Arya Stark Is Annoying Now
By now, critics and fans of Game of Thrones are coming around to the undeniable truth: The HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s yet-unfinished fantasy series makes less narrative sense than a Qarthian prophecy, having abandoned all logic as it speeds toward its conclusion. Once, characters took entire seasons to cross from one end of Westeros to the other; now, Daenerys can fly to the Wall from Dragonstone in about fifteen minutes of episodic time. What else are they supposed to do, when there’s less than ten episodes ever, and so many storylines to resolve? Go complain about it on your podcast, will you.
Anyway, the show’s newly compressed timelines have mostly given us a bunch of cool shit to look at: Daenerys crossing the Narrow Sea with her super army (two episodes before it’s destroyed, lol), the dragons burning a bunch of ice zombies before one of them gets absolutely wrecked from long range by an ice spear. This is good, mostly. Stuff is supposed to happen in fiction, especially fantasy fiction, and anyone complaining there’s too much going on is probably no fun. In the midst of this ceaseless (and largely enjoyable) action, I do have to complain about one thing: Arya Stark sucks now.
Poor Arya, who spent the last however many years eating rats, going blind, learning how to be a death ninja, and maybe murdering Ed Sheeran. Many characters on this show have gone through a bunch of bullshit, and of the still-living protagonists she’s gotten some of the worst of it. Her reappearance at Winterfell, where the surviving Starks have retaken their ancestral home, has coincided with a clear characterization shift: once a bright-eyed, earnest trickster, she now squints a lot and talks in a low, murder-y cadence not dissimilar from her mentor Jaqen H’ghar.
She’s also a jerk now? Last night’s episode, “Beyond the Wall,” continued some drama from the previous week: Arya found a note penned by Sansa all the way back in season one, in which she begged Robb Stark to bend the knee following the execution of their father, Ned. Though the note was written under duress, Arya takes this as evidence that Sansa was always a sneaky narcissist more interested in a nice wedding than in protecting the family honor. On “Beyond the Wall,” she confronted her sister almost immediately, and made a bunch of shadowy threats to use the note to ruin her credibility with the Northern houses.
Sansa’s defense is pretty reasonable: I was forced to write that note, and also, I’ve gone through my own shit, so back off. But instead of being written as the shrewd yet empathetic character we’ve seen thus far—even this season, she made a value judgment when she came face-to-face with some nice-enough Lannister soldiers, and decided they didn’t need killing—Arya instead said “I don’t believe you,” and hinted at maybe murdering her and/or stealing her face. This despite Sansa’s also-obvious point that Cersei wants the Starks to mistrust each other, and the even more obvious truth that the always-scheming Littlefinger probably wanted her to find the note in the first place. Arya is smart, but in the show, she’s also, like, fifteen years old. There’s people playing the game for done it much longer.
In any work of fiction, the conflict between characters is most interesting when both sides sort of have a point. Most recently, we watched Daenerys and Jon bicker about whose needs were more pertinent: Daenerys has a war to win, but Jon also needs to kill the ice zombies. They argued, they flirted, they resolved their issue in a way that got both characters what they wanted. Here, we’re watching one correct, reasonable party trying to convince someone who’s being pointedly obtuse, for no reason other than it settles a grudge from six years ago.
Arya, a supposedly tough but vulnerable character, can’t believe Sansa’s explanation that getting married to your rapist and abuser might be just as bad—if not worse—than whatever she went through while learning to be a Faceless Man. Instead, she looks particularly smug as she negs her sister, her sentimentality—remember how sweetly she treated Hot Pie not too long ago?—buried deep along with her recipe for human pie. It’s not just a lazy storytelling decision, but one that fundamentally misunderstands why she’s remained compelling for so long: because there’s a core of humanity underneath all that murderous list-making, not in spite of it. Now, she may as well be a Reddit user, for all her dispassionate insistence that the way she sees the world is the way it is.
It would be frankly wild if Arya falls all the way for Littlefinger’s machinations and ends up Single White Female-ing her sister, or if Sansa gets paranoid and has her poisoned. As the show has drifted away from the idea that anyone can die at any moment for any reason—just look how many times Jon and his merry band somehow escaped death as they fought the wights—we probably don’t have to worry too much that the show will throw us a super unpleasant curveball just to show us it could, especially if it would abruptly end some storylines we’ve spent years teasing. (Arya still has to kill everyone on her list, doesn’t she?) Even so, it’s annoying to watch a once-savvy character act like a dummy not because it fits her character, but because it artificially creates conflict.