In Season 1 of Game of Thrones, Cersei had the honor of relaying the show’s title drop, telling Ned that “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Cersei certainly found those words true in the penultimate episode of the series, and now with just 80 minutes left, it’s time for someone to win, and likely time for many to die.
Daenerys is currently winning, but that doesn’t mean she’ll hold onto the crown past the show’s finale. How will the game end? Let’s break down the best-situated candidates to sit on the Iron Throne:
Daenerys has her crown, but it’s difficult to envision her keeping it for long. She was hemorrhaging allies before she unleashed Drogon and killed tens of thousands of innocent people in King’s Landing. Varys was already attempting to poison her before he met his demise, Jon was pulling away, and Tyrion was filled with skepticism.
Other than Grey Worm, who is as bloodthirsty as Daenerys at this point, the Mother of Dragons has lost everyone close to her. Though she’s defeated her enemies and will soon sit on the Iron Throne, she’s never been more isolated. As Tyrion once told Daenerys, a monarch cannot rule through fear alone. “Fear is all Cersei has,” he said in Episode 6 of Season 7. “It’s all my father had, Joffrey. It makes their power brittle, because everyone beneath them longs to see them dead.”
Yet, before burning King’s Landing, Daenerys summed up how she intends to rule: “Let it be fear.”
Daenerys’s power is now as brittle as anyone’s ever has been. She’s a full-blown villain following her atrocities in King’s Landing, and ending the series with her ruling the Seven Kingdoms would be too dark, even for Game of Thrones.
Jon has long made sense for the throne. He’s the true heir, for one, and people gravitate toward him; they want to follow him even when he’s reluctant to lead. He’s deferred to Daenerys since bending the knee last season, though—but if she dies in the final episode, many will look to him to rule (if they aren’t already).
Yet will Jon want the throne? He’s said he doesn’t want it countless times, and while Varys has noted that not wanting the throne could be exactly what the realm needs in a ruler, it’s easy to see Jon insisting on abdicating. He professed his love for Daenerys as recently as last episode, and taking the throne from her could feel like a betrayal to him. When Ned made a play for the throne all the way back in Season 1, it wasn’t to take it for himself—and Jon could follow a parallel path in the finale. He may not be Ned Stark’s son, but he was raised by him.
Tormund told Jon that he has “the real North” in him, and that line seems to foreshadow a return to the North for Jon. Will he head back to Winterfell? Or continue further up the Kingsroad to rebuild the Night’s Watch? Can he at least pet Ghost?
If Jon were to refuse the crown, it would throw the succession into disarray. If neither of the Targaryen heirs sit on the throne by the end of the series, then who will? That leads to more long-shot candidates:
Sansa was my preseason choice to take the throne: She has political savvy, knows firsthand how the titular game is played, and possesses the empathy that so many recent monarchs have lacked. Sansa’s evolution from the naive girl who believed in the fairy-tale versions of knights and ladies in Season 1 into a competent, clear-eyed leader by Season 8 is as rewarding as any character arc Thrones has delivered.
But the past three seasons for Sansa have been centered on her desire to reclaim her home and win independence for the North. Sansa has been very clear that Starks don’t fare well when they travel south, so it’s hard to see her choosing to live in King’s Landing, where she was tormented for so long. Unless Winterfell becomes Westeros’s new capital, it’s hard to see her becoming queen of the continent. Maybe the throne will relocate for her, but she likely won’t relocate for it.
The last Lannister standing has one very prominent obstacle in his path to the Iron Throne: staying alive. The relationship between Tyrion and Daenerys has been devolving for a couple of seasons now, and Tyrion’s murderous queen will want to know why he betrayed her and released Jaime before Daenerys’s massacre of King’s Landing. “The next time you fail me,” Daenerys said in the latest episode, “will be the last time you fail me.” Tyrion may soon meet Varys’s fate.
But even if he outlasts Daenerys, he still has no easy path to the throne. The realm doesn’t have much love for Cersei, the last Lannister to wear a crown, nor Tommen or Joffrey, who everyone understands to be Lannisters even if they didn’t have the last name. After spending countless hours with him, we know Tyrion isn’t like those other Lannisters, but the realm doesn’t. They know him as the dwarf who poisoned Joffrey, killed Tywin, then helped Daenerys burn the city. He’s a monster in King’s Landing.
Tyrion can’t even really fall back on his status as a Lannister, either. The mines of Casterly Rock have run dry, and the lords in the Westerlands won’t be pleased after seeing so many of their troops burned by Drogon. Tyrion has few allies and is misunderstood by most of the realm. It wouldn’t really be his fault, but his power would be nearly as brittle as Daenerys’s.
Here is something you may not know: Gendry has Targaryen heritage. House Baratheon was founded by Orys Baratheon, who was Aegon the Conqueror’s best friend and hand, and rumored to be his bastard half-brother. But even more recently, the Baratheon line was infused with the blood of the dragon: Robert Baratheon’s grandmother was Rhaelle Targaryen, the youngest daughter of King Aegon V Targaryen. That makes Gendry a part of Dany and Jon’s family tree. I broke out my arts-and-crafts skills to demonstrate (the circled characters are alive):
Gendry and Daenerys are second cousins once removed. Gendry and Jon are third cousins. Since there are no known Martells left on the show (another Westerosi great house with Targaryen heritage), Daenerys, Jon, and Gendry are the only known living people with provable Targaryen blood. The dragon truly has three heads.
What does this mean? It means that Gendry has dual claims to the Iron Throne. As a now-legitimized Baratheon, he is the direct heir to Robert Baratheon. But he’ll also have a claim through the Targaryen line if Daenerys dies and Jon abdicates.
Additionally, the realm may yearn for a return to the days of Baratheon rule. Everyone in Westeros understands at this point that Joffrey and Tommen were not true Baratheons, and so Robert’s true son, since legitimized, is a nostalgic reminder of the relative peace and long summer the realm blossomed under when his father wore the crown. Robert wasn’t a great king, but his legacy looks sterling in retrospect, and Gendry benefits from that halo.
Of course, ascending to the throne takes more than a family tree. As Varys once said (well, more than once), “power resides where men believe it resides,” and many would have trouble believing it resides with a former bastard who grew up in Flea Bottom and never knew his father. Gendry has no armies, no leadership experience, and may not even be literate. Raising him to lord of the Stormlands—a place he’s almost certainly never even stepped foot in—was already a bold move by Daenerys. Making him king would be an extremely tough sell.
King Bran of House Stark, First of His Name, Seer of Green, Raven With an Extra Eye, Wanter of Nothing … it sounds like a joke. Bran could be king?
I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around this idea, but Bran has been the betting favorite to win the Iron Throne for virtually the entire season, leading to speculation that Vegas may know something we don’t. Given Benioff and Weiss’s love for subverting expectations, Bran ascending to the throne fits: Surely no one saw this coming since he became the Three-Eyed Raven. I can still barely make a case for how it happens. Bran was sidelined for all of Season 5 and has had a minimal presence even this season, especially since the Night King was defeated. The show has laid very little groundwork for his path to the throne.
Yet there is at least a tiny bit of foreshadowing here. Varys has mentioned on multiple occasions that Jon would be a better ruler than Daenerys because Jon doesn’t want to rule. Yet Bran fits that criteria even better: In Episode 4 of this season, Bran told Tyrion that he “doesn’t really want [anything] anymore.” Someone who doesn’t want is incorruptible by nature. Perhaps Tyrion will seek out Bran after the dust settles with Daenerys, Jon, and everyone else in King’s Landing.
It’s unclear whether Bran is capable of having children or not (in A Game of Thrones, Ned thinks that Bran will never “lie with a woman, or hold his own son in his arms”), but even if he’s physically able, he doesn’t seem like he’d be all too interested, which introduces the question of succession if he becomes king. Bran as the sovereign in Westeros would likely look very different from the monarchs who have ruled for the past three centuries. It’s tough to see him wearing a crown or sitting on the Iron Throne. Perhaps he wouldn’t rule by himself, but with a collection of people. That sets up the final option ...
At several points in Westerosi history when the Targaryen succession was not clear, a Great Council of lords assembled to determine who would get the throne. If Daenerys dies and Jon abdicates, it will be the messiest succession crisis in history. Perhaps a council will come together again, only this time not to choose who wears the crown, but to share the burden of leadership among a group of people.
For thousands of years before Aegon the Conqueror brought the continent to heel, Westeros had independent kingdoms. They could go back to something similar, granting the different regions some autonomy while maintaining a permanent council of leaders to keep the collective peace. There’d be no monarch, no throne.
What would a council of leaders look like? Westeros is commonly called “The Seven Kingdoms,” but that name is a misnomer, as the continent is actually comprised of nine regions. A post-Wall Westeros may even need to add a 10th region to the fold in the Far North. That would lead to a setup that could look something like this:
- The Far North - Jon Snow
- The North - Sansa Stark
- The Iron Islands - Yara Greyjoy
- The Riverlands - Edmure Tully (… wherever he is) (Or Hot Pie!)
- The Vale - Robin Arryn
- The Westerlands - Tyrion Lannister
- The Crownlands - Davos Seaworth
- The Reach - Sam Tarly (if not Bronn in Highgarden!)
- The Stormlands - Gendry Baratheon
- Dorne - The unnamed Dornish Prince
Bran—as the all-seeing Three-Eyed Raven—could preside over the council. That’s the only way I can see Bran’s Vegas odds making sense; he won’t be the literal king, but he could be the de facto leader of Westeros at the end of the series.
A council of rulers could accomplish a great deal of storytelling: (1) It would allow the writers to punt on picking just one character to rule; (2) It would poetically end Game of Thrones without a literal throne; and (3) It would give multiple characters satisfying conclusions with a purpose that goes beyond the end credits.
But most importantly, it would “break the wheel” as Daenerys promised back in Season 5. Sure, not in the way that Dany expected, but still. Daenerys once told her advisers and allies that they would “leave the world better than we found it.” By sending the Targaryen dynasty back to the dirt and allowing a new government to form in Westeros, that goal may still be possible.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.