9:00am PT by Aaron Couch
'Game of Thrones' Throwdown: Who Will Rule in Season 4? (Poll)
Game of Thrones is back Sunday – and that means even more jostling for power as families scramble to claim the Iron Throne. Below we break down the field for season four, where Westeros is the Lannisters' to lose, and the far-flung Starks face a long road to recovery.
Share your thoughts on who's going to reign supreme this season by taking our poll at the bottom of the post.
1. The Lannisters
Strengths: The Red Wedding has destroyed the most obvious and immediate threat to the Lannisters’ power – Robb Stark, though undefeated on the battlefield, is now dead. Tywin is securing Westeros via marriages through his progeny (Winterfell via Tyrion; Highgarden via Joffrey and Cersei). Jaime has returned from his captivity in the Stark camp – thanks in part to Catelyn Stark – as a more mature man. Although Jaime is missing his own, the Lannisters seem to have the upper hand.
Weaknesses: A house divided cannot stand. Tywin has hammered into his children that the house which acts only to further its family's interest will prevail – but Cersei and Tyrion are forever at odds with each other and, to a lesser extent, their father. Joffrey is another potential weakness. His cruelty could breed resentment among the smallfolk, as it did before with the Mad King, and his unpredictability makes him difficult for the prudent Tywin to rein in.
2. The Targaryens (Daenerys)
Strengths: Her dragons are getting bigger, and pretty much all of season three went her way. She began the season with a ragtag following of displaced Dothraki, and her dragons — as well as her guile — have won her a vast army of freed slaves, as well as the fear and respect of much of Essos. There seems to be little reason why her merry journey, freeing slaves, slaying masters and expanding her Khalasar, can't continue until she finds her way back to Westeros.
Weaknesses: She is traveling through a vast desert with a massive following of fighters and refugees. And despite her 8,000 Unsullied, it's possible the slavers of the land could band together to put a stop to her once and for all. On a side note, far too many of Daenerys' advisors are dedicating an awful lot of time trying to escape the friend zone with the Khaleesi. This could potentially become a problem if their rivalries start to affect their duty. She is a first-time conqueror and leader, and she’s still far away from a home she hardly remembers – does she have what it takes?
3. The Tyrells
Strengths: They are the second-richest family in Westeros and have proven to be aggressive social climbers, first uniting with Renly Baratheon and quickly moving on to the Lannisters. Although Lord Mace Tyrell is supposed to be the head of the family, their strength lies in their brilliant women, young Margaery and Queen of Thorns Olenna, as well as with Ser Loras and his reputation and skill as a knight. They clearly have a plan, though it's unclear what, exactly, their plan entails.
Weaknesses: Cersei may be the only one of the Lannisters who suspects the Tyrells are up to no good – but she seems more than willing to respond. She's the wild card who could put a wrench in their plans, whatever they are, if given the opportunity.
4. The Baratheons (Stannis)
Strengths: While much of Westeros might still believe King Joffrey is a Baratheon, we know better – that he’s the son of Lannister siblings, and Stannis’ family is all that remains of the house. And speaking of wild cards, Stannis has the mysterious Red Woman, Melisandre, on his side. She is two-for-two when it comes to killing his rivals for the crown — if we believe the Red Wedding was her doing, with the blood magic she performed on Gendry. He's also got Ser Davos in his corner, dispensing pragmatic advice and keeping a wary eye on Melisandre. He may be the best right-hand man in the entire series – one can only hope his penchant for honor and truth doesn’t lead him down the same road as Ned Stark.
Weaknesses: For once, Davos and Melisandre have agreed on their counsel to Stannis, and convinced him to shift his focus to the struggle at The Wall. While this might be good for the realm, it's probably not good for Stannis’ own health. If (as is hinted in last season's finale) he is planning to pit his forces against Wildlings, White Walkers and a struggling Night’s Watch, Stannis could soon join his brothers in death.
5. The Boltons
Strengths: The Red Wedding has made Lord Roose Bolton a major player, now the Warden of the North. It's unclear what his ultimate ambitions are, but his son Ramsay Snow could be his hidden weapon. Speaking of which, having Theon Greyjoy in his house's possession must count for something.
Weaknesses: While Lord Bolton comes off as mysterious, creepy and ruthless, Ramsay has him beat in every category – and now he has tarnished Theon's value in Lord Balon Greyjoy's eyes by castrating him. Ramsay could be too cruel and crazy to be controlled. Also, Roose Bolton made his great leap forward by betraying Robb. His status as a turncloak could potentially plague him. (Just ask Jaime "The Kingslayer" Lannister.)
6. The Starks
Strengths: Things looked extremely grim for the surviving Starks when we last saw them – but the clan of good guys has a few tricks up their collective sleeve. Arya has proven to be extremely resourceful when it comes to hiding, surviving and killing her foes. Bran has been developing his warg powers and is poised to play an important role in the coming battle with the White Walkers. Same goes for Jon Snow, who is quite a bit worse for the wear after escaping the Wildlings, but finally back on the south side of The Wall.
Weaknesses: … However, it's unclear how any of that could help their family. Jon and Bran's adventures in the North may benefit the realm if they manage to fight off the Wildlings or White Walkers, but it could easily get them killed, too. Arya, meanwhile, is in the custody of The Hound, while Sansa is essentially a prisoner in King's Landing. Three Starks are dead, one has lost use of his legs, two are captives and one is full of arrows. It will certainly be controversial putting the beloved clan of heroes in our long-shot category, but we’ve learned that being the heroes doesn't mean much for survival in a world created by George R.R. Martin.
7. The Greyjoys
Strengths: Even after rebelling against King Robert before the events of the series, Lord Balon Greyjoy got to keep the Iron Islands. As season four begins, he has men (and at least one woman — his fierce daughter Yara) encroaching on the Stark's old lands in the North.
Weaknesses: Balon and his kin aren't exactly visionaries. Their motto, "We Do Not Sow," says it all. They don't create. They take. And their ability to take from the likes of Tywin Lannister and other powerful houses seems limited. They seem like the type to seize what they like, but bite off more than they can chew, as Theon did when he took and then quickly lost Winterfell.
8. The Freys
Strengths: Patriarch Lord Walder Frey is a brutal man living in a brutal world – and the Red Wedding shows he's able to go beyond where most men would to advance his position. That bloodbath, despite its brutality, could strengthen his alliance with his co-conspirators, the Boltons and Lannisters.
Weaknesses: The high lords have long looked down on House Frey – and with good reason. Walder is petty and vindictive. Despite his years, no one would describe him as a wise ruler. It's hard to believe the man really has a plan beyond finding himself yet another young wife to replace the one Catelyn Stark killed.
There you have it – the major houses of Westeros we know to be vying for power as we head into season four. But, if we’re keeping score, who else could be a game changer? The remaining Tullys could be out for vengeance after the Red Wedding; the Arryns, in their mountain castle, have been quiet for some time, since Tyrion’s trial by combat in season one; and King Joffrey’s sister, Myrcella, was sent to the still-mysterious House Martell in season two. And who is to say the houses are the only players? From the slaver cities to the brotherhood without banners to shadowy figures like Littlefinger and Varys, Westeros remains a crowded playing field full of secrets, traitors, armies and magic. Oh, and dragons. We’ll keep you updated as season four gets underway.
Stay tuned to THR.com/GoT for everything Game of Thrones. The series returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.