Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 8 ended in a slightly controversial and perhaps anti-climatical manner with Arya Stark declaring her identity to Jaqen Hagar and departing the Faceless Men for Westeros. In retrospect, fans of the show have criticized her plot as being boring, pointless and perhaps even a waste of time with the end fight scene being off target from what was expected. So this blog attempts to examine the larger picture and attempt to see what went right and wrong.
Probably, the thing I often read on the forums the most is that the ending played out in a very dissatisfying manner. Next to that, people seem to be happy that her story in Braavos is coming to an end because it feels so disconnected to the larger scheme outside of the little scene in Season 5 where she murders Meryn Trant. With almost 2 years/seasons worth of doing little beyond cleaning bodies, calling herself no one and the odd training sequences, it does feel that her situation is extremely disconnected and pointless.
Obviously, the main plot point for her is training with the Faceless Men. We get a tiny sample of what she learns in being able to train to fight blind, learning poisons, being able to disguise herself and blend into crowds to gain information. With these skills it’s expected that she’ll be able to assassinate the remaining people on her list in gaining vengeance for her family. This aspect is the high level, clear narrative.
The more subtle narrative is the formulation of Arya’s identity. To understand why she went through this process, we have to examine what lead to these events to create a motive for her to travel to this point. When she departs Westeros, Arya essentially has lost almost everything important to her. Her family has been slain in front of her very eyes, her sister is held a political prisoner to the Lannisters and her younger brothers are nowhere to be found. The only person she might be able to reconnect with is her half brother Jon Snow but he’s far north with his own business. Before encountering the Hound, the only people whom she respected as companions were three teenagers, one of whose throat was punctured, another choosing to settle down at an inn and the one she cherished the most sold off to the Red Priestess.
In the case of the Hound, Arya only gained some connection to him just before she split. But because he was on her list, the Hound was left for dead at the mercy of fate, which would allow Arya to simultaneously fulfill her desire to cross off the Hound’s name from her list, but allow Sandor Clegane, the man, to continue if he managed to survive his beating at the hands of Brienne.
That left Arya with a single clue, place and name and an opportunity to become skilled in the dark arts that fascinated her. So she sails off to Braavos in the hope of fulfilling her desire to become skilled like Jaqen in preparation for crossing off the names on her list.
You have to remember at this stage, Arya still is a very young, impressionable girl, lacking the supervision of an adult to reflect her thoughts. She has witnessed the horrors of war and only relies on instincts to form opinions of how to respond. In that manner, her thought process has narrowed down to a very single minded purpose of crossing off names on her list. Because of this obsession and burning hatred within her, she is willing to sacrifice whatever remaining moral integrity she has to gain these skills.
The Faceless Men, most notably Jaqen, become the mentors of the world for Arya. In some way, you can define Jaqen as an older brother or father-like figure since Arya lacks one to guide her. But the Faceless Men are a very odd cult. They do not use normal language and speak in a bizarre third person voice in reference to people and places. In her desperation to adapt, Arya is forced to accept their mannerisms so she can learn about their ways.
But the Faceless Men are mostly concerned with the Many Faced God and Death. Their plot purpose for Arya is teaching her about death. She learns to take care of cadavers, which implies understanding the body. She’s forced to play “stupid games” with the Waif that essentially is about being able to become an actor and discerning another person’s true intentions. In short, she learns psychology.
When she kills Meryn Trant in Season 5, Arya declares Meryn Trant as being “no one”. So at this point, Arya believes she understands what being “no one” is. Also, she essentially defies Jaqen’s mandate to deal with the Thin Man, leading her to become blind. Part of her blindness is the outright punishment for her disobedience. But it’s symbolically meant to reveal that Arya still lacks true understanding, despite how she believes she has gained some knowledge. In short, it humbles her to the point where she’s forced to become low and rely on her hearing rather than just seeing (refer to Syrio Forel’s initial dialog with her when he teaches her how to fight). This is very significant because we have to recall that she is the daughter of a very high lord, and her becoming a beggar is a way to humiliate her.
The irony of her becoming low is that she in effect becomes “no one.” She loses her identity and only then gains some level of clarity. After living on the streets for a while, Jaqen approaches her again and challenges her desires in appealing to her sense of comfort. Arya denies them all by continually accepting she is “no one.” If you notice her voice in those scenes, she utters each “no one” with trembling, indicating that she is afraid and broken. Her prior arrogance and impatience have been eliminated, allowing her to be trainable. You have to recall that she is described as “wild” similar to her wolf Nymeria, who is lost and in a way untameable. Arya had very little discipline when it inconvenienced her, which was (is) her major character flaw.
We then move on to her physical training. The thing here is where I believe the biggest disconnect emerges. The montages of her improving as a monk type are in many ways a reference to old kung fu movies (particularly Shaw Brothers movies) where we see the hero or heroes slowly, but steadily improving their skills, which allow them to effectively counter their enemies and win.
Episode 8 leaves us to believe that Arya will have an epic confrontation with The Waif in what’s described as her “final/ultimate test.” But all the skills Arya has learned up to this point are not utilized. Instead, what we get is a prototypical Hollywood style chase scene that resembles Terminator 2 with the Waif acting like the T-1000. Other people have pointed out that it’s just a poorly directed scene overall because of the lack of realism and more importantly the motive in the Waif chasing Arya.
My problem is that whatever tension the director intended to create for this scene never manifests because of the absence of Arya’s endangerment. Next, it’s a highly wasted action sequence that does not summarize the tools Arya has learned along the way. A test implies that you’re using the knowledge that you’ve studied for a particular situation. The only point we see in Arya’s growth is when she cuts the candle with Needle.
Compare her story with Gordon Liu’s “Master Killer” movie. In “Master Killer”, Gordon Liu utilizes every challenge to defeat a rival who murdered his family. They do not use flashback sequences (as in other Shaw Brothers movies) but the emphasis is on how he implemented every aspect of his training into a practical response that allowed him to best his opponent. Because of the way the story is shot, we learn that the journey is far more important than the result.
In contrast to the way Arya’s story has been unfolding, the journey gets lost and the most important aspect is a few key, fancy action sequences. Her training only becomes “a thing to do” that we’re forced to accept. We don’t know just how good of a fighter Arya is. In fact, I found it pretty bad that the director of the episode described Arya as a “top notch fighter.” In effect, Arya is NOT a fighter and we have to turn towards the showrunners and fantasy to see what Arya really is.
Arya is pretty much a monk or de facto assassin in your Advanced Dungeons and Dragons lore. You cannot forget that Dan and Dave are AD&D fans. They know what that side of fantasy is. Arya’s story is basically the background story of how a monk or assassin character is created. It’s an interesting background story because most AD&D characters are pretty flat when it comes to background stories in how and why they choose their class. When she leaves the House of Black and White, Arya effectively is like a level 3-5 assassin. Her missions were very assassin character-class oriented, dealing with poisons, targeting people who paid the head of their organization, gaining information to be able to effectively murder others. You never get this much detail on assassins in the AD&D universe outside of “hey he hit you with a backstab using poison and a x5 multiplier for 120 points of damage. You die!”
The thing is that I feel Dan and Dave agree with George RR Martin when it comes to a lot of fantasy prose. Most fantasy novels that I read were horrible, especially the TSR stuff. Yes, the TSR stuff was aimed at the teenage crowd and had a certain PG element to them. And many fantasy movies are terrible. Look at the Dungeons and Dragons movies. Game of Thrones effectively is the mature response to terrible fantasy in making the genre edgier, with universal themes. In doing that, they want to show a more thought out way of demonstrating the “leveling up” process in a character rather than just “kill monsters for LOTS of XP!”
At any rate, the real nuts and bolts of Arya’s narrative isn’t just this leveling up process, but her sense of identity. That’s the part you need to focus on that is far more critical than just “that fight scene sucked!” part of the story. After she regains her eye sight in successfully defending against the Waif, Arya is tasked with killing Lady Crane. She is asked not to question why the task must be done. Yet Arya exhibits her sense of justice, even though the person she is assigned to kill plays one of the people on her list.
I believe that the idea here is that Jaqen (or whoever has been coercing Arya in her direction) wants to teach Arya about death. It’s a subject that frequently comes up with her. She’s seen it but cannot interpret it. So it’s easy for her to kill people unconsciously like the stable boy, Poliver and Meryn Trant. Still she’s made to confess her true feelings about the Hound, someone who was on her list. She unveils that Arya Stark was confused. And when it comes to Cersei, Arya is able to get into Cersei’s mind in expatiating to Lady Crane how to improve her performance. Also, she’s able to perceive the motives of the person who desired the deed in the actress playing her sister.
These are all character building elements that should not go unnoticed. Prior to this, Arya is fearless, thoughtless and on a mission that only has meaning to her. She is unable to see the bigger picture. Her focus is on small things even her sword Needle, which finds extreme sentimental value to her. The only reason she was single minded is because her house was destroyed.
Yet it’s all karma. It’s just like how Daenerys describes the scenario of the wheel. It’s an infinite wheel that spins endlessly with one house climbing over the next house. It’s all petty with no true goal outside of selfish motivations. Arya’s heart only follows the rhetoric of her house. It’s blind patriotic fervor that sweeps her into her own personal hell, leading her to the darkest paths of nearly complete self-abnegation. It’s the same path her mother followed, which lead to her demise.
The show often talks about pride and we see that as the ultimate reason for people’s eradication. Look at the Blackfish in the same episode. An old fucker, too stubborn to give up his home and willing to sacrifice soldiers that by law really aren’t his own. Only when Edmure gives up Riverrun does the siege end and allow the lives of soldiers to be saved. Go back to Mance Rayder’s speech when he tells Jon Snow “fuck my pride.”
A good part of the show/books centers around the story of moving from one generation to the next. Arya is one of those that the book follows in terms of critical characters and how they grow. The children’s parents are the ones that started these wars but the children themselves must figure out how to escape the flaws of their parents in order to evade similar fates.
That’s why it’s important for Arya to realize whom and what she is. She admits to Jaqen that “a girl is Arya Stark. And I and going home.” The grammar part here is crucial and something virtually everyone I read online has missed. Just before she says that, Jaqen first declares, “Finally a girl is no one.” The Faceless Men use that third person obfuscation in their speech to distance themselves from their own personalities. It allows them to become actors and hence no one. With Jaqen, the quote again is obscure and unclear to both the audience and perhaps Arya even whom the “a girl” really is in that statement.
My belief is that “a girl” part refers to the Waif and not Arya. The Waif really was “no one”. She lacked purpose outside of providing a training obstacle for Arya. It’s hinted that the Waif was originally from a high born house like Arya. But when she’s playing the game with Arya, Arya is challenged into determining whether that story was truth or not. In reality, did it matter? The Waif could just be a ghost or an amalgamation of Arya’s imagination. The Waif ultimately was just a tool for Arya to build up her own skills as well as act as a foil to her character.
But Arya needed that foil to determine what was most important to herself. Each of the Stark children were born as “summer” children, meaning that their lives were good and prosperous up until the war started. Their ideals of what they wanted to be manifest throughout the story only to become extreme versions of themselves and inverted as well. In the case of Arya, you could see how her identity centered around wanting to be on an adventure and doing quests.
However, once she received her true wish, her life became a horror story where all the things truly important to her were taken away. Yet she never really understands this until the moment she declares her true name and denying being no one. So the training aspects in truth were necessary for warfare, but they’re only tools to give her a true purpose in returning to her home. Up until this point, I don’t think she understands any of that. But now her vengeance has a bigger purpose. Of course, the real challenge is how she’ll deal with her highest enemies when given the chance. Like is Cersei her real enemy? Or was the play just another foreshadowing of a confrontation that Arya needs to pass?
Perhaps, the real problem with Arya’s seemingly pointless journey in Braavos is mostly on the execution side. Meaning the pacing and what has been shown only can make sense summarily in retrospect. However, there is a sense of ultimate dissatisfaction because of where the breadcrumbs lead. Her story seems to be all over the place and her actions and responses have been inconsistent. One youtuber pointed out that perhaps the issue is not necessarily with the writing but perhaps the director’s lack of communicating the larger picture. Because there are multiple directors for these episodes, there has not been a unified vision from a directional stand point, which may mean that the pacing gets thrown off, appearances or actions have different desires in terms of outcome, etc.
That said, I don’t think her journey has been pointless. I just think that the important aspects in her story have been lost or emphasized in the wrong light at times, which has lead to the feeling of being pointless. Also, the part with her training, if it was a throw back to Shaw Brothers kung fu movies, lacked focus and a clear path to summarize what she was supposed to learn. And I’m not just talking about her fighting but everything down to cleaning bodies. Most Shaw Brothers kung fu movies would take a seemingly trivial and pointless task but make it the focal point of how someone learns kung fu. We had not been given any “wax on, wax off” type of moments that showed Arya’s growth but are forced to piece these things together for ourselves, which in this situation may not be the best “show don’t tell” mechanism.