Buffy Summers’s death, at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season, might be the perfect analogue for Jon’s brief demise. In “The Gift,” Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) sacrificed her life to save the world, leaving the show on a cliffhanger as it went into a tumultuous off-season in which it ended up switching networks from The WB to UPN. There was never any real expectation that the show’s titular character would stay dead for very long, but the trauma of her resurrection was the dramatic grounding for the following year’s stories, and speculation over just how it would happen kept fans chattering over the summer as the show’s producers dealt with TV network politics. Buffy was a fantasy show, but one that had hard and fast rules about characters coming back to life—indeed, a failed attempt to bring back her deceased mother (which produced an unseen but still horrifying zombie) was the plot of a season five episode.
Ned, Robb, Tywin, and countless other Game of Thrones characters might be gone forever, but there was plenty of justification within the show’s narrative for characters coming back from the dead. In season three, viewers met Beric Dondarrion, a warrior who had been magically revived six times, apparently using the same magic that brought Jon back. He had been changed by the experience, and Jon may well be too—that’s part of the fun of a fantasy show, exploring and dramatizing the eerie and unknowable. When the author and New York columnist Mark Harris criticized Jon’s return as part of a larger trend in “comic-book culture” invading TV, it felt like a strange comparison: After all, it’s not just Buffy who’s sprung back to life on the small screen over the years.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation was assimilated into the Borg (a fate worse than death) and freed the following season, an experience that irrevocably changed him. Bobby Ewing of the nighttime soap classic Dallas was famously killed off and then brought back with the twist that the previous season without him in it had just been a dream (TV was undoubtedly stranger in the 1980s). More recently, Colin Farrell took a shotgun blast to the chest in True Detective, woke up in purgatory, then sputtered back to life; The Walking Dead’s Glenn was “eaten alive” by zombies, but later proved to be just fine, though that particular fake-out prompted a slew of fan outrage. Perhaps best of all was Justin Theroux’s loopy trip in and out of the afterlife, a magical hotel with a hell of a karaoke bar, in The Leftovers’s incredible episode “International Assassin.”
Of course, it’s easy to go too far. Shows like Buffy and The Leftovers earned their resurrections by having them serve as the focal point of an entire season’s worth of storytelling. The Walking Dead earned jeers because Glenn’s “death” seemed to exist only to stoke gossip and fan speculation, a trick the show pulled again in its season finale. If Jon Snow returns an unchanged man, his death a mere blip, the entire endeavor will seem pointless—but considering Thrones’s history with this sort of magic, that’s unlikely.