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Now that Jon Snow is back on Game of Thrones, and teaming up with Sansa for Stark fans' happiest reunion yet, we need to talk about Ygritte.
First off: Ygritte who?
In the melee of patricide, White Walkers, and conflagration that is season six, it can be easy to forget Jon Snow's arrow-slinging redheaded girlfriend from seasons two through four. Sure, we praised Rose Leslie's excellent performance and attempted her round-syllabled delivery of "You know nothing," but Ygritte was unique among Game of Thrones' whole enormous dramatis personae, and the resurrection of Jon Snow means we have to think about her again.
George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, et al have drawn a direct connection between Ygritte and the show's other "red woman," our new mistress of resurrection, Melisandre. Last season, Mel even tried seducing Jon Snow using Ygritte's catchphrase.
But what made Ygritte unique in the show's universe was that she valued love — real, romantic, all-encompassing, hide-in-a-cave-and-never-come-out love — more than any combination of power, vengeance, honor, self-preservation, or fear. And in this, she embodied the thematic underpinning of the entire series.
Ygritte's philosophy, in a nutshell, was that those who love each other need to hold on tight, affiliations and ideologies be damned. "The Night's Watch don't care if you live or die," she tells Jon Snow after their racy night together in the cave. "We're just soldiers in their armies, and there's plenty more to carry on if we go down. It's you and me that matters to me and you."
Even once he's betrayed her and she becomes obsessed with killing him, she never wavers from this belief. She is the twin question at the heart of the series: what do we want personally versus globally, and which do we choose to favor? That is, how do we balance our desires for our own pleasure against our obligations to family and nation? These are the questions that bridge the gap from Westeros to planet Earth. They are the reason the series resonates, and Ygritte is their epitome.
Once Ygritte chooses not to kill Jon Snow and gets an arrow to the heart for her trouble, her last original words are: "We should've stayed in that cave." They are the whole show in microcosm. What would happen if we all stayed put? If we remained with those we loved, if Ned Stark never went to King's Landing? Ygritte is the character who considers the proposition most seriously.
She is also the locus of the most purely joyful scenes in the entire show. The panned-out, sunset-hued, episode-ending kiss at the top of the Wall; the smiling pillow talk beside the waterfall in the cave; where else does Game of Thrones separate so completely from the surrounding war and violence and give us a few minutes' worth of pure love story? With Ygritte, stoic Jon Snow laughs.
And so for him, the question is: do I want happiness for myself with Ygritte, for my family the Starks, for my people south of the wall — or, in the game of thrones, is happiness not the goal at all?
The whole show seems to point to the latter. No, happiness is not the point. This is consistently disturbing for those of us among the viewers who, like Ygritte, may view happiness as the only point, or at least the greatest. And finally in Ygritte we had a voice, and one that mattered, and one whose case the show took seriously.
Ultimately, Ygritte dies. Happiness does not win in Game of Thrones; it rarely even rears its head. But she brought to the show the entire thematic weight of her question: What about love?
We saw Robb in love, and it was his downfall. We saw Kat's and Cersei's love for their respective children, which led to poor tactical decision-making and an epic walk of shame. We saw love-as-downfall, seemingly, with Jon Snow. His respect for the wildlings, as an extension of his love for a dead Ygritte, directly occasioned his assassination.
But he's back now. And maybe, just maybe, love will turn out not to be Jon Snow's downfall after all.