“Love is the death of duty,” Maester Aemon tells Jon Snow back in Season 1, explaining why the men of the Night’s Watch – a ragtag military order – are forbidden from starting families of their own. “What is honour compared to a woman’s love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms?” he continues, unwittingly describing Ned Stark, who, to honour a promise to his dying sister Lyanna decades earlier, takes her newborn son Jon and brings him up as his own.
Raised as a bastard, Jon is actually Aegon Targaryen, son of Rhaegar Targaryen, the heir to the Iron Throne. It’s an explosive, bombastic secret, revealed in the most intimate way possible in season 8 – by his best friend, in front of the statues of Ned, the man he thought was his father this whole time, and Lyanna, the woman who’s really his mother. Jon’s first thought isn’t kingship or status, it’s anger at what he perceives to be his foster father’s honour being besmirched. In true Game of Thrones fashion, a man killed in the penultimate episode of season 1 of the show still manages to cast a long shadow over it 10 years later.
Like Ned Stark before him, Jon becomes more than a man as the show progresses. He becomes an idea. The Azor Ahai, The Prince That Was Promised. In a series you’d be hard-pressed to identify the main characters of, Jon is the titular one, the literal Song of Ice and Fire, born to a mother of the snowy North and a father descended from a long line of dragonriders.
His identity as a Targaryen prince never becomes his destiny, relegated instead to plot device meant to stir up Daenerys’ dormant madness
In a show that thrives on unexpectedly killing off its characters, Jon’s one of two to be brought back from the dead. That the Lord of Light decided to resurrect him led many to believe he was destined for something greater. Seasons passed and that great moment did not come. Predicted to kill the Night King and end the Long Night that was prophesied, it’s his sister, Arya, who gets the job done. When Jon’s big moment does come, it had all the makings of explosive, poetic drama – as the ‘shield that guards the realms of men’, he puts a knife through the heart of a mad queen bent on sacking cities and murdering innocents around the world. What really transpires is him stabbing the only other Targaryen left in the world after she’d promised they’d rule together. Jon’s lost the two great loves of his life, the second by his own hand. Love is the death of duty, but sometimes, duty is the death of love. The idea that a God would resurrect him just to kill the love of his life casts deep doubts on the idea of faith and religion itself.
For his treason, Jon ends up at the same place he started out – Castle Black. Only this time he isn’t there by choice, but sentenced to a life in exile. The argument that he’s come full circle holds much less weight when you consider that the rest of the Starks have become the best, most empowered versions of themselves. Raised an outcast, Jon must now live out the rest of his life as one.
There’s a case to be made for why he should’ve taken the Iron Throne instead. Unlike his brother Robb, his military acumen is sketchy at best (though that’s what a Master of War is for), but he’s stood up against invading cavalries and undead dragons with nothing but a sword in hand and an unshakeable courage. Unlike his sister Sansa, he hasn’t really tapped into the vein of what it is the people really need, but he’s taken a knife in the heart for them. What he does have is the unparalleled ability to unite people from all reaches of the realm, something the fractious continent of Westeros needs now more than ever. Maybe that’s what Tyrion’s criteria for selecting the next ruler of Westeros should’ve been, although his other – ‘a good story’ – fits Jon too. What better story than that of a bastard who joined the Night’s Watch, became its Lord Commander, died, was resurrected, lost his home, fought its usurper to get it back, became King in the North, rode a dragon and saved a realm?
A lifetime at the Night’s Watch as its 1000th Lord Commander is not the worst fate for a character on a show on which others have been beheaded, burnt alive by dragonfire and devoured by their own hounds. But the very reason Jon joined the outfit in season 1 was to find a sense of place in a world that wasn’t kind to bastards. Now that he knows who he is more than ever, being banished to the bleak North without home, family or honour seems particularly cruel. His identity as a Targaryen prince never becomes his destiny, relegated instead to plot device meant to stir up Daenerys’ dormant madness.
“A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing,” said Maseter Aemon once. Bound by the laws of the Night’s Watch, Jon can never marry or father children, which makes his fate all the more heartbreaking.
Born at the Tower of Joy, he winds up at quite possibly the most miserable place in Westeros. And what a tragedy that is.