Game of Thrones is over, and with it the dramatic arcs of two figures at the heart of the series. A happy ending was always a far cry for Thrones — this is a George R.R. Martin story, even if envisioned by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff — but even in season 8’s final moments, the ending for Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow was hazy, prophecies and House duties be damned. Only now can we pull all the way back and see their connections, dating to the beginning.
[Ed. note: this post contains major spoilers for the series finale of Game of Thrones]
Although the relationship between Jon and Daenerys had been fizzling out ever since Jon found out about his Targaryen lineage, it was difficult to see one of the pop culture zeitgeist’s most famed heroes slay another. Daenerys, having plummeted into a bottomless pit of chaos and destruction, went too far when she slaughtered thousands of innocents in a frenzy of blood and rage.
“Love is the death of duty,” Jon tells Tyrion, quoting Maester Aemon while contemplating his choice.
“Sometimes, duty is the death of love,” Tyrion replies.
Jon’s duty called, though up until that fateful moment in the series finale, Dany’s story wasn’t radically different from her nephew’s. Although the queen succumbed to the notorious Targaryen madness, Jon is part Targaryen, too, and watching him defy the seemingly hereditary trait accentuated the tragedy of Dany’s descent. The pair were two sides of the same coin, scorched by sweltering dragonfire. Jon, though sentenced to a life as a bastard, had the privilege of being soothed by ice.
Jon killed Daenerys, but they’ve traveled a similar path
In many ways, their relationship began years before the pair even met, as if their narratives were twinned by design. Two children born into a world fighting against them, Jon and Daenerys experienced similarly cruel lives. Both lost their mothers to childbirth, and neither had a path paved to a bright future. In Jon’s case, he was the notorious Bastard of Winterfell, isolated even among his own family; in Dany’s, a fallen Targaryen, forced to live in exile with a vague promise of someday reclaiming her birthright.
The Azor Ahai prophecy, mentioned only in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, is still ambiguous in the HBO adaptation, but it forms another piece of the puzzle that is Jon and Dany’s relationship. Both characters were reborn amidst smoke and salt: Jon was resurrected after being killed by mutineers in season 5, and Dany was reborn in fire alongside her newly hatched dragons in season 1. The parallels in their arcs are poetic — each was hidden away from the world in order to protect them from Robert’s Targaryen-hunting wrath. Daenerys was rushed to Essos, whereas Jon hid in plain sight in the North, under the false pretense that he was Ned Stark’s illegitimate child as opposed to the rightful heir to the Iron Throne.
”I spent my life in foreign lands,” Dany tells Jon in season 7. “So many men have tried to kill me, I don’t remember all their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods. Not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen. The world hadn’t seen a dragon in centuries until my children were born. The Dothraki hadn’t crossed the sea. Any sea. They did for me. I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will.”
This is what ultimately differentiates two characters with similar arcs. Daenerys struggled through a life of hardship and toil, plagued by perpetual loss and suffering. Her strength allowed her to persevere, but betrayal directed her trust inward. She believed in an artificial destiny in which she was the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, to the extent that it largely became her identity. Without the Iron Throne, Dany is empty.
By contrast, Jon never wanted to rule. On several occasions he attempted to avoid any authoritative position, only to have leadership duties thrust upon him. Jon is a born leader, which explains his success as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and, briefly, as King in the North. As Varys says before his untimely death by dragonfire, perhaps the best ruler is the person who doesn’t want to rule.
The entangled arc of Dany and Jon boils down to the essence of power and those who seek it. Dany’s actions long sat in stark contrast to her words about wanting to “break the wheel” and build a better world for people. Like all would-be-benevolents, Dany wanted power to feel emphatically powerful. As Varys said to Tyrion, all tyrants speak of destiny because destiny is malleable, which allows despotism to take root in the first place.
Daenerys wasn’t always on a surefire route to becoming the Mad Queen. Her liberation of Slaver’s Bay and uniting of the Dothraki resemble Jon’s combining and subsequent welcoming of the northern Wildling tribes. By breeding peace amidst these warring factions, each protagonist did something no one else before them ever could, signaling their diplomatic ability and will to improve the world.
Still, Dany’s descent into tyranny festered for years. During her season 4 trip to Meereen, Ser Barristan Selmy pleaded for her to answer injustice with mercy. Instead Daenerys crucified 163 of Meereen’s Masters — one to mark each mile on the road to the city. In Dany’s eyes, she was “answering injustice with justice,” but in the eyes of her subjects, this was a fear-mongering display of power, done for the right reasons in the wrong way. Although this was brutal, and set the scene for her atrocious slaughter of innocents in King’s Landing in season 8, Dany experienced a degree of redemption when, in season 4, Jorah convinced her that good and evil exist in codependence, citing the mercy Eddard Stark showed him as an example of how to rule justly.
This mention of the honorable Ned Stark was far more meaningful than it appeared. At the same time, just across the Narrow Sea, Jon Snow was at Castle Black, becoming a hero in the eyes of his fellow Crows. As Daenerys began to flirt with violence and destruction, Jon grew more and more like his surrogate father, despite the Targaryen blood that ran through his veins. Interestingly, the two are counseled against turning into their fathers: Jon is constantly reminded of where Ned Stark ended up after adhering to his personal idea of “honor,” whereas Daenerys is warned by Tyrion, Barristan, and Varys on several occasions about the infamous Targaryen bloodlust and pyromania that plagued the Mad King.
How would Jon have turned out if he didn’t think himself a bastard? Having Ned as a father figure is what allowed Jon to retain his honor — to the point that he temporarily died for it — while Daenerys too began to resemble her father, albeit it in a much more dangerous way. Humility from ice is what stayed Jon’s festering fire, taming it and converting it into a reservoir of strength and resolve, as opposed to the turbulent infernos that have raged in the blood of Targaryens for centuries. A dragon raised by wolves, Jon’s singular case is what allowed him to become a hero.
By the time the pair met in season 7, they were emphatically their fathers’ children (or, in Jon’s case, his uncle’s nephew). After several episodes of the two disagreeing over what comes first — the Iron Throne or the Night King — Jon bent the knee to Daenerys. Dany then allowed Jon to travel north in order to capture a wight, which gave way to a moment of respite from the encroaching Targaryen madness when she rode north on dragonback to save Jon and his party. Although Jon remained north of The Wall, a deus-ex-mechanized Benjen Stark arrived to sacrifice his life for his fellow Stark, and Jon returned to Eastwatch, where Dany tended to his wounds and realized that Jon literally took a knife to the heart for the North. The two reconciled and set out on a path to Winterfell and the inevitable Long Night. In a climactic moment, Jon and Dany — unaware of their familial relationship — became intimate, and the Wolf and the Dragon, as Melisandre might say, became Ice and Fire.
The Starks and Northmen sowed discord in the relationship with a vocal distrust for the foreign Dragon Queen. Even after the Battle of Winterfell, despite Tormund’s uproarious “To the Dragon Queen!” toast, Jon was the center of attention, a courageous, status quo hero that the show’s cast of esoteric misfits could gravitate toward. In the celebratory scene, Jon knowingly glances at Dany, understanding her growing concerns that he is the leader people want, despite the invaluable part her dragons, Dothraki, and Unsullied played in subduing the Long Night.
The fizzling relationship is, perhaps, another reason why Dany set the streets of King’s Landing ablaze after the city sounded surrender in “The Bells.” Jon had the lineage, the popularity, and the honor to override her claim to the throne. Dany only had fear. Ned once told Bran that people who pay for executioners cannot understand death, which is why the person who passes the sentence must swing the sword. However, Dany’s execution in this case is an act of brutal genocide, implying that she went too far in the other direction. It’s one thing to misunderstand death, but another to become numb to it.
When Daenerys met Jon for the first time, she was introduced as “Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.” Ser Davos Seaworth retaliated, enthusiastically calling Jon, “Jon Snow, King in the North.” This scene was funny, but it was also indicative of something much more important.
Consider Napoleon Bonaparte, the conqueror from whom the term “Napoleon complex” is derived. Napoleon was small, but he wanted to feel big. Daenerys’ many titles embellished her past successes and commanded authority, but they did so at the cost of humility. Titles are often intertwined with tyrannical power, whereas names are humanizing. It’s much easier to believe in regular ol’ Jon Snow than “the Breaker of Chains.”
When Jon tried to reason with Dany about besieging King’s Landing in season 7, he said:
I never thought that dragons will exist again; no one did. The people who follow you know that you made something impossible happen. Maybe that helps them believe that you can make other impossible things happen: build a world that’s different from the shit one they’ve always known. But if you use them [dragons] to melt castles and burn cities, you’re no different. You’re just more or the same.
Although Jon momentarily persuaded her to eschew slaughter for mercy, Dany eventually succumbed to the morbid machinations that tempted her ever since Olenna Tyrell urged her to “be a dragon.” When Dany plunged the lives of thousands of innocents into chaos, Jon Snow rebelled against her orders, pulling Northmen off innocent women and even slaying his own soldiers for their brutality. This was the defining moment of their twin narratives, each character becoming just like their father: Dany, the Mad Queen, and Jon, the honorable hero who raised the question of what honor means in the first place.
“You all crowned me your King,” Jon says in season 7. “I never wanted it. I never asked for it. But I accepted it because the North is my home. It’s part of me, and I will never stop fighting for it, no matter the odds.”
Jon possessed a trait that Dany did not; not just a disinterest in power, but a willingness to fight for something other than it. Jon fought to protect the innocent. Dany, caught up in a mission, a mantra, and ultimately a bubbling vengeance, conquered them. It’s poetic that their intertwining narratives concluded with Jon, also a Targaryen, killing his beloved for becoming another iteration of her mad father, then assuming his duty once again, miles away from the seats of power.