Game of Thrones is about manipulation and power. The plot of the series focuses on a battle between the most powerful families of Westeros for who gets to sit on the massive Iron Throne. It's a story that rewards characters who find ways around the system, who either work in the shadows or are clever enough to avoid disaster.
Except for one. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is meant to be one of the most dashing heroes in HBO's adaptation of George R. R. Martin's popular book series, but his character is one of the least interesting on television. The character is so weakly constructed that his most interesting story involves a secret he can't possibly know the answer to.
And none of this is Harington's fault, because no actor could over come the central problem here: Jon Snow is a plot device, not a character.
Jon Snow is a weakly constructed character
Though Jon possesses slightly more nuance in Martin's books, he still suffers from being the only character in the series who fits squarely into a traditional fantasy novel archetype — the boy of ignoble origins who has nobility thrust upon him. The bastard son of Eddard "Ned" Stark of Winterfell, Jon has risen in rank amid the Night's Watch, a brotherhood of men who defend the realm from invasion, and (without spoiling major plot twists) it seems likely he has an outside shot at sitting on the Iron Throne when all is said and done.
It's the TV series that causes problems. Where the books offer frequent glimpses into Jon's inner monologue, the construction of his character on TV is mostly limited to his interactions with other people.
From the first, viewers are led to feel bad for him. In one of the opening scenes, a perished direwolf (think a wolf, only larger) is found by the side of the road with abandoned pups. It's Jon who notes that there are five pups — one for each of the legitimate Stark children — but seemingly not one for poor, isolated Jon.
In the early episodes, Jon's character is primarily defined by this kind of wallowing. This makes some degree of sense. As a bastard child, Jon was brought up in the Stark household but ostracized. As the son of another woman, he was intentionally kept out of the inner circle of love and general badassery that the Starks inhabit. In some characters, that would have led to bitterness. With Jon, it led to glumness.
The seeds of Jon Snow's character contain promise. But instead of allowing those painful experiences to mold him into a man who feels deeply hurt and deeply misunderstood, he mostly seems to be someone who can't take a single action.
Again, that largely works in the books because readers can get into Jon's head. On TV, however, it mostly results in a character who has things happen to him, rather than causing things to happen.
The story uses Jon. It doesn't explain him.
Even more frustrating is how much potential Jon's story has to be interesting. The Night's Watch, in theory, could be a great premise for a TV series in and of themselves. They stand atop a giant wall of ice at the northernmost point of the Seven Kingdoms, guarding it from men and monsters on the other side. The Night's Watch, as you'd expect, are a group of misfits — sons who embarrass their fathers, convicts, and people with nowhere else to go.
But even while on the wall, Jon mostly spends his time glowering about not being treated well enough, as if he knows he's a heroic character from a popular fantasy series and wishes everybody else would get with the program.
Jon's "trials" on the wall include being a better fighter than everyone else, and getting upset to be given a job as a steward instead of as a ranger. In the first couple of seasons, Jon mopes, is forced into several situations against his will, and generally feels sorry for himself.
In the third and fourth seasons, Jon is at least thrust into a love story. He goes undercover among the Wildlings who live beyond the wall and forms a crush on a girl named Ygritte. Even here, Jon is dragged along. Ygritte makes most of the decisions in their relationship, leaving Jon as the man to whom things happen.
This might be palatable with even an ounce of emotion, but Jon doesn't offer us that, either. Even in season four's biggest battle — between the Night's Watch and the Wildlings — Jon remains stoically unfazed as chaos erupts around him.
And it's as if the show knows the character's shortcomings. Where season two's battle episode focused intently on a handful of characters at the center of that battle, the season-four episode keeps leaving Jon behind to focus on the epic sweep of the conflict. Jon doesn't even seem all that ruffled when Ygritte dies in battle.
As she dies, Ygritte mutters, "You know nothing, Jon Snow," a constant refrain from their relationship. But it's more than that. It's also a reminder that at Jon's center is a secret more interesting than anything he says or does. For that secret's safe delivery, Jon Snow has become nothing more than a plot device.
The most interesting part of Jon Snow is his secret
What's amazing is just how much time the show spends on this story considering how lacking it is. This attention seems completely unnecessary until you remember the secret at the center of Jon Snow — his parentage.
David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who shepherded the books to the small screen, have said they convinced Martin they should be the ones to adapt the books for TV because they correctly guessed who Jon's mother was — a question that has been the source of endless fan speculation. The most prominent fan theory suggests that Jon isn't the son of Ned Stark at all. Instead, he's the son of Ned's sister, Lyanna, and the former prince of the Seven Kingdoms, Rhaegar Targaryen.
That would give Jon and his fluffy hair an excellent claim to the Iron Throne — and almost the same one as the only other living Targaryen child, Daenerys Targaryen, who is currently exiled on another continent but slowly mustering support for an invasion of the Seven Kingdoms.
Though Daenerys is stranded in a far-off corner of the show's universe, her story has momentum, driven as it is by her desire to build a force capable of winning her the Iron Throne, as well as her finely tuned moral sense. (Daenerys, for instance, is against slavery, which is commonplace in the series' world.) Also she raises dragons and eats hearts. She's just cool.
And yes, there's some potential for when Daenerys and Jon finally meet — especially if the fan theory about Jon's parentage is correct. But that still means the focus for the character isn't on his present; it's on a mystery that will develop sometime in the future of the show. And that's the problem. What makes an interesting character isn't endlessly spinning intrigue — it's depth. And that's exactly what Jon Snow lacks.
Watch: 'The fascinating process of human decomposition'