On Jon Snow, and why he’s the weakest part of Game of Thrones

Spoilers through Season 6.

A year ago, I watched the Season 6 Finale of Game of Thrones with a friend of mine. That’s the episode, you may remember, that officially confirms “R + L = J”— or, in slightly less nerdy terms, the theory that Jon Snow’s real parents are Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. For most of us, this revelation was more a foregone conclusion than anything else. I, like many, had figured this was coming for years, but in the moment, watching that episode, I was still shocked to see it finally happening. This friend of mine had no idea that “R + L = J” was a thing at all, and I was pretty excited to see his reaction. But as the episode came to a close and the credits rolled, all he had to say was, “really? Did they really have to do that?”

I was surprised, because this theory had become so grounded in my mind that I couldn’t imagine someone disliking, or being surprised by, its existence. Don’t get me wrong— I don’t like it either— but I had accepted it years ago, and besides, no one else had ever joined in my distaste for it. And so I asked him why he didn’t like it. He explained that one of the things he like best about Game of Thrones was how, despite the dragons and the ice zombies, the show had always kept on the grayer, more realistic side of storytelling. There are prophecies, to be sure, but there’s also a sense that nothing is stable, that we can never tell what’s going to happen. There’s a constant reassurance of the existence of the Red God and his Azor Ahai, but you don’t really feel like there’s anyone watching over these characters— and that includes the author. They’re on their own.

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More hair than personality.

Ned Stark’s death, so early on in the show, proved that no human is above the harsh reality of this world. The ostensible protagonist isn’t safe, not even in his own story. Most television shows don’t hesitate to get their central characters out of supposedly impossible situations with a deus ex machina, but Game of Thrones reminds us that that’s not really true to life. Even as the sword is being raised over Ned Stark’s head, we refuse to believe it’s really going to happen until we see it. Just as we think Oberyn Martell has defeated the Mountain, he’s undone by his own rage and arrogance. It’s painful and gruesome, bold and unapologetic. Most series show us what we want to see. Game of Thrones doesn’t like to make it so easy.

Jon Snow undoes all of that. While Ned and Robb and the various direwolves can’t escape the cruelty of this world, Jon has somehow risen above it, clad in apparently indestructible “plot armor”— what we call a particular character’s ability to escape seemingly inescapable situations, because the plot depends on their continued existence. Fighting a losing battle against the Wildling army, Jon is suddenly saved by the arrival of Stannis and his men. Betrayed and murdered by those he trusted (the number-one cause of death in Westeros), Melisandre resurrects him after keeping us in suspense for all of one episode. Surrounded by Ramsay’s forces at Winterfell, he is rescued by the knights of the Vale mere seconds before agonizing defeat.

This does not happen with any other character in the show. Compare the other two characters who are most likely not going to die any time soon: Daenerys and Tyrion. They, too, have found themselves in difficult situations, but when they’ve gotten out of them it’s due to their own savvy and skill. When Tyrion faced terrible odds at the Battle of Blackwater, it was his own plan to use Wildfire that saved the day. When Daenerys was captured by the Dothraki horde and brought to Vaes Dothrak to stand trial, she used her powers to kill the khals and convince the Dothraki to join her. These aren’t deus ex machinas— they’re people using impressive skills wisely. Jon, by contrast, isn’t getting himself out of these situations; rather, he’s gotten very good at being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people. And now, he’s got the ultimate parentage. He isn’t a mere mortal; he is the Song of Ice and Fire. This last development cements Jon’s place in the world of Game of Thrones as separate, superior, special.

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Even Kit Harington doesn’t really like him.

One of the things that makes Game of Thrones such a special show— and one of the reasons so many people who aren’t fantasy fans watch it— is that it avoids the clichés commonly found in fantasy writing. Its characters are almost never outright good or bad, black or white. The show thrives in that ambiguity. There are a few characters who are completely good or bad— Ned and Joffrey come to mind, respectively— but mostly they come in shades of gray. Jaime pushed a kid out of a tower once, but we still kind of like him. Margaery Tyrell was smug and conniving, but she would probably would have been a good ruler if she’d ever gotten any real power. Robb Stark was honorable and well-intentioned, but also a gigantic fuckup. You get the gist.

But Jon isn’t really like that. He’s unfailingly selfless, brave, intelligent, and honorable. He doesn’t make mistakes. His flaws are job-interview flaws, like trusting too much and being too forgiving. When things go wrong, it’s because nobody listened to his wise words, because other people were the Bad Guys. When he has to hurt people, like Ygritte, it’s because of his commitment to a higher cause. When Melisandre tries to seduce him, he resists because of his devotion to the long-dead Ygritte. When he executes Thorne and the other mutineers, he insists on doing it himself because that’s the most honorable way to do it. When he reluctantly rises in power, first as Lord Commander and then as King in the North, it’s not because he wants prestige but rather because everyone else knows just how good a leader he’d be.

This is not how real humans operate— we mortals have flaws, which is why I prefer Daenerys. Because all Daenerys wants to do is make the world a better place, and she, like the rest of us, fucks up. Severely, and often. She has had to fight tooth and nail to get where she is, facing down asshole after asshole who come after her power, her dragons, and her body. Moreover, the issues Daenerys deals with are much, much less cut-and-dry than the ones Jon faces. Example: the question of “should we help the Wildlings move south of the Wall so they’re not overrun by the evil and scary White Walkers” is a much easier one to answer than that of “how do we best abolish slavery in an entire region and set up a new economic system that doesn’t leave the place in ruins but also makes life better for the former slaves, but that can also be implemented fairly quickly because we kind of have other places to be and we honestly didn’t mean to start a whole thing with this, we just didn’t think slavery should be a thing anymore.”

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With great power comes great responsibility. Unless you’re Jon.

Long story short: I don’t like Jon Snow because his storyline bores me. It is without a doubt the most clichéd storyline of the show and the most removed from reality. It’s the one that most emphasizes traditional manly heroism. It’s the one that most egregiously reduces its few female characters to the status of Love Interest. It’s safe, formulaic, and archetypal.

Maybe you like Jon Snow, maybe even for the very reasons I’ve laid out for not liking him. That’s fine — we all have different tastes. But you’ve got to admit that in a show so renowned for it complexity, unpredictability, and realism, Jon is fairly lacking in all of those things. I like Hero’s Journey storylines as much as the next person — if I didn’t, I couldn’t love Star Wars and Harry Potter as much as I do. But it’s just not what I want from Game of Thrones. I want to be challenged, surprised, and Jon Snow just doesn’t do it for me. I’m not saying I don’t want a Christ figure; that was going to happen one way or another on a show like this. I just want him (or her— I’m still really hoping it’s Daenerys) to be interesting, to be held to the same standard that the rest of Game of Thrones is. 

Maybe Game of Thrones has a few tricks up its sleeve yet that will make me love Jon as much as I do the other characters on this show, and to be honest I believe they do. I really do trust that Game of Thrones won’t take the easy route, and will lead Jon down the interesting path that characters on this show deserve. But I’m also starting to get a little nervous.

On Jon Snow, and why he’s the weakest part of Game of Thrones