They were the stabs felt ’round the world.
When the Night’s Watch committed mutiny and murdered Lord Commander Jon Snow at the end of the fifth season of Game of Thrones, the show left viewers with a massive cliffhanger: was Jon, one of the main characters of the series, truly dead? I’d like to say fandom was divided on this issue, but it seemed (in my social and online circles) that 99% of people were convinced Jon being resurrected was inevitable. The show made sure to highlight Melisandre arriving at Castle Black right before the stabbing, and we’d already seen Beric Dondarrion resurrected earlier in the series through the power of the Lord of Light.
A popular theory (and my personal belief) about the decision to leave us on a cliffhanger was that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wanted George R.R. Martin to be able to have the honor of unveiling the truth about Jon’s fate in his new novel, “The Winds of Winter.” After all, the character was stabbed in a book that came out in 2011, leaving fans wondering for years about what would happen to him. Since Martin is notorious for taking a long time to write his dense novels, this would essentially be his last chance to bask in the glory of knowing that he’d beaten the show to some massive plot points. But sadly, Martin missed his deadline, and the book wasn’t released between seasons as intended. The showrunners gave him his window, and he whiffed.
So after a tortuous off-season in which every cast member was asked a billion times about Jon’s fate, set photos and videos became analyzed like the Zapruder film, and Kit Harington’s every move was tracked and posted by rabid Twitter users, the showrunners brought Jon back to life at the end of the second episode of season six. Entertainment Weekly, HBO’s mouthpiece of choice for all official Game of Thrones announcements (and set visits, interviews, and post-mortems) released a huge cover story, and that’s where the trouble started for me. The network put forth the narrative that the character’s resurrection was going to change him in a profound way, with the EW writer claiming “the Jon Snow who wakes up has changed dramatically.” Here’s the worst example:
EW: How does death change Jon Snow?
Harington: At first I was worried that he’ll wake up and he’s the same, back to normal — then there’s no point in that death. He needs to change. There’s a brilliant line when Melisandre asks: “What did you see?” And he says: “Nothing, there was nothing at all.” That cuts right to our deepest fear, that there’s nothing after death. And that’s the most important line in the whole season for me. Jon’s never been afraid of death, and that’s made him a strong and honorable person. He realizes something about his life now: He has to live it, because that’s all there is. He’s been over the line and there’s nothing there. And that changes him. It literally puts the fear of God into him. He doesn’t want to die ever again. But if he does, he doesn’t want to be brought back.
Benioff said something similar in that week’s Inside The Episode video:
We were talking about the idea that you do lose something and you’re forever changed. Not in a supernatural way — he’s still Jon — but he’s been dead. That is a haunting experience because if that’s really what’s beyond, and what’s beyond is nothing, just the terror of knowing that…
For me, it seems obvious that Harington had a right to be worried. Jon came back, and while he was a little more shell-shocked than usual for a while, he pretty much seemed like the same character we knew from before. For the show to truly hammer home the idea that death and resurrection changed this character in a major way, we needed to see A) some actions that were wildly different than anything he’d done before so we could experience his internal change through his outward behavior, or B) spend more quiet time with Jon wrestling with what it all means. He barely even mentions his resurrection again until his brief talk with Melisandre before the Battle of The Bastards, and even then, it was more about what kind of god would bring him back only to kill him again than it was about why he was brought back in the first place.
I’m sure some people have stopped reading this and already jumped into the comments and written about how I shouldn’t consider interviews with the actors or the showrunners to be part of the season’s narrative, but even if you take away what Benioff, Weiss, and Harington said, one would still assume being brought back from the dead would change a character in a pretty major way. Even in a fantasy show like Game of Thrones, that’s not something that happens every day, and plus, we saw how being brought back wore down Beric when he was resurrected time and again by Thoros of Myr.
I figured maybe they’d bring him back for some huge event, and the Battle of The Bastards certainly fit that description, but Jon even managed to screw that up, breaking his own rules and charging in to try to save Rickon and falling right into Ramsay’s trap. He said himself in the finale that the only reason he survived that situation was because Sansa called in the Knights of the Vale, a decision he had nothing to do with. I could be convinced that there may not have been a battle at all without Jon being resurrected, but I feel like Sansa may have had enough clout in the North to eventually rally some troops and make it happen, even if she eventually may have had to use Littlefinger’s men as her primary attacking force from the start instead of using them as a sneaky cavalry.
Sure, bringing Jon back will almost certainly have some huge implications down the road. With his parentage finally revealed and his new role as the King in the North, there’s clearly more in store for Jon as this story progresses, but as for the way season six specifically approached and executed his resurrection and his (and other characters’) reaction(s) to it, I hate to say that for the most part, they blew it. I didn’t feel like the character was any different after he died than he was before Alliser Thorne, Ollie, and the rest of his scheming brothers plunged their knives into him.