Arya Stark, played by Maisie Williams, has been a fan favorite character in Game of Thrones for a long time now. In eight seasons of the show we have seen her grow from a child, go through trauma, and come out the other side a woman with her own wants, needs, and action. Whether it is her snark, her tenacity, her fearlessness, or even her ruthless that has drawn you to her character, if you love her, you have a reason. For some of us, it’s all of her characteristics, even the flaws, that helps us not only root for her but ourselves in her.
Over the first six seasons of the show, we watched the little lady of Winterfell grow from a child who refuses to fit in into an adult because of the trauma she has seen her family experience as well as undergoing her own traumatic events. When we first see Arya, she refuses to be a lady, picking up a bow instead of a needle. The tension between her and her sister was palpable and one that I was all too familiar with. While the world told her to be one thing, she chose to another. Instead of dressmaking and fawning over boys, she played outside, embarrassed an evil prince, and was drawn to learning combat.
When her father realizes that there is no use changing her, he puts her in “water dancing lessons,” it is there that she learns to say to the God of Death, not today. As her family was fractured after her father’s execution, her sword was the only thing left of them. It was, and is, a piece of them, it is what has kept her grounded as a Stark in the darkest of moments, and helped her find her way home.
Naming it “Needle,” the sword is at her side through all of her trauma. Kidnappings, near-death experiences, and watching those she loves die. Arya channeled the rage, fear, and pain into revenge. Unlike her sister, who’s learning curve was steeper, Arya built a wall around herself the moment she fled King’s Landing. Having received the sword from her brother Jon Snow, it a piece of the love she once had, the bond, the people.
For Arya, losing her family was more than just losing the people she loved. She lost the people she fought with, the people she kept herself from, and she wouldn’t see them again until season seven of the show. Instead of fear or sadness, she channeled every emotion into rage until revenge was the only thing she fought for. In fact, rage and revenge are the only things that kept her going. While every Stark has their own journey to find themselves, Arya was in a quest to lose herself, to carve out a path of violence, of which she had become immune to.
One of Arya’s defining moments in the series is when she begins to keep a list and the first time she kills someone from it. Whenever the odds seemed insurmountable it was the names of her abusers, those who killed her family, those who put her on this path that would pull her to action. Consumed by the need to avenge her family, Arya attempted to lose herself in the Many-Faced God, the god whose gift is death.
For her, dealing with trauma was inflicting that pain on someone else. It was fighting and moving on a path that would remove all other emotion from her life, and by doing that everything that she saw as weakness. She became ruthless. While in the service of the Many-Faced God, she attempted to become no one, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t that she couldn’t perform the tasks, or lacked the skill. It was because when she was asked to give up herself, the cost was too great. When asked to throw away the girl named Arya Stark, she tosses her belongings into the water. Her clothes go. Her money goes. But Needle, her true armor stays, hidden away until a girl can wield it again.
While part of me believes it was because she could not give up being a Stark, an even larger part of me believes its because she could not give up the need for revenge. If she lost that, if she gave up her mission and stayed in Bravos doing the bidding of the God of Death, the cost would have been too great. Her revenge and the death she caused and wanted to cause was a shield around her and in some ways the only connection she could find to her family while they remained scattered across the Seven Kingdoms or dead.
But sometimes failure is key, and Arya’s defense mechanism kept her alive. As she headed down a path of blood, violence, and as many fans noted, sociopathy, she chose another. When she is finally reunited with her family, something awakens in Arya. She’s back home in Winterfell, she’s sparring in the courtyard, she’s bonding with her sister over plotting the death of one of the most manipulative men in the series, and finally in season eight, episode one, she sees Jon again.
In her short life, Arya, like the other Stark children has been through too much. She’s lost too much. She’s seen too much. She’s done too much. For some, her poetic revenge against House Frey was a step she couldn’t walk back from, and while they’re right, she did walk forward.
Spoilers for Game of Thrones season eight Below the picture
While her familial relationships thrive, the wights are walking on Winterfell in the second episode this season. As the North readies to make their stand against the Night King, we see each and every one of the characters we have come to care for prepare. Some welcome death, some drink away the fear, others live out their dreams, and then there is Arya.
Initially, on the wall with the Hound and Beric Dondarrion, the two old men exchange calls for death. There Arya has a choice, stay where death is in the air, in the conversation, and the only outcome being thought of, or she can leave. She chooses the latter.
While it may just seem like a young woman leaving the company of grumpy old men, it is much more than that. For the first time in the series, Arya has actively chosen a path of life. Having faced death and welcomed it many times, she turned away from it. While some had issues with Arya seeking out Gendry after leaving them, the choice to take her sexuality into her own hands and have one moment of happiness is a beautiful piece of character progression and reward for her long journey of death and stoicism.
Arya having sex is one of the only moments in the character’s tenure on the show that is a positive emotional and intimate experience. In a show that has used sexual violence as a plot point, Arya is allowed to have her own agency, to feel happiness and closeness to someone who isn’t a Stark for the first time. When we look back at sex in the show, Gendry was stripped and almost murdered in his first sexual encounter, Sansa was raped, as was Daenerys, and there are other examples to be added for sure. For a show that has a lot of nudity and sex it is rarely shown in an intimate environment. But here, Everything about their encounter is intimate, the way its shot showcases the emotion between the two who met in traumatic times.
When the wights make their way to Winterfell in the next episode, “The Long Night,” the show continues to show Arya’s journey by sending her back to the beginning. While an extremely capable fighter, defending one of the walls singlehandedly, the tone quickly shifts when she hits her head. With a slight ringing used to show that Arya is no longer at one hundred percent, she is scared. For the first time in a long time, she is scared.
Quickly, she returns to the Arya we met in the first season of the show. Hiding, running, returned to the walls of her home, turned into a nightmare. In the same Greyworm is now scared to die because of Missanadei, Arya is no longer a servant of Death. Instead, she has a life, a family, a love. She has every reason to live and that finally allows her to show fear.
In one of the most pivotal points in this latest episode, Melissandre asks her, “What do we say to the God of Death?” For fans, we remember the last time she heard this, running from Kings Landing. From that point until now, she had welcomed death, but here she responds, “Not today.”
In many ways, Arya being the one to kill the Night King, the being who is in control of death, Arya is closing a chapter in her life. It’s clear that she will remain a fighter, her skill is unmatched even by the noble and strong Brienne of Tarth, one of the only people to ever defeat the Hound in combat. While her moment of becoming the savior of Winterfell is epic in scale, it is also personal. She has killed death. She has faced death and won. And she is now as happy as Game of Thrones will allow.
In “The Long Night” we got to see Arya come full circle. We got to see the words of her teacher Syrio come back, and in it, we got to see Arya Stark come back. As a character, Arya has become fully realized, the sum of all of her experiences and choices. Arya has had one of the best character arcs in all of Game of Thrones. She has seen pain and has grown from it. She has experienced loss and learned from it. She has kept moving with motive, and that motive has finally shifted towards happiness.
In just two episodes of season eight, she has grown from a one-not warrior into a dynamic woman capable of killing but one who finally values and moves towards life.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.