Spoilers follow for “Winterfell,” the season eight premiere of Game of Thrones.
For the last two years, both the readers of George R.R. Martin’s books and fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones have concentrated on a revelation about one of the series’ major characters: Jon Snow.
Jon Snow isn’t who he thinks he is. Jon Snow is actually half Targaryen, the oldest son of Daenerys’s oldest brother.
And in Game of Thrones’ season eight premiere, “Winterfell,” the show capitalized on this family history with a scene in which Jon Snow rides one of Dany’s two remaining dragons.
Dany and Jon take a dragon ride through the North — he on Rhaegal, she on Drogon — swooping through rocky valleys and ravines. Dany laughs at Jon’s struggle to steer and hold on; he’s not as adept at dragon-riding as she is. But when they finally land, they’re both thrilled. And then Dany asks Jon if they could (not that) hypothetically go behind an icy waterfall and keep each other warm.
Given the CGI and the randy tone of the scene, your mileage may vary on how cool — or ridiculous — this moment actually was. But as it pertains to the Game of Thrones’ story at large, it’s a very important moment pertaining to Jon Snow’s identity, something the show has been setting up for the last couple of seasons.
Here’s why that dragon ride matters.
Game of Thrones laid the groundwork for this scene by making Daenerys’s dragons a clue about Jon’s parentage
When Game of Thrones first began — and before that, in George R.R. Martin’s source novels — Jon Snow was introduced as Ned Stark’s bastard son. But in both versions, that introduction was followed by clues and foreshadowing that suggested Jon isn’t who we or he thinks he is. The show was ultimately a little heavier with the hints, and understandably so, as it eventually rocketed ahead of the books it’s based on, beginning to diverge from its source material in season four.
One of the show’s huge clues regarding Jon’s true parentage came in Game of Thrones’ season six finale when, during one of Bran’s flashbacks, we saw Ned Stark as a much younger man, fighting his way into the Tower of Joy past a number of members of the Kingsguard.
He’s storming the tower in search of his sister, Lyanna Stark, who was allegedly abducted by Rhaegar Targaryen. But instead, he finds that his sister has just given birth to a baby, presumably Rhaegar’s, and has lost a lot of blood. She’s dying, and asks Ned to keep the baby safe.
The implication is that Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen had a child, an heir to the Iron Throne. Rhaegar was the eldest son of of the mad king King Aerys II Targaryen, making Rhaegar next in the line of succession (and Daenerys and Viserys’s older brother). Rhaegar’s child would be the true heir, again because of succession. But at this point, Ned and Bran are the only characters on the show who know this child exists, and only Ned and the audience know it’s Jon Snow.
Game of Thrones has since called back to that reveal in a couple different instances, such as this season seven scene at Dragonstone, from the episode “Eastwatch,” when Jon meets Drogon, Daenerys’s main dragon:
The surprise here is that Jon isn’t cremated on the spot. Daenerys considers her dragons her children. They are very protective of her, and they don’t take kindly to outsiders or to anyone they feel might threaten Daenerys or their relationship with Daenerys.
That Jon doesn’t meet the same fate as Nakloz signals that Daenerys likes him, and by extension, that Drogon likes him. But it also suggests that he has Targaryen blood, since Targaryens share an affinity for and relationship with dragons.
Game of Thrones’ fully confirmed Jon’s parentage in its season seven finale, when both Sam and Bran learned that Rhaegar and Lyanna had been married in secret, got pregnant with Jon, and that Ned adopted Jon as his “bastard” to keep him safe during the war in which people wanted to kill off the Targaryen bloodline. Jon’s real name is Aegon Targaryen. So in the season eight premiere, Jon being go out for a joy ride on Rhaegal (who happens to be named after his father — Daenerys’s brother) is a manifestation of his Targaryen blood.
Jon riding the dragon sets up the impending White Walker clash and serves as a callback to a prophecy from the books
In the books and on the show, a prophecy called “The Prince/Princess That Was Promised” foretells of a someone of royal blood whose destiny is to save the world from the Long Night, a.k.a. when the White Walkers show up and kill everyone.
Melisandre refers to the prophecy when she visits Daenerys at Dragonstone in season seven, whereupon Missandei notes that the translation from High Valyrian actually makes gender ambiguous — the savior could be a prince or a princess. Melisandre says that Daenerys and Jon Snow are crucial to the prophecy:
“Prophecies are dangerous things,” Melisandre intones. “I believe you have a role to play — as does another the King of North, Jon Snow.”
George R.R. Martin’s books are more comprehensive about the promised prince or princess.
When Daenerys visits the House of the Undying in A Clash of Kings, she has vision in which her brother Rhaegar says a lot of crazy things to her. “He is the prince that was promised,” Rhaegar says, “And his is the song of ice and fire.” This could be interpreted to refer to Jon Snow being the child of a Targaryen (fire) and a Stark (ice).
Rhaegar also tells Daenerys that “the dragon has three heads.” A popular fan theory surrounding this statement is that since Daenerys has three dragons, and that the Targaryen sigil is a three-headed dragon, there would ostensibly be three dragon riders. With Jon Snow being able ride a dragon, it seems like this prophecy is being partly fulfilled.
However, this theory was established before the Night King killed and resurrected Daenerys’s dragon Viserion in season seven. That throws a wrench into the three dragon riders theory.
While the Prince/Princess and Dragon Rider prophecies are related, it might be better for now to consider them separate entities with nifty parallels, since Game of Thrones the TV show has completely jumped ahead of the books, timeline-wise.
What we do know is that Jon is able to ride a dragon, something that no one except Daenerys has previously been able to do, and that it further proves his Targaryen blood. If he gets more dragon-riding practice, he’ll presumably be able to ride Rhaegal into battle against the White Walkers — possibly making good on Melisandre’s hunch that to defeat the White Walkers, Jon Snow and Daenerys will need to join forces.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question currently is: Why isn’t Daenerys a little more aware of what it means that Jon is able to ride a dragon? And will she allow him to ride the dragon after he tells her he’s actually Targaryen and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne?