Who will win Game of Thrones
The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, “The Bells,” served up special effects designed to convey the horrors of war, with a side of overly predictable storytelling, inconsistent values, and disregard for the many plot threads woven together over previous seasons.
For a dynamic show that began as a lush tapestry, the conclusion looks more like a few strings knotted together.
In its last few episodes, the show has devoted more energy to granting its major characters a curtain call than grappling with the complex aspects of power that formerly guided the narrative. Fans invested in the slipperiness of prophesy continue trying to imbue every action with significance but it’s likely there is none, and this final season lacks the subtlety and commitment to carry through Martin’s intricate vision.
Take the valonqar prophesy, told (partially in the HBO series and fully in Martin’s books) to Cersei when she was a little girl: “When your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.”
Fans devoted years of creative energy to imagining possible scenarios for this prediction about a “little brother,” only to have it mean absolutely nothing in the end: Jaime might have placed his hands around Cersei’s neck in their final moments, but it certainly wasn’t to strangle her.
Through the end of Season Six, when she claimed the Iron Throne for herself, Cersei Lannister represented one of the show’s most multifaceted figures; in the past two seasons, writers have utterly flattened her character. And, so much for Jaime Lannister’s epic redemption arc. While it was moving to watch the twins hold each other one last time, the death of these two powerhouse characters under an avalanche of boulders was profoundly unsatisfying.
Although Jaime and Tyrion’s efforts to save Cersei ring true, Tyrion’s own storyline has been impoverished for two seasons as well. Meanwhile, Arya Stark traveled for seven seasons across two continents committed to assassinating Cersei, only to be talked out of it by a single sentence when she finally stood in the same building as her prey.
And Daenerys. From a tactical standpoint, the ease with which she and Drogon lit up the Iron Fleet and King’s Landing, one episode after Euron Greyjoy put three scorpion bolts in a row into Rhaegal, strains credulity. But the leapfrogging necessary to get Daenerys to her new emotional state beggars belief even more.
The show placed a character who ended slavery in multiple cities, chained up her dragons for killing a single innocent child, followed the advice of her small council at every turn, and poured all her resources into rescuing the North, solidly on the path of irrationality a handful of episodes ago, and it carried through in a predictable way her completion as “Mad Queen.”
While some fans rationalize Daenerys’ choice to light most of King’s Landing on fire as an understandable skepticism that the bell-ringing actually signaled Cersei’s surrender, it seems that the writers were actually doing the opposite. Instead of explaining who rang the bells, or contextualizing Daenerys’ decisions through dialogue, they’ve simply framed her as unhinged and supported this viewpoint through the pained facial expressions of Jon and Tyrion.
Martin said in an interview that he wants his ending to feel like J.R.R. Tolkien’s bittersweet conclusion to The Lord of the Rings. At this point, the bittersweet feeling for “Game of Thrones” audiences is less about the trauma of their favorite characters and more about the dissatisfaction of having invested almost a decade in a show that talked about breaking wheels but seems instead to be just quietly letting the air out of them.
Lindsey Mantoan is an assistant professor of theatre at Linfield College. She is the co-editor with Sara Brady of "Vying for the Iron Throne: Essays on Power, Gender, Death, and Performance in HBO's Game of Thrones" and the author of "War as Performance: Conflict in Iraq and Political Theatricality."
We've all been playing guessing games, trying to decide who should sit on the Iron Throne (my preferred candidate, Varys the Spider, whispered his last whisper in a torrent of dragonflame during the first ten minutes, and Cersei and Jaime Lannister are also now permanently off the board).
This episode underscored a key point that the series has been making since its very first moments: It doesn't matter who wears the crown, because no one who ends up with it will deserve it. Varys himself said it best, when he noted that the best ruler might well be one with no ambition to hold power. Meanwhile, those who want power desperately often find the path they must walk for it corrupting.
Daenerys has in the past made bloody compromises in the name of justice; in this episode, she engages in a one-woman genocidal assault on a city of innocents -- a city that had already surrendered -- for nothing more than revenge. The behavior of her army afterwards, as they throw aside any pretense of "liberating" King's Landing in favor of looting, raping and the cold-blooded massacre of its inhabitants, shows how lawless, monstrous acts committed by a nation's leaders unleash the very worst in their followers and supporters.
And now we have just one episode left in the story; one 90-minute chapter to wrap up all the remaining threads. Next week, who'll end up winning the Game of Thrones? Will Dany kill Jon? Will Arya kill Dany? Is Gendry still somewhere out there, safe in the North with his bastard Baratheon claim? It doesn't matter as much as we thought. The message of the series is straightforward: When politics is treated as a "game," all of us end up as losers.
Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast "They Call Us Bruce." He co-wrote Jackie Chan's best-selling autobiography, "I Am Jackie Chan," and is the editor of three graphic novels: "Secret Identities," "Shattered" and the forthcoming "New Frontiers."
Although there has been a physical Iron Throne at the center of this story since the very beginning, it’s never been about the pieces of twisted metal or even what they symbolize.
The Game of Thrones isn’t even what its title implies. The story is about man vs. man and how our relationships with each other can either define us -- or break us.
Look no further than the unceremonious and swift killing of the Night King as proof. For years, you thought the show would come down to an epic battle between humankind and its very existence. But in the end, the being who symbolized what seemed to be most horrifying theme in the show -- eternal death -- was actually more fragile than we thought. So fragile and meaningless that his entire storyline could be wrapped neatly with a bow in a single episode.
Now as the series is coming to an end we see that the scariest thing is no resolution. Men and women will fight against each other for the ultimate power, but what will fall is humanity -- and it’s not at the hands of the wights or the Night King. Rather, it’s humankind’s own greed that will destroy the throne, leaving nothing to claim but ashes. Everyone will die. There will be no throne to ascend. It’s the end of the show. It’s the end of this monarchy. It’s the end of the law. It’s the end of everything.
Amanda Wills is the Director of Breaking News at CNN.
These commentators made their case for which character should win the Iron Throne. In doing so, they also shared personal insights about how they enter and connect with the world created by “Game of Thrones.” They open up about the resonance they see between Westeros and our own reality and the human complexities evoked by the show’s main characters and storylines.
As the show moves toward its final moments, CNN Opinion wants to hear from “Game of Thrones” fans. Tell us not just who you think will win, but what the fantastical universe this show has created has meant to you. How has the experience of watching changed you?
Let’s face it, the warriors of Game of Thrones have been pretty useless as rulers and tacticians. Robert Baratheon: victorious war hero, sleazy king. Robb Stark and Jon Snow: gave rousing battle speeches, got murdered by their own mutinous men. (And only one of them could rely on Melisandre’s resurrect-out-of-jail-free card.) Daenerys Targaryen: great on a dragon, heavier on the crucifying and burning than on building a civic society.
No, if someone’s going to rule Westeros peacefully, it’s got to be someone who can do politics. It would be useful if that person had a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne, although claims seem to be pulled out of top hats like rabbits in Westeros these days.
Fortunately, that person exists. Tyrion Lannister, since the show’s first episode, has been the smartest person in any room in Westeros. He understands what motivates people: sex, money and revenge. (He’s experienced with all three.)
He can be ruthless when he must -- remember how he dispatched Janos Slynt to the Wall? Sure, he’s been off his form recently, but that just feels like showrunners losing interest in him. What a victory his comeback would be for the many of us who, like Tyrion, identify with “cripples, bastards and broken things.”
Does he have a claim? It’s a bit late in the series for D.B. Weiss and David Benioff to surprise us with yet another secret Targaryen -- popular though this theory is. (And how awful to vindicate Tywin Lannister’s insinuation that no dwarf could be his true son.) One popular theory suggests he has a claim through his Baratheon heritage, although it's a stretch.
But conquest has been the foundation of many a dynasty in Westeros, most notably Aegon Targaryen. Cersei Lannister once suggested Ned Stark should have claimed the throne the moment he found himself in the throne room with the corpse of the last ruler. Perhaps her brother will do just that. And despite a recent dry spell, he’s got the sexual function to build a dynasty.
He’s far superior to the other contenders. Unlike Cersei, Daenerys, Arya Stark, and Jaime Lannister, Tyrion’s never killed anyone who didn’t have it coming. But unlike Sansa Stark and Jon, he’s never been too merciful or trusting. He’s been key to this game from the very first episode, unlike Gendry. And he’s human, unlike Bran.
Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature.
For most of the run of “Game of Thrones,” I was a loyal devotee of Daenerys Targaryen. Dany had been my favorite contender for the Iron Throne because of her narrative arc from captivity and sexual bondage toward independence and liberation. I also cathartically cherished her vengeful spirit. And at the end of season 1, she promised that “[my] enemies will die screaming.” What’s not to love?
But Missandei’s tragic death in the May 5 episode shifted my position. Watching her handcuffed body fall into the dirt outside King’s Landing after uttering her last word (“dracarys” -- the same word Daenerys spoke in season 2 to unleash the dragonfire that freed Missandei and the Unsullied from Slaver’s Bay), I realized that I didn’t care that much whether my enemies died screaming. I just wanted them dead. And that is what Arya Stark does like no one else.
Notwithstanding the fact that Arya does not want the Iron Throne, her rule would represent the fulfillment of the most important Game of Thrones ethos: you win or you die. And if you are on Arya’s list of enemies, you usually die -- making her arguably the most effective player in the Game of Thrones.
To be sure, Sansa on the Iron Throne with Arya as her Assassin Advisor would be acceptable. Yet Arya has her own merits. Her rule would radically and positively change all of Westeros. She has the power to do what Dany said she would do (but has yet to manage despite nearly 8 seasons): Arya Stark would break the wheel of cyclical power that grinds the oppressed beneath it. Arya would bring strategic, absolute justice to the powerful -- as she did to traitor and pedophile Ser Meryn Trant and the male line of House Frey.
Arya’s rule would also bring more gender equity in the kingdoms since Arya is one of the few point-of-view female characters to initiate sex for her own pleasure and curiosity. She seamlessly transgressed social boundaries and reciprocated no-frills compassion long before her transformative time in Braavos.
As Arya told Lord Tywin Lannister in season 2, “Anyone can be killed,” but it usually takes Arya to do it. She’s killed the living and the undead. Westeros isn’t good enough for her but she is the GOAT of GOT. Long may she reign.
Lisa Woolfork is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Virginia, a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project and an organizer with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville.
I try to steer clear of politics, but with the battle for the Iron Throne getting hotter by the minute, I have to throw my weight behind the one true king of Westeros: Jon Snow.
Jon -- or Aegon Targaryen -- has both the right lineage and the right character to sit on the Iron Throne. As the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, Jon is the rightful heir. In fact, it’s his birthright. But if his lineage alone doesn’t convince you, his actions should. He has the intellect, experiences and skills to effectively rule Westeros.
Jon is familiar with many parts of the Seven Kingdoms and many of his would-be subjects. While he grew up in Winterfell, he spent a significant amount of time traveling in the North and exploring other parts of the Seven Kingdoms. Everywhere he went, as he made new friends and allies.
Whether in Winterfell, Dragonstone, King's Landing, or even beyond the Wall, Jon has a proven track record of building powerful relationships with the people whom he meets.
This will serve him well when he is king. After years of war, bloodshed and divisions, Westeros will benefit from Jon’s abilities to connect with all of his subjects and, when necessary, to unite them. He’s a diplomat and a bridge builder -- we saw him work with the free folk, Daenerys Targaryen and so many others to fight the “Army of the Dead” -- and once he defeats Cersei Lannister, he will help bring the people of Westeros together.
Jon also has a record of service. He left his whole life behind to serve at the Wall as part of the Night’s Watch. He served then -- and he can serve now as King. Plus, during his service, he traveled beyond the Wall, which shows his willingness and ability to do whatever it takes to protect his people and his home.
A gifted warrior and strategist who isn’t afraid to make personal sacrifices for his people, Jon also has the humility necessary to rule. He put his own ambitions aside when he thought that Dany had the best chance of defeating the Night King. He pledged himself to her because he cared more about saving his people than he did about his own title.
Throughout almost eight seasons of “Game of Thrones,” we’ve seen a diverse parade of rulers. While a steady stream of kings, queens, princesses, ladies and lords have accompanied us, the people of the Seven Kingdoms finally need a leader who can take them forward, together. It’s time for Jon to assume his rightful position on the Iron Throne.
Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama's National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd.