[This post contains SPOILERS for Game of Thrones, season six.]
At this point in Game of Thrones’s life cycle, Jon Snow has gone through nearly every step of the hero’s journey that is so ubiquitous in Western drama.
To wit: he’s been introduced as a bastard in a lordly family, an outcast who opts to heed the call to adventure by joining the Night’s Watch and beginning his training to one day be the next lord commander. He crosses the threshold of the known world, both literally and figuratively, by being put deep undercover within the midst of Mance Rayder’s, the King-beyond-the-Wall, wildling “army.” The experience helps catapult him to the top leadership position within the Watch, resulting in a brief-but-intense tenure that ultimately costs him his life. He returns from the dead to find a new life for himself, which brings him back home, now as the king. (Oh – let’s not forget the magical artifact that is bestowed upon him by his mentor, the Valyrian blade Longclaw, that can slay the evil, supernatural monsters that menace his people.)
All that is missing at this point, essentially, is his final “severe” test – presumably against the ever-more-approaching White Walker horde, but just as probably against the equally imminently-arriving Daenerys Targaryen, his (presumably) dragonriding aunt – and his final return home, in which he, at long last, will have the power to transform the world around him, reflecting his gamut of inner changes.
At least that’s what would happen if this were a traditional narrative being told in a traditional manner. Of all the things that Game of Thrones is, this certainly isn’t one of them (at least, not to an overt degree), and, unfortunately, the newly-revealed Jon, bastard child of a Targaryen, is just as likely to be shuffled off this mortal coil – like so many protagonists (and quasi-protagonists) before him – as he is to conclude Joseph Campbell’s standard mythological arc.
And that, really, is the question that not only lies before us off of the season-six-finale high, but that also can be found at the very existential foundation of the series itself. Will author George R.R. Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss take the red pill or the blue pill – will they go right, to normalcy, or juke left, to the continued overturning of conventions, up until the (probably bitter) end?
Essentially, what we’re asking is: Is Jon Snow the Real Hero of Game of Thrones, or Will He Die (Again)?
Let’s weigh the possibilities of both options.
He’s a dead man walking
The Game of Thrones path is pretty remarkably clear on this front: if you’re being positioned to either be the face of the narrative (like Jon’s uncle, Eddard Stark) or to fulfill a standard (fantasy) trope (such as his cousin, Robb Stark), the odds are you’re going to be killed at the hands of your enemies, and probably in the most horrific way possible (such as, for example, being decapitated and having a direwolf’s head be sewn on instead). That Jon now arguably fits both requirements – he can be argued to be the rightful heir to the Iron Throne (yes, even before Dany), and, what’s more, he looks to fulfill the potential of the rest of his family that they themselves were incapable of realizing – does not bode well for him; Martin has gone on record multiple times stating that Robb, the first King in the North, needed to die in order to subvert the audience expectation that the son-rises-up-to-avenge-the-wronged-father storyline would make up the core of his sprawling story.
It can be argued, then, that everything that has preceded 'The Winds of Winter' is simply meant to lull viewers into the falsest sense of security, allowing the storytellers to play the same trick on them for a third time in a row. That Jon has now been on the series for literally twice as long as Robb, that he has already died and been resurrected, that he is the latest candidate believed to be the legendary Azor Ahai reborn, and that he is revealed to have the most regal of royal blood running through his veins all conspire to project a sense of narrative importance or inevitability – what readers often refer to as “plot armor.” Jon’s demise at this point, his inability to either protect his realm from the undead or sit upon the Iron Throne, would provide shock and outrage that would make the infamous Red Wedding’s backlash look positively quaint in comparison.
And the funny thing is: the clues are already there, hinting at a second – and final – death. Before the 'Battle of the Bastards,' Lord Snow instructs Lady Melisandre, the red priestess who brought him back earlier in the season, to allow him to remain dead should he fall again, even if he’s sure that the great beyond consists solely of nothingness. Then he dismisses her completely from the north in the finale, threatening her with execution should she ever return.
With no resurrection safety net, and with plenty more battles to come – not to mention all the rapidly-increasing number of political enemies, including, most potently, Lord Petyr Baelish – King Jon Snow’s days are looking decidedly numbered.
He’ll be the last man standing
For all of the talk about how unconventional, at the least, or revolutionary, at the most, Martin’s narrative is, the simple reality is that, at the end of the storytelling day, and despite all its untraditional trappings, the plot actually follows the same rules that have dominated storytelling since the ancient Greco-Roman days, and it is still beholden to Campbell’s mythological roadmap; in this light, all of the twists and turns – Ned’s death, the Red Wedding, the rise of House Bolton and the fall of King Stannis Baratheon – are just sleight-of-hands that make audiences look one way while the real development and progression are going on in the other. There’s another, even better result, as well: audiences come to honestly believe that King Jon can still fail in his quest, which injects the climax of the story with as much drama as possible – a rarity in today’s formula-driven Hollywood storytelling.
Indeed, many fans have been quick to point out that the “song of ice and fire” that is so important to the narrative (hence the book series’s title being A Song of Ice and Fire) is actually comprised of both Daenerys (providing the fire of her dragons, as well as being impervious to the element herself [at least, in the television show]) and Jon (representing the ice of the north and the Wall, as well as having faced – and, even, defeated – the White Walkers on the battlefield) – and this was well before both characters were revealed to be Targaryens, capable of taming and riding dragons.
Then there is that whole dragon aspect. In the source material, there is something of a flashback scene that gets recounted for readers: Prince Rhaegar, talking with his Dornish wife, Elia, about their first-born son, Aegon, proclaims that he is the first head of the dragon – with the direct implication being that Dany is the second. Rhaegar is a figure of both martial prowess and historical learning; he takes the prophecies and legends that have been passed down for the past several thousand years quite seriously, and he comes to believe that his children (and, apparently, his baby sister) will be these mythological figures. While the HBO series has largely moved to strip the narrative of prophecy (for various reasons, both valid and questionable), there is a more literal interpretation of this scene that may nonetheless still be relevant: there are three actual dragons alive in the world once more, and that, well, three individuals will be needed to ride and steer them into battle. Who better – or more accomplished – than Jon?
All of which is to say that Jon will be sitting upon a throne come the series’s end, whether that be in Winterfell or in King’s Landing.
Do you think that Jon Snow has now been revealed to be the true face of Game of Thrones, or is he still doomed to die a terrible, painful death? Let us know in the comments.