Warning: contains plot spoilers
Game of Thrones is known for its violence and sexual explicitness, and for its surprises. Overturning the almost sacred Hollywoodian tenet that “the good guys always win out in the end”, in reflection of the spirit of our brave new age, followers of the show have several times been horrified – and highly entertained – to see the nice guys suffer betrayal, lose their heads, be stabbed and gored to death, you name it.
The world of Westeros is one where, whether you live by the sword or not, you more often than not die by it.
The villains, for their part, just as often come to a messy end. Janos Slynt, is the former Commander of the City Watch in King’s Landing and a brother in the Night’s Watch, and doesn’t shrink from the worst crimes, including stabbing sucklings to death. When Ned Stark intends to depose Joffrey, Slynt betrays him, leading to Ned’s execution, and the wars that follow. In reward the Lannisters make him a lord and give him Harrenhal.
Later, Tyrion Lannister exiles Slynt to the Night’s Watch, where we learn that in addition to being a scheming and plotting backstabber and murderer, Slynt is a coward.
His moment of truth comes when, in the aftermath of the wildlings’ siege of Castle Black, Jon Snow is unexpectedly elected Lord Commander. Slynt, apparently counting on Jon’s adversary Alliser Thorne to back him up and mount a rebellion, defies Jon’s direct orders, and when Jon explicitly asks him whether he is refusing to obey him, tells him he can “stick his orders up his bastard arse”.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Snow orders the Brothers to take Slynt outside. In the quick action that follows, Slynt, aghast that Thorne, for reasons not yet clear, does not act to save him, briefly maintains his defiance, but, made to kneel on the scaffold as Jon wields his sword, breaks down and apologizes and begs pitifully for mercy. As Slynt whimpers “I’m afraid! I’ve always been afraid!”, Jon Snow momentarily hesitates, but then resolutely swings. Slynt, facing down, doesn’t see the actual blow coming, and in a split second, his head is sliced clean from his body.
The viewer sees all this in trademark graphic GoT detail. You are left reeling at the swiftness of it, the finality of it, the utter irrevocability of it. Slynt is out of the picture for ever. Jon Snow, whom we know as a principled, good character, does show, when he actually commits the deed, an expression of aggression. Whether it is inherent in the act of beheading someone that one must suppress all compassion and pity (presumably it is, yet I and you, the reader of this post, whoever you are, can – presumably – only speculate), or if, now that it is righteous, lawful and justified, Jon is simultaneously, in his intent, avenging his father’s death in the most scriptural way, we don’t know. What we do know is that Jon has to do it. He has no choice. In a violent and unstable world he is the new commander of a military outpost, manned by former outcasts and hardened criminals, there is no alternative than to deal Slynt swift death. He, Slynt and the rest of them are in it for life – there is no option for exile or any such softer option.
What this powerful scene demonstrates is that there are legal and political situations where it is unavoidable to take the life of another – not for the sake of revenge, or mere tradition, but out of existential necessity. There is, morally speaking, no blood on Jon Snow’s hands. He has committed no sin – he has done the right thing.