6:45am PT by Josh Wigler
'Game of Thrones' Final Path: The Journey of Arya Stark
Welcome to Final Path, a regular feature leading up to the final season of HBO's Game of Thrones. In every Final Path, The Hollywood Reporter's resident Westeros expert Josh Wigler will offer a character-by-character deep dive of their journey through seven seasons, as well as what can be expected in the upcoming eighth and final season. Up next: Arya Stark.
"What do we say to the God of Death?" Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has had a lot of time to consider the question over the course of Game of Thrones, dealing death by the dozens along the way.
Few series regulars have killed quite as many foes as Arya, certainly not with the same level of vengeful, personal dedication. She all but sees red and hears sirens in her head, Beatrix Kiddo style, when she considers the men and women who tore her family apart. For Arya, there's no hesitation at all when it comes time to kill anyone and everyone who has wronged House Stark, a willingness she demonstrated on multiple occasions to frightening effect. (Carving up half of House Frey and turning them into meat pies? A fun scene and Easter egg on paper, sure, but a horrifying thing to consider from Arya on a practical level.)
As Game of Thrones prepares for its final season, Arya Stark's kill quest is sure to continue. She still has names on her list, and with Needle and a Valyrian steel dagger in each hand, she's sure to make some headway. But in the episodes ahead, will Arya finally meet the God of Death head on, only to find "not today" is no longer an acceptable answer? Our best guess at the answer to that question and much more is here in our look back at Arya's journey thus far, and the road that still lies ahead.
Name and Titles: Arya of House Stark, previously No One of the Faceless Men, and briefly known by the aliases of Lanna, Mercy and Lord Walder of House Frey (among other stolen identities).
First Appearance: "Winter is Coming," the series premiere. Arya's first scene comes alongside the first appearance of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). The two are learning needle work under the strict guidance of Septa Mordane (Susan Brown). Arya, the one who will go on to learn needle work, strays away from class so she can best her brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) at archery. The first time we see Arya is in a game aiming at combat; in her final appearance it will very likely be no game at all.
Last Appearance: "The Dragon and the Wolf," the season seven finale. Arya and Sansa stand united together, fresh from jointly executing Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen). After a season of strife, the Stark sisters are finally on the same page — just in time for the arrival of enemies from the far north and enemies from the south.
Best Friends: Arya isn't much for "friends," really, though she has met a few along the way: Gendry (Joe Dempsie), once upon a while, and Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey), still slinging loaves of direwolf bread in the Riverlands. While she once owned one of the only two surviving direwolves, Arya and Nymeria long ago parted ways, and more recently left each other for good. Aside from her loyalty to House Stark, Arya's best friend is the one that's stayed by her side through most of her worst struggles: her sword, Needle.
Worst Enemies: The list is long, literally, though shorter thanks to some deaths over the years. Three big ones remain on the board: the Red Woman (Carice Van Houten), the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) and the Mad Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). Really, Arya's enemies include anyone who poses a threat to House Stark, which puts the Night King and his White Walker army firmly on Arya's radar.
Best Kill: Again, the list is long. Is it Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie), whom she thoroughly eviscerated in the most disturbing death scene of season five? The Waif (Faye Marsay), face flayed offscreen? Walder and the rest of House Frey, either carved up into pies (in a nice shoutout to a theory from the books) or poisoned to death? Littlefinger, felled in an instant, easily the most significant character to die at Arya's hands? Pick your own poison as you see fit.
Worst Wound: Physically, it's the temporary blindness followed by the series of stabbings inflicted by the Waif. But those wounds pale in comparison to the trauma Arya has sustained across Thrones, from watching her own father's beheading, to arriving just in time for the end of the Red Wedding, and beyond. There's a reason why Arya is one of the most lethal characters in the series: tragically, she's grown up knowing nothing else.
Critical Moments: Through the seasons, Arya studied at the knees of several masters, such as Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou) and Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha). Her two-season arc alongside Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) stands out as an obvious fan-favorite, one of the single best character combinations across all of Thrones. The lessons Arya learned from all three of those masters have been crucial to her development, but there is another person she learned from in Braavos who often goes unmentioned: the late Lady Crain (Essie Davis), who may end up playing a crucial role in the Arya Stark endgame.
Unresolved Mystery: Is Syrio Forel truly dead? It's the conspiracy that refuses to yield to the God of Death. Because the water dancer's demise is not featured onscreen, there's a vocal contingent of the Thrones fandom that believes Syrio will return from the dead. Others still believe he's been active in the series since his "death," in the form of Jaqen H'ghar; the theory posits the two men are one and the same. If it's true, how will Syrio's return impact Arya's final storyline?
Final Predictions: First thing's first: let's kill the unresolved mystery. Syrio Forel is dead. There is way too much business in the final season for his return, and far too many similar twists in George R.R. Martin's source material for it as well.
Really, death is a big theme when it comes to final predictions for Arya Stark. The young wolf has taken many lives along the way, and one imagines there are still some yet to claim. Some White Walkers, for sure. Winter is coming, and in the forecast stands Arya Stark, proud new owner of the Valyrian dagger once intended to kill Bran. She's going to take out at least one of the Night King's cronies. It is known.
Beyond the Great War, Arya has other business to attend to, in the form of her kill list. Melisandre and the Mountain are on the list, and while there's reason to believe she will have a role to play in both demises, those theories are better saved for future editions of Final Path. For now, let's focus on the last major kill on the call sheet: Cersei.
There's an interpretation of Cersei's "valonqar" prophecy that allows for Arya, the younger sibling of House Stark, to kill the Lion Queen. But the infinitely more satisfying outcome (not to mention our official prediction) is the more obvious one: Jaime killing Cersei. If Arya doesn't kill Cersei, then, will the two still meet? I'm thinking yes, they do — and it will all go awry, thanks in no small part to Arya's adventures in Braavos.
Enter: Lady Crane. Back in season six, Arya was tasked with assassinating the Braavosi actress, starring as Cersei Lannister in a flagrantly offensive stage play. Against the odds, Arya takes an immediate liking to Lady Crane, the woman charged with bringing notes of empathy to Cersei. At one point, Arya and Crane meet, and Arya gives some notes on Cersei Lannister's psyche: "The queen loves her son more than anything. He was taken from her before she could say goodbye. She wouldn't just cry. She would be angry. She would want to kill the person who did this to her." Projection? Sure. But Arya also cuts right to Cersei's core in those words, an unusual moment of understanding for an enemy.
More than any other Game of Thrones "hero," Arya Stark's story has been about vengeance. There are times when it's viscerally satisfying to watch her defeat her foes, like the Walder Frey of it all — but it's also always troubling, or at least, it ought to be. It's troubling to Maisie Williams, at least, based on her assessment of the character during a season six conversation with THR: "I have to justify her decisions, and it gets hard to do, because at a certain point, she's not thinking rationally. She's gone through too much, and has experienced so much pain and heartache and violence, and hasn't really had a hug in a long time. When was the last time she was touched by someone and cared for?"
The answer: Lady Crane, the woman who brought Cersei to life through a beautiful performance, the same woman who greeted Arya with maternal love and warmth for the first time since... well, since the series premiere, really. Of course, in short order, Lady Crane was viciously killed, and Arya was right back to business assassinating her enemies. But does the impact of Arya's encounter with Crane remain?
If Arya's ultimate arc is only about her being a lethal warrior without ever truly looking in the mirror, then sure, she could end up killing Cersei, the big bolded line item on her list. But it doesn't feel like a satisfying ending. It doesn't line up with the way Williams herself has examined the character. A more emotional ending would be Arya getting close to crossing the final name off her list, finding herself in prime position to take out Cersei, only to find herself unable to pull the proverbial trigger. Perhaps it's because she learns of Cersei's pregnancy. Perhaps it's because she's able to see Cersei for the sad creature she's become, and decides imprisonment is the right course of action instead of outright assassination; justice instead of vengeance, as it were.
However it plays out, it would involve Arya getting right up to the moment, only to finally show the Lion Queen a rare ounce of mercy... which, of course, would be Arya's final moment not just in Game of Thrones, but the universe of the story as well. With a heavy heart, I do believe Arya Stark will not survive Game of Thrones, killed by Cersei or at least on Cersei's command.
It's not a prediction I make lightly, but with only six episodes left, there have to be major casualties, ones that harken back to the stunning storytelling decisions like killing Ned (Sean Bean), Robb (Richard Madden) and Catelyn (Michelle Fairley). There are few Game of Thrones characters left whose death would be more upsetting than Arya, such a decisive fan-favorite. Arya needs to find some semblance of peace before she dies, which could be digging deep and finding mercy for the vicious Cersei Lannister. Arya's subsequent death at Cersei's hands or command, moments after sparing Cersei herself, would come equipped with classic Thrones shock value, emotional evisceration of the audience, as well as an ending to the Arya arc that's both tragic and true.
As Syrio Forel often asked: "What do we say to the God of Death?" Fortunately, Arya Stark does not need to answer today — but unfortunately, I do believe "today" will come sooner than we all would like.
Last Hope: That I am completely wrong and Arya makes it out of the series alive. I'm not a monster! And there is some hope. Season seven clearly showed Arya having difficulty settling back into life at Winterfell, between her wild encounter with Nymeria, and her even deadlier dealings surrounding Littlefinger. Once upon a time, Arya asked Lady Crane: "What's west of Westeros?" Perhaps the series will end with Arya alive and out in the wild, off to explore the rest of the world of ice and fire. One can hope, at least — because a happy ending settling into the relative warmth of life in Winterfell? As Arya herself might say: "That's not me."
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