Jon and Daenerys are being presented as two sides of the ‘Nature vs Nurture’ argument
In the society of Westeros there is little else that matters as much as blood. We see it in almost every facet of life. In politics it is the inheritance system, a matter in which you control land, armies and power. In social beliefs there is no one so accursed as the Kinslayer, also known as harming someone of your own blood. It is etched across the ancient religions of the north and their sacrifices. If even brings with it the hint of magic, with all Melisandre’s talk of King’s Blood and its power.
Most notably it is the core factor in what is the bedrock of both the in-world universe and the story as a whole: family. Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire is a story of many families in the large scale and a story of one in the small. It is one of the ever-present themes and lies heavy on almost every major character.
Unsurprisingly, it is a large building block for the story of the two (arguably) main characters. Daenerys Targaryen is the last member of a royal dynasty, a bloodline that not only ruled Westeros for three hundred years but extends back to Old Valyria and is linked intrinsically with the power of dragons. Even their family motto makes mention: Fire and Blood. (Many would point out that these words are an intimidation or boastful attempt. While I’m sure that is a factor, I have always believed the Targaryen words also look inwards and are merely saying what sets them apart.)
Jon Snow is almost the polar opposite. He is born and raised amongst many family members, a witness to a resurgent generation of one of the realm’s oldest families (remembering that only two of the previous generation survived). But for all that, he is attached but not attached. Family but not family. Jon is a loner, a bastard. He owns the Stark blood yes, but it’s not enough to make him a family member.
Daenerys has the weight of that entire dynasty upon her shoulders, sixteen kings included. Along with her brother Viserys her entire story relates heavily to the restoration of the family name and doing right by her bloodline. Meanwhile Jon grows up watching the family of families from just outside the boundary lines. No one hammers home the importance of one’s family as the Starks, and while Jon is able to enjoy a much warmer childhood than Daenerys, the effects are everlasting and undeniable.
The two of them are paired in countless ways. They are the representation of Ice and Fire, after all. Jon spends his time in the frozen north, Daenerys in the sands of Essos. Daenerys has fire-breathing dragons, Jon a snow white Direwolf. As the two characters have grown, they have been placed both at opposite ends of the spectrum and also as mirror images of each other.
Now, as Season 8 reaches its climax, the two are being presented as the different sides of an age-old argument: Nature vs Nurture, a discussion which obviously goes right back to the importance of family and blood. Based on how the show is panning out Jon is the ultimate representation of Nurture being the victor in deciding who a person is, while Daenerys seems to be sliding towards Nature.
Despite the similarities of circumstance, the actual raising of Jon and Daenerys as children could hardly have been more different. Jon, despite indifference from Catelyn Stark and the feeling of being estranged, was raised by a family and a father with obviously strong moral values and lessons. Daenerys only had a brother who had nearly been destroyed in terms of emotion and mentality by what had happened to him. She was shipped from city to city with the ever-present danger of death not far behind, and the illusion of home never quite in grasp. For Jon, though the history of the Starks was ever-present, it was family that was enforced. For Daenerys, lacking that, it was the blood, the history, the nature.
To examine it even closer, much of Dany’s lessons from Viserys are based on Targaryens and Dragons acting that way merely because of belonging to that particular family. Fire cannot kill a dragon, etc etc. It is not based on the individual but the name. Though there are certainly elements of that in the raising of the Stark children, their morals are also centred much more on being a good person. Bran’s lesson of when a man can be brave, Robb’s tutoring in how being a lord means having many children. They are taught how to be good people, not good Starks.
As their story grows we see how each of these influences aids and sometimes harms the two of them. Jon takes on Eddard’s focus on honour and doing the right thing, and he pays for it. Daenerys focuses on her ‘right’ of the Iron Throne, driving herself to gain more and more power despite mistakes made along the way. In those points the nature vs nurture becomes somewhat murky and assigning the pair to either one would be far harder.
What changes things is the revelation that Jon and Daenerys are not different ends of the spectrum at all. They are relatives. With the knowledge that they share blood the argument becomes much clearer: both, in theory, would share some of the same nature, but do they act different? Season 8, it seems, has definitive answers.
Jon, despite his learning of his parentage, remains Ned Stark’s son. It has been said numerous times on the show, always with a sense of irony. Even when Cersei Lannister announces him so at the meeting in the Dragonpit, it’s almost as if the show is winking at us. But now, imbued with the knowledge of his birth, Jon stays the same. He is the leader of the north, he is a man who believes in the importance of truth, he values family above all else. He is Ned all over.
The show is drawing further parallels. Ned went south, and bad things happened. Jon is about to do so (again) and it’s generally agreed it won’t be a fun trip. I believe there is an even deeper call-back. Years ago, Ned came south to King’s Landing to find it in chaos after being sacked by Tywin Lannister. Tragically, I believe Jon is going to find it in a similar state due to the fighting between Cersei and Daenerys. History aside, Jon is the biggest representation of Ned we have. He wears the cloak; he sounds the same. We can imagine Ned making that same speech at the mourning after the battle. We can see him in how he talks with Sansa, Arya and Bran. Jon is Ned’s son, end of. Blood did not win this time. Jon is Jon because of how he was nurtured by Ned.
Where the argument falters is that, show-wise, we have little to no evidence that Jon isn’t taking after Rhaegar or Lyanna and its happy coincidence that Ned is the same. From the books we can ascertain that Jon likely isn’t like Rhaegar at all, and while Lyanna undoubtedly would share some of Ned’s traits it’s a more-than-fair bet that it is the influence from childhood, all the lessons on family and morality and the example that is set, that has made Jon the leader and man that he is.
On the other side of the line is Daenerys. Dany had no childhood. She had to grow up in the space of a couple of days with Khal Drogo. She was influenced, inarguably, by Viserys and Drogo and Jorah and others, but did certainly not receive much that could be called nurturing. Despite all that she was able to become her own person, shaking off the weight of being a ‘Mad King’ ’s daughter. For better or worse (I do not have the room to discuss it here, unfortunately) the showrunners have apparently made the decision that Daenerys is reverting to that ‘Mad’ nature.
The idea of ‘Mad Queen’ is unfair. ‘The Last of the Starks’, and Season 8 in general, has done a superb job of showing exactly why Daenerys is following this path. She has lost almost all her closest friends, sent more than half of her followers out to die, lost another child and the focus of her entire life is suddenly in question without even considering her best friend was just executed in front of her. Daenerys isn’t walking a path of madness, she’s walking a path of pain, hurt, betrayal and unfamiliarity. Her reaction is completely reasonable and utterly human. Still, the nuance of this seems to be lost in the show somewhat.
We are hurt due to the lack of family details. Viserys gets some due. The attentive viewer can work out that Viserys was made as we see him in Season 1 due to the uprooting of his life as a child, the murder of essentially all his family and the fear of Robert Baratheon’s spies. There is a reason he became as he did. Unfortunately, Aerys is not so lucky in the show. He is called ‘The Mad King’ and it is left there. We are not privy to the book details of the Defiance of Duskendale and the reasons behind his madness. Aerys had shades of that in his youth perhaps, but there were still specific reasons. But there we are, we’ve got what we’ve got.
So, on the eve of Episode 5, where many expect Daenerys to grant Missandei’s final wish and unleash dragon fire on King’s Landing, and where Jon might arrive at the city in the same manner as his uncle did two decades before, the argument is now quite clear (in the show’s eyes, at least). Jon is the product of the power of family. He has learnt the lessons of Ned and the other Starks; he has been nurtured into a good person. Daenerys, on the other hand, is finding it difficult to resist the nature fate has given her: the angry, violent, destiny-obsessed, even ‘mad’ (though I resist its usage in this manner).
We will know far more after Episode 5, but in my view this argument can be laid over Westeros and the story in its entirety. This society is obsessed with blood and family, but there are different ways to interpret that. Tywin Lannister had the idea that Family Name ruled above all, that any living Lannister is little more than a servant to the wider idea of ‘Lannister’. Eddard Stark saw things differently. They took as much pride in being a Stark as anyone else, but he loved his children, taught them well, saw them as individuals. This argument, along with so many others, goes so far to showing why Ned was correct. Why this tragic family who have lost so much, still had it right despite what they went through.
Jon shows that. That blood and name is not everything. That morality, and parenting, and honour matter. Instead of Jon and Daenerys as opposites, look for the answer in a single person: Theon.
Theon has his nature in the Greyjoys but received much of his nurture from the Starks. He tried, desperately, to return to his nature and it brought him only ruin. After all of that he admitted who his true family was, and thankfully lived to pay them back. Theon’s nurturing was the best side of a very split soul.
As it is with Jon and Daenerys. Two sides of one coin. But one is being represented as much better than the other.
It is a very unfair representation of Daenerys, and I hope her ending is not so simple as going ‘mad’ (though I absolutely understand the path she is on currently). Daenerys is not ‘worse’ because she had no nurturing. She is not a slave to nature. She has taken on more brutality than anybody and won. She fought and used her nature to enrich countless lives. However these final episodes display her I think us who have witnessed so much of her life will be confident in the knowledge that both she and Jon are so much more than just blood.