'Game of Thrones' Final Season: How Arya Stark Defeated Death

'Game of Thrones' S8E5 Arya helping people in Kings Landing - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season eight, episode five of HBO's Game of Thrones, "The Bells."]

A decade or so ago, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) first left King's Landing under brutal circumstances. So much has happened on Game of Thrones, it's easy to forget everyone's first true trauma. For Arya, it was watching her mentor and veritable father figure Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou) almost certainly die in battle against men of the new king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). Days later, she watched again as her actual father, Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), lost his head and life, thanks to Joffrey's command. 

In "The Bells," years and years after those deeply disturbing deaths and so many more along the way, Arya is back in King's Landing with a dark goal in her heart: revenge against Cersei (Lena Headey), the last living avatar of all things Arya was raised to hate and destroy — and it's yet another father figure who steps in to save Arya's life, both literally and existentially: Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), the Hound, on a vengeance quest of his own as he prepares to fight and kill his own brother, Gregor the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson). Two of the most electric characters in the series when paired with one another, Arya and the Hound enjoy one final exchange as they enter the Red Keep, ready to settle their scores — their final exchange of the series, and the final exchange in their lives.

The Hound: "Go home, girl. The fire will get her, or one of the Dothraki, or maybe that dragon will eat her. It doesn't matter. She's dead, and you'll be dead too if you don't get out of here."

Arya: "I'm going to kill her."

The Hound: "You think you wanted revenge a long time? I've been after it all my life. It's all I care about, and look at me. Look at me! You wanna be like me? You come with me, you die here."

From the moment she set foot in King's Landing, Arya trained in the art of death. First, it was water-dancing with Syrio. Second, it was watching her father die, and learning the fragility of life firsthand. It took her out onto the open road, where she learned from others, including the Hound and the Faceless Men. Around season six, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Maisie Williams opined about Arya's numerous skills as a dealer of death, but her fairly limited skill set when it comes to life and love.

"I have to justify her decisions, and it gets hard to do, because at a certain point, she's not thinking rationally," she said. "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 came later that season, in the form of Lady Crane (Essie Davis), a Braavosi actress who was killed in large part thanks to her association with Arya. Even knowing the dangerous stakes of investing in the poor wounded Stark, Lady Crane took it on, gladly. Years later, Arya returned to Westeros, not yet fully appreciating the warmth she was shown by the deceased actress — and little did she know that it would be the first of many heartfelt reunions that brought her back from the brink of destruction.

It took some time for Arya to readjust in season seven. The less we dwell on the infighting with Sansa (Sophie Turner) and eventual turn against Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), the better. The point is what matters: Arya returns to Winterfell, and returns to the love of her family. Speaking with Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in season eight, she makes it clear that the only thing that matters is family. But even then, her scope of family is limited at best. Jon tells her: "If you only trust the people you grew up with, you won't make many allies." Arya's response is as cold as her house words: "That's all right. I don't need many allies. We're family, the four of us: the last of the Starks."

Moments later, she learns the truth about her brother — namely, that Jon is not her brother, but her cousin. The revelation at least partly fuels Arya's decision to run away from home and travel down to King's Landing, where she can at the very least settle her family's ancient score against the Lannisters. She runs away from the relative warmth of Winterfell, where she was truly loved and revered by many (including her old friend Gendry (Joe Dempsie), with whom Arya chose to share one powerful moment of physical love), in order to run back to an old, familiar hobby: murder.

Leave it to one of the series' most prolific murderers, then, to impart Arya with one final lesson in the art of death: the art of living. The Hound's final words to Arya are enough to shake some sense into her, to encourage her to leave King's Landing and abandon her quest for vengeance. "Thank you, Sandor," are Arya's final words to the Hound, before the two part ways for the last time.

If she wasn't already convinced about the corrupting power of vengeance, Arya endures one final lesson on the subject when she tries to escape King's Landing, only to be pounded by dragon fire from above and other forms of death on all sides. In a series of scenes more comfortably at home in Children of Men than in Game of Thrones, a blood-soaked Arya wanders through the ash-covered streets, trying to save a woman and her child — reminders of her own mother and her own childhood self, both of whom died long ago, either in King's Landing or due to this place's brutal machinations. Ultimately, she can't save these individuals. Daenerys' (Emilia Clarke) reign of fire consumes them, and nearly takes Arya as well. The young wolf survives, but the pack of people she tries to lead out of the city? Not as lucky.

In the afterglow of the assault, Arya observes the charred remains of the people she tried to save, an even more powerful reminder of what it is to love and lose than what she herself recently loved and lost in Lady Crane. In this way, it's another mother who teaches Arya about death: Daenerys, whose violent rampage is a byproduct of her own vengeful consumption. Arya Stark, the woman who literally killed death just two episodes earlier by slaying the Night King in "The Long Night," mounts yet another literal embodiment of death — a white horse — and rides away from the carnage. Where she's headed? No one knows — though perhaps not even "No One," Arya herself, knows the true answer. 

But for the first time in the series, and perhaps for the first time in her entire life, Arya Stark finally understands what it means to live. Death isn't just a game, a thing you can plunge a knife into and conquer. The only true way to take on death and defeat it is through life. Even when she returned to Winterfell, Arya wasn't fully ready to challenge those notions within herself. She still had names on her list. Now? No more — thanks both due to their inevitable demises in King's Landing (in the end, it was not a dragon nor a Dothraki who killed Cersei Lannister; it was a rock), and also due to Arya's own choice to live. 

For the first time in years, Arya's future is wide open. It's possible we never see her again, with only one episode left in Game of Thrones. Might she come back to King's Landing to seek vengeance against Daenerys? It's possible, though it flies in the face of all the progress she made in "The Bells," a powerful culmination of her story arc. Might she come back to somehow sit on the Iron Throne, to make sure people like Cersei and Daenerys can never rule and kill again? Maybe, though even then, it feels too grand. The likelier scenarios, from this point of view: Arya rides off to find her old friend Hot Pie, to learn how to make bread. She finds a flock, not unlike the Hound, and lives to protect them and enjoy some measure of peace. Maybe she sets out to see what's west of Westeros, as she once wondered aloud back in season six. Who knows. Here's what we do know: Arya Stark, No One of the Faceless Men and Night King-Slayer, has finally defeated death through one simply act: living. Long may she reign, wherever she goes next.

Read all of THR's Final Path series, featuring character-by-character predictions:

1. Jon Snow
2. Daenerys Targaryen
3. Tyrion Lannister
4. Cersei Lannister
5. Jaime Lannister
6. Sansa Stark
7. Arya Stark
8. Bran Stark
9. Samwell Tarly
10. Theon Greyjoy
11. The Hound
12. Brienne of Tarth
13. Varys
14. Melisandre
15. Davos Seaworth
16. Jorah Mormont
17. Bronn
18. Tormund Giantsbane
19. Beric Dondarrion
20. The Dragons
21. The Night King
22. Across the World of Ice and Fire
23. Final Predictions

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