Friday, May 24, 2024

Arya Is Not The Problem

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Some days have passed since Game of Thrones treated us to the most ambitious and longest continuous battle ever put to the screen – or at least the roughly 40% of it we could actually see were supposed to see. Much has been said about the battle strategies, or lack thereof, the pacing, the lighting… And somewhere along the way, “Mary Sue” started to trend on Twitter, entirely unrelated to Star Wars or female leads in comic book movies for a change.

This time, it’s about usual fan-favorite Arya Stark.

A Mary Sue, for those blissfully uninitiated, is a (usually female) character who is practically perfect in every way, never has to work for anything, has everything handed to her, is beloved by everyone, and usually gets together with the author’s favorite character. It’s traditionally used to make fun of girls and women living out their fantasies in fanfiction via self-insert characters. However, if you put just about any protagonist through one of the many Mary Sue Tests out there, chances are you’ll score a lot of points. The term was explicitly coined for a certain kind of fanfiction, and never meant to be applied to actual canon works and characters therein. To be fair, I’d be the first to agree that Game of Thrones is basically just bad fanfiction, but that is not the context the term is being used in here.

No, much like when it comes to the aforementioned outcries about Star Wars and female super heroes, nowadays even the further fringes of fandom, the ones that are curative rather than transformative, use it to, ah, criticize any female character who is skilled in some way, and usually after that skill gets the spotlight, no matter how well-established or earned it is.

People being critical about what happens in the big, key jingling battle episodes on Game of Thrones is actually refreshing and a welcome change. Maybe the key jingling is less effective when it’s too damn dark to see the keys. But unfortunately, this new found urge to criticize seems to have manifested in… Calling Arya a Mary Sue for killing the Night King.

Yes, I am now going to defend aspects of that scene.

First things first: I do not care that Arya, in a literal, physical, tangible, Watsonian sense, came out of nowhere.

Teleportation technology has been spread all over Westeros for three or four seasons at this point. True, it has usually been used to cross great distances in little to no time at all, ignore defensive structures, or sneak into the epic season-ending shot despite being at the other end of the world literal seconds before that. But Arya is also not the first or last person to use short distance teleportation in this episode. Jorah does it when his Khaleesi senses are tingling. Davos does it when the writers remember that he might be a better person to observe Melisansbra’s last moment of sans-braness than Sandor. Time and space have been malleable for the majority of this show’s runtime, that’s nothing to criticize one individual character for.

And it’s quite telling that fans are getting vocal about this now, when it contributed to a female character getting a badass moment, and never before, when it was used to conveniently place male characters all over Westeros and Essos as the plot demanded.

Besides short distance teleportation, nothing Arya did in that scene, as far as her abilities are concerned, only ever manifested at that moment or wasn’t earned. I’m talking about her skills and abilities here, we’re being Watsonian for the moment, don’t worry, I’ll get there.

Arya has been training to be a killer and a fighter since literally the first episode, when she displayed her archery skills (that she actually had to work for, remember the story about slow clapping Ned and the poor Starks only having one arrow to spare for her to practice with?). Her archery skills came into play during the fight. She spent two seasons being hit with a stick; that came into play here. The ability to fight blind and/or in complete darkness sure paid off and has also been displayed before. At this rate, the non-existent lighting in the House of Dark and Vague basically counts as foreshadowing.

We even saw her skills with a dagger before. It was blink-and-you-miss-it, but it happened.

Even parkouring has been part of her kit. Yes, you can question when she had time to pick that up back during her extremely tight schedule of being hit with a stick, sweeping floors, and hanging out with actresses. Maybe before her pie making classes? After the seminar on how to weaponize your plot armor?

What Arya got to do in Braavos was mostly silly and over the top. No one here has ever been hesitant to say so. But for some reason, her skill set has only led to accusations of being a Mary Sue from the larger fanbase (did I mention the trending twitter tag?) now.

But you know what? Given how the rest of the episode went, with battle tactics sacrificed to the god of bad lighting, the rare situation in which Season 2 Sansa would have been more helpful than Season 8 Sansa, Jon regressing further on his already non-existent leadership skills than ever before and even managing to look bad at his one redeeming quality of sword-swinging, Dany forgetting that landing a dragon in a zombie horde is not a good idea, the long overdue roast of Tyrion Lannister being interrupted by unexpected fellating of his ego, and Bran’s culminating moment being getting a nice view of the battle (assuming those birds had night vision), it was kind of nice that at least one character’s development over the last seven seasons ended up mattering at all.


You know, if we’re being generous and call the amassing of fighting skills character development.

Admittedly, this is the first time we got to see Arya’s skills while everyone else malfunctioned—probably just to contrast with her awesomeness—so I can understand the frustration in that regard a little. It’s just that we’ve been watching Tyrion and Jon dramatically fail their way up the social ladder into a Handship and a kingship respectively for even longer, and neither of them showed any improvement in skills or development since season 4. Yet somehow, the narrative kept rewarding them for it and every other character got very good at ignoring how much they failed at everything. But I guess that’s okay.

I’m not even sure whether being elected king for having the worst battle plans is any more or less egregious than killing what should be the final boss in one hit, but I’ve still seen more defenses for that for some reason. It was more visually understated, though.

I’m going to stop defending the show now, and I promise writing this hurt worse than reading it.

Because everyone who is frustrated with how this episode and the war against the night ended has the right idea – it’s just wrong to pin it down on the one character that got the final blow. Because Arya, on a Watsonian level, has, in the context of how the show works at least, earned all the skills she has shown here – and still has not earned the kill. Narratively, that is.

What is the Night King to Arya? What relevance did he have to her arc as a character? Admittedly, that’s a question you can ask about almost everyone at Winterfell that night, and the assumption that character arcs were ever planned to be consistent across all seasons is a bold one. Most tellingly, the Inside The Episode has the showrunners say they had the idea for Arya getting the final blow three years ago. So during the making of season 7? Maybe just after season 6, depending on how far in advance they record these things?

Whereas this threat of the long night and the corresponding zombie apocalypse has been built up since literally the very first scene of the show. There have been 70 episodes of build up to this moment, and it ended up being quite silly.

Even knowing what was coming, I literally burst out laughing the second Arya jumped onto the screen and then everyone just exploded prettily. Jon might just believe he actually screamed the zombie dragon to death.

The showrunners went so far as to tell us that they deliberately tried to mislead the audience, and tried to make us lose track of Arya during the battle so this would be a surprise. Though considering how it was almost impossible to tell who was on screen at any given time, that wouldn’t take much work at all, would it now.

They also kind of stabbed themselves in the foot there with Melisansbra immediately zeroing in on Arya the second she enters Winterfell, and Beric and Sandor having a conversation about how they can’t defeat death (a dumb thing to say to Beric, by the way), but Arya might. So subtle, you guys.

None of that changes the fact that this might have been the culmination of a seven-season-spanning plotline, but not a culmination for Arya. All of the skills she displayed that led to her getting the kill are skills she has earned one way or the other over the last seven seasons, but she has been training to be an assassin. And the Night King has not been built up as the kind of villain you defeat with an assassination.

Silly as it was, and despite how hard it is to figure out the logistics (and also just where she learned how to make pies like that), Arya assassinating Walder Frey was a culmination for her. For the increasing brutality she acts with, yes, but also for a significant part of her character’s journey.

If you ignore the extraneous Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo: The Chickens, Looting, and Nihilism Extravaganza of season 4, there is a remarkably clear path from Arya being the only Starkling to witness the red wedding to her training to be an assassin abroad, to her returning to assassinate the people who killed her family. The execution was extremely lackluster, but her getting the kill on Walder Frey made sense, and it involved her using what she had learned up to that point. Except for the pie. That was really just a book nod for cheap points, and it really, really cheapened the scene in return.

So it’s not like the show doesn’t understand this concept. They didn’t randomly give the kill on Tywin to Shae or something, and Jon explicitly backed away from killing Ramsay because that was Sansa’s fight to finish, as nauseous the entirety of her Jayne Poole arc makes me feel. I even technically agree that giving Jon the final blow on the Night King would have been boring and predictable, but at least Jon has been dealing with this conflict since almost the beginning. They even faced off before. The way Jon tuned out literally everything else but the immediate danger of the army of the dead, for better or worse, this would have been a culmination that feels natural to the story and to his character. And then he could just join Missandei and Grey Worm on their retirement trip to the beaches of Naath, be warm forever, and let the more competent people worry about politics. Or something.

Arya was introduced to any plot point happening north of the Neck only last season, and hot off the heels of a scene that showed her missing connection to her direwolf. I’m not surprised that there was apparently no symbolism to be found in that encounter, but it is a pretty good visual representation of how little the northern theater has mattered to her story since she left it in episode 2 of season 1.

No one north of the Neck even made it on her list. It’s not like she showed a sudden attachment to northern customs and values back in Braavos that kept her from completely surrendering her identity. Now, I personally believe that the point of the list is not that it’s a straight-up to do list that Arya has to work down to fulfill her development or anything, but it has been brought up so much in the last episodes, and it also illustrates nicely how disconnected she was from this entire plot thread.

No symbolism here!

And no, Mel having a random encounter with her in season three and talking about all the eyes she’ll shut does not miraculously make this make sense. Arya has killed so many people, she probably covered all eye colors at this point. And if Melisandre saw her being the one to kill the Night King in the flames all the way back in season 3, why exactly did she stick with Stannis, abduct and assault Gendry, and leave the literal savior of humanity to fend for herself up until now? Yes, because the script said so, and the script still sort of depended on the books at that point, in which that meeting never happens.

Also refer back to the comment by the showrunners about how who got the final blow on the Night King was only set in stone three years ago.

While we’re at the list and the eye colors, let me address the missing elephants in the room. Does that quote mean Arya is also going to get to kill Cersei on the show? You know what, maybe. I wouldn’t rule it out. At least Cersei is on the goddamn list. Sure, she has interacted with Arya just about as much as the Night King did before, but at least there’s some kind of connection there. Cersei is also a political player who is more the kind of villain you defeat via assassination than the ancient magical being in charge of a zombie army ever was.

That assassination, in descending order, should narratively go to Jaime, Tyrion, Dany, or Sansa before Arya, but at least Arya and Cersei sort of existed on the same playing field for a short time, Cersei is on her list, and there was the moment in Braavos when watching an actress play Cersei made Arya remember her identity. More than the actress playing her literal sister did, anyway. So while far-fetched at this point in time, this final blow would make more sense for Arya as a character than randomly dropping in on the Night King ever could. I do care that she literally came out of nowhere in a Doylist sense, you see, even if I stand by the point that short distance teleportation is fair game on a Watsonian level at this point.

It is also hilarious to watch.

Arya getting the final blow on the Night King is thematically and narratively comparable to a hypothetical scenario in which Bran long-distance skinchanges into a giant squid and strangles Cersei half a continent away as the culmination of the Last War. Does Bran have any connection to the plot south of the Neck? Nope! Has he ever interacted with Cersei in any meaningful way? Nope! Has he trained to take down a political foe rather than a magical one? Not even! Is this his symbolism to claim? After Theon died for him, maybe! Is Cersei the kind of villain you take down with a big and impressive feat of magic? I don’t think so! But Bran is a younger brother, too, you know?

Oh, wait. That part of the prophecy ended up where literally every other prophecy of the series did, didn’t it?

What was Bran’s purpose, anyway? I know they literally dropped him for an entire season, and all he seems to have learned is how to banish any and all personality from his demeanor and how to watch magical home videos as the plot demands. Oh, and he can skinchange into more than one animal at a time, I guess. That was a cool moment, but did it do anything? He provided no intel, did no recon, and we don’t even know what the birds did after they left the tree. Did that end up on the cutting room floor along with Sansa actually sticking a zombie with the pointy end?


(That, in my estimation, was Arya’s best moment last episode, and an actual climax to their relationship. There was even some build-up with her defending Sansa when Jon tried complaining about her in episode 1. Oh, well.)

Bran would have been the right tool for this task. His story line not only took him right into the northern conflicts, he was also more directly involved with the magical aspects of the setting. And yet we don’t even get to find out why the Night King wanted him. The chances of getting a thorough exploration of what being the Three Eyed Raven actually means in the remaining three episodes are also…slim, I daresay. It is more likely he’ll just vanish from the plot entirely starting next week. Maybe he’ll turn into the heart tree, if we’re lucky.

The most impact he’s had on the plot.

So in a way, this whole mess is tied together by a theme after all. And the theme is how little the showrunners have ever cared for the magical half of the series. We ended the existential threat to all of humanity, a threat hyped up for the entirety of the show’s existence, not only within 90 minutes, but in a way that meant absolutely nothing for the character who did the deed, or for the narrative at large.

This was not a satisfying way to end things, but the problem lies not with Arya as a character, or Arya as a Mary Sue, or any single character at all. The problem is, and has always been, and will always be, bad writing.

At least we can finally get back to the throne game next week. It’s so much more important and engaging than saving humanity from climate change zombies, you guys.

Images courtesy of HBO


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