This column contains no spoilers for the new season of Game of Thrones — winter is here and critics have been frozen out of screeners for advance review — but does touch on plot details from previous seasons.
If we've learned anything from six seasons of HBO's Game of Thrones, it's this: Nobody's perfect.
Coming closer than most is Lady Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), the preteen spitfire who first wowed the crowd last year by putting Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his backers through their paces before she'd commit the 62 warriors of Bear Island to his cause, and who later, after publicly calling out men three or more times her age, delivered one of the season's most stirring speeches in Jon's support:
Though Lady Lyanna couldn't know what Jon Snow himself doesn't — that his parentage is more complicated than he has been led to believe and that whatever hereditary claim he has may lie farther to the south — she represents, firmly, the traditional view that rulers are born, not made. Which is probably a good thing to believe if you're left in charge of a noble house, even a small one, at the age of 10. But is she right?
As Game of Thrones returns Sunday, the questions of what qualities we look for in leaders, and what failings we will accept from them, loom larger.
Because as the game enters the seven-episode stretch leading to next year's six-episode conclusion, none of the obvious contenders for the Iron Throne looks like anything close to a perfect choice for that notoriously uncomfortable seat, occupied — for now — by Cersei Lannister Baratheon (Lena Headey), incestuous sister, grieving mother, and mass murderer.
For those of us who experience monarchy as just another British-subsidized entertainment — Downton Abbey, played out on People magazine covers — the question of who's fit to rule the seven kingdoms of Westeros may seem abstract. We Americans don't do kings and queens. But we've some experience with ruling families. And we do put our leaders through wars of attrition that last for years, magnifying their flaws and demonizing their strengths. And eventually, when only a very few remain standing, we walk into voting booths to decide what we can live with and what we can't.
HBO's version is bloodier — though mercifully free of robocalls — and while it's hard for fans not to develop a rooting interest, it's also wise not to get too attached to any one candidate.
In six seasons, we have experienced the tail end of the reign of Cersei's husband, Robert (Mark Addy), the usurper who seized the throne after the death of the mad Targaryen king, Aerys II, and the brief, subsequent reigns of Cersei's two sons, the monstrous Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and the pious, eager-to-please boy Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), allowing us to weigh the competing interests of hedonism and religion as influences on a king.
We've winced (or cheered) as Cersei was publicly shamed, and we've witnessed her explosive revenge.
We've seen how hideously far Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), Robert's charmless brother, would go to claim the throne from the children of incest, and we've seen the god he followed fail him, and Jon Snow — murdered by some of his brothers of the Night Watch — brought back to life in the name of that same god.
We've watched Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) go from high-born chattel, traded in marriage, to conquering queen and freer of slaves. But we've also seen signs that the Mother of Dragons might, like the mad father she never knew, be a little too fond of fire.
Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), the once-silly girl who believed in handsome princes, has been tortured into savvy, suspicious adulthood. The heredity that made her a marital pawn now makes her a contender, but could an audience that has seen her repeatedly victimized by men ever buy her as a ruler? The sexism that led Jon to ignore her counsel before the Battle of the Bastards isn't just the stuff of fantasy.
Her fan-favorite sister, Arya (Maisie Williams), is headed home at last, but what kind of future can we expect for the young assassin? Will Sansa or Jon find a use for her particular set of skills in the wars to come? Should the Iron Throne somehow fall to her, would her past translate into hard-won strength or lasting damage?
And what do we make of Jon, the romantic hero many on Team Dany have long marked as the future mate of the Targaryen heiress (who, it turns out, may be his aunt)? Even overlooking that he used to be dead — and in the George R.R. Martin books the TV series has outrun, resurrections exact a price — Jon's beginning to feel like one of those guys who peaked in high school. His heart's in the right place, and he has made some good moves, but what are his plans for Westeros beyond keeping the Night King (Vladimir Furdik) from destroying it?
Which, OK, isn't nothing.
But when I think of what Westeros needs even more than someone who looks great on the back of a horse (or a dragon), I think of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who has come a long way from the hard-drinking underachiever we first met on a visit to Winterfell six years ago. Named Hand to the Queen — chief adviser and second-in-command — by Daenerys, who'll be out to unseat Tyrion's murderous sister this season, he's already a tempering influence on her. He's also one of the few characters in Game of Thrones who appears to have given much thought to governing, not just winning, and his collaboration with the spymaster Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) demonstrates his pragmatism.
If Tyrion sticks with Daenerys, that's more than a few points in her favor. Cersei's Hand is a disgraced maester, Qyburn (Anton Lesser), a character with a whiff of Josef Mengele about him who's unlikely to appeal to Cersei's better angels, should such creatures exist. Sansa's adviser, Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen), is a climber she doesn't appear to trust completely. And Jon's most likely Hand, his friend Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West), is less seasoned than he is.
And then there's this: Who's lucky?
One of the other hard lessons of politics, and Game of Thrones, is that the deserving — or the least terrible — lose as often as they win. Dark horses emerge — maybe Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) comes from behind to win the crown? — while favorites stumble at the final turn. And then there's the Night King.
If birth, charisma, and backing count, I'm still thinking this is Dany's to lose. But with 13 episodes and who knows how many atrocities to go, I wouldn't place a bet just yet.