At this point, we all know the harsh adage, "When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." And we have come to see, very early on in the epic tale, that nobility and honor prove to be essentially useless in this high stakes struggle (we all miss poor old dead Ned). But in this world of manipulations, deceit, and bloodshed, the question then remains: who is truly fit to rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and sit triumphantly on its imposing Iron Throne? Will the crown go to the victor, the schemer, the deserving, the betrayer, the blood-right, or the honorable? We may have to be patient to finally see who lays claim to the Seven Kingdoms but, with all that time to kill, there's no harm in a little conjecture. Clearly, Daenarys Targaryen has the blood right and the drive to rule (not to mention freaking DRAGONS), but if the struggle was meant to be so simply solved we wouldn't have all these blasted Houses running around and involving themselves in almost everyone's power play. To explore the question, let’s look closer at our players.
House Lannister has already orchestrated a bit of a cuckoo-coup in establishing themselves as the ruling family. On paper, House Baratheon still sits on the Iron Throne after Robert's Rebellion decisively wrested it from the Mad King Aerys Targaryon and his kin and established a new monarchy. However, thanks to the creepy twin-cest of Cersei and Jaime Lannister, there are no Baratheon butts to sit upon the royal dais. Their efforts to remain in power are harsh, unforgiving, and unforgivable. When “The Rains of Castamere” is your theme song, you clearly mean business, which many in the Seven Kingdoms have learned the hard way (those Starks never had a chance). Joffrey was incredibly ill-suited for rule (diplomatic understatement), and by blood he never had the right to begin with. Still, until Tywin's shitty demise (get it?! Tyrion would!) they had a strong chance of ruling well under his guidance. Cersei herself is very primed for Queen-ship, by her own estimation, but her unraveling sanity and increasingly erratic behavior make for a clear self-sabotage in the works. Jaime has no interest in such things (Kingslayer reputation be damned), and is also in the midst of his own internal struggles between family, love, and honor. Tyrion, now a kinslayer and a small man on the lam, has proven himself to be an able and intelligent ruler, but his size and family history constantly undermine his honorable and welcome efforts. Tommen, who has supplanted our beloved Joffrey after his untimely death (huzzah!) is mild and malleable, and he could well prove to be an apt ruler as long as he doesn't fall into the wrong, sculpting hands...whether those hands be his future Queen Margaery's or his Queen Regent Mother's is yet to be definitively seen. Suffice to say, the Lannister reign is less than desirable and likely to be ended thanks to the numerous other key players with royal aspirations and thirsts for vengeance. The countless brewing schemes amongst the other Houses and continents almost unanimously intend to supplant the Lannisters with their own ilk if not merely attempting to better their overall station in the ranks.
House Tyrell, for instance, is making a very Lannister-esque move in their attempts to ingratiate themselves into the Royal Family. Margaery has been very upfront about her aspirations to be not just a queen but the Queen, and her sweet and pure demeanor is about as trustworthy as our slimeball poster child Petyr Baelish. However, in her short stint as Mrs. Joffrey, she demonstrated some altruistic tendencies and might well prove to be a capable and beloved Queen indeed. Assuming, of course, that once she firmly entrenches herself in King's Landing she doesn't perform a complete about-face and "Joffrey-outTM" on the poor people of Westeros. Her grandmother, Olenna, aptly referred to as the Queen of Thorns (her sharp quips and stinging wit are but the surface of her stealthy and dangerous personality) has already taken great steps to insure the rise of House Tyrell to royal status by taking the volatile and sadistic Joffrey out of the game (most deliciously). But as we have come to understand, even Lady Olenna did not accomplish such a feat on her own. Still, the Tyrells could be a family well-suited to rule.
Petyr Baelish, or Littlefinger, has had his hand in many unsavory plots, but his greatest coup de grace (so far) might well be the orchestration of Joffrey's assassination. Sure, he played a part in Ned's betrayal which, arguably, may well have truly started the open war between Starks and Lannisters that has so torn the Seven Kingdoms into their current sundered state. But in killing Joffrey, he not only helped to take out the most vile and easily despiseable character in the entire narrative (well maybe it's a tie between Joff and Ramsay Bolton, the masters of sadism...shudder), but he helped to seriously undermine the show of power and control the Lannister-Baratheons have struggled to maintain. If anyone remembers, Littlefinger has had opportunities to be in cahoots with almost every major player in the game. First, we see him winding Ned Stark up to fall on his own sword (for the sake of unrequited Tully-love or ultimate power, definitively we still know not), but even before that we find out he has been incredibly manipulative throughout his entire life (namely with the seduction of and influence over Lysa Arryn nee Tully since they were children). Now with the (equally welcomed) murder of Lysa Arryn also on his hands, he has freed himself up to be complete Lord and Ruler of the Vale with the lovely Sansa (Catelyn 2.0 for him) at his side. Knowing dear Littlefinger, the overall power grab can't possibly stop there, but--masterfully realized aspirations aside--he would make a terrible King.
House Stark has sought little in the royal arena save justice and honor, much to their woe. Now dwindling down to the youngest members of the family, we have only Jon Snow (whose mysterious parentage may still play a big part in his eventual role in Westeros), and the official Starks: Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon. All children, these individuals have been weaving in and out of everyone else's machinations since Ned ill-fatedly accepted the position as Hand of the King. While none of these characters seem to be able to catch a break, either being perpetually too late or constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time, we can all hope that their innate senses of morality and integrity see them through (though we have yet to see anything to support such hope). While the remaining Starks have the potential to be able and just rulers, they lack the desire and the support to truly be contenders for the throne. Instead, we can simplify our aspirations for them down to REVENGE (go Arya, go!) and the reestablishment of their reign in the North by reclaiming their ancestral Winterfell (don't forget: There must always be a Stark in Winterfell! But more on that in another article). Sansa is being schooled and groomed by the illustrious Littlefinger, and we will get to see her transformation from perpetual victim to manipulative mastermind in this upcoming season (FINALLY!). Whether their joint end-goal will take them back to the Iron Throne, we will just have to wait and see. Bran clearly has other goals in mind since he is currently among the remaining (long thought extinct) Children of the Forest, and learning of his new powers of magic-sight and such at the feet of the long-sought Three-Eyed Raven. Rickon is nowhere to be found (and for good reason as Starks would make valuable pawns in the ongoing "Game"), nor is his guardian, Osha, the reformed Wildling. With all these Starks scattered about we can safely bet they will definitely have some major parts to play in the war of the succession (and revenge, and power, and all that good stuff). Only Jon Snow seems primed to take over some semblance of authority, although he remains ensconced by his vows as a Brother of the Night's Watch. Since our favorite shadow-baby-birthing witch and her chosen Champion Stannis are residing at Castle Black, however, who knows what lies in store for our beloved Bastard.
Speaking of Stannis Baratheon, he continues to stubbornly and scowlingly vie for his "right" to the throne as the only true-Baratheon left to claim it (unless some of Robert's few surviving bastards pop their heads up into the fray). While constantly referred to as an exemplary soldier and stalwart military mind, Stannis is ever thought of as a bitter and humorless man who would never inspire the love of his, or any, people (except maybe Melisandre and his faithful right hand man Davos, though that hand is missing some fingers). As the Song of Ice and Fire goes on, the audience (in my opinion) is meant to grow increasingly skeptical of Stannis' authenticity as the true Azor Ahai successor who was prophesied and instead we are expected to be looking for the signs elsewhere.
Which brings us to the signs of the fabled and prophesied TRUE HERO and SAVIOR of Westeros (if not the world), who could potentially be a bonafide FIT ruler for the Iron Throne. All we--and those who follow The Lord of Light, R'hllor--know is that this fabled Lord of Light must fit these cryptic qualifications:
"When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt."
"There will come a day after a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him."
From these, Melisandre assumes this prince that was promised has to be Stannis due to her fire-visions, but do we really believe this is the correct interpretation? Truly the hero of the realm, this promised prince with his magical means and epic destiny can't be Stannis. My guess, while entirely conjecture and a dash of hope and whimsy, lies somewhere between Jon Snow and Daenarys. Jon Snow, whose birth is a mystery wrapped in an enigma (you can find oodles of the conspiracy of his "true" parentage online if you wish to indulge the theories), fits a lot of the prerequisites in the prophecy, as do his increasingly selfless and noble actions. He is a proven leader and an honorable fellow, he knows good battle tactics and how to dole out the justice that is expected of a true Lord. I think he would do a stellar job if he could only shake off that constant mope-face and "woe is me, I'm a bastard" mindset. He seems to be doing just that as the show and books go on, but the end result remains to be seen. Dany also fits the bill in multiple ways. The bit regarding being born of smoke and salt, she was born on Dragonstone (by the sea = salt) and is reborn as our celebrated Mother of Dragons amidst fire and smoke. Her weapon may not be a flaming sword, but instead could be poetically interpreted to be a dragon or three, no?
Dany also has the perk of practice under her belt as she has conquered multiple thriving cities and amassed thousands of grateful and loving subjects in her quest to reclaim her birthright. Whether or not she is a prophesied hero to all will have to sit on our theoretical backburner while we enjoy her other endeavors. Sure, she attempts to be just and kind as well as strong and fearsome. She continues to walk a fine line between compassionate savior and bloody conqueror throughout the show, seeing her missteps in hindsight and relying heavily on the advice of her trusted coterie to preempt disaster at every turn. With the loss of Ser Jorah, we will see her for the first time adrift in the world, among followers whose trustworthiness is just as suspect as her now exiled champion and vizier (not to mention greatest friend-zone candidate of all time). This season will hopefully show much more of her ruling capabilities (or lack thereof) as well as any of her less savory traits which could well serve to out her as an ambitious but unfit ruler of Westeros.
Regardless: the true and rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms has quite a mess to both clean up and prevent before their worth is truly known. I find these two contenders to be likely but with all the terrible weddings and brutal betrayals, who knows how the cards will fall. As we have seen, the right to rule, the capability to rule, and the drive to rule are all different things with different fitting contenders. Only the individual who can successfully navigate all three may yet sit upon the Iron Throne.