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Here’s what’s really behind Jon Snow’s unfailing honesty in Game of Thrones’ season 7 finale

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From a character perspective, it makes sense. From a narrative perspective, it’s more significant than that

Photo by Macall B. Polay / HBO

Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 7 finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf”

After all the work the various factions have done throughout season 7, trying to achieve some kind of balance between the power players in Westeros, Jon Snow nearly blows it completely in the season finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.” When Cersei Lannister agrees to an armistice between her forces and Daenerys Targaryen’s — at least until the undead menace in the North can be contained — she has one condition: that Jon, as the King in the North, not take sides in the Lannister/Targaryen war. “I know Ned Stark’s son will be true to his word,” she tells everybody.

But Jon promptly tells her he can’t make that promise, because he’s already sworn fealty to Daenerys. “I cannot serve two queens,” he tells Cersei. She storms out, and everyone looks at him like he farted loudly in the middle of a church service. “Have you ever considered learning how to lie every now and then? Just a bit?” Tyrion asks. Daenerys says much the same thing, tersely suggesting that he may have just made the death of her dragon Viserion pointless.

But no, Jon says, he didn’t have a choice. He isn’t going to make an oath he can’t keep. Words have to mean something, he says, or “there are no more answers, and only better and better lies.”

From a character standpoint, this is just more of Jon Snow’s particular form of honor. As Cersei implies, it was taught to him by Ned Stark, whom he considers his father, and whom he reveres more than anyone else in the Game of Thrones story. As Jon himself later implies, he can’t back down from it, even knowing that this exact same brand of play-it-straight honesty, this inability to play Westeros’ game of lies and deceptions, is part of what got Ned killed in the first place.

But from a narrative standpoint, it’s a seemingly pointless little hiccup. Cersei leaves the bargaining table, but it turns out that was a conscious, deliberate ploy all along. Presumably if Jon hadn’t given her an excuse, she would have found a different one — it really looks like she just wanted to not seem like a pushover, to make her turnaround convincing. But she didn’t necessarily need the theater of Jon’s refusal for that, not when she could have claimed the wight was some form of cheap manipulative trick, or stormed away because her would-be allies almost let it rip her face off to make their point, or any other minor point of pre-planned objection she could have rigged with her people.

No, there’s another, much bigger narrative reason for the writers to make a point of Jon’s honesty here — particularly his honesty in a situation where telling the truth puts his friends, his queen, his war, his beloved North, and his future in jeopardy. And that’s because the big reveal about his lineage, and his status as the true heir to the Iron Throne, is apparently coming.

“The Dragon and the Wolf” also gives us Bran Stark and Samwell Tarly putting their information together and realizing Jon isn’t Ned Stark’s bastard, he’s the true Targaryen heir. Bran feels Jon needs to know who he really is. But does he? When it comes out, it’s just likely to set Jon and Daenerys against each other, as her righteous claim to Westeros’ throne suddenly stops seeming airtight. Jon might be a kinder ruler, but he doesn’t have the dragons to back his claim, and there’s never been any indication that he wants to sit on the Iron Throne. He doesn’t even really want to be King in the North. And apparently, based on his behavior in season 7’s final two episodes, he’s in love with Daenerys, whom he can’t properly marry once he realizes she’s his aunt. There are far more downsides to him learning or revealing his lineage than there are upsides.

So if Jon was a different man than he is, it might make sense for him to stay quiet about his lineage. He’d almost certainly rather be Ned Stark’s son than the secret lovechild of a Targaryen anyway. He wants to be with Dany, he wants to keep the North safe, and he wants to avoid poisonous Westerosi politics. He’s also given his fealty to Dany, and publicizing her lineage and fighting with her for the throne would be breaking that word.

But the scene in the old King’s Landing dragon pit is a narrative reminder that when it comes down to it, Jon Snow doesn’t know how to lie. Just as he couldn’t walk away from the Wildlings’ plight — even though his men hated him for taking their side — and just as he couldn’t walk away from his responsibilities in the North, he won’t be able to lie about his heritage and walk away from being heir to the Iron Throne. “The Dragon and the Wolf” is out to underline the conflicts that are about to arise between him and Dany, and between himself and his duty.

And it’s also out to underline that he follows the straightest path, even when he knows he’s going to regret it. In a later scene with Theon Greyjoy, he admits that he doesn’t always know the right path or the moral choice, and that he’s regretted some of his actions. But Theon clearly thinks otherwise. “You’ve always known what was right,” he says plaintively. “Even when we were all young and stupid, you always knew. Every step you take, it’s always the right step.” But what’s the right step for an unfailingly honest man who has to choose between his duty and his love, his sworn word to serve Daenerys, and the bloodline that says he can’t be with her, and has to rule her?

We may have to wait a year or two to see how Jon navigates those conflicts, but we’re being shown in this episode that he’s not going to take the easiest, or most graceful, way out. It isn’t in him, no matter what the truth and his weighty sense of responsibility costs him. These scenes aren’t about the conflict of the moment. They’re about building the conflict of the future.