When Dan Benioff and D.B. Weiss were bidding to turn George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series into a television show, the author wanted to suss out their intentions, and their understanding of the world he’d built. So he asked them the burning question: Who is Jon Snow’s mother?
67 episodes of Game of Thrones later, we know they got it right. Jon’s parentage (he’s the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, in case you’ve been living under Casterly Rock) is the central mystery of the series, one with far-reaching implications not just for Jon (Kit Harington), but for all of Westeros. Some dreamy, brooding bastard is secretly the Rightful Heir, and he’s set to wield his magic sword in a battle for all mankind? It’s straight out of Fantasy 101.
Well, not exactly. And this is why we love Thrones. Yes, it’s got dragons, wolves, and dragon-on-wolf action. But it’s never afraid to upend the typical fantasy arc for any of its characters—especially the dreamy, brooding Rightful Heir with a magic sword. Just when you think you know what’s next for Jon Snow & Co., well, it turns out that…you know the rest.
With the epic final season of Game of Thrones on our doorstep, let’s dive into what makes Jon Snow’s undead heart tick.
The Bastard of Winterfell
For a second or third Stark son, the Night’s Watch is a noble calling. For a bastard son of the Lord of Winterfell, sired while Ned Stark was off fighting Robert’s Rebellion, it’s the only logical destination. While Ned did his best to make the boy part of the family, Jon never quite fit within the castle walls. His very existence was a perpetual slap in the face to Catelyn Stark, who made her feelings crystal clear when Jon bade farewell to his brother Bran.
But apart from his frosty relationship with the Lady of Winterfell, Jon’s early life was about as cushy as it gets for an unofficial Stark: sparring in the yard with Robb and the other boys, a place somewhere in the Great Hall during feasts. He even gets his own direwolf like the trueborn Stark children—though, of course, the albino Ghost sticks out from the pack. But it’s youngest sister Arya he cherishes the most, even commissioning a custom-made sword for her as a going-away present. Stick them with the pointy end.
As a Night’s Watch recruit, Jon gets his first taste of life outside Winterfell: It’s even colder, the food sucks, and nobody cares that you’ve trained with a master at arms using castle-forged steel. With all those swordplay reps under his belt, Jon should be a shoo-in for the Rangers, the fighting force wherein his uncle Benjen and countless other Starks have served.
Jon, do you know what show you’re on? Off to the Stewards with you. Hope Old Nan taught you how to fold some laundry.
But all’s not lost, as fellow black sheep Samwell Tarly wisely points out. Lord Commander Jeor Mormont needs a right hand, and given that Jon’s mighty with a pen and a sword, he’s the perfect new recruit to groom as a future leader of the brothers in black.
We now know that Ned was fulfilling his sister’s dying wish to keep her son safe from her former betrothed Robert Baratheon: Promise me, Ned. So even if Jon has to scrub out every chamber pot from the Shadow Tower to Eastwatch, it’s better than meeting the business end of King Robert’s warhammer. But don’t worry, Jon, you’ll get your wish for more action. When two of his sworn brothers’ corpses spring to life as blue-eyed wights and threaten the Lord Commander’s life, Jon leaps into duty, killing them a second time. A grateful Mormont gifts Jon with his family’s Valyrian steel sword, Longclaw. Not bad for a night’s work.
When First Ranger Benjen vanishes amidst reports of increased wildling activity, Commander Mormont leads a ranging beyond the Wall. There, Jon’s beset upon by (you guessed it) wildlings, including Ygritte (Rose Leslie), a fiercely independent woman and formidable fighter in her own right. By rights, Jon should kill her when he has the chance. But here, he shows that he’s not like other Northmen, he’s a cool and chill Northman who wouldn’t execute a defenseless woman, never mind one with gorgeous red hair and ah well, now she’s gone. When Jon catches up with his erstwhile captive, he stumbles right into a wildling trap, and has to do whatever he can to survive.
That includes a fight to the death with elite ranger and fellow captive Qhorin Halfhand. The two of them stage a mock showdown that quickly turns real as Qhorin orders him to win the duel and infiltrate the wildling party. For the Watch. It’s one of Jon’s first big tests: can he bend the rules in service of a greater goal? He passes, sticking a willing Qhorin with the pointy end of Longclaw.
He passes as a willing wildling convert, too, scoring points with Ygritte and Mance Rayder, the self-styled King Beyond the Wall. And that leads to more wildling stuff, like losing his virginity (and some Night’s Watch cred) in a cave, or tagging along as his new pals climb over the Wall.
Free folk or kneeler, everyone acts the same when they’re dangling from the face of an 800-foot magical ice cliff. And as he becomes more embedded with Ygritte and her cohort, Jon comes to realize that the arbitrary, permeable border separating the two populations doesn’t make them any different, or himself any better.
But even as he recognizes their shared humanity, he did swear that unbreakable Night’s Watch vow, in front of a heart tree and everything. Jon abandons the wildlings—and Ygritte—for Castle Black. Mance Rayder and his army lead an assault on the castle, but yet again, Jon demonstrates quick thinking and perseverance in fending off flesh-eating Thenns, crossbow-wielding giants, and an understandably angry ex-girlfriend, who dies in Jon’s arms from wounds taken during the battle.
The Lord Commander
There’s precious little time to mourn. After Stannis Baratheon swoops in to subdue the remaining wildling army, the Night’s Watch can finally get to electing a new Lord Commander to replace the dearly departed Jeor Mormont. If only the Old Bear had groomed a hand-picked successor, who then spent two whole seasons developing the political acumen necessary to navigate the socio-political conflicts inherent to such a role!
Thanks in part to a rousing stump speech from Sam and the deciding vote from his secret great-uncle Maester Aemon, Jon’s elected Lord Commander, bypassing a tempting offer of legitimization from King Stannis. But despite Jon forsaking the chance to become a Stark rather than abandon his Night’s Watch vows, not everyone’s happy about the job going to someone who’s been so, uh, friendly with the enemy. First, Jon lets the wildlings through the gates of Castle Black, granting them amnesty if they promise to join forces when it comes time to fight the White Walkers. Then he leads an expedition to Hardhome to rescue thousands more and bring them back to the increasingly crowded Wall. A group of mutineers led by Alliser Thorne decides that this hopey-changey thing has gone on long enough, and they assassinate Jon in the Castle Black courtyard. For the Watch.
As happens often on this show (particularly to Starks and the Stark-adjacent), Lord Commander Snow paid the ultimate price for doing the right things and making the hard choices. Nearly anyone else in his position would’ve shut the cold rolled steel gates of Castle Black and condemned the wildlings to a fate worse than death. At Hardhome, Jon saw a threat looming larger than centuries of petty squabbles with the wildlings. He chose to fight for all the living. Well, Jon fought nobly. Jon fought valiantly. And Jon died.
The White Wolf
Jon’s death was like a stab to the heart of many Thrones fans. The hero dies—again? Fortunately, a certain priestess who follows a certain Red God who bestows a certain ability to resurrect the dead on certain believers has just returned to Castle Black after abandoning her old flame Stannis. Melisandre may have mastered glamours and shadowbabies, but she seems to be out of her depth at first, admitting that she really has no idea how to pull off this trick. Nevertheless, after a few choice words in High Valyrian and the longest, tensest pause imaginable, Jon bolts upright into the land of the living.
Jon’s first order of business: pay back Alliser and company. Jon takes no pleasure in the task, but in true Stark fashion, the man that passes the sentence swings the sword. Jon’s second order of business, now that his watch has ended with his death and he’s free to concern himself with the comings and goings of the realm: take back Winterfell from Ramsay Bolton, the new Bastard of Winterfell who tortured and imprisoned Jon’s sister Sansa.
After the War of the Five Kings and the Red Wedding, in which so many Stark bannermen perished, few houses are willing to band with Jon to overthrow the Boltons. So, as he’s done countless times now, Jon rushes headlong into a fight against insurmountable odds, with no chance and no choice. As the bodies pile up and Ramsay’s forces close in, it’s looking like Jon’s second life won’t last long. But thanks to a last-minute appearance from the Knights of the Vale (courtesy of Sansa), the Stark loyalists prevail, with Jon later demolishing Ramsay one-on-one in the Winterfell courtyard before handing him off to Sansa to seal her former captor’s fate.
For his efforts, the lords of the North promise to never again abandon House Stark. They also name Jon the new King in the North, a title he accepts uneasily. Like his former position of Lord Commander, he didn’t ask for the job, and there’s a little bit of impostor syndrome at play. He’s not Jon Stark. He shouldn’t be King in the North. And after coming back from death, is he even Jon Snow anymore?
A Special Relationship
This is Jon Snow. He’s King in the North. – Davos Seaworth, Season 7, Episode 3, “The Queen’s Justice”
Winterfell is back in Stark hands, as it should be. But Jon always has his eye on the prize—and in this case, with the Night King’s army amassing beyond the Wall, the prize is “not dying.” When Sam sends word of a large cache of the White Walker kryptonite dragonglass on the isle of Dragonstone, Jon makes the trek to visit its new occupant Daenerys Targaryen.
They don’t exactly hit it off. Dany’s a world-conquering heiress with the three most powerful weapons in the world and as many titles as the Citadel library. Jon Snow’s a man of simpler tastes: just the dragonglass, please, and we’ll be on our way, ma’am. Never mind the fact that the Starks and Targaryens don’t have the friendliest history—and that’s before her dad burned his granddad alive.
But the threat of impending extinction has a way of bringing people together. Jon’s affinity for Dany’s dragons doesn’t hurt either. When he proposes a trip beyond the Wall to fetch proof that the Army of the Dead is real, Daenerys isn’t fooling anybody with her non-chalant reaction.
The voyage north goes about as far south as possible, with Jon’s ranging party surrounded by the undead on a frozen lake. Daenerys swoops in on dragonback to rescue the crew, but she pays a heavy price: The Night Kings spears her dragon Viserion with an ice javelin, sending her “child” crashing into the ice below. Jon stays behind to fight against the wights, because he’s Jon and that’s his thing, and eventually makes it back to Eastwatch thanks to an assist from Uncle Benjen.
The trip back to Dragonstone is a somber, reflective one, as Jon and Dany bond over all the heroic sacrifice and tragic loss that’s led them here. Neither of them has been lucky in love, and neither likely considered it a part of their future, let alone what (or who) it would look like. The ill-fated expedition gave them both the answer. “You have to see it to know,” Dany says, and we know she’s not just talking about the now-confirmed undead horde they’ve escaped. It’s not long before Jon pledges his sword to Daenerys, and during their next boat ride, he pledges just about everything else. (Lest the scene get too sentimental, their tryst is intercut with a helpful exposition from Bran Stark: she’s his aunt.)
Regardless of the Targaryens’ twisted family tree, you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the pairing: C’mon, he gets Daenerys’ dragons, and Daenerys, too? What about those subverted fantasy tropes from earlier? But consider this: They’re both ostracized members of Great Houses. They’ve had to fend for themselves in barren wastelands. They were thrust into positions of leadership well before they had any real business being there, but grew into capable rulers. Oh, and they both had unbelievable brushes with the supernatural—Dany should’ve died in a fire (twice!), while Jon actually did die next to a wall of ice. It’s like when two incredibly famous people start dating. Well, obviously they’re together. Who else can possibly understand each other the way they do?
Of course, their shared genetic material promises to be problematic, even in a world that tolerates extraordinary levels of family intimacy. In addition to the general gross-out factor, and the minor issue that Jon now officially has a better claim to the Iron Throne than Dany, have we considered what it’s going to do to Jon when he finds out? He’s Jon Snow. That’s the bastard surname in the North. He’s King in the North. He’s spent his whole life in the North. There’s a reason we slotted him in Stark Week and not Targaryen Week. He ain’t never gonna call himself “Aegon Targaryen,” no matter what Samwell Tarly uncovers in some dusty scroll. When he finds out his true heritage—and he will, because nobody on Thrones gets to go very long without an identity crisis—prepare for new levels of brooding from TV’s resident smolderer.
And that’s not even considering the whole Great War, which, from the looks of the season eight trailer, is about to go down any second. Dany and Jon both know what’s stake here, and both have pledged to fight for the living with everything they’ve got. But even if they should succeed in defeating the Army of the Dead, will there be anything left to rule?
When it comes to the final season of Game of Thrones, we know about as much as Jon Snow does. Stay tuned to HBO Sunday nights via DIRECTV to discover how the song of ice and fire ends.
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