For a long time, there have been few positive sex experiences for women, including Maisie Williams’ Arya Stark, on Game of Thrones. Until now.
The night is dark and full of spoilers, everybody. If you haven’t watched the second episode of Game of Thrones season eight yet, now is your chance to save yourself from learning more than you wish to know. Otherwise: read on.
Everyone has their own personal ways of staring at the sun. Some people like to pick fights with their loved ones. Others take pleasure in wading into the swampy comment sections on any public social media platform.
Me? Well, I like to look at google trends. Nothing makes you question the world’s collective consciousness quite like looking at what searches are rising at any given moment. Take, for example, the Everest-ian spike in queries that occurred during Game of Thrones’ season eight, episode two ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ on Monday morning: Maisie Williams age?
How old is Maisie Williams, people demanded to know. How old is Arya Stark? The searches were prompted by the episode’s intimate scene between Arya and Gendry, a culmination of seven seasons worth of connection between the pair. Yes, Arya ‘Milady’ Stark and Gendry ‘Biceps’ Waters/Baratheon had sex. And all anyone could think about was whether or not Arya was old enough to do so.
For many, seeing Arya undress – a character whom audiences first met as a child back in season one – was a step beyond the pale. Never mind that we’ve seen Arya commit mass Frey genocide, slit Littlefinger’s throat with his own dagger and harden from the tomboy we meet in the first series into the pint-sized pocket Rambo running around Winterfell in this season, oh no. Show us the violence, Game of Thrones, but don’t show us a sexualised young woman.
For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that each season of the show spans about the length of a year. If Arya was 11 in the first season, that would make her 18 by season eight. In real life, Williams is 22.
“That’s what happens,” episode two’s writer Bryan Cogman told Vanity Fair. “Teenagers have sex, guys. Hate to tell you!”
Filming the sex scene, Williams eschewed a body double and was given complete creative control by showrunners Davis Benioff and DB Weiss over how much (or how little) she wanted to show of her body.
In the end, Williams went for the latter – “I kept myself pretty private. I don’t think it’s important for Arya to flash,” Williams told Entertainment Weekly – choosing for the camera to focus on Arya’s scars, showing them to Gendry as she takes off her top. “It’s obviously slightly strange for me because I’ve known Maisie since she was 11, 12-years-old,” Joe Dempsie, who plays Gendry, added. “At the same time, I don’t want to be patronising toward Maisie – she’s a 20-year-old woman. So we just had a lot of fun with it.”
That’s exactly how I would describe the scene – fun. For the first time in years, we get to see Arya peeling back the layers of her guard and opening herself up to another person. We see Arya and Gendry flirting – “I’m not the Red Witch,” Arya tells him, “take your own bloody pants off” – and we get to see Arya cracking jokes at Gendry’s expense. And we get to see a female character on Game of Thrones – and a Stark woman, no less – have a positive sexual experience on a show that, at this point, is infamous for its reliance on rape as a plot device.
Daenerys was raped. Sansa Stark was raped. Cersei was raped. Gilly was raped. Brienne of Tarth was almost raped. Name a surviving female character on Game of Thrones, and we’ll show you the ways in which the show has used sexual violence against them. This is not a series renowned for giving its female characters anything approaching a healthy and consensual sex life.
Why is it that Jon Snow has time to have two girlfriends but his Stark sisters have only just had their first consensual sexual experience? Sansa hasn’t even had so much as a consensual kiss – Littlefinger’s odious pawing and Ramsay’s horrific violence most certainly do not count – while Jon has not only managed to have a relationship with Ygritte but with Daenerys, too.
This is the real reason that the Arya and Gendry sex scene matters so much. In it, we get to see an all-too-rare alternate reality in which a woman on Game of Thrones gets to have pleasurable sex on her own terms.
For so much of Game of Thrones we have watched Arya beaten, bruised and bloodied, hardening off and closing down to the world courtesy of her Braavosian assassin training. We’ve seen her strapped in, hair-slicked back in the universal uniform of the Faceless Men.
It was powerful to watch Arya unlace the ties of her constrictive leather armour, peeling off layer after layer of her defences. This is the most vulnerable we have seen Arya in many seasons, the first time she’s let anyone get this close to her without shoving Needle in their face. In this moment, Arya is opening herself up to Gendry and letting him in.
She’s also having a normal teenage experience with someone she has had an all-too-relatable crush on since season two. We clocked Arya looking at Gendry forge steel and crush iron and do whatever else it is blacksmiths do in a manner we can only describe as ‘lustily’. We saw Gendry hurl a dragonglass axe with those oiled-up, sweat-slick arms into a wooden plinth and you know what? We felt that.
That Arya gets on top during the scene makes the moment even more powerful. Like Gilly before her, whose first consensual sexual experience was also on top with Sam, Arya is in complete control. (Though, it did remind us of that excruciatingly hilarious Lady Bird line: “Who the fuck is on top their first time!?”)
As Cogman noted to Vanity Fair, Arya’s motivations in that scene are simple. “I wanna be a young woman and I want to experience this stuff,” he explained. “And I want to to experience it on my own terms. And I think for Maisie she drives that scene, and Gendry is more than happy to follow along with it. But it’s on her terms.”
Lest we forget that this is also a loving, consensual sexual experience for Gendry, too, one of only four in his life thus far. (“I wasn’t keeping count,” he said, exasperatedly, to Arya. “Yes you were,” she replied, with a smirk.) By which we mean, exactly the opposite of what happened to him when Melisandre tied him to that bed in Dragonstone and disseminated leeches all over his body, and we mean all over. That was not a pleasurable sexual experience for Gendry. This night with Arya, on the other hand, very much is.
Good – and I cannot stress this enough – for them. An army of zombies is descending upon Winterfell and, let’s face it, almost all of your favourites are going to die next week. Why shouldn’t Arya and Gendry have sex on what they both think might be their last night on earth? Why shouldn’t Arya sleep with the hot guy with the enormous arms she’s been crushing on for years? Why shouldn’t they have fun? Why shouldn’t a woman on Game of Thrones have a hot, positive sexual experience?
As all those google searchers were so desperate to find out, Arya is a teenager. Having sex is what teenagers do. We don’t have a problem with watching it on Sex Education, or Gossip Girl or Riverdale. So why do we have a problem with it on Game of Thrones?
Arya might be an assassin. She might have a list of names. She might verbally spar with the best of them. But she’s also just a young woman, standing in front of Westeros’ hunkiest blacksmith, asking him to have sex with her before the world ends.
Who knows, maybe they’ll make it out of next week’s episode alive. I certainly hope so. Arya’s night with Gendry is a reminder of how, when the fighting is over and the war is finally done, there might be a happy ending for a Stark woman after all.
Game of Thrones airs on Sunday nights on HBO in the US and Monday mornings (and again in the evening) in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.