Redemption of Arya Stark: How the Game of Thrones Icon Managed to Reject Vengeance
Ever since the first episode of the show, Arya Stark was one of the most promising and prominent characters in the story. The scene she shoots the arrow instead of Bran in the pilot seemed like a comedic relief at first, but turned out to mean much more than that eventually, as the final episodes of the shows prove. From being a girl destined to be a “Lady”, she turned into perhaps the most lethal character in the show, and what driven her for the better part of the show was vengeance and death. But is this what her story was ultimately about and what the endgame was really aiming towards?
Since watching her father beheaded in the penultimate episode of season 1, Arya’s arc wast set on vengeance. Throughout the seasons, she wanted to make the people who caused her pain to suffer, embodied in her famous list of names. Starting with King Joffrey and Queen Cersei, and afterwards also The Hound, Meryn Trant, The Mountain, and many others.
For the time being, it seems like her endgame in the show is going to result in the same path. In an all-Hollywood fashion, she will avenge those who wronged her, and complete her list of names. She did managed to scratch some names off the list too! But as usual with Game of Thrones, and especially its final season, the most expected outcome was not what we eventually received, and the conclusion to her arc was much more complex than what most viewers initially expected. I mean, in hindsight, did we really expect her story to be so straightforward? Her killing everyone who ever wronged her and getting the revenge she always wanted. Well, surely this is not Game of Thrones.
In my opinion, Arya’s arc throughout the show is one of the most well-constructed and well thought-of arcs in the entire show. Her arc consisted of several key point, which all resulted in a climax somewhere around the last two seasons of the show.
First — Her training with Syrio Forell. This is not very significant to endgame keypoints, but thats what started her training as a warrior, and gave her the will, and the first ability, to fight an enemy. Secondly — her journey with the Hound. Her time travelling with him shaped her entire perspective going forward, in the context of being more mean and less “human”, just like him. “You Have a good heart. One day it will get you killed”, he told her in the beginning of their journeys together. Her character grew very different during their time together, and also later when she trained at Braavos. Later on, when she and the Hound reunited at Winterfell in season 8, his perception of her was changed. “You’re a cold b-tch. I guess that’s why you are still alive”, he told her.
After that came her training at Braavos — She learned to be a Faceless Assassin, which besides the obvious face-shifting abilities she obtained during her training, she learned the better part of her fighting skills, and not only in the most general sense, but she learned to be a Faceless Assassin, with all that accompanies it — if you remember all the “magical wonders” Jaquen did back at Harenhall back in season 2. All of that came to pay off at the end, when she faced off against the Army of the Dead and more specifically, the Night King.
During these episodes, she tried to become a Faceless Man and neglect her entire identity, and ultimately become No One. That was, of course, in order to enact her vengeance towards those a who wronged her. But as she seen the true nature of this establishment, and what it really means to be an assassin, she realised this might not have been the thing she was always looking for. By the ending of the sixth season, we saw a hint that a life dedicated to murder and death is not necessarily what she is looking for, and she abandoned the House of Black and White in order to return to Westeros. Nevertheless, still in the purpose to enact her revenge.
In the opening scene of season 7, her face-shifting abilities came to “good use” when she avenged the Red Wedding and took out the entire Frey dynasty. I guess that was the point of that “face shifting” arc, for people that still look for this type of thing in complicated works of literature such as Game of Thrones.
Even after that we saw the change of approach starting to develop in Arya’s mind. She intended to go to King’s Landing and kill Cersei, but once she learned Jon took control over Winterfell, and that he and Sansa are ruling the castle that returned to their family’s hold, she opted to go there instead of pursuing he vengeance towrads Cersei. That was still part of her eventual plan, at that point, but even then we saw there are things that became a little more important to her.
“A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and i’m going home”.
Later on in Season 8, all her trainings back from season 1 accumulated in The Long Night, during her battle with the Army of the Dead. As we saw previously in that episode, the Night King and the White Walkers “Officers” are very careful — they dont approach the fight when they have a chance to lose, since killing one White Walkers will cause all the Wights it resurrected to fall apart. I believe that’s why the Walkers never engaged in any battle during the Long Night, and why the Night King didn’t risk Jon getting close to him in order to engage in 1v1 battle- it’s just too risky. It might be a little underwhelming in the “entertainment value” type of way, but that was, in my opinion, strategically the wise and more logical thing to happen. Just like Ramsey refused same kind of fight before the Battle of the Bastards, and Robb refused Jaime back in S2. So, right when the battle seemed lost, the Night King and the White Walkers Officers came themselves to Wintefell in order to finish the deal and kill Bran, and then wipe all memory of Human race. Who is a better option to slay the Night King than someone who was trained to be a Faceless Assassin? Just like Jaquen did his business at Harenhall back at season 2, almost in a magical way, Arya managed to stealthily make her way through the Army of the Dead, sneak through the White Walkers Officers and get close enough to the Night King in order to kill him. Since she caught him off-guard, the rest was rather easy and even a fight was not necessary.
Again, that might be a little disappointing, spectacle wise, for a lot of viewers. I also wanted to see some White Walkers action during the Long Night, and a 1v1 battle between Jon and the Night King would be the ultimate fan-service. But strategy wise — why would they ever allow that to happen? The way the Walkers’ and the Night King’s demise happened in the show is, at least in my opinion, is the most logical way possible, and yet it even managed to be unexpected.
Looking at Arya’s journey from the start of the show, it seems like every little step had an ultimate goal that played out in the end. But what about the List of Names and the vengeance aspect?
And now — Onto “The Bells”.
As we mentioned before, Arya’s arc throughout the show was seemingly always about vengeance. But the most pivotal part during that arc came in the penultimate episode of the show, where she and the Hound came to King’s Landing, each one of them to enact his or her revenge.
MAISIE WILLIAMS: The Hound said, “You want to be like me? That’s what you want, you want to live your life like me?” In my head the answer was, “Yeah.” But I guess sleeping with Gendry and seeing Jon, she realized she’s not just fighting for herself anymore but her family. All these human emotions that she hasn’t felt for a long time. When the Hound asks her that, she has another option. All of a sudden there were so many more things in my life that I can live for, that I can do, that I can see. (Taken from “Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon” by James Hibbred).
Maisie said it perfectly — Arya saw how vengeance consumed Sandor during his entire life, which later on got him killed fighting his brother — it was rather pointless. Isn’t vengeance usually is? As Sandor pleaded her, she chose not to pursue vengeance anymore, and she retracted back from the Red Keep, shifting her mission from killing to trying to save as many people as she can during the carnage in the streets.
A lot of fans wanted her to kill Cersei in the end, but that would be the exact opposite of what the writers intended her arc to conclude towards. In a different show, the writers might have given the audience what they wished for and Arya would have scratched every remaining name off her list, culminating at the very “satisfying” death of Cersei. But that was never what GoT was about and like it or not, they always wished to subvert the viewers expectation, yet do it in a way we believe was the most logical. So, just when she was about to go enact her revenge on Cersei, the Hound gave her one final lesson that ultimately saved her life, and redeemed her from her path of vengeance and hatred. Combine that with the very subversive nature of Cersei’s ultimate death scene, and the tragic nature of the culmination of Daenerys’ story, that’s what makes “The Bells” one of the most compelling and groundbreaking hours of Television ever, in my opinion.
So many people wanted Arya to enact her arc of revenge and be the one who kills Cersei, but again I think this misses the whole point. We just saw the Hound getting consumed by his hate and dying taking revenge on his brother, which wasn’t even really his brother anymore. His conversation with Arya beforehand tried to prevent this from happening to her as well, and that was one of the key ideas of “the Bells” episode- Arya was driven by vengeance throughout the entire show, but her time with Sandor taught her there might be a better way to go on with life, and that vengeance might consume her at the end just like it did Sandor.
Back in the Red Keep with the Hound, that’s when her vengeful arc concluded. Now she had to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. Arya said farewell to a lovestruck Gendry, rejecting his offer of a domestic life — “That’s not me.” And it really wasn’t.
MAISIE WILLIAMS: Arya had always been a lone wolf. She’s always felt like a bit of a misfit in her own family. I don’t think being with a partner is what would make her feel the most at home or the most fulfilled. They will probably see each other at like a friend’s wedding and say, “Oh, hey, it’s good to see you. . . .” (Taken from “Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon” by James Hibbred).
Instead, Arya set sail for destinations unknown, to explore “what’s west of Westeros”, a young woman going into the hostile unknown, but after we know damn well she can take care of herself.
In my opinion the conclusion of Game of Thrones gave us some very original and beautiful endings to some of our favourite characters, who’ve we been following closely for a better part of a decade. However Arya’s story, at least for me, is one of the most well rounded ones that came to a wrap in a very satisfying way. A way that took every step of her journey into consideration and managed to be respectful to everything her character went through during the show, while still offering a sense of redemption and showed a will to develop as a person.