(Note: This column contains no spoilers for the new season of Game of Thrones -- winter is here and critics have been frozen out of screeners for advance review -- but does touch on plot details from previous seasons.)
If we've learned anything from six seasons of HBO's Game of Thrones, it's this: Nobody's perfect.
Coming closer than most is Lady Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey), the preteen spitfire who first wowed the crowd last year by putting Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his backers through their paces before she'd commit the 62 warriors of Bear Island to his cause, and who later, after publicly calling out men three or more times her age, delivered one of the season's most stirring speeches in Jon's support:
"House Mormont remembers. The North remembers. We know no king but the king in the North, whose name is Stark. I don't care if he's a bastard -- Ned Stark's blood runs through his veins. He's my king, from this day, until his last day."
Though Lady Lyanna couldn't know what Jon Snow himself doesn't -- that his parentage is more complicated than he has been led to believe and that whatever hereditary claim he has may lie farther to the south -- she represents, firmly, the traditional view that rulers are born, not made. Which is probably a good thing to believe if you're left in charge of a noble house, even a small one, at the age of 10. But is she right?
As Game of Thrones returns Sunday, the questions of what qualities we look for in leaders, and what failings we will accept from them, loom larger.
Because as the game enters the seven-episode stretch leading to next year's eight-episode conclusion, none of the obvious contenders for the Iron Throne looks like anything close to a perfect choice for that notoriously uncomfortable seat, occupied -- for now -- by Cersei Lannister Baratheon (Lena Headey), incestuous sister, grieving mother, and mass murderer.
For those of us who experience monarchy as just another British-subsidized entertainment -- "Downton Abbey," played out on People magazine covers -- the question of who's fit to rule the seven kingdoms of Westeros may seem abstract. We Americans don't do kings and queens. But we've some experience with ruling families. And we do put our leaders through wars of attrition that last for years, magnifying their flaws and demonizing their strengths. And eventually, when only a very few remain standing, we walk into voting booths to decide what we can live with and what we can't.
HBO's version is bloodier -- though mercifully free of robocalls -- and while it's hard for fans not to develop a rooting interest, it's also wise not to get too attached to any one candidate.
In six seasons, we have experienced the tail end of the reign of Cersei's husband, Robert (Mark Addy), the usurper who seized the throne after the death of the mad Targaryen king, Aerys II, and the brief, subsequent reigns of Cersei's two sons, the monstrous Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and the pious, eager-to-please boy Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), allowing us to weigh the competing interests of hedonism and religion as influences on a king.