Game of Thrones: Jon Snow Should Have Stayed Dead – Vanity Fair
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On Sunday night, Game of Thrones hero Jon Snow opened his eyes, took a deep shuddering breath, and did exactly what so many viewers and book readers expected him to do: he came back from the dead. In doing so he made Westeros just a little bit more secure, as a potential line of defense against the encroaching White Walkers. But is what’s best for the citizens of Westeros what’s best for the series?
Doesn’t it feel a little . . . safe? Yes, this is a show that just saw a new mother and her infant son fed to a pack of bloodthirsty dogs, but there’s a significant difference between brutality and upending narrative conventions. Game of Thrones made its name doing the latter. The moment that Ned Stark lost his head was the moment George R.R. Martin’s books and HBO’s series defined themselves as a cut above the rest.
But when is the last time a character who was truly central to the Game of Thrones plot lost his or her life? Was it as long ago as Joffrey Baratheon (Season 4, Episode 2) or maybe Tywin Lannister (Season 4, Episode 10)? Oberyn Martell’s death (in Season 4, Episode 9) was a shock, but he was hardly a main character, just the newest, shiniest hero to arrive in King’s Landing. Some might argue that Stannis was central, but remember that Stephen Dillane wasn’t even cast until Season 2 and the character didn’t work his way into the hearts of audiences until Season 5. Just in time to make his death matter.
Shireen’s death was horrifying, but, once again, that had more to do with shock value than her role in the story. It’s the fate of the core cast—who are all named Stark, Lannister, or Targaryen—that carries the most weight. If Jon Snow had died and stayed down—and, just as important, if fans truly believed he would stay down in that long wait between seasons—the mutiny at Castle Black would have been an emotionally resonant moment in the vein of episodes like “Baelor” and “The Rains of Castamere.” Jon’s long-expected resurrection, if it plays out as simply as it seems to have, significantly changes the narrative stakes of the story to that of a much softer, safer tale.
This is not a case of a hit TV show being unwilling to let go of its darlings; this entire shift, from a world where any hero could die to one full of second chances, is entirely the work of George R.R. Martin. The deaths of Tywin, Joffrey, Oberyn, the Hound (maybe), Catleyn, and Robb Stark all took place in the third book, A Storm of Swords (2000). That novel is the last one most readers agree felt like a truly strong installment in A Song of Ice and Fire. The two subsequent books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, have essentially marked time while Arya and Bran Stark grow up, fast-forwarding through an adolescence Martin wanted to skip and padding out a story that was originally meant to be a trilogy. Unfortunately, the narrative has gotten a lot more conventional while we wait for those kids to grow, and the TV adaptation only continues to reveal how many stories from those books are ultimately irrelevant.
Jon Snow is one of a small knot of characters at the center of the saga that Martin has himself has indicated will make it to the end. One of the reasons book readers were sure, way back in 2011 when A Dance with Dragons was published, that Jon Snow would be coming back from the dead is that too much mythology had been built up around him. His parentage is important, he has an extraordinary weapon, he is destined for greatness. But doesn’t that seem like exactly the kind of expectation Game of Thrones once took delight in subverting?
When he was still insisting he wouldn’t be returning for Season 6, Kit Harington outlined exactly the kind of scenario his show used to be famous for. “We have to go by what Thrones does,” he told Variety in a post-finale interview last season. “And Thrones treats drama as real life. And people die and don’t accomplish what we think they’re meant to in real life. And I think that’s one of the powerful things about Thrones.” That denial helped spark months of endless speculation about Jon Snow’s return (guilty!),but by Harington’s own definition, Jon Snow’s return is the less powerful choice.
More and more the show is opting to exert brutality on our our heroes (Sansa’s rape, Cersei’s walk, Arya’s beatings, Dany’s abduction, etc.),but with the full expectation that they’ll turn that narrative around and eventually triumph. Sure, it feels good to see Cersei get revenge on the Sparrows or Sansa finally have a win, and the show couldn’t have gone on forever handing only defeat to its heroes. But it’s also a very conventional choice for a show that once thoroughly avoided the notion. Underdog stories are fine, but Game of Thrones used to teach us that rooting for the underdog was a fool’s errand. Or have you forgotten the death of Oberyn Martell so quickly?
If Jon Snow had stayed gone, Game of Thrones would have emerged as a rare series where the conventional straight, white, male hero was significantly outnumbered. Without Jon, it’s mostly women and—to borrow a phrase off Martin—cripples, bastards, and broken things running the plot of Season 6 of Game of Thrones. Sure, Jon started the story as a bastard of Winterfell, but he’s risen to such heights of conventional heroism (Lord Commander at his age!),that he can hardly be counted as such anymore. Still, there’s a strong chance he might come back a “broken thing.” If that’s the case, it’s possible Martin and HBO still have a narrative flip or two up their sleeves.
But the softening of narrative stakes is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better. Jon Snow isn’t the only resurrected character roaming the streets of Westeros this season. We’ve already seen plenty of the Zombie Mountain, and there’s some solid speculation that the show will soon be lousy with reanimated corpses. If the death of major beloved characters—once such a distinctive hallmark of the show—becomes meaningless, then what show are we watching?
Even book readers are only speculating, but it seems like the Westerosi saga is moving away from the knotty political intrigue of King’s Landing (how irrelevant does that plot feel this year?) toward a showdown between Jon’s ice zombies from the North and Daenerys’s fire-breathing dragons from the East. Ice zombies versus dragons isn’t exactly the political game of thrones most of us signed up for.
Martin cites Tolkien as his biggest influence in crafting A Song of Ice and Fire, and hopefully that means he’ll remember that when it came to a big clash between good and evil at the edge of the world, The Lord of the Rings focused in on the friendship, loyalty, and frailty of two humble Hobbits. Fantasy sagas are stronger when their conclusions skew smaller, not bigger, and it’s the human(ish) characters who can be hurt and humbled, not a titanic clash between mythical beasts, that make the wheels turn. The way the HBO series has stopped sprawling and started reconnecting its characters gives hope that that kind of ending—one Martin himself has described as “bittersweet,”—is on the horizon. But if the bitter part is all the suffering we’ve already seen, and it’s only sweet from here on out, will that human-size story feel as urgent as it needs to be?
In the current TV climate where fake-out deaths are all the rage, Game of Thrones has become the worst possible thing for a show that once riveted us with Ned Stark’s death: it’s conventional. George R.R. Martin couldn’t have known about The Walking Dead, Scandal, Arrow, Sherlock, and more when he published that Jon Snow cliff-hanger in 2011, but given where we are now, it would have been better if the Lord Commander had stayed down.
Game of Thrones: Jon Snow Should Have Stayed Dead – Vanity Fair