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Nine players left, one Iron Throne

The game is going to be up soon, as “Game of Thrones” begins its final season on HBO Sunday night. The cast has shrunk across the seven seasons so far, and the remaining contenders are circling around that throne-shaped mass of iron like buzzards over a carcass. Which of our beloved and not-so-beloved characters are going to wind up sitting pretty? Here are some arguments for and against each of them, as well as reminders about where we left them at the end of season 7. May the best player win – unless, of course, it’s the diabolical Cersei or the soulless Night King.

Daenerys Targaryen

Jon Snow

Sansa Stark

Arya Stark

Bran Stark

Cersei Lannister

Jaime Lannister

Tyrion Lannister

The Night King

House Targaryen
Daenerys Targaryen

AKA

The Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi, Daenerys Stormborn, The Baroness of Big Blond Braids

Where Daenerys was at the end of Season 7

She and Jon Snow went to King’s Landing to persuade Cersei to join them against the White Walkers. On the high seas, heading to Winterfell, she hooked up with Jon, unaware that – as we’ve learned – he is her nephew.

Why Daenerys might win

She is a friend to the ordinary citizen, and she is driven to free slaves. She would make a just leader, and a rousing one, too. She has challenged every preconception about gender, sex, and race. And let’s not forget the dragon power – two, three, it’s still plenty of flying fire. Plus, the hair is a branding win.

Why Daenerys might not win

Um, she slept with her nephew, Jon Snow, which is wrong to these modern ears, even if it’s the Targaryen way, and even if it was unwitting. Gross! Also, and more important: She is proud, and needs temperate figures around her to keep her grounded.

Best fan theories about Daenerys

Supposedly, she’s unable to have children, and she told Jon that her dragons “are the only children I’ll ever have.” But according to some fans, she is nonetheless pregnant with Jon’s baby and may die in childbirth. Also, some believe Jon and Dany will get married and then she’ll be turned into a White Walker, as foretold in an old truce. He will sacrifice her to beat the Night King.

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House Stark/Targaryen (it’s complicated)
Jon Snow

AKA

Aegon Targaryen, Bastard of Winterfell, King in the North, The White Wolf, Sexiest Man “Alive”

Where Jon was at the end of Season 7

After meeting Daenerys, he goes north of the Wall to bring back a wight as proof of the forthcoming icy apocalypse. He gets rescued by Dany’s dragons, one of whom is killed and zombified by the Night King. Jon and Dany make passionate love, unaware that he’s not a bastard after all; he is the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark – and therefore Dany’s nephew.

Why Jon might win

His parentage – ice and fire – makes him the rightful heir to the throne, more so even than Dany. Plus, he’s a loyal chap for whom many would bend the knee, and he’s a focused dude driven to defeat the White Walkers while others around him are distracted. The virtuous Ned wasn’t his biological father, perhaps, but he was Jon’s mentor and positive influence.

Why Jon might not win

Forget about the incest with his auntie. He’s a brooder who, despite the truth about his birth, is emotionally scarred from growing up as an illegitimate family outsider. His sense of compassion – he even saw the humanity in the wildlings – could be a weakness. Also, he doesn’t exactly want to rule; so far, he has fallen upward. He has been saved in battle by outside intervention from Sansa and Dany.

Best fan theories about Jon

Many believe Jon will give his life – for real this time – to the battle against the Night King, which he has taken more seriously than others. He will be a legend and a savior, but not a ruler.

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House Stark
Sansa Stark

AKA

Lady of Winterfell, Sansa Lannister, Sansa Bolton, Sansational Stark

Where Sansa was at the end of Season 7

She escaped Winterfell, then returned to rid the world of the Boltons. Now she remains in charge there, per Jon, as the Lady of Winterfell. She is reunited with siblings Bran and Arya, with whom she did away with Littlefinger, and is no longer persecuted by bad men. How will she deal with Jon’s alliance with Daenerys?

Why Sansa might win

She started the series as a brat. Now, after extreme suffering, particularly at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, she has grown into a wise, centered, and fearless adult who has overcome the horrors of Joffrey, Ramsay, and Littlefinger. She has no illusions left.

Why Sansa might not win

Does she truly want to? That’s a big part of taking over – the will to rule. While fans – OK, while I – feel she has earned the place on that metal chair, after her tortuous journey to knowledge, she may prefer to lay low.

Best fan theories about Sansa

She will turn her back on Jon when he returns, his knee – and his heart – having bent to Daenerys. She knows that the North will not take kindly to a foreign queen with ambitions. Also, some optimistic fans say she will wind up happily marrying good-guy blacksmith Gendry Baratheon.

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House Stark
Arya Stark

AKA

No One, Arya Underfoot, The Face Lifter

Where Arya was at the end of Season 7

Arya and her sister, Sansa, were reunited last season, after Arya served Lord Walder Frey a delicious pie (special ingredient: Walder’s sons) and wiped out the entire Frey family. The sisters celebrated their renewed bond in Winterfell with the murder of the divisive Littlefinger. She still has a few more names on her kill list, including Cersei and Melisandre.

Why Arya might win

She is a warrior, and independent, and she never lets herself be defined by familiar gender roles. And her inevitable reunion with Jon, with whom she has had a strong bond, will be a reminder of her faithfulness. She is a survivor.

Why Arya might not win

She may be too invested in revenge to think clearly and rule. Her respect for human life seems to have been lost across the series. Whoever gets the throne ought to understand the big picture and not get caught up in retribution.

Best fan theories about Arya

She will finally get to kill Cersei, who is on her list, perhaps while wearing Jaime’s face. Also, she will die fighting the Army of the Dead, after destroying zombie dragon Viserion with the Valyrian dagger Bran gave her last season.

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House Stark
Bran Stark

AKA

The New Three-Eyed Raven, The Weirdo Formerly Known as Bran

Where Bran was at the end of Season 7

The least charming of the Starks, but the most magical, he is the viewer’s access to the past. Last season, we saw Ned’s backstory and the origins of Jon Snow through him. When he meets with Sam Tarly, he confirms Jon’s true parentage.

Why Bran might win

Perhaps his magical abilities, particularly his visions, would enable him to rule peacefully? I’m tryin’ here, folks.

Why Bran might not win

He’s creepy and mysterious and detached, and his visioning is intrusive – as if he’s collecting and using everyone’s private Facebook data. And then there’s his warging, which has evil potential. Eye, eye, eye? More like oy, oy, oy.

Best fan theories about Bran

Bran can warg into animals. That could mean he’ll warg into Viserion, get rid of the Night King, and confound the White Walkers' battle plan. Some believe that Bran is going to die as the Night King – that he is flying back through time to become the First Man who was turned into the Night King.

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House Lannister
Cersei Lannister

AKA

Twentieth Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, Queen Regent, Villain-elle

Where Cersei was at the end of Season 7

Now in King’s Landing, she has hired an army of mercenaries – with the help of Euron Greyjoy – to destroy Jon and Dany’s army after the pair fights the White Walkers. When she tells Jaime she won’t keep her word with the Jon-Dany-Cersei truce brokered by Tyrion, he leaves her. She claims she is pregnant.

Why Cersei might win

She has lost all of her children to the throne and its attendant complications. She has paid the price. After being tossed around by the men in her life, she has become increasingly stubborn and willful, and would do anything for the Seven Kingdoms, assuming they belonged solely to her.

Why Cersei might not win

For one thing, she is an awful, paranoid, vindictive person who is loyal to no one except herself, and for another thing – wait, that’s enough to nix her.

Best fan theories about Cersei

The Web is convinced she’ll die this season, and many believe it will be at the hands of the person who stood by her for such a long time: her twin brother and lover, Jaime.

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House Lannister
Jaime Lannister

AKA

Kingslayer, Pretty Boy-chucker

Where Jaime was at the end of Season 7

In King’s Landing, he had a secret meeting with Tyrion, who was trying to broker a truce. Sibling lovers Jaime and Cersei take the deal; later, after learning Cersei plans to go back on her word, he leaves her and King’s Landing in a huff. Is he now going to fight for Jon Snow?

Why Jaime might win

His good looks and charisma? He has had a nascent but growing sense of honor since losing his sword hand, seen when he rescued Brienne of Tarth from a bear fight (and not seen when he raped his sister beside their son Joffrey’s corpse).

Why Jaime might not win

He may be on the right path now, but still: His history is filled with ugliness, from his cruelty to the Starks (not least of all Bran, whom he pushed out a window) to his aggression toward the Targaryens (including the murder of Dany’s dad).

Best fan theories about Jaime

He will kill Cersei, his sister-lover and the mother of his children, having left her in disgust. Or Arya will kill her – wearing Jaime’s face.

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House Lannister
Tyrion Lannister

AKA

The Imp, The Halfman, The Moral Giant

Where Tyrion was at the end of Season 7

Now Daenerys’s hand, he tried to get Cersei to help in the Great War of the living against the dead, after she rejected Dany and Jon. Did she relent in their secret meeting, or did he make a deal with the devil? On the boat back to Winterfell, he overhears Jon and Dany making love. Is he totes jells?

Why Tyrion might win

The only good Lannister, he is a brilliant strategist, and, despite his lack of fighting skills, he has the right mixture of wisdom, strategy, and cynicism to prevail. Long mistreated because of his stature, he also has grit and compassion.

Why Tyrion might not win

That secret chat with his sister, Cersei? He might have been making a crooked arrangement, to get her to work with Dany and Jon. Also: He drinks too much, which makes him vulnerable.

Best fan theories about Tyrion

The Tyrion-Daenerys shippers are relentless. He respects her, clearly; but some say that it’s true love, and that he won’t react well to her link with Jon. Another theory says that Tyrion is not, in fact, a Lannister, that Aerys Targaryen is his birth father after he slept with Joanna Lannister (who died giving birth).

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The White Walkers
The Night King

AKA

Death, The Fridgerator

Where The Night King was at the end of Season 7

He manages to bring down Dany’s dragon Viserion, then turns him into a zombie. He blasts open a hole through the Wall, through which he leads his army of the dead.

Why The Night King might win

He’s the show’s big bad, and yet we know very little about him. He doesn’t compromise, and he kills when he needs to, so I guess he’s meant for a leadership position. I guess. Added plus: Intense blue eyes. Also, winter is a pretty time of year.

Why The Night King might not win

He may actually be other people, but regardless: He is Death – something even showrunner D.B. Weiss has said: "I don't think of the Night King as a villain as much as Death.” Death has no business on a throne, unless it’s the end of the world.

Best fan theories about The Night King

As a human, before he was changed into the baddest of the bad, he was a Stark – and if he is destroyed, all the Starks that came after him will no longer exist. Also there are votes for Bran becoming the Night King.

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Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.