Over its eight-season run, Game of Thrones had many iconic quotes, each giving insight into a particular character or situation. Some are even praised for breaking the fourth wall, like Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) haunting reminder, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” After the much-hated series finale, these words seemed very fitting, but that only describes the ending. One line from the first season succinctly summarizes the entire show. Before the war even begins, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) tells Ned Stark (Sean Bean), “When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die. There is no middle ground.” The honorable Ned may not heed this particular warning, but it rings true throughout the series.
This quote provides the show’s title, which is different from the one George RR Martin chose for his book series, A Song of Ice and Fire (though the show shares a name with the first novel in the series). Beyond that, the quote concisely sets expectations that the series fulfills. As the characters fight for the Iron Throne, few survive their attempts to gain power. Even competent players of the game don’t make it out alive. The ruthless game involves strategy, determination, and no small amount of luck, but the only consistent rule is that the losers die, as Cersei said. Everyone from poor Ned to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) enters the game and pays for it with their lives. There are few winners who remain unchallenged at the conclusion, proving the truth in Cersei’s words. Her two sentences make it the only quote to truly define Game of Thrones.
‘Game of Thrones’ Is Appropriately Named
Though there is a lot going on throughout the series, the central part is the question of who will rule. After Robert Baratheon’s (Mark Addy) death, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) should be the king, except that Ned uncovers the truth that Joffrey isn’t Robert’s son — and so a war breaks out, with Joffrey, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), and Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) vying for the throne. They are quickly joined by Robb Stark (Richard Madden) declaring himself the King in the North and Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide) taking the title of King of the Iron Islands. Of course, Daenerys also seeks the throne, and others attempt to gain power, if not a crown. The Tyrell family wants to boost themselves, and Varys (Conleth Hill), Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), Cersei, Tywin (Charles Dance), and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) try to manipulate those around them.
Certainly, there is plenty of competition as they play the game Cersei described — but the proof is in the deaths that the series is known for. As the fight for the crown continues, each claimant dies, and new players come forth to take their place. The constant turnover in the cast shows how brutal this so-called game is. The show centers on the fight for the crown, though there are certainly other complications, specifically the White Walkers. But even that universal threat cannot stop the ongoing competition for the crown.
In ‘Game of Thrones,’ the Losers Die
There are plenty of examples of those who lose the game of thrones — first, with Ned’s beheading. Though Ned didn’t try to claim the throne himself, he entered the game as the Hand of the King and wanted to impact the succession after learning the truth of Joffrey’s birth. Next, the leaders in the “War of the Five Kings” start dying off. Robb’s death at the doomed Red Wedding takes out most of his army and inducts the house Frey into the game as they switch sides for power. Unfortunately for them, they are not well-equipped, and the entire house is wiped out for their actions. Similarly, the Tyrells align with the Lannisters, who make Margaery (Natalie Dormer) the queen. This rise in station leads to the devastation of their house, and by the end, no Tyrells remain. Cersei plays the game for a long time, asserting each of her children’s claims, but they die, leaving Cersei to try to rule herself and ultimately dies.
Those trying to manipulate the ruler meet their ends too. Tywin makes many enemies, but his competence at the game of thrones shows until his feud with Tyrion catches up to him. Similarly, Petyr is eventually outmaneuvered by Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who he sent to Ramsay Bolton. Varys dies for his efforts as well, burned in dragonfire. Daenerys seems likely to win until her madness catches up with her, and her ally, nephew, and lover, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), kills her. The violent deaths of so many characters leave few survivors at the end of the series, making them the de facto winners.
Only the Victorious Survive ‘Game of Thrones’… Right?
When it comes to those who win the game, the answer is clear: Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is made king, though he doesn’t reach for power until the end. Other victors include Sansa, the Queen of the North, and Tyrion, who becomes Bran’s Hand. These few come out on top, and most of the other remaining characters never actively played the all-important game, but one part of the quote doesn’t fit by the end. A few characters find a middle ground: Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) and Jon Snow.
Yara wanted to take her father’s throne but had to compete with her uncle. Deciding it would be better to control the Iron Islands and kneel to another ruler than forfeit any power, Yara allies with Daenerys. Though she seeks power, Yara actually makes it out, though she never gets the title of Queen. This puts her somewhere in the middle that Cersei claims to be impossible, but as she chose to sacrifice the title, perhaps she can fall into the category of winner.
Meanwhile, Jon’s case is a little more confusing. Jon rose quickly in the ranks of the Night’s Watch before leaving and being raised to succeed Robb as King in the North. But Jon is more focused on the White Walkers than the crown, stepping down to gain Daenerys’ help in their battle. He doesn’t even act on his claim when he discovers that he is the true Targaryen heir. In the end, Jon, who should have a claim to the throne stronger than Bran’s, is exiled for killing Daenerys and goes to live in the North with the Wildlings. Jon doesn’t win or lose, making him the biggest outlier of the series. Since, technically, Jon never asked for power, this could be overlooked as he didn’t willingly play the game. Cersei’s lines encompass the entire story of Game of Thrones, predicting even the most unpredictable deaths and telling the audience the rules of the game from the very beginning.