It was a matter of when, not if. And it turns out that Game of Thrones didn’t even wait that long to resolve its year-long cliffhanger. On Sunday night, during the episode “Home”, Jon Snow was resurrected.
Kit Harington, the man who plays the undead man of mystery, has already “apologized” for lying, even though nobody believed him. Jon Snow’s death and resurrection wasn’t just a plot twist, it was a circus. This is partly because fans have had an entire year to go nuts and chase theories down every conceivable rabbit hole, and partly because Game of Thrones is a force of pop-culture nature just as much as it is an hour long drama. But it’s mostly because of HBO’s troll-tastic marketing — which included featuring Jon’s bloody face on the Season 6 posters and coy interviews in which the actor, showrunners, and HBO execs all swore up and down Jon Snow was deader than the deadest dead body in the history of death.
It’s impossible to divorce Jon Snow’s return from the mania surrounding it: The storm of articles and theories; the smug fans; the talk show references; the hysterical Kit Haringon Hair Watch pictures; the shout-outs from Obama. In order to determine if it worked, then, we have to examine it from both a storytelling perspective and as a study in hype.
From a storytelling angle, the scene itself was well-crafted. It nodded at alternate fan theories — Jon would rise from the flames of his funeral pyre; Jon would wharg into Ghost — while constructing a scene that was almost matter-of-fact in its delivery. The show knew we figured out that Melisandre would bring him back and it could have responded by tweaking it. But in a rare moment of grace, Game of Thrones decided to give the viewers what we want. “Yep, you knew it was coming, and here it is,” the scene said.
It was the show’s most satisfying “I told you so” moment since that time Littlefinger shoved Lysa Arryn to her doom through the Moon Door. Moments don’t have to be shocking to be satisfying — and in a show that’s been accused of an overreliance on shock value, this was a nice reminder.
But after a year’s build up of hysteria, did Game of Thrones doom itself to being anticlimactic? Would the show have been better off executing the plot twist in the span of one season and go the Kevin Garvey route, rather than give the hype a full year to keep building like the Night King’s army?
On a mercenary level, of course not. A record of nearly 11 million people tuned in to “The Red Woman” to find out the latest on Jon Snow. People even shirked their regular porn time to tune in. It makes sense for the people on the business side to be gleeful about this.
But that’s precisely what rings hollow: Of course we know television is a business, but as viewers and critics, we like to think of it as an art. Unless you’re a hate-watcher, you tune into Game of Thrones because you’re invested in the drama of Westeros (maybe not Essos); in the fates of characters like Arya and Jon. You like this show for its willingness to boldly kill its darlings, do the unexpected, and subvert fantasy tropes.
By doing the expected then, and by making this move so tied into the show’s commercial aspects more than any plot point prior, Game of Thrones is no longer positioning itself as the boldest show on TV. It was far ballsier when Black Sails killed its own fan-favorite character and let him stay dead, fan-rage be damned.
Now, Game of Thrones doesn’t need to keep one-upping itself, of course — that model isn’t sustainable, and Jon’s return positions the show to begin gathering its disparate plot threads for its denouement. It would have been poor storytelling to not bring Jon back, as it would render the entire Night’s Watch plot line and the mysteries around his background moot. Audiences don’t appreciate being yanked around, and that’s what his death was. If Game of Thrones was an ordinary show, Jon’s resurrection would be a triumph.
As a study in hype, though, it presents a mixed bag. Even if Jon’s return had involved him hatching out of a dragon’s egg, breathing fire, slaughtering his killers, storming Westeros, and feeding Ramsay to his dogs, people would be complaining about how it played out.
Game of Thrones is now a self-driving car, a behemoth of such epic proportions, it’s impossible for the showrunners or HBO or Kit Harington to control the fan conversations and leaked set pictures of Jon Snow that showed him very much alive. On the one hand, the only way to sanely steer a show like this is for them to put on blinders and tell the story they want to tell. That, too, creates a mixed bag, with the occasional tone-deaf approach to sexual violence. On the other hand, it’s impossible to divorce the show from its frenzy — and the creators should know it.
There is no other show like Game of Thrones, and perhaps there was no right way to navigate the Jon Snow situation. But because Jon’s death and resurrection worked so well on a viewership and cultural dialogue level, other shows will now certainly be trying this. They would do well to navigate the hype machine responsibly and remember that The Man Who Creates The Hype Must Swing The Sword.