Now that you’ve been reminded of all the wonderful nuance in the Game of Thrones Season 5 Braavosi plotline from Part 1, our recap, you’re probably willing to hand showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D) an Emmy for next season in advance!
However, this part of the retrospective is where we dig a little deeper and examine Arya’s arc to discover what the story actually means in and of itself, and how it fares as an adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. We have a strong suspicion you’ll want to hold onto that trophy once we get through it.
A reminder that this analysis will be covering a sample chapter from The Winds of Winter, “Mercy,” which is available on the World of Ice and Fire app.
Whose story was it?
We guess for once, we should count ourselves fairly lucky, because there is only one clear answer to this question: it was Arya’s story. She was in every single scene, and nobody around her grew or changed in the slightest. The closest anyone else came was Mace, singing his way to competency. Maybe. He laid down his opinion on usury, that’s for sure! But given that the actual meeting between himself and Tycho happened off-screen, there’s no reason to spend any time thinking about its details.
We suppose you could argue that Trant had an arc? Maybe? Not really. He doesn’t really even qualify as an antagonist, so much as a conveniently placed target. Did the Asshole have an arc? She learned that she was right that Arya wasn’t ready? She’s an actual antagonist, right? We’re trying here.
But whatever. Arya is our protagonist. That is as clear as the details on the 600 unique masks weren’t.
What was the result of this story, from a thematic and character perspective?
So in D&D’s “Inside the Episode” interview for 5×03, Weiss talked about how Needle is an “instrument of revenge.” We book snobs love to mock the pants out of this moment, because the passage in the books makes it blindingly clear what Needle is to Arya:
“Needle was Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and her father, even Sansa. Needle was Winterfell’s grey walls, and the laughter of its people. Needle was the summer snows, Old Nan’s stories, the heart tree with its red leaves and scary face, the warm earthy smell of the glass gardens, the sound of the north wind rattling the shutters of her room. Needle was Jon Snow’s smile”
However, we need to give D&D some credit here: his quote is generally taken out of context. What he fully says is:
“…Needle was a very, very special gift. [Arya] sees herself as an instrument of—of revenge, in many ways, in this world, and that sword is the way she’s going to exact that revenge on the people who wronged her family; it’s the instrument of that revenge. Letting go of Needle would really be letting go of “Arya Stark,” and the fact that she can’t let go of Needle makes it clear to us that she’s not at all ready to be “no one.”
So like, okay, there’s a focus on revenge in what he’s saying, certainly, and Arya being an “instrument of revenge” with an “instrument for her revenge” is a little Palin-esque (one in five jobs being created under the umbrella of job-creation). But there is no denying the fact that Weiss discusses this in the context of how Arya views herself. That, plus the actual scene of Arya hiding Needle, where we had the Stark Cello of Extreme Emotional Significance™ play, suggests to us that D&D were in clear understanding that it related to her struggle with identity.
This is the central theme for Arya of the books as well. She takes all these Faceless Men lessons about shedding her identity seriously, but at the same time, there are things that bind her to her Stark-ness that make really losing herself impossible. Things like her wolfdreams. Oops, those were cut. Never mind. There’s how she chose her mother’s name when she had the opportunity to create a new identity for herself…shit.
Well, there’s her list. They kept her list. More or less… That represents her inability to let go of the idea of someday getting revenge on those who wronged her and the people she cares about. She broods on these things. And as long as she can’t let go of revenge, he can’t let go of Arya; that’s a given.
This is what “Mercy” is about. She’s getting good at this “being someone else” thing at that point, but her need for revenge is there, and her insistence on perusing it makes her Arya again.
Well, ish. There’s a lot more to “Mercy” than that. Stay tuned.
The odd thing, especially given the hyperfocus on revenge, is that her killing of Trant could easily be framed as more about “social justice” than revenge; it’s sort of morally more similar to her “killing” Chiswyck in A Clash of Kings than killing Raff in “Mercy”. Trant was in every way a monster and he needed to be taken down. The revenge angle is almost incidental.
As for the way that Arya grows through her training, it’s all kind of a mess, to be honest.
First off, it’s not at all arranged in a meaningful sequence. We get the sense that with the exception of the final episode, we could have watched the scenes in any order and it would have been fine. Like, she could have gotten to become a mortician as a reward for euthanasia, and then gotten to be Your Sister after she threw her shit away. Why not? It may make more sense actually…
This “training” has no rhyme or reason. Everything that is actually significant in terms of learning things either didn’t happen at all, or it happened off-screen: becoming Lanna of the Canals, learning to lie, learning to apply faces. Even as Lanna, it seemed like her only task was to sell oysters for a bit so that she could have a convincing backstory, rather than like, learning the language of the city, or spying on people for gossip, or something. And absolutely nowhere did anyone within the House of Dark and Vague bother to explain anything, or act as any kind of teacher. They’d hit her with sticks for not knowing shit she couldn’t have known. Though we guess she learned the art of cleaning dead bodies through mimicry. That’s significant.
And did her odd competition with the Asshole even have a payoff? That’s kind of hard to answer because we’re still not clear what they were competing about. The Kinky Man’s attention? Was that last scene supposed to be the Asshole winning this round? Or is she the dead one? We have no clue what the fuck was going on.
We end up with an Arya who learns how to lie. She learns how to be a super skilled mortician and how to be cool with euthanasia. She learns how to sweep floors and manage petty cash too, we guess. But the thing is, she’s rather passive in all of this. There’s very little that she figures out for herself. She’s just beaten until she, like, what, instinctively learns how to lie? She’s told exactly how to kill “the Thin Man” rather than figuring those means out, for example.
Then she uses these things she’s “learned” to go rogue and execute the premeditated murder of a really, really bad dude in a completely psychotic manner. Because she chose revenge over this new life. Or maybe social justice. The show makes the space for either interpretation.
This is a story, we guess.
What adaptational choices were made?
Throughout this retrospective series, we’ve found it helpful that rather than list every single change to the source material, we should instead look at the adaptational choices with the largest “butterfly effect,” so to speak. The choice that was responsible for the largest deviation in the narrative.
We noted that their understanding of Arya’s book arc is not completely off-the-mark, as, we’re sorry to say, seems to be the case with every other character on the damn show. However, there was a complete inability to translate this to the screen because of certain implications of the Faceless Men’s social justice crusade, the focus of an inexplicable cat fight, and Arya’s overall passivity in her training. From what we can tell though, her entire season’s arc was written around her BIG, SHOCKING, morally unambiguous kill of someone on her list. This was adaptational choice prime. This is the reason Arya learned how to apply masks off-screen.
Another decision on D&D’s part was to focus on a catfight between the Asshole and Arya. Now, don’t get us wrong: we don’t think it was a conscious choice to write their relationship as adversarial. This is simply how they seem to understand behavior between two women, based on their season-wide pattern. But there is no mistaking the fact that this dynamic was the focal point for Arya’s training. Like, we didn’t exactly sit with our thumbs on a stopwatch or anything, but it certainly seemed like she spent more time with the Asshole being an asshole than with the KM acting as any kind of instructor.
Maybe we’re being unfair? It was only a few stick-hitting scenes and poo-faces. Actually, it might just be that the Asshole being an asshole is the only like…tangible aspect of Arya’s training on the show. As we said, everything important or material to her becoming an assassin happened off-screen. Except maybe her learning to lie? Not that there was any focus on the details of that. She’d just get thwacked with a stick if a lie wasn’t convincing enough, or get a kinky smile from the Kinky Man if it was. No practicing in mirrors or focusing on facial muscles or anything.
This also came at the cost of another component of Arya’s book training: learning about the city. As was established way back in A Game of Thrones, a strong feature of Arya’s personality has been her shirking of class role in favor of hanging out with commoners. She was ‘Arya Underfoot’ at Winterfell; friends with the butcher’s boy. Her means of survival have been in accordance with this personality feature, just as Sansa’s means have been through courtly intrigue and her “mask of courtesy.” It’s almost like Martin meant them to be paralleled.
Continuing with this, Arya in A Feast For Crows actively integrates herself into Braavosi culture. She makes numerous friends, from Brusco and his daughters, to the Black Pearl courtesan, to a seal named Casso. She learns the Braavosi language. And she does all of this as Cat of the Canals, a name she picks for herself, and that sort of matters.
As Cat, she is also to learn three new things and report them back to the Kindly Man. This is a crucial, crucial part of her training. In fact, she only goes back to the House of Black and White during the new moon, and otherwise sleeps under Brusco’s roof. Even after she is no longer allowed to be “Cat of the Canals”—after her eyes are “taken from her”(her blindness is induced through a drink that she actively agrees to consume each night)—she still is sent to the streets as “blind Beth,” and still to learn three new things.
Inside the House of Black and White, Arya is taught skills necessary for an assassin. She shadows the Waif and watches her prepare poisons. She practices lying in a mirror and against others and is told to concentrate on her facial muscles. When her blindness is induced, it is very clearly so that she learns to trust her other senses, and it is very much in her control:
“How long must I be blind?” she would ask.
“Until darkness is as sweet to you as light,” the waif would say, “or until you ask us for your eyes. Ask and you shall see.”
Overall, the reader gets the sense that the Kindly Man and the Waif want her to succeed at this. Yes, the Waif slaps her when Arya chews her lip, a known tick of “Arya Stark of Winterfell.” Yet on the same page, when Arya correctly guesses what detail the Waif was exaggerating when she told her a “backstory,” the Waif is visibly happy. The Kindly Man does try and thwack Arya with a stick, but it’s very specifically during the time that she was blind, as a test to see when she’s ready to “get her eyes back.” Because like, we see her pass it; she figures out who it was that was hitting her and was able to parry one of his blows (though she low-key cheated).
In general, it’s kind of as if Arya is a grad student, and the professors are actually on her side and willing to extend deadlines, not an undergrad who they’re trying to weed out.
Contrast this to what the show gave us. There, Arya was mostly assigned cleaning duty. She cleaned floors, and she cleaned bodies. As she did these mundane tasks, there would be mysterious things happening. There was a large focus on the mystery element. What was happening to those dead bodies?? What was happening behind closed doors?
In fact, there was such a desire to sell this mystery vibe, that absolutely nothing was explained, to Arya, or to us. The Kinky Man and the Asshole would pop in and smack her with sticks for not lying convincingly? Or for telling the truth. Or for not earning a coin and respecting its value, apparently.
There’s also no denying that the dead bodies were given a high degree of focus. We probably spent more time with Arya the Mortician than with Lanna of the Canals. Like, yes, this is how they make the masks. But then the narrative spends no time focusing on the masks themselves, because Arya just up and pops one on. So why spend all this time with the camera panning corpses? Honestly, we don’t know.
Another adaptational choice made was to keep the focus on “revenge” for Arya’s central theme. We’ll explain in the next section why this isn’t like, totally off-base. But it was certainly a theme foregrounded over her struggle with identity. Which yes, in the books, her identity does tie to revenge too, but it’s more than that. It’s her warging into Nymeria and seeing snow in the riverlands. It’s her picking the name “Cat of the Canals.” It’s her killing a Night’s Watch deserter that she doesn’t have any sort of personal vendetta against because of growing up as Ned Stark’s daughter.
Like, there’s a whole lot more to Arya Stark than revenge. And that was all entirely absent.
Finally, the last major adaptational change on D&D’s part was to eliminate the pesky moral ambiguity aspect of the assassins’ guild. In the books, the Kindly Man is very clear about who the Faceless Men kill when Arya is given her first target, also an insurance salesman:
“[the target] is an evil man,” she announced that evening when she returned to the House of Black and White. “His lips are cruel, his eyes are mean, and he has a villain’s beard.”
The kindly man chuckled. “He is a man like any other, with light in him and darkness. It is not for you to judge him.”
That gave her pause. “Have the gods judged him?”
“Some gods, mayhaps. What are gods for if not to sit in judgment over men? The Many-Faced God does not weigh men’s souls, however. He gives his gift to the best of men as he gives it to the worst. Elsewise the good would live forever.”
Now, it’s true that Kindly Man does point out to Arya that the insurance man may have not paid the wife and children of a dead sailor, when he tells her, “It is one thing to write such a binder, though, and another to make good on it.” However, contextualized against his refusal to pass judgement, his refusal to soothe Arya’s conscience even when she tries to say, “oh well maybe the gift will bring him peace,” and the fact that this assertion was immediately followed by, “Cat [of the canals] understood. One of them must hate him. One of them came to the House of Black and White and prayed for the god to take him,” it’s hard to claim that this remark of his was in any way about rationalizing their contracts or portraying them as ‘the right thing to do.’ In fact, it seems to be about Arya’s learning and increased understanding of people’s motivations—an understanding crucial for a successful, clandestine assassin.
Aaaaand, then we have the Kinky Man, telling Your Sister that a destitute woman can only possibly turn to their noble guild for recourse against the “Thin Man.”
“But perhaps the gambler loses his bet and decides he does not have to pay after all. A destitute woman and her small child, what can they do to such a man if he keeps their money for himself? To whom can they turn for recourse?”
Note even little subtleties. “Keeps their money for himself,” is quite a bit different in tone from “making good on a binder.” There’s also the fact that we were clearly supposed to side with the random sailor who couldn’t get his trip to Valyria insured. Why? Because he said “please” a lot, and mentioned his family. Therefore the Thin Man is an evil butt, and good on the Faceless Men for wanting to kill him. How nuanced.
Why did they make the adaptational choices they did?
The best way to understand how D&D see Arya’s storyline may be letting Maisie Williams tell us:
They do seem to be rather focused on one aspect of Arya’s struggle for identity, and it’s not her longing for a place where she felt safe, twinged with anxiety about if she would belong there anymore, damaged as she is, if she ever had belonged at all.
In fairness, focusing on her revenge—Arya’s need to hold on to her hatred preventing her from losing her identity—isn’t stupid in this context. It’s certainly the most easily externalized aspect of her struggle. And again, to their credit, it is an actual internal conflict. She did have to choose this over the opportunity to start fresh.
If we want to be generous we can say they chose to focus on revenge for that reason. If we want to say that they’ve lost the benefit of that doubt with, like, every other decision they made all season, we can say they don’t understand the difference between Arya’s need to maintain her identity and her need for revenge.
As we also mentioned, there seemed to be a desire to maintain an air of “mystery.” Like, we call “The House of Dark and Vague” for a reason. D&D apparently didn’t want to give anything away. In our opinion, why this was the case is the real mystery. Perhaps they heard somewhere that “mysterious arcs” made for cult-followings and compelling television. Perhaps they really liked the dark and confusing atmosphere they created and thought that any exposition would detract from that. We mean, it worked for Inception, right?
Yet another thing about this storyline is that it was rushed. This is very apparent when you watch all the scenes in a sequence rather than as part of a larger episode. So, it’s possible that they just thought they didn’t have enough screen time to explore all the aspects of Arya’s arcs from the books, even though she’s clearly a favored character, based on marketing materials and D&D’s interviews and such.
This is less justified when you consider all the things they did think were worth spending time on (like Trant’s Sex Worker Buffet) but it was clearly a consideration.
“We will be forgiven for cuts if we do not invent sequences.” –David O. Selznick
There was also presumably a need for some external conflict in the early part of the season. We have no other way of explaining the animosity between Arya and the “Waif,” as it serves no other purpose than…being a conflict. And we think we can be forgiven for raising our eyebrows that this is, once again, two women in competition with each other and unable to have any kind of positive interaction. Like, it’s way beyond “pattern” at this point. Especially in light of the relationship it was adapted from (more on that in the next section). But we don’t need the books for this to be problematic.
We suppose it’s a fair point that Arya’s aFfC/aDwd arc lacks a big “action set piece.” This is, of course, a very common complaint about those novels in general. It seems to be just a fact of this show, and hell, maybe television in general, that a character arc needs an unambiguously climax-ey “thing” in the last two or three episodes. There are her two “kills”, of Dareon and the Insurance Salesman, but both of those are rather quiet affairs, rather worthy of a sneaky assassin. Her murder of Raff in “Mercy” is just as lacking in noise and fuss, but we could see how it would be the easiest to adapt to give it such. Its sexual and, frankly, gross aspects are certainly right down their street.
And then there’s the moral ambiguity we discussed in previous sections. We mean, it’s kind of hard not be somewhat okay with the fact that she kills the creepy child-rapist in both works, but “Mercy” doesn’t make it so clear that we’re supposed to be on the side of the disturbingly emotionless eleven-year-old who turns on the sex appeal and smirks as she watches a man bleed to death.
D&D don’t like this kind of ambiguity. It makes their tummies hurt. Hence the need for multiple scenes to establish how completely, irredeemably despicable Trant is. And if you can get some sex workers and abused children in there, bonus!
How did those choices change the story?
The further into this we go, the more we realize that, despite D&D being able to hit on one thematic element from the book for their portrayal of Arya’s arc—something they were apparently incapable of doing for every other plotline on this show—they did not give us anything that even resembles her story.
Adaptational Decision Prime, giving Arya Trant to murder at the end of this season, was almost certainly the result of the foregrounding of the revenge theme, which was not so subtly the theme of the season. In fact, it seemed to be the only thing that mattered to D&D, logic be damned. Marry your enemies for revenge! Murder innocent children for revenge! Abandon your oath for revenge! To be honest, we’re starting to suspect that it’s just coincidence that this theme happened to be in Arya’s book plotline; clearly they were willing to shove it in everywhere, even if it didn’t belong.
Case and point: the Trant kill. We’re not saying Arya murdering someone on her list is something absent from the books. But this specific murder on the show actually conflated three of Arya’s book!kills: Dareon (the Night’s Watch deserter), Raff the Sweetling (from the Winds of Winter sample chapter, “Mercy”), and her out-of-control murder of the Tickler back in A Storm of Swords. What do we mean by this?
Well, tonally, her kill of Trant was the most similar to the Tickler, with the utterly grisly nature of it, the multiple stabs, and so on. In fact, you could make a strong case that in the books, she had a psychotic break when this occurred, and it was the Hound who had to drag her away.
In terms of location and the idea that Arya murders someone from her list in Braavos, this kill is most similar to Raff the Sweetling. He shows up from Westeros unexpectedly, and she jumps at the opportunity. She also is in a sexual situation in both contexts. Not that we can really compare infiltrating a brothel to pose as a random punching bag for a pedophile (how did this even come to pass?) to her using of her feminine wiles to get a guy who did not give any shits about the “half your age plus seven” rule alone in a room with her.
Then, timing wise, this was Dareon’s kill. She murders him in her last chapter of A Feast for Crows and this is when the Kindly Man chooses to “take her eyes.”
This comes back to the whole, “stories are not just discrete sets of plot-points” issue that we spend so much time talking about. It’s true that “Arya kills someone in Braavos from her list” is a thing that happened, and it’s also true that she “lost her eyes” following her murder of someone [else] in Braavos. But the order rather matters. And like, it’s made worse by the fact that they did choose to hyperfocus on the revenge/death component of her arc. Because the fact of the matter is, if this was actually in any way thematically important to them, they would have adapted her kills as they happened in the books. They tell a story. They show movement in her [internal] journey.
Dareon’s death was not about revenge, and she didn’t hide from it. She outright tells the Kindly Man that Arya Stark was the killer, and accepts her “punishment” (the loss of her sight) without hesitation. And she definitely accepts it without freaking the fuck out, as we saw Your Sister do in the final episode.
The murder of Raff the Sweetling was not simplistically about Arya’s inability to let go of revenge (though of course that’s part of it). We’re just as much supposed to focus on how uncomfortably detached she is; on how she uses her age-inappropriate feminine wiles, and on the disturbing way she toys with him in her dialogue. But…D&D already used this dialogue and tone last season with her murder of Polliver.
Like, thinking about it, with the exception of Arya’s murder of the stable boy back in Season 1, D&D have not translated a single one of her kills to our screens correctly:
And yes, this affects her story in a rather significant way, because these kills just become a meaningless list of dead bodies that D&D can tick off. Just like they do with every other “plot point” in every fucking plotline. So what that it doesn’t make sense for the Black Brothers to stab Jon given that he does nothing wrong, breaks no vows, and was an eye-witness to the army of the dead? Who cares that any meaning from the Walk of Shame was removed given Carol Lannister’s perpetual victimhood? What difference does it make that Deadpan’s marriage to Hizdahr was never seeded and had no impact on the plot? Tick, tick, tick.
Honestly, at this point, we’re quite comfortable saying that even if the Arya of the books had given up her quest for revenge and delivered a passionate speech about its futility, they still would have written her show arc in this way. Afterall, that’s what we got with Faullaria Sand, isn’t it?
Twisting Arya’s plotline into contortions to bring us the Trant kill certainly impacted the story the most, especially given that it was supposed to be her thematic climax of the season. But The House of Dark and Vague being so…dark and vague also had marked consequences. Like, namely, we had no reason to care about Arya being there, no understanding of why this was something she was pursuing, and no conception of what any of this meant in a world-building sense.
In A Feast for Crows, we learn all about the Faceless Men, their history, and the purpose they see for themselves in the world. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, certainly, but when Arya asks a question, it tends to get an answer, or at least, she is told why she’s can’t have one right now. They certainly don’t just stare at her vaguely. We also understand that she chooses this path half because it appeals to her specific personality/skillset, and half because she has nowhere else to go. Like, this is outright stated:
“The iron coin—”
“—has paid your passage here. From this point you must pay your own way, and the cost is dear.”
“I don’t have any gold.”
“What we offer cannot be bought with gold. The cost is all of you. Men take many paths through this vale of tears and pain. Ours is the hardest. Few are made to walk it. It takes uncommon strength of body and spirit, and a heart both hard and strong.”
I have a hole where my heart should be, she thought, and nowhere else to go. “I’m strong. As strong as you. I’m hard.”
Which oh gee, it’s almost as if Martin was trying to draw a parallel with her sister, who is also trapped in a situation where she is somewhat thriving thanks to her personality and unique skillset, and while she may be vaguely enjoying what she’s learning, she too is utterly trapped:
He saved Alayne, his daughter, a voice within her whispered. But she was Sansa too… and sometimes it seemed to her that the Lord Protector was two people as well. He was Petyr, her protector, warm and funny and gentle… but he was also Littlefinger, the lord she’d known at King’s Landing, smiling slyly and stroking his beard as he whispered in Queen Cersei’s ear. And Littlefinger was no friend of hers.
Except to get me out. He did that for me. I thought it was Ser Dontos, my poor old drunken Florian, but it was Petyr all the while. Littlefinger was only a mask he had to wear. Only sometimes Sansa found it hard to tell where the man ended and the mask began. Littlefinger and Lord Petyr looked so very much alike. She would have fled them both, perhaps, but there was nowhere for her to go.
We guess parallels aren’t cinematic, right? But the thing is, without these connections that we can draw, Arya’s story also just becomes super disconnected. She’s not Cat of the Canals, because her mom must not matter to her as much as a reference to Tyrion’s maybe!daughter. They also didn’t adapt Arya’s wolf-dreams with Nymeria; in fact, it’s her warging abilities that end up being the reason she earns her “eyes back” in A Dance with Dragons. But even beyond that, her seeing snow in the riverlands is important. She kind of gives a shit about Westeros, you know? It’s almost like the “revenge” she wants to enact is for a reason, based on her background and ties.
Which, in the show, without these continual reminders, sort of turns Arya’s story into this disconnected tale about her list of shitty people, and how she’s learning to become a fantastic SJW as she bumps them off. Fuck, Arya may have well been on her own show this year.
And seriously, not to belabor the point, but reducing her struggle with identity down to her “quest for revenge,” only aided in this disconnect. We mean, they tried to do something with her struggle to give up being Arya Stark, or her struggle to commit to this organization maybe, but this is where our whole point about “we could have watched these scenes in any order” comes in. It was just random when they had her assert her “Stark-ness.”
She throws away her possessions and hides Needle in an act that is supposed to demonstrate her commitment, we think, but then she screams about how she’s Arya when the Kinky Man comes in and smacks were with a stick. She then also vacillates between really being into what this organization is putting out there, or being really fucking annoyed at the vague answers and physical abuse. There’s no rhyme or reason to what comes out of her mouth at any given moment.
Then there’s also the fact that this person on our screens is simply not Arya Stark. We really wish “Your Sister” wasn’t so stupid to continually write, because in our opinion, the Arya of the show is just as different to her book counterpart as Larry is to Jaime.
We’ve danced around this, but one key thing missing is Arya’s proactivity. It’s true that her reasons for joining the Faceless Man guild are largely because she doesn’t have any clue what else to do, but she still was the one who decided every day she was going to drink the milk that caused her to stay blind and continue her training. The Faceless Men continually tell her that she can leave whenever she likes. They even offer to help her build a new life:
“You believe this is the only place for you.” It was as if he’d heard her thoughts. “You are wrong in that. You would find softer service in the household of some merchant. Or would you sooner be a courtesan, and have songs sung of your beauty? Speak the word, and we will send you to the Black Pearl or the Daughter of the Dusk. You will sleep on rose petals and wear silken skirts that rustle when you walk, and great lords will beggar themselves for your maiden’s blood. Or if it is marriage and children you desire, tell me, and we shall find a husband for you. Some honest apprentice boy, a rich old man, a seafarer, whatever you desire.”
She wanted none of that.”
Contrast this to Your Sister crying in hysterics as her eyes became clouded because…they slipped her a drug off-screen or something.
And far more telling is the fact that when Arya was assigned to kill the insurance salesman, the Kindly Man didn’t up and hand her a bottle of poison. She watched and observed her mark for days, and realized on her own that the most inconspicuous way to murder him—the way that wouldn’t leave any trail—was to lace a coin with poison, as he had the habit of biting into each one he earned.
Also, this is neither here nor there, but can we talk about how stupid the Kinky Man’s plan was? Your Sister was seriously just supposed to dump some poison onto a clam and up and hand it to him? That wouldn’t draw suspicion at all…
Then there’s also Arya’s, like, comfort blending in with the smallfolk. This is a thing established in A Game of Thrones, as we said. She was kind of painted as this lovable scamp, whose lack of class-consciousness actually almost had rather serious political consequences. Like, it’s a fucking problem that the butcher’s boy was playing swords with her in front of the prince.
However, aside from the ship’s captain who she paid, the Arya of the show doesn’t seem to have any positive interactions with the working class. There’s like, two sex workers that enjoyed her oysters, we guess? But it’s a far cry from Tagganaro and Casso, Brusco and his daughters, Merry at the Happy Port, the Black Pearl, and everyone else in the city with whom Arya formed a rapport.
Not to mention, these relationships that she forms also plays into a crucial facet of her personality: her need to seek out and form connections with others. To make a “pack.” This harkens back to Ned’s sobering, “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”
Arya seems to take this to heart, or perhaps it’s that she is rather inherently ‘wolfish’ in her tendencies (hey, did she have a similar-looking aunt with “wolf’s blood” or something?), but throughout every single book, Arya actively tries to find a pack. She thinks she has it for a minute with Hot Pie and Gendry, but they leave her in favor of comfortable jobs. She blends in seamlessly on the Titan’s Daughter with Ternesio and his crew, and even thinks about the possibility of staying on as help. She is notably comfortable (and comforted) during her time with Brusco and his daughters, even if she knows that it’s limited and to a specific end.
In fact, this desire on her part, we would argue, is far more fundamental to her identity than revenge. And it’s just totally absent. Your Sister just wants to be a faceless assassin for reasons never explained, and aside from vaguely smiling at Lhara, the sex worker who is her “first customer of the day,” we see absolutely no desire on her part to make any connections with others. And very, very limited positive interactions with the working class. That ain’t Arya.
Frankly, there’s even vaguely classist implications when Your Sister murders Trant, as she declares “I’m Arya Stark. Do you know who you are? You’re no one.” But Trant was so cartoonishly evhul that we’ll just leave it there.
We’re not really sure what anyone is supposed to like about Your Sister, actually. She seems like an asshole at best, and downright disturbed otherwise. If she has character growth, we’ve sure as hell missed it. Are we supposed to be on her side when she calls the Asshole a “cunt”? It’s rather difficult to be on the Asshole’s side, because…what is she? Are D&D even on Arya’s side? As we noted in our recap, the establishing shot for her is far from sympathetic:
So really, the result of these changes are that we get a character we have no cause to like, who joins an organization we don’t understand, for reasons that are never explained. She ends up killing a guy possibly for revenge or possibly for social justice (either is equally likely in how it’s presented), and then gets punished in an absolutely perplexing sequence that at best, badly ripped off The Empire Strikes Back. What.
Is it even worth mentioning the other characters in this plot? The Kinky Man is a sexy face and cheap fanservice. Maybe he’s a brilliant mentor off-screen though. The Asshole is an asshole. How did her role even justify itself? Is there a reason we needed two people refusing to give Arya any answers and smacking her with a stick? The “Thin Man” is irrelevant. He helped contextualize the social justice agenda of the House of Dark and Vague, but he amounted to nothing. Trant is ridiculous. This is what a cartoonish villain looks like, ladies and gentleman. And worse, his scripting also required everyone around him to behave in ways that no one would ever think to do. A successful brothel owner is not going to pull rando little girls off the streets to be raped, sorry. And then Mace was comic relief. Like, he actually was funny for the one scene in which he appeared. Good job, D&D.
What a rounded tale. Add to that the fact that we couldn’t fucking see anything for 80% of Arya’s scenes, or how everyone in Braavos was just randomly shitty to her for no reason, and you’ve got a story guaranteed to make no one care!
What the fuck were they thinking?
Well, we suppose they were thinking they liked Arya, unlike Bran, so they didn’t want to leave her out.
But the disconnect to the rest of the stories was a major problem. So was the focus on making everything dark, miserable, violent, and simply unpleasant.
The tone was consistent, but other than that, little in the House of Dark and Vague made any sense. Why was the Asshole an asshole? Why were we so hyperfocused on the corpses and the suicide, rather than learning to control her reactions and making a performance of everyday behavior? Why didn’t Arya learn languages, or mummer’s ticks, or poisons, or how to help Umma make fish, or how to pick pockets, or how to swear in the trade talk, or that Brea’s sister was fucking some dude on the roof? Why was everyone mad at her for not knowing things she was never taught? How are there two Jaqen faces? Why did this badass assassin start panicking at going blind?
All these things are tiny details, we guess, but they certainly add up.
For all these reasons, it’s blindingly obvious that while they can sort of articulate a theme that happens to exist in the books, they definitely can’t translate it to the screen. There was no higher purpose to Arya doing any of this; there was no narrative logic. All the important things seem to have happened off-screen. Like, is putting on faces that easy? And her scenes aren’t in any kind of linear, logical progression. We’re actually tempted to switch around the order of these scenes and show a new cut to our disinterested loved-ones just to see if they can tell that something is wrong.
And the level to which the production was distracted by shiny bullshit was ridiculous. The 600 masks are a nice microcosm but they are not the only example. Like, they built the facade to the House of Dark and Vague. The whole thing. So much money and so much time from so many skilled people went into this. To tell a story that was mediocre at best.
This was a “D-” in a season of low F’s. It only passed by the skin of its teeth because of a combination of our pity and the low bar set by its peers (the other plotlines). We’re being generous, in truth; far more than 40% of it didn’t make any kind of sense, and far less than 60% of Arya’s character was actually adapted. But there has to be some kind of curve, right? Still, this plot does not magically justify those Emmys, if people were wondering.
A wise girl once said; “nothing isn’t better or worse than anything.” She must have been talking about this.
We hope you enjoyed our GoT Season 5 retrospective series!
- Apologizing for Porne: A Retrospective
- Carol’s Landing
- Jon’s fOlly
- Deadpan’s Bestest Nameday Gift: Part 1; Part 2
- Oysters, Clams, and Crappy Lighting: Part 1; Part 2
To be fair, when we started on these, we were expecting to be mildly amused, and maybe to be able to sum up some of the issues we had already spoken to as the season was airing. However, after examining each of these plotlines on a close and individual level, we were amazed to find just how off-the-mark absolutely every facet of this show is. Season 5 was a hot, incoherent mess that also managed to be intricately and thoroughly offensive on every level. And apparently, this season was “very much within the books… It’s more season six that’s going to be diverging a bit.”
…We can’t wait.