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Arya Stark: Game of Thrones Season 8's MVP
Even with a looming battle dominating every conversation on Game of Thrones, returning to the place you grew up can shift things into perspective. It can deliver an intoxicating whiff of nostalgia, or emphasize the gulf between the person you once were and who you have become.
The Stark children have all traveled far from home in the preceding years, seeing death and other horrors along the way. The remaining siblings are not the same people they were at the start of the show. Bran isn’t really Bran anymore. Jon died and came back to life (he isn't actually their cousin, but for all intents and purposes he is a Stark sibling). Sansa has gained strength and is now the Lady of Winterfell (and no matter what the script says, it was in spite of what she went through, not because of it).
But one Stark has thrived this season (not to mention being, arguably, the only female character to do so): Arya.
Spoilers for Game of Thrones ahead.One major criticism of this final season is the pacing — while most episodes are extended, the season itself has been truncated. The impact this has is that everything feels sped up, from character motivation to condensing the time it takes to get anywhere. Over the last two seasons, Westeros has suddenly felt a lot less sprawling. Cersei barely got any screen time beyond staring off into the distance with a smirk, and Daenerys’ descent into Targaryen madness has been swift. Arya made it all the way to King’s Landing only to have a change of heart at the last moment, as the Hound gave a convincing argument about the destructive path to vengeance: She would die there if she continued on this mission. Making like a character in Trainspotting, Arya chose life and fled the building coming apart at the seams.
Character evolution has suffered in the name of spectacle — “The Bells” looks incredible, at the very least — but Arya’s change of heart makes sense when viewed in relation to her entire arc. A girl is still a Stark, despite training long and hard to escape that name. At first it was a matter of self-preservation, as she would have no doubt been sent back to King’s Landing if Littlefinger had revealed her real identity to Tywin Lannister in Season 2. When she tried to reunite with her mother and big brother at a family wedding, she was instead met with the aftermath of the bloody massacre. Losing the Stark name was a matter of survival, which transformed into her desire for retribution.Arya’s infamous kill list has been her guiding light in a world of torment. It has been her driving force and the reason she wanted to become “no one.” It is why she endured the Waif’s lessons in Braavos, shedding every aspect of the girl she was — except she couldn’t get rid of everything, hiding Needle (the sword Jon gifted her) and finally asserting, “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I am going home” toward the end of Season 6.
The names she spoke aloud like a mantra still dominated her thoughts on her way home, swinging by the Riverlands. She put her new face-wearing skills to good use demonstrating that revenge is a dish best served with the body parts of your soon-to-be victims' dead sons. Walder Frey is part of the reason she fled Westeros. If he hadn’t collaborated with the Lannisters, her mother and brother would (probably) still be alive. Cersei has always been on Arya’s list, but it isn't a simple case of popping down to King's Landing to rid the world of the Queen. When she finally did go back to the city in which her father died, instead of committing the deed, she fled.
This about-face wasn’t out of the blue. Arya has crossed people off her list without killing them, including her travel companion — 16 names have appeared at one time or another. Both Beric and Melisandre were uttered by Arya at one stage, but they were spared. In fact, Beric saved her life and the Red Woman gave her an important pep talk during the Long Night, reminding her of what she said to her when they first met, "I see a darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me — brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever."Melisandre also echoed an important figure from Arya's past when she asked: "What do we say to the God of Death?" The last lesson her swordmaster, Syrio Forel, imparted to her was to say "Not today" to this god, before he went down fighting within these very city walls. This is one of Arya’s first experiences of death, and the first time she ran for her life. Since that moment she has had to scramble against many, including the Waif — they never did explain how Arya survived such a brutal stabbing — and an army of the dead. Now, back in King’s Landing, she has another fight for her life, thanks to Dany and her dragon.
To be the woman who defeated the Night King only to go and die in the streets of King’s Landing would be a cruel blow. “Not today” is something Arya can say to the God of Death once more, as she survived the mass destruction inflicted by the Dragon Queen. Prior to this experience, Arya has had somewhat of a death wish, and if Game of Thrones was set in a contemporary landscape, she would definitely have a murder board complete with serial killer red string. Here, she just rattles the names off one by one, which has a similar creepy effect.In Season 7, she threatened Sansa with her face-wearing talents, a trick Arya hasn’t pulled out of her bag for some time. Instead, Arya is now defending her sister to Jon when he attempts to criticize the Lady of Winterfell. Despite the mess the writers made of the sisters' once-broken, then-repaired relationship, the Arya/Sansa dynamic is now one of the strongest as a result of mutual respect at their different skill sets.
They will never be as close as Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner are IRL, but they definitely have each other’s backs. Instead of taunting her older sister with a knife, Arya is giving her instructions on how to use it. Their varying strengths make them the perfect team, which is why I hope Sansa takes the Iron Throne with Arya by her side. Back when Arya threatened Sansa, she talked of Sansa's desire to be queen and her dream of being a knight. They might get this wish after all.
It has been a series of milestones moments for Arya in the final season, as not only did she take down the Night King — using a move she had practiced while sparring with Brienne — she also lost her virginity. It is rare for a first sexual experience in this particular world to be non-violent or with the desired person, but Arya managed to beat the odds. While others chose to drink what might have been their last night away, Arya got some. Gendry looked content in slumber after the deed, but she looked pensive. This purposefully ambiguous expression from Williams could be read in a number of ways. Dissatisfaction could be one, but I see it more as concern about the connection she is feeling to her humanity. She has a job to do and emotions only complicate matters.Of course, this doesn’t turn out to be the case as Arya’s role is not only instrumental, she saves them all. Is she going to be the one who brings down Daenerys as well?
As per the series finale promo, it looks like Arya is still in King’s Landing as she stands behind the Unsullied, fires still raging in the distance. The white horse that greeted her in the burning city did not take her home to the North; instead, she lingers.Arya didn’t dispatch the Queen she intended to when she made this journey — however, this doesn't mean she won't leave this city without blood on her hands. After everything she has seen on the ground in King’s Landing — quite literally on the ground as she was almost trampled to death — and with her home and sister in danger, there is probably one more person on her list.
You can never go home again (or so the saying goes) and Arya told the Hound she would not return to Winterfell. However, while she is never going to accept Gendry’s proposal and become a Lady, a girl is still Arya Stark and this means she has to fight for her family. She's already tried to deny who she was once before and failed. Now with everything on the line, it is time for Arya to embrace all the parts of who she is.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.