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There were a lot of questions surrounding the final episodes of Game of Thrones, ranging from how the White Walkers will be defeated (answered) to which of our favorites will even make it to the end of the story alive (still unclear). But no question has generated as much interest as the identity of the person who will sit on the show's iconic Iron Throne at the end of the series.
There are a few obvious possibilities: Daenerys Targaryen with her dragons and massive foreign army; Jon Snow with his suddenly not-so-secret family claim; and Cersei Lannister with her utter refusal to admit defeat.
But it may not matter who claims the Iron Throne at the end of this story. Or if there's even an Iron Throne left when all of this is over.
Because Game of Thrones has already shown us that there's a different way forward for Westeros. And it's one that doesn't involve fire-breathing dragons, feuding families, decades-old grudges or mad kings.
There's a future for the Seven Kingdoms that's built on rulers serving their subjects, compromising with one another, and in general taking the responsibility of their realms seriously, rather than grasping for power and status for their own sakes.
In short, it's pretty much what Sansa Stark is doing right now.
Ever since the eldest Stark daughter returned to Winterfell, she's been quietly showing us all how things ought to be done. She's become a true leader, one who offers the virtues of service, kindness, and compromise to a people who have been seen as little more than pawns among warring factions for far too long. While those around her argue about who has the right to lead Westeros, Sansa just gets right in there and does what needs doing, whether that's the diplomatic work of smoothing over alliances and communicating with bannermen or the day-to-day activity of making sure everyone in Winterfell has something to eat.
Sansa is often sneered at for basically not being her sister, for never lifting a sword or fighting back physically in the way that Arya does. She doesn't command dragons like Daenerys or ruthless armies like Cersei. Instead, she has only herself, her family name, and the lessons she's learned from years of surviving in a world that would have gladly seen her dead a dozen times over. But that struggle has given her a unique perspective that no other major player possesses. She's seen both the dark and the light sides of power up close and personal, and the many dire ways it can impact people's lives if those who possess it don't wield it responsibly.
Sansa is one of the few — possibly the only — leaders in Westeros who isn't interested power for its own sake. She isn't settling scores or seeking personal glory. Her interests are focused on protecting her family, and those left in her care. In this case, that's the North, but you can see how her philosophy might easily extend to all those in the larger kingdom. There's a reason only Sansa references the actual specifics of survival and frets over whether she can gather enough grain to feed everyone in her keep through the winter. (Particularly once Daenerys and her dragons show up.)
These aren't the flashy elements of power, to be sure. It's unlikely anyone will be building statues to Sansa or singing songs about her wise stewardship of Winterfell's resources. But at the end of the day, she's constantly making choices that will help keep her people alive, considering the needs of those beyond herself, and listening to the opinions of others. Because that's what real leaders do, whether they want to or not.
Sansa represents a quieter and less exciting kind of ruler, but one that is nevertheless extremely important. Not to be too Spider-Man about it, but Sansa clearly sees her position — and not just hers alone, but the entirety of the Stark family — as one of great responsibility in addition to great power. And in many ways, this stands in sharp contrast to the attitudes espoused by many of the Targaryens, Lannisters, and Baratheons — that power is something you are entitled to, a birthright or victory that somehow sets you above others. Sansa's behavior indicates she clearly doesn't see things this way.
Her initial meeting with Daenerys was a long-awaited moment, to be sure, but these two women could not be more different when it comes to leadership style. For all her inspiring talk about "breaking the wheel" that holds down the people of Westeros, Dany behaves as little more than an autocrat who expects absolute allegiance from those around her. She views this loyalty as her due solely because of who she is and sees the Iron Throne as something she's owed. (And the fact that she'll burn people alive who refuse to give her that allegiance is... troublesome, at best. Sorry, Tarly family.)
That Sansa doesn't immediately bend the knee to her is an immediate source of contention and contrast between the two — one that Dany wrongly assumes is about Jon when really it's about the people Jon has consigned to the Dragon Queen's rule without their consent or input. Sansa doesn't care whether Daenerys likes her or if she's in love with Jon. She's angry that her brother has simply handed the North over to a stranger with no connection to or understanding of their people. And she wants to know what life will actually look like for them should another Targaryen take the throne, particularly since things didn't go so well for the Starks — or Northerners in general — the last time around.
It's this sort of behavior that inspires such loyalty from those around Sansa, a loyalty that Dany clearly doesn't understand but desperately wants to possess. (See: Her reaction to Theon's heartfelt desire to fight for Winterfell.) Sansa not only cares about what happens to her people, but she also wants to try and make life better for them if she can. Imagine if all the rulers of Westeros behaved this way, putting their people first instead of their own dreams of greatness and power; if they listened to those same people they're ruling over now about what kind of world they'd like to live in; if they worked to make the citizens of all seven kingdoms love their leaders, rather than fear or resent them. What a new and exciting world that would be.
At the end of the day, Sansa Stark will probably not win the Iron Throne, no matter how strong a leader she's become in her own right. And there's every indication that she wouldn't even want the job even if she did. But the lessons learned during her journey from selfish teen to selfless leader is one whoever does take charge of the kingdom would do well to emulate. It's the future Westeros deserves.