Game of Thrones is a triple threat: great acting, excellent visual design, and twisting drama that’s consistently shocking and surprising. But it turns out that the opinions of the show’s fans are far easier to guess.
Tech Insider recently tapped review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes for a poll on a variety of Game of Thrones topics. More than 1,000 fans were asked to pick their favorite season, the show’s saddest death, its greatest hero, and more. But the surprising thing about these poll results is how fiercely they buck the strength of the show itself: they’re all predictable and conventional.
[Spoilers for all of Game of Thrones below.]
Take the show’s most shocking death, for example: Ned Stark won with 25 percent of the vote, with Jon Snow (18 percent) and Robb Stark (14 percent) trailing behind. In season 1, Daenerys is set up as a major character, but the Starks are treated as the show’s First Family, and Ned is as close to a main character as a revolving-cast show can have. The first season gives special attention to his family, his struggles in King’s Landing, and his righteous crusade to return the throne to its correct heir. And then Joffrey’s executioner chops off his head.
Ned’s death is a key moment in Game of Thrones, because it sends an important message to fans: anyone can be killed, as Ned’s daughter Arya would say. But more importantly, Ned’s death flips the traditional notion of a hero’s quest on its head. Ned is a good man with a righteous cause. But that isn’t enough to save him, or any character in the Game of Thrones universe. Author George R.R. Martin and the showrunners expanded on this idea in further seasons, with the death of characters like Robb Stark (slaughtered at a wedding, alongside his men, his mother, and his pregnant wife); Jon Snow (betrayed by his own men); or Oberyn Martell (head smashed like a melon as he tried to avenge his murdered sister). Where traditional stories would see all these men vindicated, their foes rightly punished, Martin prefers to break everyone’s hearts.
Oberyn doesn’t even crack the poll’s top three in shocking deaths, but in spite of what the poll-takers think, his demise is no less surprising than Ned’s or Robb’s. His character is introduced with a vendetta in mind, and he seems capable enough to accomplish it. During his fight with his murderer, Gregor Clegane (known as the Mountain), Oberyn easily has the upper hand — until he doesn’t. And in an instant, it’s over. In theory, his death is far less foreshadowed than Jon’s, because Jon has done a standup job of pissing off vindictive members of the Night’s Watch for several seasons. And he was raised with the Starks, a family that loses members left and right.
Fans share similarly unsurprising ideas about the show’s villains, love or hate them. Polled about Game of Thrones’ most satisfying death, they picked Joffrey (44 percent) and Ramsay Bolton (35 percent). No one else is even mentioned. It makes sense that those two men are universally despised. Neither character has any redeeming quality. They share a taste for torture, and they murder for entertainment. They’re petulant children who feel they deserve the vast, dangerous power that’s been handed to them. Joffrey’s death is perhaps no less quick or violent than say, Ned’s. But unlike the Stark patriarch, there’s a sense that the boy king has gotten what he deserves. It’s a long time coming.
And the poll winner for greatest villain is a logical choice, too. Cersei Lannister (44 percent, compared to a 22 percent vote for Ramsay) is a compelling foe because her character is complex, and at times, even relatable. She’s selfish and cruel, but she also acts out of love for her family and a desire to strike back against a patriarchy that’s dictated her entire life. She’s Game of Thrones’ best villain by a long shot, because she’s a perfect anti-hero — the kind of character whose successes are satisfying, even when that means blowing up one of the show’s best characters.
Game of Thrones has long been about eviscerating fans’ expectations and wishes, unapologetically, and often with bloody flair. But these common opinions among watchers point to an endearing trend, a shared idea of what constitutes good, evil, interesting, and ideal, even when the models for these ideas are far more nuanced than a single word can convey. Just look at the poll’s top alliance of Daenerys and Tyrion, compared to Jamie Lannister and Brienne, or Arya and the Hound. Dany and Tyrion are a slam-dunk for a good-guy team-up, where the other two duos have…complications. Jamie is as much of a miscreant as anyone, but he’s come a long way since he chucked a child out of a window. Over the course of six seasons, he’s demonstrated a real devotion to his family, and a loyalty to idealistic characters like Brienne.
Arya and the Hound, meanwhile, are the show’s best odd couple. Once dedicated to murdering the Hound, Arya seems to come around to Joffrey’s fire-fearing former pet. But when the Hound is gravely injured and begs for Arya to finish him off, Arya refuses. She leaves him to die, slowly, alone, with seemingly no remorse. It’s a cold move from any angle, as the two have built a strange sort of bond over the course of their travels.
And then there’s the character viewers most want to see on the Iron Throne: Daenerys. Dany is more devoted to justice than most of Game Of Thrones’ characters. Her desire to rule is coupled with her moves to free slaves and liberate cities. But even her quest has led to bloodshed, and her taking over cities is its own kind of colonization. Even her mission to rule Westeros — a land she barely remembers, that doesn’t seem to want her — could be placed on the same ambitious pedestal shared by characters like Cersei. Sure, she’s far more likely to be a kind of just queen, but she’s burning bodies to get there.
Dany taking back her birthright, the seat she’s craved for what will eventually be eight entire seasons, would be one of the show’s best chances at completing a traditional hero arc: a character claiming what is rightfully “theirs.” It’s the closest thing this show can have to a happy ending. That’s also the easiest explanation for why we might not get it. But viewers holding out for Dany’s coronation is a reminder that people still want the fairy tale ending the show has worked so hard to subvert. Even after six years of one savage disappointment after another, fans still have hope.