This story contains spoilers through Season 8, Episode 4 of Game of Thrones.
An early scene in “The Last of the Starks,” the latest episode of Game of Thrones, finds Jon Snow giving a speech to the survivors of the Battle of Winterfell as the weary warriors prepare to burn the bodies of those who have fallen. “We’re here to say goodbye to our brothers and sisters, to our fathers and mothers—to our friends,” Jon says, projecting his voice so that it will echo over the orderly display of corpses. “Our fellow men and women who set aside their differences to fight together, and die together, so that others might live.”
He goes on from there: words that are inspiring, words that are necessary, words that form a eulogy in the collective. Jon’s speech evokes Gettysburg—Those who here gave their lives that that nation might live—and, in that, it announces the primary theme of “The Last of the Starks”: Maybe … it’s Jon. Maybe, after Game of Thrones spent seven seasons winnowing the field, the attrition pointing to a climactic contest between Dany and Cersei, a third-party candidate will swoop in at the last minute to change the game. “People are drawn to him,” Varys notes to Tyrion later in the episode, as the two kingmakers discuss the political matter of Jon’s charisma. And Tyrion, the hand of a different leader, cannot help but agree. The primaries may have been fought, and the conventions may have been settled, but Game of Thrones loves nothing more than a last-minute plot twist. Jon Snow 2020: When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die or, alternatively, you spend years not playing at all, only to find victory, in the final moments, placed gently in your lap.
Meanwhile, Daenerys. While Jon is speechifying, Dany—Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men; Protector of the Realm; Queen of Meereen; Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea; the Unburnt; the Breaker of Chains; the Mother of Dragons—is … watching him do it. The queen, rather than leading the grim ceremony, is simply another participant in it, listening to Jon’s speech, looking weary and sad and maybe just a little bit regretful that she had not, amid all the fighting, made some time to join Toastmasters.
It’s a remarkable shift. Game of Thrones, from the very beginning, has spun around the centrifugal idea that Dany, as queen/protector/khaleesi/breaker, is the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. She has been rightful according to the Westerosi notion of rightfulness, yes—she is the daughter of a ruler—but also according to the show’s conception of it: She is compassionate, the show has argued. She cares, deeply, about freedom. She has suffered, and conquered, and come out stronger for it on the other side. She still has learning to do, certainly, and flaws to overcome, definitely. But the show’s broad and twisting arc has implied that her mistakes have been, essentially, the means to an end: a wiser ruler. A broken wheel. A happy ending in a story that has so often declined to provide them. The show, over seven seasons, has been swathing its silver-haired heroine not only in drapey dresses and furry capes and sassy going-out tops, but also in an air of implied messianic liberation. The prince—or princess—that was promised.
But now: Twist! Jon is Aegon, and Aegon is a prince! Game of Thrones, particularly in its later seasons, has become almost comically reliant on the deus ex machina approach to storytelling: Time and again, its plot has been saved from itself by a well-timed tangle of convenience and magic. Now, as the show draws to a close, it seems to be applying that device to its founding political assumption. Maybe it’s been Jon. And maybe it should be Jon, finally. All the times the show questioned Daenerys’s capacities as a leader (the uprising in Meereen; her execution of Randyll and Dickon Tarly; her decision to fly Viserion into a skirmish with the Night King)? Those were not acknowledgments of the complications that will come when fragile humans are given immense power, the story is now suggesting; they were moments of foreshadow. Jon’s decency and charm, too, were heralds of what might come.
Game of Thrones’ eighth season airs into a fraught moment in America. The show might not have been intending, with its latest twist, to wade into the choppy waters of the electability debate, but here it is, nonetheless, navigating the currents. The show, now, is asking questions about what people finally want in their leaders—and how those desires might be constrained by tradition, and assumption, and failures of imagination. Jon may not be a particularly astute military leader. He may not be a terribly astute leader in general. He may be alive at the moment only because he has been saved from certain death multiple times, often by women. And he may have already bent the knee to Daenerys. Those are all things, the show is now suggesting, that will be weighed against another, perhaps overarching fact: He’s so charismatic! He’s so inspiring! He is precisely the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with! (Or at the very least, some Dornish wine!)
And so Game of Thrones, a show that has spent years considering, with relative subtlety, broader questions about what constitutes effective leadership—questions about justice, and mercy, and strategy, and empathy—now seems to have settled on an answer: Leadership, it is currently suggesting, is a matter of fandom. The approach may try to justify itself in other terms—it’s not just that “people are drawn to him,” Varys tells Tyrion; it’s also that he is “temperate” and “measured” and a man (which “makes him more appealing to the lords of Westeros, whose support we are going to need”)—but the new rules have been set. They do not favor Dany.
“He comes back and keeps fighting!” Tormund, effusively drunk at the Winterfell wake, says of Jon. “Here, north of the wall, and then back here again! He keeps fighting. He keeps fighting! He climbed on a fucking dragon and fought! What kind of person climbs on a fucking dragon? A madman—or a king!”
The camera cuts to Daenerys. She looks dejected: She is the one, after all, who taught Jon the art of dragon riding. She is the one who has been engaging in that “kingly” activity for several seasons. She is the one who is, you know, the Mother of Dragons. And yet she is in a classic bind: To speak up and correct Tormund will make her seem petty. To advocate for herself will achieve, inevitably, precisely the opposite end. There’s nothing she can say, in that moment. And that, in its own way, speaks volumes.
In Dornish vino, veritas: Dany knows exactly what Tormund’s drunken enthusiasm for Jon portends. She knows that her path to the Iron Throne will now likely involve not merely a clash of militaries, but also a clash of personalities. You could read the new contest in theoretical terms—Jon’s populism versus Dany’s enlightened despotism; Jon’s aw-shucks affability versus Dany’s ambition—but “The Last of the Starks” suggested that it might finally come down to something much more basic: She is new, and he is familiar. She is complicated, and he is not. Daenerys Stormborn, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons, understands what is true in the known world as well as in our own: When the contest is allowed to become a question of likability, the game is already rigged.