“The things we do for love”—an expression of deep sincerity and wild devotion—feels relevant for basically every couple on the show but one: Jon Snow and Daenerys. Unfortunately, theirs is also the partnership that carries the highest stakes on the series. Game of Thrones has set up the fate of their union to be, perhaps, the fate of all humanity. On Sunday that union was fractured irrevocably—but anticlimactically—when Dany learned that Jon is really her nephew and has the stronger claim to the Iron Throne.
This reveal should have hit harder, but instead it felt like an afterthought. The fact that Jon and Dany have always felt like two awkward kids flirting—and not like two leaders in love enough to make the kinds of sacrifices that, say, Sam and Gilly have for each other—is a major flaw of the show. Because, while love mattering in the face of death was the message of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the episode also suggested that it could be the deeply human message at the core of the entire show. It is a shame that the relationship between Jon and Dany hasn’t evolved authentically enough to support the weight of that idea.
One of the show’s well-documented failings in Season 7 was how it neglected character development in favor of plot payoffs. The Dany/Jon pairing was arguably a casualty of that preference. When the two entered a cave together last season, viewers should have felt the rush of remembering Jon falling in love with his wildling love, Ygritte, in a cave in Season 3. But other than hinting at some burgeoning chemistry, the show did nothing to establish a real connection between Jon and Dany; their conversation then was all politics, all the way down. That’s exactly how it was in Sunday’s episode, when Jon told Dany of his true parentage. “You’d have a claim to the Iron Throne,” she said coldly after learning that he’s her nephew—instead of “What about us?” You could be forgiven for forgetting that earlier in that episode, Dany confessed to Jon’s sister (technically his cousin) Sansa, “I’m here because I love your brother, and I trust him. And I know he’s true to his word.” Dany added, “He’s only the second man in my life I can say that about,” in an apparent reference to her late husband, Khal Drogo.
In last week’s premiere, Dany’s adviser Tyrion looked down on his queen and Jon from a distance—a perfect encapsulation of the show’s emotionally aloof approach to the duo. Even in that all-important moment of their first coupling last season, viewers saw only Jon entering Dany’s chambers. Our perspective wasn’t with him. We were with Bran and Sam narrating the truth of Jon’s birth; then, as the camera cut to outside the room, we were with Tyrion witnessing Jon’s visit from the hall. When we cut back to the couple, they were already naked in bed. Viewers missed their first kiss, the first move from platonic to erotic. By contrast, we saw that first-kiss moment on Sunday with Arya and Gendry. We certainly saw it long ago with Jon and Ygritte, and more recently with Missandei and Grey Worm. “He loved her,” Bran said in a voice-over as Jon knocked on Dany’s door, in reference both to Jon’s father and to the White Wolf himself. On Sunday, Sansa informed Dany that Jon loves her. But viewers are always told about their love, rather than being made to see or feel it.