (RIP Rickon), but at least they aren’t unrecognizable. Thrones has done Bran dirty. He deserves to win an award.
Despite all the trials he’s suffered, Bran is set up for a standout season. The character who did us fans the favor of finally confirming R+L=J remains our best hope of finding out more about the workings of the world we’re reluctantly leaving in a little more than a month (at least until the prequels). He possesses superpowers that may well save Westeros from White Walkers, and after an extremely long gestation period, they’re probably about to be unleashed. He’s also likely in line for a few memorable, long-in-the-making moments, including a reunion with Jaime and a showdown with the Night King (which hopefully won’t resemble the Spider-Man meme). Juiciest of all, we may be treated to a deadpan Bran breaking the news that Jon Snow is sleeping with his aunt, which might make him the MVP in a single scene. Whether he’s warging into a dragon, time traveling, or using his greensight to spill the hottest tea in the Seven Kingdoms, it’s about to be Bran szn like never before.
Michael Baumann: This isn’t the question, but Tyrion is the MVP of the series as a whole. More than any other character, including Jon and Daenerys—the story’s putative heroes—he expresses the humor, the cynicism, the bawdiness, the ambition, and the emotional maximalism that made Game of Thrones so popular. He’s grown so much as a character, and been compelling and likable every step of the way. No one else is asked to do so many things, let alone succeeded, and for what it’s worth, Peter Dinklage has won three Emmys from seven nominations, while the other 200 GOT cast members put together have won none from 15 nominations. So rich is the role, and so moving the performance.
In these final hours, Tyrion, the emotional and political fulcrum of the story, finds himself pulling the strings in a struggle for the Iron Throne and indeed for the survival of his species. He must hold the ramshackle coalition together, as he has for years, or else all will be lost. Ned Stark and Jon Snow (if only temporarily) valued honor above all else and lost their lives for it, but Tyrion learned to sublimate his ambition in pursuit of an honorable life, and only then has he found fulfillment and truly served the realm. What form will that service take in Season 8? I don’t know. What I do know is that his actions will be of titanic importance, and make for the most dramatically and emotionally gripping of the season. This has always been the case.
Mallory Rubin: Here’s the thing about fucking your aunt: If you have to learn that you’re doing it, it might as well be from your best pal, who once asked you, “So … you didn’t know where to put it?” Entering Season 8, Sam and Bran stand poised to tell Jon that he’s the heir to the Iron Throne, the trueborn son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and thus an unknowing incest committer. While Bran will surely add a memeable expression and an “I’m the Three-Eyed Raven now” exclamation to the exchange, Sam is the one most likely to help Jon—and the realm, thanks to the annulment proof in his possession—process this news and continue to move forward, leading humanity in the fight against the creeping crush of death.
That’s not the only essential role Sam stands likely to fill in Season 8. He carries Heartsbane, one of the precious few Walker-slaying Valyrian steel weapons left in the land, and whether he swings it himself, gifts it to another (as the trailer seems to indicate), or both, he wields an even mightier weapon as well: knowledge. Armed with his stolen Citadel scrolls and tomes, he’s positioned better than any character other than Three-Eyed Bran Muffin to learn the secrets of the Long Night and help our present-day heroes fend off doom.
But Sam’s greatest gift won’t be Heartsbane, or High Septon Maynard’s scrolls, or intel about the Last Hero, or even finding time to copulate with Gilly before the Battle of Winterfell. It will be continuing to convince all of us that we can do great things. Sam entered our lives as a self-professed coward, shamed and lost in self-pity and despair, driven from his home by a father who deplored him. He’s morphed into a leader and a lover, newly confident every day, proof positive that heroism takes many forms. Sam isn’t just the story’s clear stand-in for George R.R. Martin, poised to write the in-universe version of A Song of Ice and Fire to teach legions how our heroes ushered in the new dawn; he’s the avatar for all of us.
“I always wanted to be a wizard,” Sam once told Jon, and though he may not realize it, he is one: a source of magic and wonder, and a reminder that we all have the strength inside of us, if we only look.
Charlotte Goddu: Arya’s talent for killing anyone she decides she wants dead—as evidenced by her dwindling list—has always made her a power player, no matter the situation. So far, though, she’s thought pretty small when it comes to inexorable murder; personal revenge is great and all, but what good is it, really, when thousands of ice zombies are on their way to kill your friends and enemies alike?
This season, it’s time for her to start thinking bigger; there’s no place for personal vendettas in the face of the army of the dead. Let’s just, to remind ourselves, take another look at these guys. Did I mention they’ve got a blue-fire-spitting dragon? I’m sorry, but even with the whole Northerners + Unsullied + Dothraki situation our heroes have going on right now, it’ll be tough to pull off a win.
That’s where Arya comes in. While the army of the living faces off against the army of the dead, why not send a Faceless Man to snag a wight’s face, sneak into the shambling dead-guy army, and bake the Night King a White Walker pie? Melisandre has prophesied that Arya will shut “brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes” forever; the Night King definitely checks one of those boxes.
And even if Arya ends up fighting not as “no one” but instead as a Northerner and a Stark, she’s still a force to be reckoned with. She’s got a bag full of faces and a lot of childhood trauma to work through; she’s held her own sword-fighting the tallest lady in Westeros and strategized Littlefinger into a corner. Switch Needle out for that Valyrian steel dagger, and I can’t think of a human, wight, or Walker that stands a chance against her.
Claire McNear: Look, I get it. You’ve gotta make the case for other characters to keep this interesting, but since early in Season 1, Daenerys has been an unparalleled, if distant, power. While the highborn of Westeros squabbled over land rights, she amassed a multi-city-state army composed in near entirety of diverse groups that adore her to the point of worship, and she has the titles to prove it. Now that she’s left Essos behind, she’s poised to knock down most anything that stands in her way and—oh yeah—maybe just save the realm from the Night King. Some minor points in her favor are as follows. One: dragons (one less than before, but still—dragons). Two: an army known for its ferocity, and which—no big deal—is purely loyal to the woman who liberated them from slavery. Three: Pretty much every powerful figure who’s ever come into contact with her has become immediately smitten and vowed to stay by her side. Four: dragons. Everybody else in Westeros—including you, Cersei—is a walking case of Bama-Ain’t-Played-Nobody. Dany is ready.
Katie Baker: As they stand gazing into a bleak, snowy landscape shortly after successfully conspiring to kill Littlefinger at the end of Season 7, reunited sisters Sansa and Arya Stark reminisce about their dad. “When the snows fall and the white winds blow,” Sansa says, repeating the late Ned Stark, “the lone wolf dies and the pack survives.”
For years, Sansa has slipped from one pack to the next, sometimes purposefully but usually against her will, going along in order to get along. In doing so, she has attended quite the leadership symposium, seeing firsthand the core competencies and the areas of improvement for a broad swath of various industry operators, from her doomed parents to her fucked-up almost-in-laws to her chaos-sowing consort to her loyal protector.
Sansa has evolved from a vain, naive young girl to a wary and increasingly wily survivor over the years. She is kind but quick to detect bullshit; she is confident but knows that she doesn’t have all the answers. She is about as well-protected as a woman in northern Westeros without a dragon brood can be, though that doesn’t mean that she isn’t vulnerable: In another Arya-Sansa scene, when she reminds her little sister that she has lots of men loyal to her in Winterfell, her sister reminds her that “they’re not here now.”
But Arya is, and Littlefinger’s death demonstrated both a united front and a commitment to the spirit, if not the letter, of their family law: Game of Thrones began with Ned stressing the importance of personally carrying out a sentence you’ve made, but he would almost certainly accept the in-tandem interpretation made by these two sisters. And perhaps it also foreshadows Sansa occupying a throne in a similarly collaborative way, whether that means queen regency (to … the orphaned child of Daenerys and Jon Snow?!) or a return to the regional Northern rule of her beloved father’s generation, with the current Lady of Winterfell as the leader of the pack.
Brian Phillips: Cersei isn’t going to “win” Game of Thrones. She’s not going to triumph over her enemies. She’s not going to beat back the undead. She’s not going to end the series holding her (possibly nonexistent) infant heir atop an Iron Throne conveniently refitted with an in-arm Merlot spigot. Once the show’s tedious endgame mechanics—whoops, did I misspell “prophecies”—start lurching toward the finish line, a lot of less interesting characters are going to rise to claim, or in Jon Snow’s case to stare foggily at, their destinies. It’s hard to imagine an outcome in which Cersei survives, let alone flourishes.
She’s still the most important character on either side of the Narrow Sea, for two reasons. First, because she’s genuinely unpredictable. Game of Thrones has always walked a tricky line between conventional fantasy and dark psychological realism. The show wants to explore human behavior under extreme conditions, but it also wants magical heroes and heroines to right mystical wrongs in the cosmos. Too many one-dimensional characters would be a fatal flaw in a show so precariously balanced. That Thrones has managed to avoid this flaw largely comes down to Cersei: Partly because of the writing, and partly because of Lena Headey’s magnetic, unsettling performance, she’s the character who lives most vividly in moment-to-moment contingency. Narratively, Daenerys is on rails; Cersei could (and does) do anything, and whatever she does seems to come from one human being’s wavering depravity and desperation rather than the enchanted architecture of the plot.
The second reason she’s the most important character is that she’s the living embodiment of the show’s argument about power. Power is Game of Thrones’ overriding theme, and because George R.R. Martin is a cynic about human nature, the series is particularly obsessed with power’s dark side: how it changes, corrupts, and damages everyone who comes into its zone of influence. Given this fact, it’s enormously significant that the show’s most psychotic wielder of power is also one of the characters most horrifically abused by the power of others. Cersei is a murderous, torturing, lying, incestuous tyrant who acknowledges no moral restraint beyond her own desires; she’s also been victimized since childhood by the system into which she was born, treated as a pawn and a brood mare by her family and husband, forced to watch her children murdered, deprived of almost all love and trust, imprisoned, humiliated, and paraded naked through the streets. She exists at both ends of the spectrum, and thus brings the series’ abstract concerns into knife-edged personal focus.
Without Cersei, Game of Thrones would be a different show—less entertaining, less disturbing, less coherent. She’s the spark of instability that makes the whole story come roaring, like zombie Gregor Clegane, to bloody, pitiless life. Cheers!
Ser Davos Seaworth
Miles Surrey: Ser Davos, my father, is not by any means a perfect character. (For a start, he’s completely forgotten he has a wife and is committing a couple Westerosi HR violations casually flirting with Missandei, who’s clearly not into it.) But wife amnesia aside, Davos remains one of Thrones’ most principled characters; someone who isn’t adept at swordplay or the nuances of governance, but has proven himself to be a formidable player by way of compelling conversation.
Jon Snow has slain a White Walker, Bran Stark can absorb all the knowledge of the universe as the Three-Eyed Raven, and Arya Stark can wear the faces of the people she’s killed; Davos is a good hang. That might not seem pertinent, but it was Davos who convinced the Iron Bank to give Stannis Baratheon more troops on his trek to the North, Davos who swayed Lyanna Mormont to have her house pledge fealty to Jon and House Stark against the Boltons. Many characters who’ve survived the gauntlet of death that is Game of Thrones owe it to their extraordinary skills or the advantages of coming from a famous house, yet it’s an onion smuggler from lowly Fleabottom who’s risen to one of the highest seats of power. (Let’s say Jon Snow ultimately finds himself sitting on the Iron Throne; who else would he pick as his hand but Davos?)
He might not deal the final blow to the Night King’s army or command a dragon, but few characters will have a greater influence than Ser Davos as we approach the show’s endgame. Don’t believe me? Try some of his fermented crab and then get back to me.
Andrew Gruttadaro: Jaime Lannister is, above all, a man for the people. If he’s willing to catapult one baby into a castle for his sister Cersei, just imagine how many babies he’d catapult for all the people. And as he flees from King’s Landing, horrified by the lack of humanity in his queen-sister-lover, and heads north, he’s in a unique position to turn his vow of fighting for the people into action. First, he will waltz into Winterfell—into the ancestral home of the family who hates him most; he will look Bran, the boy he paralyzed years ago, in the eyes; and he will dedicate himself to the Stark/Targaryen cause. The sheer humility and selflessness of this act alone may be enough to redeem all of the mistakes he once made as Tywin Lannister’s favorite son. He will then fight the army of the dead as they descend on Westeros, putting his skilled military mind to use.
And then, when that’s all over—or maybe before that’s all over; who am I kidding, I have no idea what’s gonna happen—he will kill Cersei, perhaps sacrificing himself in the process. Jaime will be on the front lines as both threats to Westeros are extinguished, and though I’m pretty sure he will die, he will do so knowing that he served the people dutifully, that he overcame the temptations of tribalism and did what was right. In the centuries following the events of Season 8, the people of Westeros won’t remember Jaime Lannister as the Kingslayer—they’ll remember him as a hero.
Brienne of Tarth
Alyssa Bereznak: Look, winter isn’t coming anymore. Winter is here. The Night King and his crew have arrived. And those dudes are pretty set on the idea of [checks raven-delivered parchment notes] ah, yes: KILLING EVERYONE. As far as I’m concerned, the characters of value in Season 8 are those who can dispose of as many wights as possible and inspire others to help in that mission. You know who’s got a great résumé in this category? Brienne of Motherfuckin’ Tarth.
Let’s review: Brienne is good at fighting. She’s killed a lot of people. And she’s also held her own against some of Westeros’s more infamous warriors: Sandor Clegane, Arya Stark, Jaime Lannister (emaciated Jaime Lannister, but still), a freakin’ BEAR. The woman knows how to wield a sword. And not just any sword, but a sword named Oathkeeper that was forged out of Valyrian steel. And what kills White Walkers? Valyrian steel. My girl is about to do some serious wight-whacking with that thing.
Finally, Brienne’s personal life also plays an important factor in the larger mission of uniting the realm against the Night King. She is currently at the center of a love triangle between two famous warriors from opposite sides of the realm. There’s Tormund, the renowned ginger from beyond the wall/leader of the free folk, and Jaime Lannister, the one-handed Kingslayer who recently left his dear sister-wife high and dry in King’s Landing. If we know anything about Brienne, we know she likes a man who fights for what’s right. I can only imagine that these two are going to have to do some reeeeeaaal heroic shit on the battlefield to win her over. I don’t really care who she picks at the end, just as long as they’ve done as much wight killing as possible in the process.
The Night King
Shaker Samman: Almost two years ago, my colleagues and I gathered to predict our MVPs for Season 7 of Game of Thrones. An eternal pessimist, I selected the Night King—he of the icy touch and undead militia—as the year’s champ. The logic seemed simple: The story needed to set up its final chapter and the petty squabbles of man would be dwarfed by the ultimate fight between the dead and the living.
Alas, the Night King was sidelined for most of the year. Sure, he one-upped Big Crossbow with Perfect Javelin, and turned Viserion into a rank-and-file member of the army of the damned. But it wasn’t until he used his new pet to tear down the Wall that he had a viable case for MVP. Considering much of the promotional material for Season 8 has circled around the Great War, it’s likely we’ll see much more of His Unholiness this year. And while Thrones fans may be hoping for a happy ending for its heroes, nothing would feel more on-brand than this series concluding with a White Walker sweep.
Kate Knibbs: Is Azor Ahai Jon? Is it Dany? Is it their wee future incest baby? Maybe it’s my personal hero, Gilly. It’s not clear who the prophecy about a savior wielding a burning sword will be about in the end—but it’s gotta be someone, right? If Azor Ahai does make an appearance next season, there’s a pretty good chance they will come in hot and give the Night King a run for his money … and if the prophecy isn’t fulfilled, it will succeed in George R.R. Martin’s original intention to subvert fantasy tropes, so, in one way or another, Azor Ahai seems to be a lock to be the season’s most valuable player.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.