This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones 8.3, The Long Night.
The ostensible hero of the first season of Game of Thrones, the man at the centre of the story, whose adventures we are expecting to follow, is Ned Stark. In episode nine, he gets his head chopped off. His son vows to avenge his death, secures some allies, wins some battles, and then, at the end of season three, is butchered by said allies along with his mother and his pregnant wife. The guy behind all of this is the vicious young king Joffrey who appears to be the villain of the piece, right up until the moment, three episodes later, when he is poisoned, turns bright purple and chokes to death at his own wedding.
All of these plot twists are there to shock, obviously, but they’re there for another reason too. In each case, George R. R. Martin, the man who wrote the books on which the series is based, is consciously pulling the rug out from under us by presenting us with a common fantasy trope – the honourable hero; the avenging son; the unstoppable villain – and then trashing it. In Westeros, things do not play out the way the conventions of the genre suggest that they should, and this has been explicit ever since Ned Stark lost his head.
All of which leads me to wonder why it’s taken me until literally about three minutes ago to realise that Jon Snow’s secret birthright as the rightful king of Westeros means, to the first approximation, fuck all.
Off to one side of all the battles and court intrigue of Game of Thrones have run two other plots, that take a surprisingly long time to start interacting with the main body of the show. In one, Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled last child of the deposed king, gradually builds up a powerbase in the hope of re-conquering her kingdom. In the other, Ned Stark’s bastard Jon Snow serves at the Wall, where he learns about the threat the kingdom faces from the wild lands to the north.
These two stories are peripheral, both geographically, taking place far to the east and north of most of the action, and in terms of how the characters relate to most of the cast. They take so long to connect with everything else that’s going on that you might wonder why they are in the story at all.
Except you don’t, because there’s an obvious answer: however marginal they seem at the start, they are going to become very important later on. One day, Dany’s army will arrive to conquer, and the forces of the Night King that Jon has been fighting will invade, and those peripheral characters will suddenly turn out to be central after all. We’re primed to assume that there’s dramatic irony at work – that the audience knows these characters are important, even when those within the fiction think they’re nobody.
The revelations of the last couple of seasons have only added to this feeling. Jon Snow, it turns out, isn’t a bastard after all, or even Ned Stark’s son, but the child of his sister and the late crown prince. That forgotten bastard, serving honourably at the end of the world, is the true rightful king of Westeros.
The sense that this is the story that’s been playing out has been building the last couple of years: both seasons 6 and 7 end with revelations about Jon Snow’s parentage, and in a normal fantasy story, you’d probably expect the rightful king to finally come into his birth right at the end of the story.
Except, this isn’t a normal fantasy story, and we’ve known all along that the writers love nothing more than overturning the conventions of the genre. The hero’s honour didn’t save him; the son did not avenge the father. So why should the rightful heir get within a mile of the throne? His birthright, first hinted at in books written nearly a quarter of a century ago, has been another red herring all along.
For the same reason, though, I’m not sold on the idea Dany is going to win this one either. Game of Thrones favours twists that feel like a shock, but which make you feel, in retrospect, like the story could have played out no other way.
We’ve already seen this season how two other peripheral plots – Arya’s training as an assassin, Bran’s whole three-eyed raven shtick – which felt like a distraction for a very long time, turned out to be key to getting the characters to a point at which they could defeat the Night King. Hardly anyone seemed to guess in advance that it’d be Arya who would deliver the killing blow; in retrospect, it feels like it could never have been anyone else. (After all, who is there who can defeat death? No One.)
There is another Stark, whose story has still yet to pay off in the same way. She’s seen the workings of power up close, learned how to build and maintain alliances, but has shown the willingness to break them when they become a problem. Jon Snow was acclaimed for his victory at the Battle of the Bastards – but that victory was only won through the actions of his sister, and over the last few episodes we’ve been shown repeatedly how she is a much smarter ruler than he is.
Also – this may not be a coincidence – she’s a dead ringer for the young Elizabeth Tudor.
All hail her grace, Sansa of House Stark, First of Her Name.