With all the twists and turns in each episode of Game of Thrones, it can be easy to forget there’s a big-picture question being posed by the show. It’s simply this: Who or what will rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros when the smoke clears at the end of the final season next year?
We haven’t forgotten. Almost exactly two years ago, at the end of Season 5, Mashable produced the first ranking of players deemed most likely to sit on the Iron Throne at story’s end. (And we mean literally sitting on it, not simply being the power behind it.)
On the downside, half of those characters are now dead (RIP Stannis, Tommen, Myrcella and the High Sparrow); on the upside, the number of possible final Kings or Queens has been seriously reduced.
Here are the 8 remaining contenders with any serious shot at the title, plus how far they’ve moved since the last ranking.
8. Euron Greyjoy (new entry)
He may have seemed like something of an afterthought in Season 6, but let us not forget that we left Yara and Theon’s nasty Iron Islands-owning uncle building a fleet of a thousand ships. They’re intended not just to wreak revenge on his niece for claiming the crown, but to finish the war his brother Balon started — and take Westeros as a whole.
Euron is a force to be reckoned with in Season 7 if certain spoilers are to be believed. Furthermore, the HBO version of Euron may have something up his sleeve that we already know the book version of Euron possesses: a horn called Dragonbinder.
That horn could potentially brainwash Daenerys’ fire-breathing spawn. And if you can control dragons in the war for Westeros, that’s pretty much the whole ballgame.
Indeed, the only reason to rank Euron so low is a narrative one: it would be dramatically unsatisfying for the showrunners to give the Iron Throne to an Iron Islander introduced so late in the game.
7. Jon Snow (+1)
Whatever titles Jon Snow has gained thus far — Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, King in the North — have been heaped at his feet without him asking for them. He needlessly blundered into the Battle of Hardhome and the Battle of the Bastards, and only survived both with a large measure of dumb luck.
Which is not to say that he won’t end up on the Iron Throne. Heck, if Donald Trump has taught us anything, it’s that not really wanting the job, that simply proceeding through privilege and dumb luck, can actually take you to the highest office in the land.
But again, it would be narratively unsatisfying for Snow to end the coming war as the leader of the Seven Kingdoms. He’s far more likely to rule as the consort of a woman we now know to be his relative, Daenerys Targaryen: fire and ice together, just as the book series title suggested. (We also know the Targaryens made a seriously Appalachian-style habit of in-breeding.)
Dany has shown herself to have a weak spot for pretty boys like Jon. Then again, we’re hoping she’s a little more mature and prefers a brainy go-getter like Yara Greyjoy. After all, that Snow guy knows nothing.
6. Cersei Lannister (new entry)
Given that she was such a power player, and that she ended Season 6 as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, it can be hard to recall what a bitter non-victory that was for Cersei Lannister.
She never wanted to rule; she wanted the throne for her last remaining child, Tommen. And if only the kid hadn’t killed himself at the sight of an explosion that killed his beloved Margery along with his rivals, that’s where we’d be at.
Although she’ll no doubt keep fighting for the Lannister family honor, Cersei has nowhere left to go but down. She also has two strikes against her: prophecy and legitimacy.
The prophecy came from a raggedy fortune teller named Maggy; we saw one half of it in a flashback at the beginning of Season 3. Maggy correctly predicted that Cersei would have three kids, that they’d all wear crowns, and that she’d live to see all of them die. In the books, Maggy also predicted that Cersei would be killed by her own little brother.
As for legitimacy, Cersei came to power through a very convoluted chain of succession that made her next in line to her own son. Well, except for one person who is now technically supposed to rule Westeros:
5. Jaime Lannister (new entry)
Now that he’s no longer officially in the Kingsguard, Jaime is actually the rightful king of Westeros whether he realizes it or not. (For a full explanation, click here.)
Cersei may have something to say about this, and if she’s smart she’ll put him back in the Kingsguard, rendering him ineligible to claim the throne again. But that may just awaken Jaime to his true position.
According to the Maggy prediction above, Cersei is most in danger from her little brother. That means Tyrion, right? Not so fast — Jaime may be her twin, but he was also second out of the womb.
There are so many reasons it would make wonderfully ironic narrative sense to have Jaime kill his beloved sister and claim the throne for himself. They once loved each other and sired three children in secret, only to watch them all die: this would complete their tragic arc.
She’d never see it coming, and the decision would torture him forever.
Jaime has never been able to shake the title of Kingslayer for his regicide against the Mad King, whom he was also supposed to guard with his life; why not add the title of Queenslayer — not to mention sister-slayer and lover-slayer — to his list?
4. Petyr Baelish (-1)
Yeah, we know, we hate Littlefinger for his creepy designs on Sansa too. But if you step back and look at this thing like a horse race, you have to admit the guy has form — and more than enough cunning and ambition to go the distance.
So far, Baelish hasn’t put a foot wrong. He spun the plot against Lord Aryn that put the whole story of Game of Thrones in motion. He helped orchestrate Joffrey’s death. He became Lord Protector of the Vale and saved the North from Ramsay Bolton at the Battle of the Bastards.
Now he’s in Winterfell, openly admitting to Sansa he wants to sit on the Iron Throne with her at his side — and according to the Season 7 trailer, fighting with Jon in the crypt, probably because he’s just revealed the guy’s parentage.
In fact, the main thing that stops King Petyr Baelish making narrative sense is the fact that Sansa is his weak spot, his femme fatale. Sooner or later, she’s going to wake up to his scheming and give him a well-deserved shiv. Hopefully it’ll be the one thing he never sees coming.
3. Daenerys Targaryen (-1)
At the end of Season 6, the Mother of Dragons finally had all she could wish for in her war to reclaim Westeros. A massive invasion fleet to carry her Dothraki and Unsullied legions; a new alliance with Yara and Theon Greyjoy; a possible alliance with Dorne, care of Varys; and one of the smartest people on the planet, Tyrion Lannister, as her Hand of the Queen.
Plus, y’know, dragons.
According to the Season 7 trailer, Dany is about to make some serious inroads into Westeros. The Unsullied are seen invading Lannister castles; her dragons are seen burning Lannister forces. Put it all together, and Dany is certainly the leading human contender for the throne.
So what’s to stop her, apart from the fact that there are another 13 episodes of twists and turns yet to go? Well, Euron Greyjoy may have Dragonbinder, for one thing. And then there’s the long-term threat that almost no one on the show is taking seriously yet …
2. The Night King (new entry)
Winter has arrived in Westeros, and the Night King’s legions are hot on its cold tail.
All that stands in their way is the Wall — and as the wildlings already demonstrated, that structure is not impregnable. Especially not when Jon Snow simply abandoned his post after his resurrection, leaving the Night’s Watch with minimal defenses.
If the White Walkers can get past the wall, there really doesn’t seem to be anything that can stop them. Dragonstone does, of course, though it’s in short supply; Sam Tarly is currently digging through the stacks in the library of the Maesters in Oldtown to see if he can figure out any other kind of defense.
But in general: a zombie army with a leader who can made his dead enemies rise on command? Yeah, we’re not going to bet against that. Even three dragons doesn’t seem so much when compared with a horde that can lay waste to a village in minutes.
Indeed, the only real question is whether the still-mysterious Night King actually wants to sit on the Iron Throne and rule the Seven Kingdoms of the undead. If he does, King’s Landing is pretty much his for the taking. If not, well …
1. No one (unchanged)
Dany’s vision from the House of the Undying in Season 2 suggested it, and we’re still going with it: King’s Landing is going to be nothing but a smoldering, snow-covered ruin by the end of the show.
The logic seems inexorable. All that time wasted fighting over this stupid piece of metal, and for what? The shallow rewards of wealth, power and acclaim were nothing compared to the long-term dangers faced by the entire world, dangers that could have been spotted and prepared for earlier had the leaders simply listened to their own intelligence services.
There’s a metaphor for the White House in there somewhere.
Decimated by winter, torched by dragons, destroyed by White Walkers, abandoned by its population, forgotten by history: This is the finale that makes the most narrative sense for the Westerosi capital, and for the uncomfortable, sword-covered throne it contains.
We’ll start finding out the answer for sure when Game of Thrones returns to HBO on July 19.