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The Game of Thrones episode "The Last of the Starks" was an exercise in patience for many fans of George R.R. Martin’s series hoping the show might do right by its female characters.
Just one episode prior, during the battle of Winterfell, we were given a master class in female badassness from Arya Stark taking down a horde of wights with ease before slaying the Night King, Brienne of Tarth saving Jaime Lannister’s life (more than once), and even Sansa Stark, hiding in the crypts of Winterfell, contemplated performing heroics to save the women and children being terrorized by buried corpses.
Thing were looking up, at least in terms of character development for the show’s leading ladies — and then David Benioff and D.B. Weiss gave in to their worst instincts and shot all that female empowerment straight to hell.
But what might be even more insulting than watching Dany slowly embrace her “Mad Queen” status and Sansa waxing poetic about becoming a stronger person thanks to the men who abused her is how the show has been propping up its male lead: Jon Snow.
In deciding just how worthy Jon is to assume the Iron Throne, it’s helpful to take a look at his track record on the show. He’s done some incredibly noble deeds — uniting the Free Folk and the Northmen in the battle against the undead, saving hundreds in the Battle of Hardhome, granting his enemies merciful deaths, sacrificing his personal wants to serve in the Night’s Watch. All around, Jon is a good dude. But it takes more than honor and likability — both of which he has in spades — to govern a kingdom.
And if Jon has proven one thing on Game of Thrones, it’s that he’s not a natural-born leader.
He’s impulsive, quick to make strategically questionable decisions, he’s blinded by his own self-righteousness, he’s unable to see the bigger picture, to think in the long term — his actions during the Battle of the Bastards, the mutiny at Castle Black, his handling of the battle of Winterfell all speak to these flaws in his management style. Jon is a great warrior, a hero of men, but it’s often the women in his life and the allies he’s made who end up saving him. That would be fine if the show hadn’t so obviously set him up to be the idealist foil to Dany’s power-grabbing persona in "The Last of the Starks."
The episode gives us glimpses of the aftermath of "The Long Night," showing the heavy losses our heroes have endured thanks to the Night King’s assault. For Jon, that means losing a brother in the Night’s Watch and some faceless villagers he no doubt knew growing up in Winterfell. For Dany, that means the loss of her closest friend and sworn protector, Ser Jorah Mormont, nearly all of her Dothraki army, and half her Unsullied, people she liberated and promised a better life across the Narrow Sea. Dany’s still reeling from her grief, which is why it’s difficult for her to celebrate the victory. Jon, however, enjoys a slap on the back from Tormund, who praises his courage riding a dragon into battle — an eye-rolling compliment considering the woman who literally birthed that dragon and rescued most of the men performing this post-war circle-jerk north of the Wall is sitting right next to them. And when it seems Jon is continuing to receive the credit for their win against the Night King, though he spent the majority of that battle running around amidst the chaos, futilely screaming at ice dragons and making truly concerning tactical decisions, it’s Dany who raises her glass to Arya, the woman responsible for protecting the realm.Any woman who’s had to sit through a board meeting surrounded by male colleagues knows the feelings Dany struggles with during this scene — being forced to silently watch as her male peers congratulate each other on her success. After all, without her dragons and her armies, the battle of Winterfell would’ve been a slaughter. But it’s easier to hail Jon as the hero here (as Benioff and Weiss explain later in the episode, via a conversation between Varys and Tyrion) because he’s the homegrown boy who’s easily manipulated, morally superior ... and, you know, is a man.
The treatment of Jon this season, as well as the fan reaction to his claim to the Iron Throne, brings up a bigger question that goes beyond the political future of Westeros: Mainly, why are we so enamored with dudes who quietly co-op women's victories?
We see it in politics, in the entertainment industry, in the boardroom, in sports — when men succeed, it’s noteworthy; when women do, it’s not. We’re tasked with working twice as hard while we sit back to see men who’ve accomplished half as much enjoy rewards and praise and respect we can only dream of having. And when we express our outrage, when we covet that notoriety for our efforts, we’re labeled “bitter,” or “envious,” or, in Dany’s case, “paranoid” and “mad with power.”
The Mother of Dragons might make for a problematic ruler, but Jon Snow is the human equivalent of mayo on white bread. He has no complexity to his character, constantly moaning about doing the right thing, entreating others to fight for his cause, having no solid plans for what comes after the fight and no desire to contribute to making them. His reticence for power isn’t noble or applause-worthy; it’s an example of entitlement (ironic, considering that’s another insult thrown Dany’s way). Jon Snow has the power to effect real change, but he doesn’t want to because he prefers the battlefield to court life.
And yet we back him for the Iron Throne, constantly spotlight his winning qualities while glossing over his past mistakes because he’s been categorized as this “woke bro” who wants to do good. In droves, fans lamented that it was Arya, not Jon, who slayed the Night King, the implication being that Jon deserved to and Arya didn't.
This knee-jerk reaction to idolize average men with good intentions is particularly troubling because it sets the bar so low for what a capable leader looks like. We’re drawn to amiability and the “common people” vibe of a man when his female counterpart who offers tangible solutions and powerful ambitions must prove she’s not only worthy to achieve the greatness she’s so long strived for, but that she’s more worthy than a male contender who carries not even half the titles or experience she does.
By making Jon Snow this pliant, golly-gee guy who just wants peace and co-existence and to traipse around north of the Wall with his buddies while positioning the woman he’s challenging for power as a product of the establishment, or an emotional, angry, single-minded monster, Game of Thrones isn’t just dismissing the nuances of its own story, it’s making a larger, more worrisome claim that all one needs to do to be qualified and worthy of leadership is to not want it — and to have friends in the right places.
Maybe, instead of forcing this bland showdown between a weak-minded male hero and his unlikable female counterpart down our throats, Game of Thrones could serve up something more interesting: an endgame that examines the motivations of each of its characters equally, one that doesn’t take sides through its storytelling but makes its audience do the hard work of choosing between protagonists on a level playing field.
And maybe then we could just stop swooning over basic bros.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.