Game of Thrones: Jon Snow Finally Learns the Truth

And in the process, he—and the show that has shaped him—reckons once again with the totalizing power of lies.

"Now I understand why you haven't immolated me." (HBO)

This story contains spoilers through Season 8, Episode 1 of Game of Thrones.

It was Sam who shared the news. Reeling from the discovery that Daenerys had summarily executed his father and brother after they had refused to pledge their loyalty to her, Game of Thrones’ resident intellectual finds Jon in the crypt of Winterfell, where the bodies are buried and the myths of the dead live on. Sam, his voice cracking with rage, relays the political consequences of his family’s tragedy: that the queen who has portrayed herself as an agent of justice might be, also, the opposite. Had Jon been in Daenerys’s position, Sam insists, pivoting to the reason he has sought Jon among the tombs, Jon would have prioritized mercy over vengeance. He has done that before, after all.

“I wasn’t a king,” Jon replies, rejecting Sam’s assessment.

“But you were,” Sam says. “You’ve always been.”

“I gave up my crown, Sam. I bent the knee. I’m not King in the North anymore.”

“I’m not talking about the King in the North. I’m talking about the king of the bloody Seven Kingdoms.”

If you, on your Game of Thrones final-season prediction ballot, had markedIn the very first episode” under “When does Jon find out about his true parentage?,” this was probably the point in Sunday’s Season 8 premiere when you began to do your gloating. Sam, in the flickering candlelight of the Stark family crypt, proceeds to explain what he knows to the man who both is and is not at all Jon Snow: the love between the children of rival houses; the kidnapping that wasn’t; the annulled marriage; the new marriage; the High Septon’s diary; the promise Ned made to his sister, as she lay dying; Bran, newly minted with magic, seeing it all in a vision. “Your mother was Lyanna Stark,” Sam tells his friend. “And your father—your real father—was Rhaegar Targaryen. You’ve never been a bastard. You’re Aegon Targaryen, true heir to the Iron Throne.”

This is the kind of revisionist history that has the power to change the future; Jon is Jon, however, and so, taking in the complicating truth, he focuses on the complicated lie. “My father was the most honorable man I ever met,” he tells Sam, glowering, his warm breath billowing against the chill of the crypt. “You’re saying he lied to me all my life?”

In one way, it’s a strange reaction to the news that Jon is, you know, king of the Andals and the First Men, sixth of his name, the nephew of his brand-new girlfriend, etc. For Jon, though, it’s entirely fitting. In a show that has found most of its primary players following sweeping arcs and undergoing major transformations, Jon’s circumstances have changed while his character, comparatively, has not: Jon was then, and is now, a Good Guy. He tells the truth, even when the truth in question is inconvenient, and this has been not only a reliable fact within an otherwise unsteady universe, but also an extension of his relationship to Ned. (Tyrion to Jon last season, when the latter’s blunt honesty nearly compromises the new allies’ ability to build a coalition to fight the encroaching White Walkers: “Have you ever considered learning how to lie, every now and then? Just a bit?” It’s a callback to the brand of honesty that ended up costing Ned, several seasons ago, his life.)

Sam’s news, in that sense, is a plot point that doubles as a crushing irony. Here is a character who has understood himself to be a teller of truths, learning that his whole existence has been, in some sense, a lie. And, coming as it does—within an episode that is mostly a series of scene-settings for future battles—the destabilizing discovery offers its own kind of resolution. Game of Thrones, after all, has long been interested in lies: as architectural facts, as ruptures that are capable of upending the social order. Lies, here, alter history. Joffrey, cruel and petty, lied about the attack on Mycah, and changed, with his selfishness, the path of everything that would follow. Cersei lied about joining the alliance to fight the Night King, and about so much else. Tyrion lied. Littlefinger lied. Arya lied.

The full consequences of those untruths—the macrocosmic results of the microcosmic manipulations—remain, as yet, unclear. But now, as the story’s end draws closer, here is another lie to add to the mix: Ned’s lie about Jon. Ned told this lie as a matter of honor—to fulfill his promise to his sister, and to protect a baby whose claim to the Iron Throne would put his life in mortal danger—but, as all lies will, it irreparably changed the course of things. The lie Ned told allowed for a different mistruth to take root among the weirwood trees: the myth that Rhaegar Targaryen had kidnapped Lyanna Stark. It was a misunderstanding that instigated an Iliad-esque cascade of rivalries, which escalated into wars and resolved into the great war that is soon to be fought. The tragedy lurking at the heart of the struggle that has steadily spread across the Known World isn’t merely the way lies can shift reality—that has been clear from the outset—but also the idea that simple confusion, solidified as myth, can do the same. The history books were wrong. The truths themselves had lied. And here is Jon Snow, the living embodiment of the mistake.

What will he do now? Will Jon-né-Aegon seek the throne that he never knew was his, and that he therefore never wanted? Will the not-wanting make him even more worthy of power? Will Aegon Targaryen, sixth of his name, fire and ice at once, challenge Daenerys—whose promises to break chains and wheels and systems of leadership might be, the show has repeatedly hinted, their own kind of lies? Or will the man who has lived as Jon Snow do the thing he has always done, honoring his own promises at all costs? What does “honor” mean at this point, now that the fuller truth has come to light?

Game of Thrones is part of a moment that is itself deeply concerned with those kinds of questions. The show, after all, is airing in an environment—its audiences’ own version of the Known World—that is itself being steadily shaped by lies. The leader who misleads with impunity, weaponizing lies as an easy means to uneasy ends. The system that allows him to do it, because the illusions often suit the purposes of the powerful. The wheel that, refusing to break, spins on through the dullness of inertia. The looming threat, totalizing and existential, dismissed as a fantasy; the war against it that will be fought with too few resources and insufficient conviction; the world that will be knocked off its axis by untruths molded into myths. Jon Snow, during the beginning of the end to Game of Thrones, learned that he is the rightful heir to a similar state of affairs. No wonder he understood that news as tragedy.