Jon Snow is dead.
He’s not resting. He’s not pining for the fjords. He is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s bleedin’ demised. He is an ex-Ranger!
Or, at least, that’s what everyone involved with making Game of Thrones has had to insist for the last 10 months, because of the latest bind George R.R. Martin has put the show in.
Everyone has sworn up and down that Jon Snow’s death is real and permanent, even as paparazzi have tracked the movements of actor Kit Harington in and out of the show’s Belfast home base, and even as GoT fandom at large remains certain that his death will be very short-lived indeed. Game of Thrones hasn’t been shy about killing off major characters – including Jon Snow’s father Ned Stark, who was the closest thing the show had to a main character until the broad sword cleaved his head from his body – but it’s also treated magic as real, and has shown us the resurrection of other dead characters. And where Ned’s death made narrative sense by the time it happened, it would be flat-out awful storytelling to eliminate the only significant character in what’s increasingly becoming the most important part of the show’s fictional universe.
So even as the show’s producers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, their actors, and their bosses at HBO swear on the name of the Seven that Jon Snow is and will always be dead, and that Harington’s only future appearances on the show will involve him playing a corpse, nobody has believed them.
That dissonance isn’t going to do lasting damage to one of TV’s biggest, most influential hits, which returns for its sixth season Sunday night at 9. But it’s still a headache Benioff and Weiss probably wish they never had to deal with, and that only happened because they were following the structure of Martin’s novels, where the most recent installment ends with Jon Snow being stabbed to death by his own men. As the cliffhanger at the end of an episode at mid-season, the death might have still aroused skepticism, but the producers and cast also could have gone radio silent for a week or three, production of a new season (and Harington’s presence or absence) wouldn’t have been a factor, and everyone could have had fun arguing about the death, and the potential ways to undo it, without having to roll their eyes at every official statement on the subject.
The Jon Snow kerfuffle is perhaps the most glaring example of the devil’s bargain Benioff and Weiss made when they signed on to adapt Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series. On the one hand, Martin gifted them with a host of remarkable characters, a fully-realized fantasy world, and no end of memorable incident. On the other, Martin gave them too much of almost everything: too many people, locations, and subplots to squeeze into the 10 episodes they can realistically produce each season, given the show’s continent-spanning logistics, and too much sadism and nihilism to wallow in, as the most despicable citizens of Westeros nearly always triumph, while the characters we like tend to suffer and/or die.
That Benioff and Weiss have been able to squeeze as much of the books into each season has been a miracle, but it’s also made Game of Thrones into an inconsistent, frequently exhausted show that’s capable of amazing moments, but that has to spend a lot of its time simply playing Westerosi tour guide to incrementally advance the stories of each set of characters. At its best – say, the naked walk of shame endured by wicked queen Cersei (Lena Headey) at the end of last season, or the shock and awe of the zombie assault on Hardhome – it goes to physical and/or emotional places no other series on television can touch. But then it fumbles around for a while, slowly moving Character A to Point B so he can finally get killed by Character C, until it’s time for another jaw-dropper.
Martin used to say that his books (which I haven’t read, but have been told so much about over the last five years) couldn’t be adapted, and while Benioff and Weiss have proved him wrong, the show has also illustrated the enormous differences between the two media. The sprawl of Martin’s narrative may work beautifully on the page(*), but no sane TV writer would start a show from scratch with this much going on, and with storylines continuing to diverge rather than intersect the longer it goes on. The showrunners have made some mistakes when they’ve deviated from Martin (on occasion, they’ve somehow increased the rape quotient of a series that’s already uncomfortably high in sexual assault), but many of their changes and inventions – the Hardhome massacre, or clever imp Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) finally getting to meet Mother of Dragons Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) – have been series highlights.
(*) Though I have friends who’ve read all the books and insist that they novels also begin crumbling under the weight of too many characters and stories, and of the way the world keeps expanding rather than contracting.
Now, though, Game of Thrones is in uncharted waters. Martin’s so far behind in writing the sixth ASoIaF book that this season will debut without any published source material, though he’s already told Benioff and Weiss the broad strokes of where the story goes from here, and how he intends for it to end. The showrunners aren’t suddenly free to turn the series into a wacky domestic comedy about Tyrion and Varys sharing an apartment together, but they’re not quite as beholden to the source material, since the source material now only vaguely exists, and is in no way public. (Now that the show has passed him, I wouldn’t be shocked if Martin never completes the last two books.) There no longer has to be a sense of obligation to feature this character, or that subplot, or this new community, because the audience no longer has expectations for what’s coming next, whether they’d read the previous novels or not(**). There are still tons of locations to visit and stories to advance, but even more than before, Benioff and Weiss can figure out what’s best for their TV show, rather than the best compromise they can make between what works on the page and what works on the screen.
(**) As a side benefit, this also defangs any overzealous book readers who have decided the most appropriate way to interact with non-readers is to aggressively spoil the TV show for them.
There’s no guarantee that being freed from literary expectations will make the show better. For all we know, even at their most glutted, Martin’s books provided a level of structure and discipline that Benioff and Weiss badly needed, and most of season 6 will be devoted to the odious Ramsay torturing poor Theon some more. But the source material has always seemed a double-edged sword for Game of Thrones, and hopefully the showrunners will feel more comfortable than ever in hacking off the parts that don’t belong and reshaping the rest into the best possible version for TV.
Also, if Jon Snow stays dead, I’ll eat my cloak.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com