In most video games, the player controls a character and attempts to overcome some obstacle. If your character dies, he or she gets resurrected and tries again. Some games limit the number of lives you can use before getting a Game Over, but even then you are usually given another chance to beat the game. In other words, in video games, death is merely a learning experience.
Not so in Game of Thrones. For the most part, death has been a shockingly permanent feature of the show. In interviews, George R.R. Martin himself has said resurrection should not be cheap or easy. He has insisted that death must have consequences and that characters brought back from the dead should undergo some sort of transformation. After all, knowing that you died should be a traumatic experience.
After last week’s episode (Season 6, Episode 2 “Home”) confirmed that Jon Snow would once again join the realm of the living, online commentators focused on whether or not Jon’s resurrection meant Game of Thrones had fallen prey to conventional fantasy tropes. As New York Times critic James Poniewozik tweeted, we won’t really know until we see how the aftermath plays out over the rest of the season. “Oathbreakers” begins to show us that aftermath.
“Was the Game of Thrones Twist a Good Idea? Depends on How the Aftermath Plays Through the Season” –most accurate, least-read hot take
— James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) May 2, 2016
The most interesting aspect about the episode is that Jon doesn’t view his resurrection as a second chance at life. Unlike nearly every video game character, Jon doesn’t simply accept the extra life and continue on with his mission. Even though the effect of the murder was undone, the cause was not. The fact of his death means he failed as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. This knowledge shakes Jon’s confidence. After executing the men who stabbed him, Jon resigns as Lord Commander and leaves the Nights Watch.
Alliser Thorne, Olly, and the other hanged men are certainly the oathbreakers referenced in this episode’s title. But so too is Jon Snow. The Night’s Watch is supposed to be a commitment for life. Those who walk away from the black are deemed traitors. Before his death, Jon Snow was nothing if not solemn, a man who took his oaths seriously. After his death, he casually abandons his post at the Wall without even mentioning his oath. Which leads to the question of whether or not the oath can – or should – bind a man who has come back from the dead. Is the Jon Snow who breaks an oath so readily still the same man as the one who first swore it?
On the one hand, it seems clear that the character played by Kit Harington in episode 3 is supposed to be Jon Snow. There’s no indication that a spirit or demon inhabited Jon’s body. Jon remembers his life and friends. He behaves as he had previously, for the most part. This is in most respects still the same Jon, the serious and gloomy character we’ve gotten to know over the past 5 years. Yet, Jon Snow did die in both body and mind. He has already made decisions he would not have had he not died. Jon’s character arc has been irretrievably altered by his death. He can never be the same person again.
It’s too early to issue a final verdict on Jon Snow’s resurrection, but I’m encouraged to see that the show is giving it the weight it deserves. Jon is not merely restarting the level and trying again. So far, it looks like the story will avoid the usual fantasy trope of having a character come back from the death stronger and wiser. If anything, Jon seems weaker, less confident, and less likely to take on a White Walker army.
Jon’s death could even make Jon a more interesting character. Aside from Ned Stark, Jon Snow was the character who most easily fit the classic fantasy mold (bastard son, noble, faithful, great warrior, etc.). In a world like Game of Thrones with so many shades of grey, Jon always seemed out of place, and even at times somewhat boring. Jon Snow post-resurrection seems less bound by codes of honor and oaths. I don’t expect resurrected Snow to suddenly start behaving like a Lannister, but his outlook on life has suddenly become more complicated. And from a storytelling perspective, that can only be a good thing.
My one concern about all this is that it risks cheapening death. In “Home,” Melissandre simply chanted a few magic words and cured death. What’s to stop her from using this power to resurrect anybody who has ever died? Could she bring back Ned Stark, or Myrcella Baratheon? Is death even still a threat to our heroes anymore? At some point the show will need to put some limits on the power of resurrection. Perhaps the resurrected Jon will prove too unstable or unfit, suggesting that resurrection doesn’t completely restore a person. Or Melissandre could die in an upcoming episode, removing her knowledge from the world. However the show decides to deal with the issue, it can’t continue to tell stories in a world where all the characters have extra lives.
Dom Nardi is a Contributing Writer at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published academic articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.