Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) was the hero of the third episode of Game of Thrones, and rightly so. Here’s why it’s so important that she was the triumphant force that saved the day.
The night is dark and full of spoilers, everybody. If you haven’t watched the third 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.
The Battle of Winterfell promised to be the longest fight sequence ever committed to film, shot over 55 gruelling consecutive night shoots in the frigid Belfast winter. It broke spirits, ruined sleep cycles and crushed the mental health of all who were involved.
“Everyone was broken at the end,” Kit Harington told GQ. “I don’t know if we were crying because we were sad it was ending or if we were crying because it was so fucking tiring. We were sleep deprived… It was like it was designed to make you think ‘Right, I’m fucking sick of this.’ I remember everyone walking around towards the end going, ‘I’ve had enough now. I love this, it’s been the best thing in my life, I’ll miss it one day – but I’m done.’”
That’s what 55 consecutive night shoots and 82 minutes of fighting on screen will do to you. And, certainly, viewers of this week’s episode – the third in the eighth and final series of Game of Thrones – feel the same.
The anxious, nervy onslaught of watching all your favourites charge into battle against an endless army of the dead, wights that don’t tire or rest and, once killed, can be raised again from the dead by the Night King, was exhausting.
With the music swelling to a terrifying crescendo, episode three started with the Dothraki army gutted by the wights, and only got worse from there. Edd died, Theon Greyjoy died, Jorah – my sweet Ser Jorah, knight of the Andals and knight of my heart – died and Lyanna Mormont died, crushed to pieces by a zombie giant, not before she stabbed him through the eye with a dragonglass dagger, though.
The dead kept coming, and there was nothing that the living could do to stem the onslaught. In the final moments of the episode the Night King was pictured sauntering up to Bran in the Godswood, after dispatching Theon and the remaining Iron Born with ease. Elsewhere, on the battlefield and inside the castle and the Winterfell crypts, our heroes and heroines were overrun by an endless army of the dead.
And then, there it was, the deus ex machina we didn’t think would come. Out of nowhere, as the Night King loomed over Bran, Arya leapt from the darkness brandishing Littlefinger’s Valyrian steel dagger.
The Night King turned, grabbing her by the throat, stopping the dagger centimetres from his neck. Arya dropped the dagger, catching it in her right hand, and stabbed him through the same wound that the Children of the Forest inflicted on the Night King all those years ago.
As the Night King crumbled into icy ash, so too did every White Walker and wight that he turned, including Zombie Viserion and – sob – Zombie Lyanna. All fell to the floor and, around Winterfell, the clash of Valyrian steel and dragonglass went silent. The battle was over. All together now: what do we say to the god of death? Not today, you fucker.
The episode was a glorious, triumphant hero moment for Arya Stark, coming hot on the heels of last week’s glorious, triumphant sex scene. If you needed any more convincing that Game of Thrones is a show that cares and prioritises its female characters, let this be the evidence that you need. Who runs the world of Westeros? Girls.
But not everyone was happy with Arya’s successful assassination. For every Twitter account yelling “yaaaaaas queen!” there were dozens more voicing their displeasure that the person who finally killed Game of Thrones’ big baddie was a small, young woman.
If we had to take a guess, we’d say that the Venn diagram of the fans who have a problem with this week’s episode of Game of Thrones and the fans who have a problem with Star Wars and Captain Marvel isn’t a Venn diagram, it’s a circle. Anyone who think that Arya doesn’t have the skills, or the wherewithal to kill the Night King, has revealed that their internalised misogyny is strong.
But seriously, there’s a reason that it had to be Arya to deliver the fatal blow to the Night King. For one thing, she’s maybe the only person fighting in the Battle of Winterfell who could sneak up on the White Walkers undetected, courtesy of her training with the Faceless Men. She’s also a small young woman – maybe no one thought of her as a threat. That’s how she made it through to the Godswood and that’s how she got so close to the Night King. Theon couldn’t do it. Daenerys couldn’t do it. Even Jon couldn’t do it.
There were problems a-plenty with this week’s episode, including but not limited to the absolute dearth of good lighting and the fact that almost all of Game of Thrones’ characters of colour were put on the frontline to die. But if you have a problem with the hero of the episode being a young woman, then that says more about you than it does about Game of Thrones.
Showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss said in their post-show discussion they had known for a while now that Arya would be the hero of the Battle of Winterfell.
“For, god, I think it’s probably three years now, we’ve known that it was going to be Arya who delivers that fatal blow,” Benioff said. “We hoped to kind of avoid the expected. Jon Snow has always been the hero, the one who’s been the saviour, but it just didn’t seem right to us, for this moment.”
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Harington said that at the table read rehearsal for episode three, Williams’ hero moment “got a huge fucking cheer.”
“It was unbelievably exciting,” Williams added. “But I immediately thought that everybody would hate it; that Arya doesn’t deserve it. The hardest thing is in any series is when you build up a villain that’s so impossible to defeat and then you defeat them. It has to be intelligently done because otherwise people are like, ‘Well, [the villain] couldn’t have been that bad when some 100 pound girl comes in and stabs him.’ You gotta make it cool. And then I told my boyfriend and he was like, ‘Mmm, should be Jon though really, shouldn’t it?’”
With all due respect to Williams’ boyfriend – who I’m sure is lovely – but no. It shouldn’t be Jon. It should never have been Jon.
What makes the Battle of Winterfell’s climax so impactful is realising that everything we have seen Arya do, from season one all the way up to last week, has been in service of killing The Night King. This week’s episode was about stressing the purpose that people serve on this Westerosian Earth. Melisandre’s purpose was to light the fires of the Lord of Light – on the Dothraki swords, in the trenches, in Arya’s belly when she reminds her of the prophecy she foretold that Arya would shut men with “blue eyes” back in season three. Beric’s purpose was to save Arya.
And Arya’s purpose, as kickstarted by those dancing lessons with Syrio, fortified by Braaavosian assassin school, and reinforced by her connection with Gendry, was to kill the Night King and save everyone that she loves.
“I realised the whole scene with [Melisandre] brings it back to everything I’ve been working for over these past six seasons,” Williams said. “It all comes down to this one very moment. It’s also unexpected and that’s what this show does. So then I was like, ‘Fuck you Jon, I get it.’”
Harington has expressed surprise that he didn’t end up locked in a battle to the death with the Night King, but he shouldn’t be. This season, and in many seasons past, Jon hasn’t exactly proven himself to be worthy of the title of King.
Yes, he’s a very good boy – he inherited all that pesky honour from his father in everything but literal blood Ned Stark – and he’s great with a sword, but Jon doesn’t have the strategy smarts of Sansa, nor the fire power of Daenerys and, as we learned this week, he doesn’t have the fighting skills of Arya.
We’re not saying that Arya could be queen, far from it. For one thing, she doesn’t seem to want the crown. (She’s a smart girl, and she’s always left that power posturing to her sister.) For another thing, being the ruler of Westeros isn’t like being the ruler of Wakanda. She can’t make like T’Challa and moonlight as a superhero assassin by night. In order to lead, Arya would have to hang up her bag of Tom Cruise-ian Mission Impossible faces for good, and what would be the fun in that?
So, Arya might not make a good queen. But she’s an excellent hero, as Game of Thrones reminded us this week. All through the episode, Arya was shown fighting with more power and courage than her male compatriots.
When The Hound cowered in fear, Arya sparred with wights using that dragonglass spear that Gendry so lovingly made for her while he worked up a sweat in the Winterfell forge. (Both of them survived this episode, so here’s hoping our favourite couple found another convenient sack of hay for a little post-battle cuddle.) Where Theon, Jon and even Daenerys’ beloved ‘Dracarys’ command failed, Arya succeeded.
It’s all very Return of the King – another pop culture property that loves a deus ex machina – isn’t it? And just thinking of Eowyn, facing off against the Nazgul reminds us of a prescient comment Daenerys made to Missandei, way back in season three.
“Valar Morghulis,” Missandei says to her, in their first meeting.
“Yes,” Daenerys replies. “All men must die. But we are not men.”
In a world that has beaten, broken and underestimated its women from pillar to post, the Battle of Winterfell is a reminder that the future of Game of Thrones – hell, the future of Westeros – is resplendently female.
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.