When you play the game of thrones, so goes the saying, you win or you die. Mostly you die.
While we root for the characters that we want to see take the throne, the show and the books have gone to great lengths to show us the kind of ruler each candidate might be, should they emerge triumphant. We might want Daenerys to take the crown, but would she actually make a good ruler of Westeros?
Below, I’ll list out the various candidates for the Iron Throne based on Westeros’ system of inheritance—with the occasional overthrow sprinkled in—along with the pros and cons of their rule.
This article originally ran before season 3 aired, but considering how that season really swept the field clean of challengers, an update seemed necessary. (You can see the original article here.)
We’ll be discussing the events of the first three seasons in the article. You’ll be warned when spoilers for further seasons and books show up. Keep an eye out for the bolded “stop scrolling, spoilers past this point” line.
Claim: The (supposed) firstborn son of the previous king, Robert Baratheon.
Pros: He has a family with a vested interest in protecting him and smoothing out his errors. Tywin and Tyrion Lannister are exceptionally good administrators, able to politically outmaneuver their foes, turn away armies at their gates, and maintain the status quo for their citizens. The series wouldn’t have even gotten past the first book had their plans been allowed to run smoothly and not been messed up by Joffrey swordbombing Ned Stark’s pardon.
Cons: Oh my god EVERYTHING. Joffrey is a psychotic little devil with no foresight and no ability to see beyond what might amuse him. At best, one endures his rule. Although so far, he and his family are winning handily over their rivals.
Claim: The eldest brother of the previous king, Robert Baratheon.
Pros: He’s dedicated to law and to the stability that it provides. He provides for those under his rule and punishes those who deserve it, regardless of rank.
Cons: He’s almost entirely rigid in his standards, views the world strictly in black and white, and cannot conceive of why anyone would see things differently. If you are wronged under his rule, he will make it right, but he is without sympathy, empathy, or mercy. He’s also becoming increasingly hypocritical under Melisandre’s influence, eroding the solitary redeeming fairness that Stannis prizes. A Westeros under Stannis’ rule would be a dour place, and odds are Stannis wouldn’t last long before being betrayed and unseated.
He also seems to be heading north under the impression that he’s a bit of a messiah? Ruling Westeros may have taken a back seat to Stannis’ desire to Save The World.
Gendry, Edric Storm, or any other bastards of Robert
Claim: Baseborn son of the former king, Robert Baratheon.
Pros: Edric Storm and Gendry have the strongest actual claim to the throne. As would any of Robert’s other male bastards.
Cons: That’s all they have, though. Edric Storm hasn’t even been acknowledged in the show and Robert’s illegitimate sons are blacksmiths or soldiers or brothel-house boys—not rulers and not people accustomed to the political games that the various houses play with each other. (Or the weird games that Melisandre plays with you, as evidenced by one of the wackier scenes in season 3…)
For all we know, Gendry is the only one of Robert’s bastards left alive, and it’s debatable as to who would rally to his banner should he declare himself the legitimate son of the former king. The last time we saw him he was being shoved out to sea in a rowboat, so he’s a bit off the map at the moment. Who knows, though. Maybe he’ll surprise us all by showing up two seasons later with an army of Essosians, or something.
Daenerys Stormborn Targaryen
Claim: Only living offspring of the Targaryen family, the Westeros-ruling dynasty that was unseated by Robert Baratheon.
Pros: Her claim to the throne comes before any of the Baratheons (supposed or not), and she now leads an army of elite soldiers capable of legitimizing that claim. Thanks to her dragons, she’s a larger-than-life figure who inspires great interest in those around her—an interest that she uses for her own power-gathering ends. Most importantly, she actually comes off as being fated to rule.
Cons: Despite her thunderous march up the Ghiscari coast in season 3, Daenerys doesn’t actually have much experience with ruling people as opposed to conquering them. Her approach thus far to building power has been to make demands of others without offering them anything in return (except “fire and blood,” which is not the best motivator…). It remains to be seen whether she can actually balance the demands of any allies or supporters, let alone those of a continent she’s never visited.
She also has no advocates in Westeros, meaning she’d have to take it by force. By the end of the series, Daenerys could easily become a tyrant.
Claim: She’ll be queen soon through marriage to King Joffrey.
Pros: Margaery Tyrell is a born politician and an increasingly visible and beloved figure. (Orphans love her!) Whereas most of the claimants of the Iron Throne expect to rule out of law or familial right, Margaery knows that rule through the loyalty and devotion of the people will build a longer-lasting reign. You can pay an army to fight for you, but an army that wants to fight for you is what will really win the day. A confrontation between Queen Margaery and Daenerys would be interesting to watch, as well, since ideally you’d want both of them to win.
Cons: Just because she suits her personality to your needs doesn’t mean she actually cares for you, so what happens when Queen Margaery grows tired of your devotion? What happens when the populace tires of empty promises?
(Also, she and the crafty Tyrell family would have to figure out how to shove the Lannisters out of the way. But that’s not quite a con, is it?)
Claim: Current Hand of the King and basically the person running Westeros now anyway.
Pros: Well… Tywin’s really good at whatever he sets his mind to doing. You could sit down to a game of chess with him and somehow end up with a sword through your face, wondering why you never saw it coming.
Cons: He’s merciless and doesn’t give a crap about anything unless it interferes with his plans, his wealth, or comfort. His rule would be a stable one, but without hope of anything better. The lion does not concern itself with the opinion of sheep.
Spoilers past this point!
Season four of Game of Thrones, along with the later books of the Song of Ice and Fire series, have given us more information to consider about the above candidates, while also tossing out a few new candidates for the throne. We’ll take a look at those next. Full spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire books.
Myrcella or Tommen Lannister
Claim: Only living offspring of the former king, Robert Baratheon. Currently holding the throne.
Pros: Tommen is currently the king of Westeros, with Kevan Lannister and a small cabinet ruling the country until he comes of age. Tommen is an admittedly sweet boy, with none of the sadistic qualities of Joffrey, and although the Lannister family is fragmented and Kevan newly dead at the end of A Dance With Dragons, Jaime has since proven himself an effective leader and may end up taking the reins of power, controlling the throne which his own actions left vacant years ago.
Cons: Now that Varys has declared his loyalty to the Targaryens and offed Kevan, Tommen is little more than a puppet ruler. Jaime’s ability to rule sensibly has grown considerably in the last couple books, but he’s still out in the field and isolated. Cersei has been effectively removed from power. Further, Tommen hasn’t shown any interest in ruling.
Still, this situation might provide a more effective (and just) rule than anything we’ve seen in the books so far.
Claim: We don’t know Jon’s parentage, but if he’s the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, then his claim would match or even supercede Daenerys’s.
Pros: Jon is a proven and effective leader, having led the Night’s Watch in battle against the wildlings and the Others, as well as successfully outmaneuvering Stannis and Melisandre’s takeover while integrating the wildling population back into Westeros. His time on the Wall has made him hard and sensible, but he is not without compassion.
Cons: He got stabbed, like, a lot at the end of A Dance With Dragons so it’s debatable as to whether Jon is around anymore. And even if he’s still alive, a contingent of the Night’s Watch has obviously rebelled against his rule in pursuit of their own self interests. Not a good sign should he somehow find himself on the Iron Throne.
Aegon Targaryen/“Young Griff”
Claim: Thought dead but apparently not? Recently revealed in A Dance With Dragons, Young Griff claims to actually be Aegon Targaryen. If that’s true then his claim to the throne may come first, despite Jon’s parentage and Daenerys’ superior power base.
Pros: Early evidence suggests that he really is Aegon Targaryen and that there are those in Westeros with a vested interest in restoring him to the throne (namely Varys and the Conningtons). So he has support and a growing army currently heading north to King’s Landing.
Cons: Seriously, who is this guy? We don’t really know anything about him or how he would rule. Even if he takes King’s Landing, does he expect to be able to stand up to Auntie Daenerys and her Huge Dragons? Would he even want to fight that battle, or would he cede the throne instead, or perhaps provide Daenerys with an equivalent title? Would they rule together?
Pros: As stated above, he’s really good at ruling behind the scenes. And the fact that he’s not dead yet must mean George R. R. Martin has something else in mind for him. It could be that by the end of the series all of the above characters exhaust themselves vying for the throne, leaving a bewildered but duty-conscious Tyrion behind.
Cons: He has no claim and he’s never been beloved by the people, regardless of how well he rules. Additionally, a lot of wacky things would have to occur for him to even come under consideration for the throne, by force or not. Still, a Tyrion-ruled Westeros would probably be pretty awesome. Or at least livable.
Pros: This one’s a wild card, but hear me out. In a series full of surprises, Sansa sitting on the Iron Throne at the very end would be something that nobody would see coming. But if you take a look at Sansa’s arc throughout the series, the seeds for such an event occurring are all there.
Sansa began with an overabundance of her father’s sense of honor and justice, so much so that stories of chivalry and romantic knights sheltered her from knowing how those in power truly acted. Being kept hostage under Joffrey’s rule gave her a ringside seat to just how the game of thrones is played. She was schooled directly by Cersei, indirectly through her marriage to Tyrion, and now she resides with Littlefinger in a castle so high off the ground that no one can ever reach her. She’s learning from three manipulators, each more masterful than the last.
And although Arya is the one who keeps a list of people to kill, I’d be surprised if Sansa didn’t have the same thing rattling around in her head, even if she would never admit it to herself. Unlike Arya, and regardless of all of the crap Sansa has had to endure, she’s never quite lost her innocence or compassion. She’s also been kept out of the story for almost two books now, so either her story is done or Martin has a surprise planned that directly involves her, which is why he’s kept his focus off of her and Littlefinger.
We have no indication that Sansa will figure into the story in this manner, but circumstances throughout the series have been grooming her, instructing her on the realities of what it takes to rule, and she could very well come out on top once everything is through.
Cons: This is entirely speculation!
There’s no telling who might be seated on the Iron Throne, or even if there will be an Iron Throne, by the end of the series. And while it seems inevitable that Daenerys will win this particular game of thrones, nothing is ever really certain in A Song of Ice and Fire. In this kind of world, who really deserves to rule?