Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Note: Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 7, episode 7, ‘The Dragon and the Wolf’.
Just as Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow took their rapidly-advancing relationship to the next stage, the season 7 finale of Game of Thrones confirmed what the audience has known for a few episodes, thanks to a conversation between Samwell Tarly and Bran Stark. Jon is the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne, his name is Aegon Targaryen, and Daenerys is his aunt.
This is massive news, that will likely have political and personal repercussions, once Bran follows through on his words. Of course, it was also expected, given that we were told Jon is Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark’s son in the season 6 finale, and an earlier episode this season more or less confirmed that Rhaegar had married Lyanna.
It was actually Gilly who had first pointed out the fact, but Sam was too frustrated to give it the proper attention at the time. Plus, while Bran has access to past events - since he’s the Three-Eyed Raven - he still needs to know what he’s looking for. And since he had no idea that Lyanna was married when she delivered Jon, he thought his brother was just a southern bastard, and should be called ‘Sand’, not ‘Snow’. It’s only once Sam informs him of the secret ceremony that he can locate the moment in time, and connect the dots to the name Lyanna gave her brother Ned: Aegon.
It’s a little too convenient that the Game of Thrones writers chose to keep that information away from us since the end of season 6, but it does help set up the scene in the season 7 finale with Dany and Jon.
“Just as we’re seeing these two people come together, we’re hearing the information that will inevitably, if not tear them apart, at least cause real problems in their relationship,” co-showrunner D.B. Weiss said in this week’s “Inside the Episode” segment. “And she’s his aunt.”
“It complicates everything on a political level, on a personal level,” co-showrunner David Benioff added. “And it just makes everything that could have been so neat and kind of perfect for Jon and Dany, and it really muddies the waters.”
So what are the problems if Jon learns about this, as Bran intends to? Well for one, his relationship with Daenerys might come to an end, if either of them is not okay with incest. Daenerys might be the slightly more open to the idea, given that Targaryens have a history of marrying and sleeping with their family members. Jon, on the other hand, is a product of Westeros, which does not look kindly upon such behaviour.
At the same time, Jon’s status as Rhaegar’s son gives him precedence in the rules of succession. Since Rhaegar’s father - Mad King Aerys - was the rightful ruler of the Iron Throne, Rhaegar's son has a stronger claim than his sister. But there are several reasons why Jon might not want to make a claim.
For one, it would affect the dynamic in the relationship with Daenerys. He’s not just romantically involved, but has also pledged fealty. If he were now to assert his claim, he’d upset that. Plus, she still has two dragons (along with the Unsullied and the Dothraki), so he might have to be wary.
Two, Jon isn’t the kind of man who’s ever wanted to rule. He reluctantly became the Lord Commander because they chose him, and he reluctantly became the King in the North because the northernmen chose him. In that way, he’s like his father uncle, Ned. It’s highly likely that Jon would want no part of sitting the Iron Throne.
But, as we saw in the season 7 finale, Jon’s sense of duty triumphs his ability to lie and deceive. Hence, once he’s informed by Bran and Sam of his rightful place (and realises he just slept with his aunt), he might choose to inform Daenerys and his people of who he truly is.
If they need some convincing, since the word of a kid in a wheelchair and a book doesn’t work for everyone, there’s a riderless dragon - Rhaegal, named his after Jon's father, no less - waiting for him to take charge. And we will need someone to take charge, given the Night King has his own weapon of mass destruction now.
How did we get here?
To understand what brought us to this point, it’s worth harkening back to just before Robert’s Rebellion, which led to the fall of House Targaryen. From the outside, Rhaegar had a perfect life: he was a well-loved prince, he had a beautiful wife in Elia Martell, with whom he had two children - a girl Rhaenys, and a boy Aegon - and the Iron Throne would soon be his.
But it all changed at a tourney at Harrenhal. After Rhaegar won the tournament, he was allowed to crown any women with a wreath of flowers, as tradition goes. Instead of picking his wife, as he should’ve, Rhaegar placed the laurel of blue, winter roses in Lyanna’s lap. It brought a silence among the crowd, and it infuriated Brandon Stark (Ned’s older brother), as Lyanna was already betrothed to Robert Baratheon.
The next year, Lyanna disappeared, and Brandon marched to King’s Landing, putting the blame on Rhaegar. The Mad King in turn placed him under arrest and charged him with treason, and summoned his father - the Lord of Winterfell Rickard Stark - south to the capital.
Rickard demanded a trial by combat, but the Mad King chose “fire” as his champion, and burnt the father, and hanged the son. In response, Jon Arryn of the Vale rose up in revolt, which kick-started Robert’s Rebellion. The uprising was successful, Robert killed Rhaegar at the Trident, and became king himself.
At King’s Landing, Tywin Lannister sacked the city after his son Jaime killed the Mad King, and the Mountain raped and killed Elia Martell, and then murdered both her children. The Targaryen queen escaped from Dragonstone with her remaining children, Viserys and Daenerys.
Ned Stark, meanwhile, went in search of his sister Lyanna. They found her at the Tower of Joy in Dorne, as we saw in Bran’s vision last season. Inside, Lyanna made Ned promise that he would protect her son, and then gave the name we now know: Aegon. It’s possible she told him she loved Rhaegar, but Ned knew the only way to protect his nephew was to give him a false identity.
(A small aside: there’s a man in the books who claims to be Aegon Targaryen, the son of Rhaegar and Elia, which is whole another ball-game. The tale goes that he was whisked away before he could be killed by the Mountain, and he’s returned to take back what’s his with the Golden Company. The show seems to have done away with this aspect [Cersei has sent Euron to fetch the mercenaries instead], and it’s entirely possible that George R.R. Martin will have another name for Jon Snow in the upcoming books.)
That’s why he became Jon Snow, a bastard of Ned Stark’s, a man whose honor had otherwise never been besmirched. And Ned kept repeating the story of Lyanna’s ‘kidnapping’, which unfurled in the season 7 finale after Bran and Sam put two and two together. Ned probably meant to tell Jon, as he said in Game of Thrones’ first ever episode that they’d talk about his mother when he returned, but of course, he never got that opportunity.
Robert’s Rebellion was built on the fact that Rhaegar had stolen Robert’s to-be wife, but in reality, she was in love with the Targaryen prince, and had secretly married him and even given birth to a child. He had also annulled his marriage with Elia Martell, which would take their children out of the line of succession.
So what now?
As we said before, Jon isn’t the kind of person who wants anything to do with power. Moreover, they have more pressing concerns given the Army of the Dead has now actually breached the Wall that stood for thousands of years, no thanks to Jon. If Jon does decide to Daenerys, they might choose to mull over it once they’ve dealt with the Night King.
In an interview with Deadline, Kit Harrington - the actor who plays Jon Snow - said that viewers should get used to the show “killing its main characters quickly”. He added: “They’re going to go, and they’re going to go fast, and I think that the payoff of our characters not being in great peril this year will be that, next year, it’s going to be a bloodbath.”
Given how Game of Thrones was known for taking out its biggest characters up until season 6, it’s possible that either Jon or Daenerys might not survive the Great War, of the living against the dead. There’s a higher chance of it being the latter for a couple of reasons.
For one, Jon is a more level-headed leader. Even Cersei is ready to take him on his word. And as Tyrion has noted multiple times, Daenerys needs someone to check her “worst impulses”. She tends to be swift with her decision making, unlike Jon, who will do the right thing even if it doesn’t sit right with him.
Two, the books are called A Song of Ice and Fire for a reason. Jon is the son of Lyanna Stark (Ice) and Rhaegar Targaryen (Fire), which literally makes him the title of the series; the show’s name - Game of Thrones - comes from the title of the first book. He can bring Westeros together in a way no ruler can.
Of course, Game of Thrones has been loved for doing the unexpected (at least before season 7). A lot stands in Jon’s path, including the Night King and his numbers, Cersei’s plotting that involves leaving the living for dead, and Daenerys herself, as she has doubted her role as the rightful heir, and the only living Targaryen.
We will have to wait a year or more to find out.
We discussed Game of Throne season 7 and what lies beyond on Transition, our weekly gaming and pop culture podcast. You can listen to it via Apple Podcasts or RSS or just listen to this episode by hitting the play button below.