As smoke rises above King’s Landing, it seems that the overarching theme of the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones is that no one really knows what they’re doing—except for one person.
The Lady of Winterfell, Sansa Stark, has been shrewd—both in using her time alone with Daenerys to attempt to broker Northern sovereignty and in doubting Daenerys’s leadership potential in the first place. She’s been benevolent, too, trying (and failing, no thanks to Jon) to win Northern soldiers some restorative downtime before marching for King’s Landing. While Season 8’s breakneck pace has meant many characters responding rashly to whatever latest development passes before them, Sansa has consistently looked further down the road. If her soldiers are tired or hungry, they will be more easily defeated, or else defect entirely. If her (supposed) half-brother pledges allegiance to a new queen, then Winterfell will be subject to that queen’s whims. The Lady of Winterfell might not just be a good ruler—it’s very possible at this point that she’s Westeros’s only good ruler.
By now, we have cause to doubt the leadership abilities of the vast majority of likely candidates for the Iron Throne. Daenerys has slipped into a homicidal rage and seems poised for Mad Queendom. And even before the King’s Landing firestorm, her time in Meereen—her only formal governing experience—was defined as much by strife and bloodshed as it was by liberation. (Not to mention that there’s no liberating to do in Westeros—slavery has long been illegal.) Jon, meanwhile, has generally good intentions and a way of winning over his soldiers, but he’s a piss-poor tactician, both militarily and, wildlings aside, in regard to coalition-building, and he’s made clear that he doesn’t want the throne. Bran insists that he, too, has no interest in governing, even at Winterfell; given that his Three-Eyed Raven status keeps him tethered to the past, it’s hard to imagine that he’d be any good at it. Arya, the now-celebrated slayer of the Night King, likewise says that she doesn’t want to rule, or even remain stationary—which is just as well, given that a girl is maybe a little more violent and vengeful than one generally hopes a head of state might be.
Less-likely rulers have disqualifications of their own. Tyrion has become, after so many seasons to the contrary, a fool. Yara Greyjoy merely wants to rule the Iron Islands. The new prince of Dorne is … well, I’m not sure they even hired an actor to play him. Ellaria Sand was presumably crushed to death beneath the Red Keep. Edmure Tully is unlikely to reappear. Robin Arryn is a creepy little freak. Gendry is going to spend the rest of his days hammering out statues of Arya. Bronn just wants to be rich and naked.
And then there’s Sansa. Ned and Catelyn’s oldest daughter dreamed of being a princess as a girl. Then she got a cruel taste of court life at the hands of her one-time betrothed Joffrey Baratheon. Further horrors followed, the worst of them at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. It’s probably not fair to say, as Sansa did to the Hound after the Battle of Winterfell, that it was those horrors that allowed her to grow. But there’s no denying that Sansa doesn’t have much time for, much less interest in, needlework now. Over the course of eight seasons, we’ve watched her transform into a steely custodian of both her family and her—that is to say, the North’s—people. And unlike so many Thrones characters, this is not just talk. She plans. She fights. She wins. She is the reason Jon Snow didn’t die in the Battle of the Bastards, and why the Starks preside over Winterfell once more; she is (part of) the reason why Littlefinger wasn’t around to throw the world into even more chaos in Season 8; she is the one who dunked on Tyrion Lannister; she is the one who cast a side eye at Daenerys Targaryen long before anyone else.
It’s possible that Game of Thrones will end without a single king or queen on the Iron Throne. We’ve seen some minor secession already: Daenerys promised Yara that the Iron Islands could remain independent under her rule, while Sansa attempted to broker independence for the North as well. Forgive me, child of the republic that I am, but a fair interpretation of monarchy (Westerosi or otherwise) is that there will always be trouble when a single person calls all the shots: Maybe you’re lucky and they are kind and wise and good, but there’s no saying that the next generation will be the same, or the one after that, or the one after that, and so on. It’s not outrageous to think that Thrones might end up with some kind of representative government, wherein all seven kingdoms of Westeros get a say. The seeds have been planted, at the very least.
We’ve seen characters on Thrones approach their, well, thrones in different ways: A crown is a bloodline-driven right for Daenerys Targaryen, a spoil of conquest for Robert Baratheon, or, for supporters of Jon Snow, a duty meant for someone good and wise. For Sansa at Winterfell, leadership has been something else entirely: a logistical pain in the ass. There are people to feed, soldiers to rest, malcontents to soothe—getting it all done requires one great bureaucratic spreadsheet. She’s not a demagogue or a true believer—she’s a policy wonk.
Sansa probably won’t end up atop the Iron Throne—more likely, she’ll continue to efficiently hold down the fort at Winterfell while her little brother rolls back his eyeballs and watches dead-person cartoons. But let’s hope, at least, that someday her statue in the crypts bears a new Stark nickname: Sansa the Wise.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.