Responding to questions about Jon Snow’s fate at the end of “Mother’s Mercy” (s. 5, ep. 10), showrunner Dan Weiss claimed “Dead is dead.” Several sightings of actor Kit Harrington at shooting locations prompted HBO to release a season six poster featuring the recently removed Lord Commander. This has temporarily shifted fan focus from asking, “Is he dead?” to “How did he survive?”
But this is not the right question. The right question is: Will Kit Harrington still be playing Jon Snow?
For some fans this will be a distinction without a difference. While it may seem pedantic, it gets at a larger conversation about what it means to be “us.” It strikes me that being physically unchanged is a rather low bar (if you’re interested in further exploring this topic, consider a rundown of Derek Parfit’s teletransporter paradox found here).
In Game of Thrones and the books they’re based on (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin), “being there” is not quite the same as “being them.” Two examples are in order. First, we have the rather simple case of “Robert Strong.” In both the show and the books, Qyburn is permitted to perform experiments on Gregor Clegane’s body both before and after he succumbs to wounds sustained during his duel with Prince Oberyn of Dorne. (In both the show and the books, it is noted that “Strong” never removes his helmet and has taken a holy vow of silence.) Second, we have the more complicated case of Beric Dondarrion. When resurrected by the Red Priest, Thoros of Myr, he notes, “Every time I come back, I’m a bit less. Pieces of you get chipped away.” This is a pale and incomplete imitation of Dondarrion’s former self. What embodies him is aware of this imbalance and its limitations. (In the books he sacrifices what little is left of him to reanimate another beloved character. At this point it seems unlikely she’s to make an appearance on-screen, but there is a lively debate among fans as to the degree of control she has over her vengeful actions.)
Thus, if the prevailing theory is correct (that Melisandre will use magic to bring Jon “back”), we’re going to have the same kind of change Beyond the Wall that we see in the Brotherhood Without Banners. This may or may not be a bad thing. On one hand it means the end of a beloved character. On the other hand, it means the introduction of a figure familiar to Martin’s novels: Azor Ahai. If we think about Daenerys Targaryen as the “Fire” half of the series title, Jon is a good candidate for “Ice.” But Azor Ahai is a messianic figure in the books. Melisandre believes Stannis Baratheon to be him, but while she is the most gifted reader of signs, she’s not always correct. That she desserts Stannis before the Battle of Winterfell in the show is suspect.
So while Kit Harrington may not play the Jon we know, he’ll be the figure Westeros needs. (Unless Melisandre has been duped into serving the enemies of her god, in which case, whoops.) To bring this post full circle, it raises questions about what it means to remain “us.” Using the show’s own logic, Jon will have lost some part of himself. More likely than not showrunners will instruct Harrington to play as “Jon Plus.” In so doing, we’ll have some meaty questions to keep us warm on all those wintery nights to come.