This article contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8, episode 4: “The Last of the Starks.”
He sits there, literally crying. Jon Snow, the boy who became a man while raising him, has all but abandoned this dog. Except Direwolves are not dogs. Like the dragons on Game of Thrones, the mythic uber-canines tend to be smarter than most creatures and intuitively understand the whims and thoughts of the Westerosi Houses they’re linked to. For Daenerys of House Targaryen, she is the Mother of Dragons, yet strangely the direwolves that meant so much in Game of Thrones’ early seasons and even more so in George R.R. Martin’s novels have been devalued, ignored, and now literally cast aside.
Jon Snow is giving away Ghost to Tormund Giantsbane and the Free Folk, who will take the beast to live in cold isolation in the Land of Always Winter. Meta-textually, this is likely a bad omen for Jon Snow’s fate. If the showrunners knew he was coming back to Winterfell, they’d likely just do what they always do in regards to Ghost’s whereabouts: ignore them. Instead they seem to think Ghost is a loose end they need to tie up, especially if this is the last time Jon Snow breathes Northern air.
But even so, it doesn’t make the scene play any less false. Jon Snow walks by the animal he raised and once loved like family—the very pup that was the first to realize he’d risen from the dead—and doesn’t so much as pat Ghost on the head. No matter what happens to Jon, this is their last scene together, and Jon’s indifference is a terrible consequence of the practicalities of ending an expensive TV show, as opposed to good writing in regards to the character of Jon Snow.
In fact, the problems with this scene are a bit of a microcosm for all the problems with the later seasons of Game of Thrones, which could eerily threaten to finally overcome the show in its final two episodes in a worst case scenario. While it is never spoken outright, there is a highly probable economic reason Jon Snow did not at the very least bid Ghost a farewell stroke of the fur. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been repeatedly candid over the years that doing the direwolves properly after the first season had become prohibitively expensive. After they were to have grown past the point of being the size of normal big dogs—which is about season 2 when Robb threatens an imprisoned Jaime Lannister with Grey Wind—CGI enhancements became necessary. Simply put, the creators of Game of Thrones have always considered dragons, major battles, and establishing shots of fictional vistas a higher priority for their CGI budget than giving the direwolves their due.
Thus it would’ve probably cost an unknown larger amount of money to have Jon Snow pet a big lovable white doggie that wasn’t there than it did to just have him give Ghost the cold shoulder. In economic terms, this makes depressing sense. In storytelling terms, however, it is kind of the worst. In the very first episode of Game of Thrones, Jon being able to adopt Ghost was a significant moment, if only to him. When Ned Stark and his male children find a dead direwolf mother with a fresh litter, there appears to be only five pups, pups Ned wants to destroy until Jon Snow realizes it might be a good omen.
There were five direwolves, and Ned Stark had five legitimate children. There could be one given as a pet to each of them. Jon Snow, as the unofficial sixth child, could not expect such inclusion as a bastard. That is until Theon Greyjoy (who is even more a black sheep in this family portrait than Jon), notices there is a runt of the litter. Jon Snow can be included in the family. Theon might find it a joke, but Jon is more than happy with the runt, because it is a small way in which he’s been included as one of the Stark children.
As the early seasons progressed, much like the novels they’re based on, the fate of each Stark child seemed implicitly linked to their direwolf. Sansa’s Lady is executed by Ned Stark due to the cruel machinations of Cersei Lannister, and as it foreshadows, Sansa herself is defenseless and without protection as Ned Stark’s good intentions leave her alone and as Cersei’s hostage. When Robb Stark lost as much interest in winning his war as following his heart, he began agreeing with separate parties that Grey Wind was too vicious after being on multiple battlefields. Robb even allows the Freys to convince him that Grey Wind needs to be locked up during Edmure and Roslin’s wedding at the Twins, and we know how that turned out for both Robb and Grey Wind.
The Starks who most embraced their direwolves were the ones who survived horrible situations, be it Summer saving Bran’s life in the second episode of the series when an assassin attempted to kill him and his mother, or how Ghost also helped awaken Jon Snow to the threat of undead zombies rumbling around the Lord Commander’s quarters. Ghost was by Jon’s side Beyond the Wall when he met and fell in love with Ygritte, and Ghost was by his side when he also was forced to burn Ygritte’s dead body. But as the seasons have progressed, especially past the books, showrunners Benioff and Weiss’ preference for spending money on more spectacular facets of this world has left this thematic thread in shambles.
Ghost was nowhere to be seen during the Battle of the Bastards, even though Jon’s once beloved direwolf would’ve been a fearsome asset in the carnage, just as Grey Wind was for Robb Stark’s off-screen battles. And despite being relieved to be reunited with Sansa, Bran, and Arya earlier this season, Jon showed no interest in embracing Ghost, who was inexplicably absent during Jon and Daenerys’ arrival.
This follows the unsatisfactory way Benioff and Weiss killed off Summer in a split-second moment during the Night King’s attack on the Great Heart Tree in season 6, as well as how Martin’s foreshadowing of Arya’s abandoned direwolf, Nymeria, went largely ignored on the series. Nymeria being left behind in the rivlerlands proceeded Arya’s own loss of innocence and place among the same geography in the early seasons, with the implication being that when Nymeria returns to Arya, she’ll be able to return home again herself.
While that kind of occurred when Arya just randomly bumped into Nymeria on the way back to Winterfell in season 7, it was an anti-climactic resolution to a loose thread which was being tied in the most expedient way possible. Expedience is not eloquence though, and what was left unsaid between Arya and Nymeria left much to be desired. But nothing compared to Jon Snow repeating the mistakes of Robb Stark and losing interest in the loyal symbol of his power that’s been by his side during the worst of times. Ghost was a non-entity during “The Long Night” and now was essentially banished due to narrative and financial efficiency.
This underscores a growing problem with the final two seasons of Game of Thrones. Events happen less because of fallout from good or bad decisions—a defining quality of the first five seasons of Game of Thrones—and more because it is what serves the plot at that moment. Varys, the spymaster with so many sources of information he’s known as the Spider, still is cunning enough to learn that Cersei Lannister has turned the Red Keep into a human shield factory, but he is not able to find a single clue out of the whole capital that they’ve lined every wall with monstrous scorpion crossbows to kill her dragons—nor that Euron Greyjoy has taken the Kraken fleet to parts unknown, and ever so near Dragonstone where his queen is sailing with a diminished force.
This lapse in logic is not unlike Daenerys not being able to fly behind Euron’s fleet, after they fell Rhaegal, and light them up from the rear, or Jon and Dany’s jointly terrible idea of sending the entire Dothraki force into an open charge against an Army of the Dead they’ve seen with their own eyes cannot be defeated on a field of open combat. The internal logic of the show, be it tactics or emotional in the case of Jon and Ghost, are being sacrificed for moments of surprise and alleged spectacle. But the consequence is not an earned revelation, but of empty disappointment as Rhaegal needlessly sinks beneath the waves. Or Ghost whimpers alone in a doorway.
I do not think these utilitarian mistakes have ruined Game of Thrones, but in a rush to get to next week’s endgame, Benioff and Weiss have seemingly diminished the stakes and splendor of the game board they’ve been playing on for years. Hopefully, this is not prelude to a stumbled end that just throws all the pieces on the ground.