Note: This post contains extensive spoilers from A Dance With Dragons II. You have been warned.
Throwing aside all questions of succession or legitimacy – because let’s face it, there is no such thing in Westeros any more – I thought I’d tackle the issue of viability instead. Those who sit the Iron Throne do so uncomfortably, constantly trying to appease the kingdoms and deal with the inevitable rebellions that come from amassing such unquestioned power. Sometimes it can seem like the Iron Throne is more of a torture device than a seat of power, and I doubt that metaphor has been lost on George R. R. Martin.
I begin this discussion making an assumption, unwarranted or not, that the Lannister’s time in the Red Keep is coming to an end. Cersei has lost all credibility and has been made to suffer humiliating and degrading punishment for her “sins”. Tommen is a boy King who enjoys raising cats and stamping letters without reading them. Tyrion is in exile. Tywin is dead. Kevan is dead. Jaime is possibly being lured into a trap by Brienne (if indeed it is her). Varys plots to place another upon the throne. Frankly, the age of the Lannisters is done.
With the other contenders such as Aemon and Euron owning such a weak position, I think the two main contenders to the throne are Daenerys Targaryn and Stannis Baratheon. Putting aside my personal feelings towards one or the other, I wanted to examine who is best suited to rule the Seven Kingdoms based on three crucial aspects of leadership.
I. On current circumstances: At the end of ADWD, Stannis is bogged down in the harsh winters of the North, waiting for a chance to launch an assault on Winterfell. He has been bled dry by the troubles at the Wall, and may have to contend with a revolt in the Night’s Watch if Jon Snow succumbs to his wounds. His military capacity is dwindling in the cold and the Others threaten to pull him away from this yearnings from the Throne.
Daenerys is even more encumbered – captured by her enemy Kahl Jhaqo, battling with unruly dragons, away from a city under siege, the Mother of Dragons will have to rely on Barristan Selmy and Jorah Mormont to repel the Yunkai’i forces from Meereen. Victarion may provide her salvation, but for they both remain out of each other’s reach. She also has to repel forces from Volantis and Mantarys who are annoyed at the dwindling slave trade caused by her liberations.
The winner: Stannis. Despite being held back by impassable snowstorms, his forces are at least on the right continent. He has no commitments on Dragonstone holding him back the way Slaver’s Bay ties Daenerys’ to Essos, and he has already gained a sure foothold in the North.
II. On military strategy: Stannis is well equipped. He has vast experience where battle planning and execution is concerned, and has the means to carry out his plans. With the help of Melisandre’s Red God, he has the unreliable yet real possibility of taking his enemies’ lives through sorcery and predicting victory or failure in battle. Stannis has not been without defeat though, such as the Battle of the Blackwater. He is a well-established yet imperfect commander.
Daenerys lacks most of Stannis’ qualities. She is not a seasoned commander, and her victories in Slaver’s Bay have largely been down to her delegates and sometimes sheer luck. That said, she has a remarkable ability to rally her troops, but she relies heavily on the counsel of Barristan Selmy and the brute force of the Shavepate, Strong Belwas and Grey Worm, and often finds herself at odds with her delegates. Her dragons often provide more hindrance than help as they are murderously unpredictable.
The winner: Stannis again. Although his record in battles is not perfect, Stannis’ current strategy seems to be one of chipping away at the unity of the Seven Kingdoms instead of charging headlong into the Iron Throne. He tried that strategy once and it cost him a lot of manpower, and it’s not a mistake he will make twice. Daenerys is still learning the art of war and is often too slow to act. She has failed to contain a bunch of rebels in her own city (the Sons of the Harpy) that Stannis would have made short work of.
III. On hearts and minds: Stannis is better at inspiring fear than love. Most of his subjects are loyal because of their King’s reputation for harsh retaliation. Stannis sacrifices people to the Red God and routinely executes people. Davos helped Stannis survive the siege of Storm’s End and Stannis repaid him by cutting off the tips of his fingers. Stannis is neither compassionate nor understanding, and rules with an iron fist. The people of King’s Landing do not respond well to that sort of rule.
Daenerys is a total contrast, and has won the hearts of her people through reliability and compassion. Her subjects pour over her and the former slaves of the Bay practically deify her. Daenerys is the only would-be Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms who hold petitioning hours for citizens to air their grievances and settle disputes. All other contenders to the throne delegate that power to somebody else.
The winner: Daenerys. While battles and brute force are vital in taking over a city, region or kingdom, they only establish your rule. To legitimize it, you need the support of your people and the support of your neighbours. Daenerys’ firm-but-fair approach works well as a diplomatic tool and may win her some favours with the Dornishmen who hate Lannisters and the Highgarden folk suffering from the Iron Island pillaging. Although she may have trouble winning the support of the North considering how historically anti-Targaryn it is.
Overall, Stannis is in a far better position to win the Iron Throne. He has placed the foundations for ruling the North and, depending on the weather, may be able to seize the north and ally with the Dornish to take King’s Landing if both of the Targaryn options prove fruitless. Daenerys is simply battling with too many opponents and setbacks to be anywhere near a position of sailing to Westeros. Her reluctance to abandon Slaver’s Bay has left her surrounded by powerful enemies that she isn’t capable of subduing. Unless Victarion manages to quiet the fighting and restore order, and assuming Daenerys makes it back from Jhoqo’s grasp, she will still be left with the dilemma of whether to take her rightful place in King’s Landing or rule Slaver’s Bay. She can’t do both. By the time she eventually gets the chance to try for the throne, another contender will surely have snapped up the chance.