Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 5. Obviously.
It might be an understatement to say that the fifth season of Game of Thrones ended on a painful cliffhanger. Although Jon Snow’s demise seems final (it’s not like he was gamely hanging off of a cliff) the hope that some miraculous intervention might be imminent for Jon has kept book readers going for years. And kept hope alive during the show’s hiatus. (At least with me. And the pics of Kit Harrington on set, not dead, certainly helped.)
Cliffhanger doesn’t always mean unresolved life and death situations, more often it means pressing unanswered questions. If (and how) Jon Snow might return is certainly an unanswered question generating discussion, but there are other issues raised by his lethal stabbing that is of interest.
Why did Ser Alliser Thorne and a cadre of Night’s Watch sworn brothers decide to murder their Lord Commander? And why at that moment? Why not earlier? Why not later?
But timing can take a backseat at the moment, in favor of talking about motive.
The simple answer to Thorne and his conspirators’ motives might be that they merely considered Jon, a traitor to the Night’s Watch. After all, they did leave a clue in the form of a large x-marks-the-spot signpost.
Many members of the Night’s Watch were angry at Jon for his pro-wildling immigration suggestions. It’s not spelled out in their oaths, but letting thousands of wildlings through the Wall might very well be considered an act of treason. Fair enough.
But if we consider letting the wildlings past the Wall treason, we have to agree that it was an act of treason that had been discussed at length with the members of the Night’s Watch, in the presence of (arguably) the rightful King of Westeros — who didn’t seem to have any objections at the time.
Ser Donald of Trump: Your grace! This Snow-nothing kid is going to let in a bunch of undocumented hooligans! They’ll steal our jobs!
Stannis Baratheon: Whatever. I’ve got loans to repay to the Iron Bank. That’s my pressing concern, not border issues. I’ll worry about that once Winterfell is mine.
If the king of the Seven Realms had no real issue with letting in thousands of barbarians, it puts the charge of treason in question. But Thorne might be a stickler for principles.
If Ser Alliser felt so strongly about the issue, it makes his act of opening up the gate at Castle Black to Jon and the wildling refugees from Hardhome questionable. That might have been a better time to oppose Jon.
Jon Snow: Open the cold gray door, Al.
Ser Alliser: I’m sorry Snow. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Jon Snow: What’s the problem?
Ser Alliser: I think you know what the problem is, just as well as I do.
Instead, Ser Alliser opened the gates, let in a few thousand wildlings, waited a few weeks, then arranged a stabbing party.
I’m not saying that it couldn’t have worked out that way, with Thorne just dragging his feet about the Lord Commander being so chummy with the Free Folk until “what the hell, let’s kill him.” It just seems unsatisfying.
Especially after the show had provided some depth to Ser Alliser.
Despite his flaws, he rose to the occasion during the fight at Castle Black and his implicit support of Jon’s action against Janos Slynt’s insubordination cast Thorne more into the role of “look, I’m just not ever going to be your ‘Yes Man‘” rather than a cliched antagonist for Jon.
It also doesn’t seem to be that rational an action. Even before Jon saw the full army of the dead with his own eyes, he had made a case before the Night’s Watch that the wildlings had to be given refuge as a practical matter. Any living human north of the Wall was eventually going to be part of an undead horde. That argument was then proven correct dramatically at Hardhome.
It’s hard to believe that in the post-Hardhome era Jon couldn’t convince Thorne and the other sworn brothers about the dangers that the White Walkers and their walking dead wights posed. But in some ways, it’s irrelevant. Regardless of whether they believed Jon or his witnesses from Hardhome, Jon Snow was a danger to everyone at the Wall.
Thorne might have been saying those words about Jon’s decision to save the wildlings, but it takes on a new meaning in light of how the political events in the North had been settled in the final episode of the season.
Stannis Baratheon’s forces were crushed by Bolton troops, ending his ambitions in the North, and demonstrating Bolton dominance.
The Night’s Watch is not supposed to take any role in the internal affairs of the Seven Kingdoms, but Jon Snow’s existence as Ned Stark’s acknowledged bastard makes him a liability to Bolton rule. Stannis had already floated the idea of legitimizing Jon into a Stark, to be the bridge between the unhappy anti-Bolton northern Houses and the Baratheons. Other lords might share similar ideas.
As far as Thorne might be concerned, this limited the survivability of the Night’s Watch.
And does it even matter if Jon’s story of Hardhome is believed?
Possibility 1: They Don’t Believe Jon Snow
If Thorne didn’t believe in the White Walker threat, he could certainly believe that Roose Bolton would not be interested in Jon Snow’s long-term health. Roose knew that Stannis had resupplied and sheltered at Castle Black (in fact, he seemed suspiciously well informed of Stannis’ movement) Lord Bolton is not an unreasonable person.
He might acknowledge that the Night’s Watch meant him no harm in playing host to Stannis. It’s not like the brothers could have turned Stannis away.
Then again, Roose might not want to take any chances, and would have everyone flayed just to send a message. Don’t help Bolton enemies.Or maybe Ramsay would do the flaying just for fun.
Possibility 2: They Believe Jon Snow
If Thorne recognized that the White Walker threat was real, he’d also know that the Night’s Watch would need support, and help from the Warden of the North, specifically. That support might not be as forthcoming with Ned Stark’s bastard as the Lord Commander.
Jon was a good fighter and a good leader. But he was only one man against the survival of the rest of the Night’s Watch (and possibly the realm, if the North didn’t start coordinating.)
As Ser Spock of House Vulcan might say, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”
Either way, they don’t need Jon around.
Assuming that Thorne had Jon killed to protect the Night’s Watch from Roose Bolton, why wait to kill him?
It makes sense to protect the Night’s Watch from the Boltons, once the Boltons had crushed Stannis. It wouldn’t be necessary beforehand (particularly because Jon and Stannis had a positive working relationship.) When Davos showed up, asking for aid for snowbound Stannis, and then a haunted Melisandre showed up a refugee, everyone with eyes to see at Castle Black would know that Stannis was done for.
That’s a good time to take care of Jon.
If so, why have the “traitor” theatrics? Why not just clamp Jon in irons and hand him over to the Boltons?
That would obviously be playing politics. And not all of the men might be comfortable with the mutiny. Better to have it be a fait accompli. For two reasons.
Accusing Jon of being a traitor and silencing him would make things easier when informing the rest of the men what had happened. It also would make things a bit more neutral when telling Roose Bolton of the change in leadership.
Roose Bolton: I understand you men murdered your Lord Commander. I recognize the inclination, but I’m not so sure I approve.
Alliser Thorne: We discovered that he had ambitions to organize the northern lords against you. He had planned on using the wildlings as his personal army; that’s why he was granting them safe passage.
Roose Bolton: Do tell.
Alliser Thorne: We men of the Night’s Watch don’t get involved in the affairs of the realm, our job is the watch the north. Jon Snow was a traitor, but he was one of us. We deal with our own.
A dead man tells no tales. (Usually.)
I admit that I want there to be a more sophisticated answer to the motive and timing for killing Jon then simply 1) he’s a traitor and 2) it’s episode 10 and time for a cliffhanger.
The idea that Thorne might have acted to protect the Watch from the Boltons appeals to me more than simply him acting from ambition or from completely misreading the threat from the White Walkers. Thorne had been in a similar situation during Robert’s rebellion; he had been an Aerys loyalist who accepted exile to the Wall when the Lannisters sacked King’s Landing. I think that would have a relevant impact on Thorne and his motivations. He probably didn’t want history to repeat itself, and there was no other Wall for him to be exiled to should the Boltons be unhappy.
This also raises the stakes for the guests at Castle Black.
Ser Davos was Stannis Baratheon’s Hand and Melisandre was the king’s advisor. If Jon was assassinated for non-political reasons, it doesn’t affect them. But if Jon was killed because of fear of the Boltons, then Davos and Melisandre are equally in danger. It would be in the Night’s Watch’s best interest to turn them over (even if that edged them over into politics.)
I’d like to see Melisandre and the excellent Ser Davos have a common cause.
To wrap up, clearly this is all conjecture, and if you’re looking for me to provide evidence I can’t and I won’t. But I like my stories and my characters complicated, and I think Jon’s assassination provides enough of a framework for richer motivations.
I’d like to think that when Alliser Thorne stabbed Jon, there was a tinge of regret. That it echoed in part Jon’s reluctant role in the death of Qhorin Halfhand.
That it was a necessary death.
For the Watch.