Fishing the Rulebook Out of the Trash – Repairing Game of Thrones’ Illogical Succession


Succession is an integral part of the game of thrones. It’s the bedrock for the feudal monarchy the titular throne is symbollic of. It’s what drives on the wheel that crushes the poor, pitiful peasants beneath it like applesauce. It’s what allowed someone as supremely competent as Joffrey to ascend to power, something we all know could never happen in a democracy. And so naturally, at the end of season 6 the writers decide to piss all over it. Jon Snow becomes da King in da Noth, Olenna rules Highgarden, Cersei is queen of the Seven Kingdoms and, worst of all, the Sand Snakes rule Dorne. None of these things make any sense in the world, but they could’ve. Let dear old Analyze lay out exactly how.

Why the Screw-Up, Bub?

First of all, let’s try to figure out why the writers chose to go this way in the first place. Now if you’re yelling “they’re hacks” at your computer screen, be aware that that’s one possibility we’re going to ignore here. I’m just going to take a look at what possible writing reasons they might have had.

I think first and foremost there’s recognisability. They really didn’t think the audience would’ve been interested in seeing the adventures of Garth Tyrell, distant grand cousin of Loras Tyrell, suddenly taking the reigns of the Reach. No, the audience knows and likes Olenna so the queen of Thorns it is.

Pretty proud of that Cersei pun, truth be told.

Cersei reaches her long-awaited final form: The Nutty Empress.

The second reason is probably the journeys of the characters. Both for Cersei and Jon becoming queen and king respectively is important to what they’re all about. Cersei because of her having lost everything and her mad dash for power. Jon because of his slow rise up from bastard to a true leader.

The third and final reason is that some of these things probably happen in some form or another in the books, though likely under very different circumstances. Or, alternatively, that they need to compensate for things that happen in the books that they can’t do anymore. Due to having cut so many things over the seasons the butterfly effect has well and truly settled in. Maybe Jon does become King but the situation in which he does no longer exists. Maybe someone does take over King’s Landing after Tommen, but it’s Aegon VI Targaryen, a character they cut. Basically, they’re trying to complete a puzzle without having all the pieces. So they cram the pieces where they can, shove it in your face and insist the jumbled mess you’re looking at is the beautiful butterfly on the box.

So keeping all of these restrictions in mind, what could they have done to still make it realistic?

Tha King in Tha Noth!


Sansa valiantly saving the day… after she illogically risked the day being lost.

Let’s start with the earliest case of this: Jon becoming king in the North. Legally and politically there’s no getting around it, Sansa should’ve become Queen. At this time the Northern lords think she’s the oldest remaining true born child of Eddard Stark. She’s the one that brought in the Vale army that won them the battle. And, on top of that, she’s the one being backed by the Vale army. And considering that after all the fighting the Northern lords should literally have an army of like 16 men between them, you’d think having the Vale army there would be… a persuasive argument.

But let’s just say the Northern lords are too sexist for that. They’d rather fall on their own swords, or the Vale Knights’, than bow to a woman. Fine, there hasn’t been a Lady of Winterfell or a Queen in the North for the entire known history of the Kingdom, so this does make some amount of sense. And we do want to Jon to become king as part of his arc, so we’ll go with that. Well Jon becoming king could’ve been pulled off if some criteria had been met.

First of all, they should’ve kept in Robb legitimizing Jon and appointing him as his heir in the event of his death. This was already in the books and there was no real reason to get rid of it. Yes, there could’ve been some problem with Robb boning Talisa and giving her that big ol’ belly ripe for the stabbing. But this still could’ve been worked around by either having Robb appoint Jon before he decided to marry her or simply making clear that any trueborn children of Robb and Talisa’s marriage would come before Jon.

Aka Jon failing as prospective king... again.

Lord Glover helpfully informing us that the Boltons “ain’t so bad, ya’ll.”

Secondly, Northern dislike for the Boltons should’ve been played up. Yes, we see that Ramsay’s a real bastard, but as it is portrayed (to the extent that it is at all) nobody seems to be that upset with Bolton rule. While in the books we have lady Dustin tell off the Boltons, Manderley baking the Freys into pies and several other Northern lords being still quite a bit peevish about the whole “killing some of my family at the Red Wedding” incident, little of this gets into the show. In addition not that much is even made of Ramsay doing things like raping Sansa Stark, whereas in the books the rape of the girl people think is Arya Stark seems to rile up the Northern Lords quite a bit.

Showing the horrors of Bolton rule for the Northern lords and the love they still had for the Starks (and no, stray old ladies popping out of the tall grass are not sufficient to get this across) would’ve allowed them to be much happier about Jon finally freeing them from this tyrant and much more thankful to the man.

Tha Failure in Tha Noth!

Jon Snow: King of the corpse heap.

The literal mountain of corpses, courtesy of the future King in the North’s stupidity.

Which brings up the second problem: Jon’s a fucking screw-up. Now, we all love Jon. I mean, just look at that adorable broody face and that lovely hair stolen straight from the head of a model in a L’Oreal ad. You can’t hate that. Nevertheless, as far as actually freeing the North from the Boltons goes… Let me regale you with all of Jon’s stunning achievements: He invited a bunch of Wildling savages who the Northern lords hate to join them, in a stunning display of diplomatic skill he failed utterly to persuade the Mormonts and the Glovers to join the war effort and when the time for the battle came he abandoned his army first chance he got to succesfully… walk into Ramsay’s trap. Something which, I may remind you, lead to a literal mountain of corpses of Northern soldiers. In other words, Jon’s no King Arthur. And the fact that the Northern lords would choose him as their king after showing himself to be utterly incompetent in every possibly way is truly baffling.

Instead he, not Davos, should’ve been the one to recruit house Mormont to their cause. He should’ve been the one to turn the tide of battle, not the Vale army (though the Vale army could’ve been the death blow). And, perhaps, more should’ve been made of his resurrection. They teased Jon being some sort of god to the Wildlings. He could’ve become a religious figure, one whom the wildlings staunchly backed against all opposition. His resurrection being more at the forefront also would’ve conveniently explained why nobody brings up his Night’s Watch vows. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sansa should’ve publically backed Jon, knowing she’d never be chosen directly because of her ladyparts, and gotten the Vale army to support him too. It would’ve likely taken some doing, but that (much more than stupidly keeping the Vale army hidden from Jon) would’ve proven her to be a masterful politician. Something which would’ve fit very well into her character arc without damaging Jon’s character arc or making the succession unrealistic.

Now, at least Jon had the benefit of being (in the minds of the Northerners) the actual son of one of the previous rulers of the North. The other claimants don’t even have that going for them.

Une Lannister Coup de Farce

Cersei’s claim is undeniably non-existent. It’s the Baratheon family, not the Lannisters, who rule in King’s Landing. And if not them, the Targaryens. There is no blood connection between Cersei and the Baratheons. She is nowhere in the line of succession even hypothetically. That being said I think Cersei crowning herself, despite making no legal sense, could actually make sense from a character perspective and from a practical perspective.

Cersei at this point has lost everything she cared about, most importantly her children. She’s in an “I don’t care anymore” state of mind and she’s just coming off of the high of killing, in her mind, her biggest competitor. On top of that, she’s always wanted that kind of visible power. So why wouldn’t she grasp for power, even at the greatest of risks? There’s no candidate who can immediately oppose her, she has the Lannister army returning to the city and on her side. In King’s Landing she has all the power. As a result I could buy her crowning herself as in some sort of a Lannister coup.

There are snipers off-screen to keep them cheering.

The people of King’s Landing happily cheering on an ally of the regime that blew up the holiest place in the Seven Kingdoms.

What I don’t buy at all is the aftermath, or rather the lack thereof. Not only did she seize power, but she also blew up the Westerosi equivalent of the Vatican. She should be facing massive legitimacy issues. There should be riots in the streets, barely controlled by the gold cloaks and the Lannister army. She should be hauled up in the Red Keep like a recluse under veritable siege. Lords should be slipping out of the back door, maybe even to the extent that she has to bar them inside. And yet, we see very little of this.

We do get several of the kingdoms (specifically the North, the Vale, the Reach and Dorne) splitting off from her and defecting to Dany, but the reasons for this are portrayed as purely personal ones. That Olenna hates Cersei for killing her family, that the Sand Snakes hate Cersei because D&D forgot to give them any characterization other than hating Lannisters, that the Vale likes Sansa and that the North is taken over by the Starks. We never see any sign of how these people persuaded lords in their kingdoms to secede by talking about the Lannister coup. We never see the fallout actually play out. And yes, sadly this would’ve taken precious screen time away from Ed Sheeran, but this is the sort of stuff that has always distinguished “Game of Thrones” and “A Song of Ice & Fire” from other fantasy. Its attention to detail and realism. A sense of consequence.

Mo Flowers Mo Problems

But Cersei’s not the only woman suddenly and unrealistically catapulted into power, we also have Olenna Tyrell who, despite her name, is not actually a Tyrell at all but a Redwyne. As a result, much like Cersei, she has no actual claim to the Reach.

Maybe they got executed for embroidering too many golden roses.

Margaery’s cousins, may they rest in utter obscurity.

But, while she couldn’t rule in her own right, it would not have been crazy for a different Tyrell to officially take power and her controlling them from the shadows. I mean, we do have Tyrell cousins introduced earlier in the series. This would also fit her modus operandi quite well.

Despite this more veiled attempt to take power this could’ve created some animosity in the Reach. The Tyrells are already considered to be a bit upjumped by many of the other houses of the area, merely having been a Gardener vassal before the Targaryens raised them up, and a woman clearly wielding influence and allying them to foreign invaders… can’t imagine that would’ve gone down very well.

This bit of realism could’ve actually played wonderfully into the writers’ plans to bolster Cersei. We could’ve had a scene of Olenna Tyrell and Randyll Tarly in conflict about all this. Him complaining about her undue influence, the Redwyne monopolization of power and the backing of a dragon queen with hordes of raping Dothraki. Her shutting him down in her characteristically snippy way and this driving him into Cersei’s arms. We could’ve then had a similar deal made between him and Cersei where he becomes the Lord Paramount of the Reach and rallies the Reacher lords to Cersei’s cause, leading to the abandonment of Olenna by the other houses of the Reach and the fall of Highgarden. Maybe with some actual former Tyrell bannermen’s flags in the back when the army marches on Highgarden, rather than only Lannister banners and soldiers. Overall I’d say this sure as hell beats the non-explanation “golden roses indeed.”

Did They Have a Sale on Bastard Rulers?

Now for the Sand Snakes… Seven save me, it’s time to talk about the Sand Snakes. I don’t know if Dorne makes the most sense of all of these, or the least sense.

This is fine. Perfectly normal.

Ellaria stabbity, stabbing her way to the top.

First, why do I think it might make the least sense? Well, unlike the aforementioned people in this case the people taking power aren’t even part of the official power structure. Like… at all. Cersei was once queen regent and is plausibly either lady of or sister to the lord of Casterly Rock and the Westerlands. At least Olenna had been running things behind the scenes for years and was the mother of the former lord of Highgarden. The Sand Snakes and Ellaria though… they’re nothing. The Sand Snakes are bastards and Ellaria isn’t even Oberyn’s wife, but his paramour. They never had official positions in the Dornish government. They don’t have claims to anything at all and they have never ruled anything nor commanded any men. They have neither a claim of any sort to anything nor an obvious power base.

Now you might be thinking: Analyze, you idiot, doesn’t that make it pretty clear that it makes the least sense of all? Well, not necessarily. While there is neither a legal framework, nor an obvious political or military one they could’ve used a very different kind of power base: People power.

In the books the Sand Snakes are actually kind of influential figures. They’re beloved by the people and, since the people very much hate the Lannister regime, they manage to rile them up quite effectively. So effectively, in fact, that Doran has to imprison them for a time. If they wanted this Sand Snake coup they could’ve made this clear in the show as well.

Now yes, Dorne was an utter failure in season 5 and they probably just wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. But in my opinion trying to actually make it compelling would’ve been a far better strategy. Bring to the fore how Dorne has always had a bit of a rebellious streek. Bring to the fore how the lords of Dorne still hate the Lannister regime and how comparatively egalitarian their society is. Show Doran trying to keep the kingdom in peace and aligned with the Lannisters (or at least project this image) and eventually show both popular sentiment and the sentiment of his lords turn against him leading to the coup.

Season Seven’s Severely Shoddy Solutions

He did burn his daughter a bit, maybe he was a bit nutty.

Stannis Baratheon attacking the city. Forever called “The Mad King 2.0” thereafter.

Perhaps they could’ve even gone further. One of the obvious problems the writers had to deal with in season 7, which was dealt with very clumsily in my opinion, is that Daenerys was overpowered compared to Cersei. There was simply no realistic way, with how things were set up, that Daenerys couldn’t have won the war instantly. Why do you think everybody was so opposed to attacking King’s Landing, when attacking and taking a city has happened many times before this? Stannis didn’t have any problem trying to take the city and he wasn’t declared mad for it. Harrenhal stands as a big, melty testament to how effectively dragons can be used for this very purpose. But if they’d stuck with that, Cersei would’ve been eliminated immediately.

A better way to handicap Daenerys would’ve been through politics. When she lands in Westeros, preferably in Dorne, she could’ve suddenly realized the Sand Snake coup wasn’t as succesful as she’d hoped. Maybe they’d gotten the backing of the people of Sunspear and the palace guards, maybe even of a few lords but not all of them. Maybe another house, like the ever troublesome Yronwoods, could’ve taken advantage of this situation to declare the regime illegitimate and rally people against it. Then Dany would’ve had to deal with this first and, of course, it would have been a much more realistic outcome. This would have also worked together wonderfully with the Tyrell problems.

But alas, despite some lipservice, we barely got any of this. Instead we were stuck with a brooding bastard who nearly got everyone foolishly killed being enthousiastically named king, a crazy blonde who blew up the Vatican suddenly becoming the beloved queen, a grumpy old grandmama muscling her own family out of the succession and some random assortment of bastards and their mother taking control of Dorne. Sigh, I hope the season 7 DVDs come with a free, complementary bottle of whiskey.

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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the episodes of the show. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Game of Thrones is created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, belongs to HBO and was inspired by the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin.

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