Spoiler alert: Jon Snow lives!
The question is what, exactly, this spoils. For a vocal contingent of Game of Thrones‘ viewership, the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch resurrection by the sorceress Melisandre, as seen on last night’s episode, taints the whole damn thing. To some it’s a cheap dodge of the life-and-death consequences that have made the show one of TV’s most unpredictable pop-cultural phenomenons. And to faithful book-readers, the 11th-hour resurrection takes the wind right out of author George R.R. Martin’s sails, showing us something that should have been his and his alone to show. Jon’s back, alright, but he’s brought a major debate with him: How does this change the rules of the Game?
To start answering the question, let’s go back to the source. Have we witnessed Jon’s comeback in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels yet? No — his chapters in the fifth and most recent volume, The Winds of Winter, ended with his final thoughts as he bled out in the snow. But it’s hard to consider this a “spoiler” for the books regardless, since readers have been all but certain he’d return for a million reasons. There’s his central place in the narrative so far, past the points where his father, brother, and stepmother exited the game. There’s the presence of not only Melisandre but his direwolf Ghost near the scene of the crime (the books have established that dead wargs can slip into the bodies of their animal companions when their own bodies are killed). And there are nearly countless prophecies, flashbacks, dreams, visions, and foreshadowings, largely eschewed by the show till now, indicating that there’s more to Jon than meets the eye. The reason so many people expected Lord Snow to rise again for the past year is right there between the lines, if you happened to read them.
Even so, the specifics of his resurrection are likely going to play out quite differently in the books than in the show. “Traditional” examples of life after death we’ve seen otherwise have left the reanimated in a greatly diminished state, emotionally or mentally. Think of Khal Drogo as a drooling vegetable, guerilla leader Beric Dondarrion losing his memories of his old life, or Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane returning as a mute, blue-faced monster. Whether out of courtesy George R.R. Martin or a desire to “keep it simple, stupid,” showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss avoided the more complex magical methods readers have speculated about. They’ve pared the bastard son’s return down to the bare essentials: Mel does her spell, everyone gives up, Ghost perks up, Snow wakes up. You could bet the Iron Bank of Braavos that readers still have some surprises in store for them.
But what does Jon’s supernatural survival mean for the show itself? First and foremost, it means you are, indeed, watching a fantasy show. Melisandre’s shadow-demon babies, Arya’s shape-shifting assassins, that Franken Mountain monster, last week’s reveal of the Red Woman’s true form, the White Walkers and their undead army, Dany’s freaking dragons: The rules of reality have already been bent left, right, and centre, up to and including several resurrections. Our boy in black’s big comeback makes perfect sense within the genre; the idea that this represents some unforgivable breach of audience trust has got to make you wonder what show people have been watching. On the flip side, the complaint that this was too easy to see coming is equally bogus: Isn’t that what foreshadowing is for? Fiction isn’t a magic trick designed to keep audiences in the dark until the big reveal; it works on levels of categorical conventions, theme, tone, character, and plot that can all trump the need for a perfect surprise.
Compare this to The Walking Dead and its propensity to drop characters into situations of near-certain death, only to miraculously extract them minutes, or even months, later — most infamously, tossing fan-favorite Glenn into an entire zombie horde, then violating every tenet of storytelling logic and common sense to have him survive unscathed. The only thing protecting him in that situation was so-called “plot armor”: He was too important to the writers to kill, so they threatened him for some cheap thrills, knowing full well he was essentially invincible. (For the time being, at least … talk to the comics’ readers.)
As we’ve established, however, last night’s “shocking twist” works within the established rules of the world Jon lives (and died) in. Moreover, the conflict that led to his murder had been built up for literally five full seasons, meaning that both his death and his resurrection had equal in-story precedence. This wasn’t a dirty trick for an easy audience pop.
Most importantly, though, “Jon Snow lives!” marks a turning point for the series. While kings, queens, lords, and leaders all over Westeros and Essos keep on fighting one another for supremacy, leaving an untold number of bodies in their wake, the guy whose literal job was to lead the fight against the the dead has risen from the dead himself to do it. The meaning here should be clear to anyone who’s seen The Lord of the Rings and remembers Gandalf the White — or, for that matter, anyone with a passing familiarity with the central belief of Christianity. For various reasons he may wind up sharing his messianic role with other main characters (pop quiz: which two leads get along best with the dragons?), but for now the message is this: The game is over. The White Walkers are playing for keeps, and Jon Snow is the saviour sent to stop them. It’s not just one man who was born again last night: It was the entire spirit of the show.