It’s still anyone’s guess who’ll wind up on the Iron Throne at the end of Game of Thrones (or whether there will be an Iron Throne at all). More and more, though, the signs are pointing to one guy: Jon Snow.
He’s got the strongest hereditary claim, and he’s cheated death so many times that we can only assume the Lords of Light Benioff and Weiss have big plans for him. And the Seven know he’s got the experience: he’s been Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and now he’s King in the North.
But, like … should he be? Is Jon actually any good as a leader?
Jon’s friends and followers will tell you one thing. His actual track record will tell you something else. Here’s a brief history of Jon’s leadership career.
Everyone loves Jon Snow
From the beginning, characters in Game of Thrones seem to just assume that Jon would make a great leader. In Season 1, shortly after his arrival at the Wall, Jon is hand-picked by Lord Commander Jeor Mormont to serve as his steward. Jon whines about this assignment until Sam points out that Jeor probably plans to groom Jon for command.
And, hey, Jon proves to be a wise choice when he saves Jeor from the wights! Moreover, he learns some valuable lessons over the next few seasons. He becomes less hotheaded – in Season 1, he’s ready to break his vows and join Robb Stark in his cause; by Season 4, Jon decides to stick around even after hearing of the Red Wedding. Character development ftw!
From here, it’s actually easy to see Jon being a good ruler.
Jon’s experiences north of the Wall teach him about the concept of gray areas (he realizes, for example, that Craster is a terrible human being but also a valuable resource), and he turns out to be a pretty good spy when he’s embedded with the wildlings.
He’s good at fighting and making inspirational speeches, and he’s one of the few Night’s Watch brothers to demonstrate genuine empathy for the Free Folk.
He’s also one of the first characters in the entire series who realizes that all this king stuff is petty bullshit, and that the real war will be between the living and the dead. He insists on serving that cause even when others seem skeptical. Clever, empathetic, determined: From here, it’s actually easy to see Jon being a good ruler.
Jon Snow (and Game of Thrones) learns all the wrong lessons from Stannis’ save
But that progress seemingly grinds to a halt around Season 4, when Jon concludes that the only way to end the Battle of Castle Black is for him to personally assassinate Mance Rayder, even if it means Jon himself will be killed immediately afterward.
Which kind of makes sense, but Jon never actually gets the chance to carry out his plan. At the very last second, Stannis Baratheon’s cavalry swoops in and saves his ass.
In retrospect, this may be the point where Jon went from an experienced but promising leader to a terrible one. If his actions in future seasons are any indication, the lesson he took away here was “I might as well charge headfirst into danger, because someone’s bound to rush in and rescue me at the last second.”
Jon Snow pays for his mistakes – and then gets a refund
The other lesson Jon seems to learn from this experience is that almost dying is a great way to get promoted, as Sam convinces the Night’s Watch to elect Jon as the new Lord Commander. To be fair, Jon inherits a damnably difficult situation. He believes, reasonably, that the Night’s Watch is better off with the wildlings on their side, but not everyone on the Wall agrees. Some people disagree so strenuously that they stab Jon to death.
Obviously, the mutineers are the bad guys here, and Jon Snow isn’t responsible for their actions. Still, his inability to keep the peace or recognize the growing dissent among his ranks does not seem like a ringing endorsement of his leadership skills.
No matter. Although many, many people on Game of Thrones have paid for their mistakes with their lives, including Jon Snow’s actual parents, Jon Snow’s foster parents, and Jon Snow’s adopted big brother, Jon Snow will not be one of them. Not permanently, anyway. He’s revived by magic, courtesy of Melisandre.
Sansa Stark wins the Battle of the Bastards …
Since Jon technically died, he figures he’s technically fulfilled the terms of his oath to the Night’s Watch. Which means he’s technically free to join Sansa in an effort to recapture Winterfell and save Bran from the Boltons.
Jon has an invaluable resource in Sansa: She’s well connected, and she knows Ramsay better than anyone. Sansa tries to offer her help, warning Jon that Ramsay loves to play games and urging him not to take the bait. Also, hey, how about they wait a little while longer to see if they can rally some more troops to their cause?
So what does Jon do? Immediately takes the bait, of course.
So what does Jon do? He immediately takes the bait, of course. When Ramsay trots Rickon out on the battlefield, Jon is so overcome that he goes charging in to save his adopted brother, thus ruining all of his army’s carefully laid plans. Rickon dies anyway, the #TeamStark forces are surrounded, and Jon himself is about to get crushed to death.
… When, lo and behold, the knights of the Vale come swooping in. Turns out Sansa didn’t take Jon’s foolish disregard as an answer, and instead went behind his back to write Littlefinger for help. With the Vale’s assistance, the Starks defeat the Boltons.
None of this reflects well on Jon. He let his emotions and his pride cloud his judgment, ignoring Sansa’s advice and torpedoing his own army’s plans. Sure, his side won in the end. But you’ve gotta wonder if the Northeners realize how many extra men they lost because Jon couldn’t be bothered to listen or stick to the plan.
… But Jon Snow gets the credit and the glory
On second thought, maybe you don’t have to wonder, because the Northern lords follow up the Battle of the Bastards by declaring Jon Snow their new King in the North. This despite the fact that it’s really Sansa – the trueborn Stark! – who saved the day, that Jon almost lost the fight for them, and that their last experiment with a King in the North ended in the bloodiest wedding of all time.
Jon accepts, and promptly makes the first of his many blunders as the new ruler: he neglects to give Sansa or Littlefinger any public credit whatsoever.
As of yet, this hasn’t proven to be a problem. Sansa remains loyal to Jon, and Littlefinger has yet to make his next move. Still, it’s troubling, and suggests that Jon remains very bad at the “game.” By disrespecting Sansa, he creates friction where there doesn’t need to be any; by disrespecting Littlefinger, he risks the ire of the knights of the Vale. You’d think that if Jon learned anything from getting stabbed by his own men, it’d be that sometimes, you’ve gotta grit your teeth and play nice.
Jon Snow leaves the North in disarray
But, fine, whatever. The Battle of the Bastards went the way it did, and Jon’s King in the North now. Is he at least a good ruler?
Nope! He’s sloppy AF, prone to making dramatic announcements with sweeping consequences without consulting any of his advisors ahead of time. This results in Jon and Sansa having a lot of very awkward public arguments in front of all the Northmen. (For some reason, it never occurs to Davos, a former Hand of the King, to point out that this is what small councils were invented for in the first place.)
One of those big announcements is that Jon, having been chosen to lead his people, plans to immediately ditch his people so he can head south and meet a lady about some dragonglass. When his people object, Jon whines that he never asked to be king.
Anyway, they shouldn’t worry because Sansa will run things while he’s away. Which is news to Sansa. I’ve gotten more warning from co-workers before they put me down as an alternate contact in their out-of-office emails.
Sansa’s actually kind of okay with this, and pretty good at the job – no thanks to Jon, who rushes out the door roughly five minutes after putting her in charge, giving her zero time to prepare or strategize. When she later vents to Littlefinger that the Northern lords seem to be wavering in their loyalty, it’s hard not to sympathize with them.
Jon Snow has no plan
Let’s give Jon Snow a little benefit of the doubt here. The reason he’s rushed to Dragonstone is because he remains (correctly) convinced that the Night King and his forces pose a greater threat to the realm than Cersei Lannister or any other human ruler, and he needs Daenerys’ help to save the Seven Kingdoms.
The problem is that Dany (like most other people) doesn’t believe ice zombies exist. Which is why Jon decides he’s going to kidnap one and bring it back down as proof.
This is a questionable plan for so many reasons. For starters, it’s the entire plan: the Westerosi Avengers don’t seem to have any particular strategy, beyond popping up north and trying to pluck a zombie out of the snow like an apple from the tree. There’s no attempt to figure out what they’re up against, or come up with a Plan B if things fall through.
Should Jon die, it’ll be a serious blow to the war against the undead (since, remember, Jon is one of the only people in Seven Kingdoms who’s even aware of the White Walkers and wights). It could also spark a crisis of succession in the North, since Sansa has no idea what Jon’s up to. Jon accounts for exactly none of these possibilities.
Surprise, surprise, that turns out to be a mistake when Jon and company find themselves surrounded on all sides by the undead. There’s just no way Jon’s going to survive this … except he does, because Dany and then Benjen come to his rescue.
In the process, one of Dany’s dragons dies and gets turned into a White Walker dragon, so now #TeamLiving is more screwed than ever. That’s not entirely Jon’s fault – Dany has a similar tendency to leap without looking – but it’s frustrating to wonder how things could’ve turned out differently if Jon and his men had been more careful.
Jon Snow bends the knee after all
After all of this, Jon Snow decides he’s going to bend the knee to Dany after all. Even Dany knows this is a dangerous idea, but Jon says not to worry. “They’ll come to see you for what you are,” he reassures her tenderly.
Will they, though? The reason the Northerners keep crowing people King in the North (first Robb, then Jon) is because they’re sick of submitting to other rulers from other regions. Let’s hope he’s got some idea to make it more palatable to them (maybe he can sell it to them as a military alliance or a marital bond?), or he might have another mutiny on his hands and get stabbed to death all over again.
Though he’ll probably just come back to life if that happens anyway.
Jon Snow is a good guy, but a bad leader
Here’s the thing: As much as I want to fault Jon for relying on deus ex machinas to save his skin every time, it’s also worked out for him literally every time. Dany’s intervention is the third time in four seasons that Jon’s almost died in battle, only to be saved at the last minute by the “unexpected” arrival of an outside force. The one time salvation failed to come for Jon in time, a priestess brought him back from the dead.
If the realm wants to thrive under a new ruler, though, they deserve better.
However, none of this speaks to Jon’s skill as a leader, just his incredible good luck as a fictional character controlled by writers who apparently treasure him too much to let him die. Jon’s a great guy: he’s brave and kind and talented, and he means well 100% of the time. If the realm survives winter, it’ll be in a large part because Jon insisted on spreading word of the White Walkers, no matter how much skepticism he faced.
If the realm wants to thrive under a new ruler, though, they deserve better than a fool who tosses his plans by the wayside because he’s overcome with emotion, who disregards good advice out of misguided pride, who regularly puts his men’s lives at risk because he can’t be bothered to think ahead, who seems more concerned with playing the hero than with actually leading.
You know some things, Jon Snow. But how to be a good leader is not one of them.