Every week throughout season five, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of the season finale, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, politics writer Andrew Prokop, and executive editor Matthew Yglesias. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Andrew Prokop: Matt, after Game of Thrones’ season five finale, I kept thinking of Todd’s criticism from a few weeks back — that showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have become increasingly reliant on delivering shocking "moments," but are failing to properly set them up or explore their aftermaths. This, I think, perfectly describes why I was so underwhelmed by the finale's most shocking moment of all: the killing of Jon Snow.
Because, in an attempt to drastically simplify the Wall plotline, the show has eliminated the key feature that made this climactic moment so interesting in the books — namely, that Jon Snow really does break his oaths to the Night's Watch, which makes the attack on him far more justifiable.
The rationale and setup for Jon's murder in the finale were quite simple: Jon had let the wildlings come south of the Wall. The Night’s Watch men don't like the wildlings. So they decided Jon was a "traitor," lured him outside, and stabbed him.
Importantly, Game of Thrones is unambiguous in presenting Jon's decision to let the wildlings through as the correct one. It’s both the humanitarian choice (thousands of them would have died otherwise) and the practical choice (all those corpses would have been added to the White Walkers’ army). Meanwhile, the members of the Night's Watch can't see that, because they're bigoted and shortsighted. They're also treacherous, having ruthlessly decided to eliminate Jon one night without any specific provocation. In short, Jon is good and his Night's Watch brethren are evil.
This all makes for a reasonably entertaining morality play, but Jon's downfall in the books is both far more compelling and far more moving.
After Jon brings the wildlings south in A Dance With Dragons, he suddenly receives a threatening and taunting letter, apparently from Ramsay Bolton. Ramsay claims to have triumphed in battle against Stannis and killed him. But Ramsay's bride — who Jon thinks is his sister Arya — has escaped, due to a plot Jon hatched. Ramsay demands that Jon hand her and several other hostages over to him, or die.
The escaped girl (who, Jon is unaware, isn't actually Arya) hasn't yet arrived at the Wall, but from Jon's perspective, he is faced with a key decision. When he swore his vows to the Night's Watch, he was supposed to leave his family behind and not interfere with the politics of Westeros. Now he must choose — does he surrender his sister to a cruel monster, or does he fight back?
Jon opts to fight. He announces that he'll leave the Wall and ride south to attack Ramsay. And he rallies the wildlings to his side, to serve as his army.
It's a genuinely stunning sequence of events where everything seems to be spinning out of control. And it's a crucial turning point in Jon's character development — it's where he crosses the Rubicon.
Jon's decision to attack the Boltons is a violation of the Night's Watch's neutrality. "No man can ever say I made my brothers break their vows," Jon thinks. "If this is oathbreaking, the crime is mine and mine alone." But it's also a perfectly understandable decision. Ramsay is an evil monster, and we want to see him taken down, while Jon is a genuinely good person who wants to help people. Plus, could we really still cheer for a hero who knowingly put his sister back into Ramsay's hands, rather than trying to help her?
Still, from the perspective of the Night's Watch men, Jon's actions are treasonous. Jon has resolved to attack Westeros with his own wildling army. He has betrayed his oath, for his own personal reasons. He couldn't leave his family ties behind for the greater good, like he swore to.
In the books, many members of the Night's Watch are genuinely shortsighted and bigoted, just as they are on the show. However, they believe they at least tried to give Jon the benefit of the doubt, and that he forced their hands. So they kill him before he can march south, saying they're doing it "for the Watch." It's a tragic moment — their decision seems likely to be a terrible mistake — but one that feels completely earned.
When it comes to adapting the books, I'm not a purist. I completely expect the TV show to change and simplify things. But it annoys me when the show keeps a shocking moment but strips it of its essence and meaning for the characters involved. Game of Thrones did that here, and what ended up on screen rang hollow.
Overall, it seems the showrunners were too afraid to portray Jon as an oath-breaker. Instead, they wanted to keep him noble, a pure hero betrayed by black-hearted goons who simply couldn't see the big picture. They preferred to tell us what to think and whom to side with, rather than let us decide for ourselves. The result is that the show's Jon is a much less interesting character, and that his death scene is much less powerful.
Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.