Is Jon Snow dead? Unless you’ve been living atop a gigantic wall of ice with no cable or wifi for the past year, chances are you’ve heard someone raise the question. And with less than a week to go until “Game of Thrones” returns for Season 6, fans are desperately hoping we’ll soon learn the answer.
“I have not gone to a dinner party, a social gathering [without hearing it],” admits HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. “Often it comes up in pitch meetings that are totally unrelated to ‘Game of Thrones,’ or someone just breaks and says, ‘I have to ask you…’ So I’m aware that it’s a subject that occupies people’s interest.”
As far as Lombardo’s concerned, the fervent speculation is simply a testament to the increasing power of “Thrones,” which netted a record-breaking 12 Emmys for Season 5, including Best Drama.
“People are deeply invested, emotionally invested, in the fates of these characters. It happens in only the most undeniable films and television shows, and I think you feel all of the hopes and fears and dreams when people ask those questions,” he says. “They both want me to answer and are afraid of me answering. So I’ve chosen just to keep walking and say ‘watch this season.'”
And fans shouldn’t waste time looking for clues in the Season 5 finale — which saw Jon betrayed by his Night’s Watch brothers and left to bleed out in the snow — per showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss.
“People are spending a lot of time looking at his eyes, thinking he’s not dead,” says Benioff. “We spent a lot of time…”
Interjects Weiss, “…We spent a lot of money on his eyes.”
Let’s sum it up this way: If your Jon Snow theory rests on whether or not his eyes are fully dilated, think again.
“Game of Thrones” has never shied away from killing its main characters; the show demonstrated its bloodthirsty tendencies way back in Season 1, when it beheaded its ostensible main character, Ned Stark, and firmly established its grip on the cultural zeitgeist.
“I think the shock of Ned Stark dying was a new phenomenon. No one saw that coming,” says Weiss. “This was a slightly different thing where everybody got the sense that anybody could die at any time. [Jon Snow] was somebody who was so central to the story and had been for so long and their investment in him was so tremendous that, yeah, I think we knew that people would maybe be displeased.”
“People have to understand, though, that at a certain point Kit Harington became such a monster, that writing him off the show was imperative to our sanity and the well-being of the crew — the safety of the crew — because he’s, frankly, abusive,” Benioff quips.
“There’s a certain level of violence, physical and mental, in a human being that you just can’t abide by anymore,” Weiss concurs.
“People look at him and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s so cute. He must be really nice,'” Benioff adds. “Nope. Monster.”
They’re kidding, of course — and after Harington was spotted on set during production on Season 6, the thesp had a ready excuse, maintaining he was playing his character’s corpse in an interview with Time Out: “I filmed some scenes of me being dead — it’s some of my best work.”
But that couldn’t halt the speculation — especially after HBO chose to use a bloodstained image of Jon Snow as the poster for Season 6.
“I think we always have this conversation: how do we keep the fans, remind them the show is being produced and will be coming back?” Lombardo says. “I think when we looked at the marketing at that point, the noise, the volume, the frequency with which the Jon Snow question was being asked, and the response to his death in Season 5 was so palpable. To ignore that seemed somehow silly.”
As for viewers who felt they were being manipulated by the Jon-centric posters and teasers, Lombardo says it was never the show’s intention to mess with them. “I don’t think it was an attempt to play with the audience as much to remind an audience of where we took them this season and the stakes of the next season,” he insists. “It generated enormous interest in a number of ways, but … we take this show way too seriously and our viewers way too seriously to ever toy with them. I think it was really our intention to remind them ‘You have to come back.'”
Even the show’s remaining stars are feeling the pressure from fans. “The Jon Snow aspect, people are always asking what’s going to happen with the next season,” admits Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen. “I’m always like, ‘I can’t tell you because a sniper will come out of the bushes and shoot me down if I even try.’ Which means that this season is about to get more intense. I’m like, ‘No way, I’ll get fired. I can’t tell you.’ That’s what it is.”
Jon’s death will certainly have repercussions — both politically and emotionally — for many characters in Season 6. Since the Lord Commander was responsible for bringing the wildlings through the Wall — a move that was met with opposition from other members of the Night’s Watch — his loss leaves the surviving wildlings in a tenuous position.
“We’re not welcome there; even though one person was nice to us — and then was killed — we have threats from the Night’s Watch and threats from the Boltons,” notes Kristofer Hivju, who plays Tormund Giantsbane. “Nobody likes us — we’ve been seen as the biggest threat since the dawn of time. For three seasons, the objective has been to get through the Wall, and we lost some people at Hardhome, so we know what the real danger is firsthand. People in Westeros are fighting each other when the real danger is outside, so I think Tormund knows that nothing is over.”
The Starks have been an endangered species ever since Ned lost his head in Season 1, and the surviving Stark siblings have already suffered plenty of loss, but Maisie Williams tells Variety that if and when Arya learns of Jon’s death, “it’d definitely break her and send her down a path that is not good for her … she’d forget everything Ned ever taught her; she would go off the rails.”
Even after several seasons apart, Williams says that Arya’s hope of reuniting with Jon has been “the one thing that’s keeping her sane. Although she loves Bran and misses Bran to pieces and loves Sansa and misses Sansa to pieces, if someone’s your family, but you don’t see them for years, they’re still your family, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have that bond anymore, and I think that’s how it would be with Bran and Sansa. It’s like, ‘I don’t know you anymore, and I don’t really want to.’ With Jon, there was a connection there, and they would always want to see each other again and that’s what’s been keeping her [going]. So discovering that news would send her down a bad path.”
We’ll find out the full impact of Jon’s death — and whether we’ll see him alive again — when “Game of Thrones” Season 6 premieres on Sunday, April 24 at 9 p.m. on HBO.