Arya, in the godswood, with the Valyrian steel dagger used in an assassination attempt on Bran. If you didn’t guess this combination would ultimately undo the Night King in Westeros’s version of Clue, don’t beat yourself up. Arya Stark is a great character, and well played by Maisie Williams, but the showrunners tossed away seven seasons of buildup by making her the ultimate hero in the Battle of Winterfell.
In season one, Arya responded to Ned Stark describing a future for her that included marrying a lord and raising children by saying: “That’s not me.” True enough, and she has followed her own path, becoming a fan favorite along the way. But it’s also not her to be the central hero of the series. That honor belongs to (depending on your perspective) Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen.
Fans may disagree about whether Arya deserved to be the showrunner’s choice for savior of Westeros. It’s the depth of George R.R. Martin’s world that makes it so fun. But HBO chose to take the easy way out and reward a big moment to a fan favorite.
I doubt Martin will take a similar direction in the books, as he has noted there may be differences between “Game of Thrones” (GoT) and the books (collectively, “A Song of Ice and Fire”): “Of course, [the showrunners] passed me several years ago. There may be important discrepancies.”
What bothered me the most about Arya’s triumph over the Night King is the lack of real foreshadowing either on the show or in the books. Some fans may point back to the first meeting of Melisandre and Arya in season three when the red priestess foresees Arya will shut eyes forever—including blue eyes. That moment was repeated again in last week’s episode, shortly before Arya closed the blue eyes of the Night King. Problem solved, right? Wrong.
Eye color was a point of comic relief in the previous episode of “Game of Thrones” (GoT), as some of our secondary heroes were investigating Last Hearth, the northernmost seat held by Stark vassals. In the darkness, a surprised brother of the Night’s Watch called out that Tormund had blue eyes—associated with the white walkers—implying he was a dangerous wight. But Tormund immediately responded, “I’ve always had blue eyes!” Melisandre’s prophecy alone is insufficient.
So too is imbuing Arya’s dagger—a gift from Bran—with an enormous amount of meaning. Maybe Bran saw into the future that this weapon was important and Arya should be the one wielding it. But the audience is most familiar with this dagger as the instrument that helped to launch the War of the Five Kings into action, ending the lives of many Starks along the way. In other words, that dagger is associated with danger south of the Wall, not the greater evil that exists beyond.
So who should have been responsible for killing the Night King, who remains unseen in the books, but is unquestionably the greatest threat to the world? Both Martin’s books and the TV scripts point strongly to Jon Snow as the “prince who was promised” to prevent the Long Night (i.e., the white walkers end all life on Planetos). Fellow GoT nerds would do well to look at references to Azor Ahai in the books and the early plot around Stannis Baratheon on the show.
Snow, as the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, is the result of a figurative union between ice and fire. A large reason for his assassination at the hands of some of his Night’s Watch brothers was allowing their sworn enemies—the Wildlings—through the wall to be protected among the other realms of men. There’s also good reason to believe, based on an interview Martin gave in 2017, that Jon is actually a fire wight.
In response to a question about Snow being restored to life on the show, Martin references another character who was also brought back to life by a red priest: “poor Beric Dondarrion, who was set up as the foreshadowing of all this, every time he’s a little less Beric. His memories are fading, he’s got all these scars, he’s becoming more and more physically hideous, because he’s not a living human being anymore. His heart isn’t beating, his blood isn’t flowing in his veins, he’s a wight, but a wight animated by fire instead of by ice — now we’re getting back to the whole fire and ice thing.”
Add to this the fact that Jon has been on a collision course with the Night King since the “Hardhome” episode, in which the latter stared intently at Jon during his escape. The same staredown happened in season seven, when Jon and others traveled beyond the Wall to capture a wight in order to highlight the coming danger to Cersei Lannister.
Jon Snow is rallying and commanding the resistance against the Night King’s invasion of Westeros. While GoT is famous for its twists—few TV shows would kill its most prominent hero in the first season—it strains belief that Jon Snow is not, in some way, involved in the Night King’s destruction.
Given all of this narrative momentum pointing toward Jon as the hero, where does Arya fit into the story? While her training to be a Faceless Man exposed her to some degree of magic, she is in no way a central figure in the coming Great War. Other than hearing what amounted to ghost stories about white walker during her childhood, Arya had no exposure to this enemy until this episode.
Her place in the story—beyond being a deadly assassin who breaks traditional sex roles in a medieval society—is as the righter of wrongs committed against the Starks. Each name crossed off her list helps to guarantee that her family will remain alive to rule in Winterfell.
That’s no small task, given all that has befallen House Stark. So count me as surprised as anyone when she entered the godswood like a ninja to prevent the Night’s King from killing her brother Bran (a.k.a. the Three-Eyed Raven).
If the writers really wanted Arya to be the hero, they could have created a much more plausible path. Arya and Jon, the Stark family misfits, always had a close bond. Let Jon be engaged in a losing battle with his antagonist and on the verge of death (again). And let Arya reprise the role of Howland Reed in the flashback sequences leading up to Jon’s birth, and stab the Night King in the back before he can kill her adoptive big brother. This twist would have reconciled Team Arya and Team Jon, and actually drawn on seven years of plot.
But alas they didn’t. I’ll still tune in next week anyway.