The Psychology of ‘Game of Thrones’: Jon Snow

Drea Letamendi

The Night King has been defeated but the bitter wars for the crown in the Seven Kingdoms have yet to be settled. With so much still at stake, who among the throne-seekers will prove to be successful? To understand their personal motivations, strategies, and vulnerabilities, we must examine their psychological functioning. As part of a series of articles — including others focused on Daenerys TargaryenCersei Lannister, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, and Tyrion Lannister — our consulting psychologist provides case formulations of some of Game of Thrones’ most compelling characters.

 

“The only time a man can be brave is when he is afraid.”

No longer a mystery, Jon Snow’s true identity as Aegon Targaryen indisputably ties him to the Iron Throne. But growing up as the “Bastard Son” to Ned Stark shaped Jon’s personality significantly. Though he was well-accepted into the Stark family by his supposed half sisters and brothers (they are now presumed to be his cousins), Jon quietly wrestled with dejection and loneliness. He was always among them, but not one of them. Because he never quite fit in, hypothetically he would have been susceptible to deviousness and anti-social behavior. However, instead of rebelling, Jon develops a strong sense of humility and honor. He internalizes his father’s principles surrounding civic duty – earning status by being a productive, responsible, and contributing member of society. With a little nudging from Tyrion, Jon graciously leans in to his shortcomings. He knows who he is (ironically) and stands by his values. He comes across as self-sufficient, thoughtful, and unpretentious. But does Jon Snow have the psychological fortitude to be a leader? Is doing what’s right enough?

Throughout Jon’s arc, he continues to find himself as the outsider. Seeking brotherhood and nobility, Jon joins the Night’s Watch with the expectation to be a part of something bigger. Defending the realm from Wildlings and other unknown, if not mythical, threats beyond the Wall would give him purpose and fulfill his need for belonging. Perhaps being a valued member of an honorable community would ameliorate feelings of dejection. He’d have a family. Though one of the better recruits, Jon is disappointed in the level of integrity and faith by members of the Watch. He is not well-respected across the ranks, though he is easily the most noble of them all. Because he made an oath, Jon does not abandon his new family and becomes Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.

Rather than make moral adjustments and lighten his grip on what he represents, Jon prefers to exercise patience; he hopes that others will rise to the occasion and adapt to his level of honor. Jon’s virtuousness, therefore, leads to some of his biggest mistakes. When he becomes entangled with the Wildlings, he is initially unable to see that The Wall is actually arbitrary and that he is privileged because he happened to be on the “right” side of it. “They’re not your lands!” Ygritte corrects Jon, reminding him that a barrier built 8,000 years ago is both a vestige of oppression as well as their common descent – the Free Folk and the Northerners are not ethnically dissimilar. And though Jon is not yet ready to have his honor code be dismantled by a Wildling, he begins to acquiesce. Falling in love with Ygritte and breaking his vows to the Night’s Watch become his first steps in negotiating his ethics.

Nearly 100 years ago, psychologist William Mouton Marston wrote the book, The Emotions of Normal People. While that book may not apply here, Marston is known for developing a theory known as the DiSC Model of Behavior. Fundamental to the model is the concept of behavioral expressions of emotions that Marston be categorized into four types: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness, hence DiSC. As it is used now, the DiSC is a standardized personal assessment tool given to teams in government and business organizations, sometimes to identify styles of leaders. Tyrion, for instance, would be high in Influence because he’s generally optimistic and open; he places emphasis on influencing or persuading others. His power is in human connection. Jon is likely strongest in the trait of Steadiness because he places emphasis and value on behaviors involving teamwork, loyalty, and stability. Jon’s power is cooperation. At least, the expectation of cooperation. This trait, when harnessed effectively, does make a person a good leader, as long as discernment is exercised. Psychological discernment is the ability to obtain sharp perceptions of others, to judge and foresee actions successfully. When dealing with shady people like Cersei, Jon must learn to step outside the comfort of allegiances and common order to access shrewdness. In fact, his unfailing honesty gets in the way of a potential alliance with the Lannisters and their forces. Jon refuses to remain neutral upon Cersei’s request, admitting that he has already sworn fealty to Daenerys. “I cannot serve two queens,” he announces, proudly. Sheesh. Sometimes, we just need to stand down. Tyrion chastises Jon: “Have you ever considered learning how to lie every now and then? Just a bit?”

Of course, none of us can be reduced to a trait or two, but we often default to a predictable mode in times of crisis. As research psychologist and leadership expert Brené Brown asserts, “when we’re in fear, there’s a fairly predictable pattern of how we assemble our armor piece by piece.” She describes a process of stages starting with vulnerability, then discomfort of that vulnerability, followed by defensiveness and, ultimately, righteousness. That righteousness builds over time and becomes our armor. And as we’ve learned from the Starks, too much honor can get a man killed. Truth be told, we’re still unsure of what Jon experienced after being stabbed to death by several men in the Night’s Watch and being resurrected via Melisandre’s magic. As if it were very last rejection he would literally withstand, his execution and return to life lead him to a new revelation, a new concept of “duty.” He begins to think for himself and to reframe his loyalty. The Watch was founded to protect Men from the Others (White Walkers), not from each other. Jon realizes his sense of belonging is far grander than he could have imagined. Being alive has never been more precious. “You are not my enemy,” Jon had said to Tormund Giantsbane, a raider who was used to the derogatory treatment by Men protected by the Wall. “You belong to the realm of men, all of you.” Jon is one of the first to transcend tribes and factions, asserting that they all need to fight for the side that fights for the living.

We begin to see Jon’s guard dissolve when he gives himself, fully, to Daenerys Targaryen. Stumbling and love-struck, he subdues his pride and whatever else he has to overcome to mount the dragon, Rhaegal, and ride alongside his love through the skies of Winterfell and beyond, in a prolonged Disney-esque adventure that almost seems out of character for both people. What helps us here, however, is learning that Jon is more willing to be led by his emotions – and his vulnerability.

The prominent, if not glaring, metaphor presented in the last season is the breaching of the Wall. In a massive attack, the Night King uses the undead dragon, Viserion, to obliterate an entire section of the Wall. When the breach is created, the White Walkers and an estimated 100,000 zombies begin to cross into the Seven Kingdoms. Though it’s an intense moment, the ultimate culmination between the living does bring a sense of eerie relief. It’s time. All of Westeros spent thousands of years denying the White Walkers, instead spending their days torturing, enslaving and dehumanizing one another. Humanity became distorted. Death destroyed the Wall. Death created the fracture. And with Jon, his death is what leaves him deeply ruptured. His armor –his thoughts, emotions, and everything he uses to protect himself under a hundred pounds of pelts, has also kept him blind from his own values. If what we know about leadership and vulnerability is true, an effective leader is one who can guide unarmored. He must admit that he’s made mistakes and that he is sometimes wrong. That is his most courageous self.

Click on the links below for our psychological profiles on other key Game of Thrones players…

Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She loves Batman, Star Wars, and all the cats in the known world.