At a significant moment in this week’s episode, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) made a powerful decision. This is why her choice will prove so significant in next week’s finale.
The night is dark and full of spoilers, everybody. If you haven’t watched the fifth 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.
Bolstered by the shocking execution of Missandei and the loss of the dragon Rhaegal, our Khaleesi descended upon Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and King’s Landing with all of her might and remaining fire power. Despite pleas of mercy from Tyrion, Dany went full scorched earth on the city that she once hoped to rule over peacefully, torching the Red Keep and destroying every dragon-slaying crossbow in sight as Grey Worm speared his way to some kind of vengeance on the ground.
All Jon Snow, Davos, Tyrion and Arya could do was stand by and watch, horror etched over their faces, as Daenerys exacted her revenge. (Also in this episode? Jaime and Cersei crushed by falling rubble in each other’s arms, Euron died by Jaime’s golden hand and, after a bloody skirmish, The Hound and The Mountain tumbled to their deaths from a burning tower.)
For many fans, the episode was a disappointment. Though Daenerys’ descent into madness has been pretty obvious these past few weeks, the show did it all so damn fast it gave us all whiplash.
Where was the Daenerys who always balanced out her harsher instincts with mercy and kindness? Where was the Daenerys who liberated Slaver’s Bay? Where was the Daenerys who was so charismatic, so compelling and so beloved that everyone from Jorah to Jon, Tyrion to Lady Olenna Tyrell fell for her?
That Daenerys is gone, and judging by the brief trailer for episode six, it is unlikely we shall see her again. So, fans, make peace with that fact before the final episode airs. And let’s brace ourselves for the end of Dany’s life. Having established her as a tyrant, there is nowhere for the show to go now but to Daenerys’ funeral pyre.
But who is going to do it? Who will kill Daenerys? There are three people still left standing who were particularly affected by Daenerys’ actions in this week’s episode. Jon, her former lover (and nephew) ordered his men to fall back after witnessing her defy the pealing bells of mercy. Killing the woman he loves, but whom he cannot save, would certainly be a “bittersweet” ending to this epic series and would fulfill the Azor Ahai prophecy that calls for Westeros’ saviour to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Tyrion, who has given so much for this queen he has long adored, set his brother free in the hope that he could convince Cersei to call a ceasefire. The plan didn’t work, though, and how do you think Daenerys is going to respond when she finds out the treason of her Hand? We have it on good authority – a Belfastian taxi driver – that Tyrion is arrested by the Unsullied before the end of this season. The thing is, it’s quite hard to kill someone when you’re in chains.
That leaves Arya (Maisie Williams). In the dying minutes of episode four, we watched the youngest Stark daughter make her way to King’s Landing with The Hound in pursuit of Cersei. She has a name in her ledger, you see, and she’d like to strike it out.
In episode five Arya makes it to the city, and along with The Hound – whose business with his freakishly undead brother was resolutely unfinished – the pair forge ahead to the Red Keep. But, in the antechamber of the palace, Sandor turns to his former protégé and tells her to choose life over the dogged pursuit of vengeance.
“Go home girl,” Sandor says. “You’ll be dead too if you don’t get out of here. Look at me! You want to be like me? You come with me, you die here.”
Arya hesitates for a moment – an emotion we haven’t seen on her face for a while now. We’re so used to seeing Arya’s features arranged in steely-eyed dedication and decisiveness. She didn’t falter when she cornered that blacksmithing hunk Gendry for a literal roll in the hay. She didn’t blink when she turned down his marriage proposal. Sure, she was frightened during the Battle of Winterfell. But after speaking with Melisandre, her eyes hardened and she knew what she had to do. Arya is someone for whom hesitation is a foreign language. And yet here she was, hesitating.
Only for a second. Arya made her decision then to turn away from vengeance upon Cersei, leaving the battle at the behest of her former travelling companion. “Sandor, thank you,” Arya says, as the two part.
The rest of the episode contrasts Arya fleeing King’s Landing – doused in rubble and ash, trampled in the crowds and then, finally, happening upon a white horse to ride away upon as the city burns – while The Mountain battles his brother. Sandor was right: there was nothing but death for him in King’s Landing. For Arya, though, there might yet be life.
The significance of Arya making that choice to turn her back on death is so crucial. Here is a character who, for so many seasons, has hardened and closed off to the world in pursuit of her one overarching goal. There’s nothing wrong with that: Arya is good at killing people. She killed Walder Frey, she killed Littlefinger and it was she who killed the Night King. All those years spent learning a trick or two at Braavosian assassin school were worth it.
But this season of Game of Thrones has also been concerned with reckoning with how all this violence and all this vengeance has left Arya with a terrible burden. When she slept with Gendry, it was a reminder of how much happiness and love and pleasure there might be for Arya in a world without fighting. When she spoke to Jon about the importance of family, it was a reminder of how much there is to live for outside of slitting throats.
When Arya chooses to give up on killing Cersei she is choosing not only to survive the battle for King’s Landing but, crucially, to live. What that life might look like is still unclear. In this fan’s ideal world, it involves a long and happy life with Gendry, Arya heading off on missions here and there to keep her hand in while he stays home, outfitting her in the world’s best weapons and raising their grubby children as he keeps the home fires burning.
I know, I know. But a girl can dream, right? I’m a romantic at heart and I just want to see at least some characters that I love have something resembling a happy ending after eight seasons of this cursed show. Maybe it’s more likely that, after the end of episode six, Arya will make her way in the world on her own.
By all accounts, Arya is 18 years old. She has a whole life ahead of her. If she can divorce herself from the vengeance she has sought for so long, maybe she’ll even get to live it.
Some are theorising that Melisandre’s prophecy that Arya will kill people with green eyes might be referring to Daenerys. On the show, Daenerys has the same green eyes as the actress who plays her. (In the books, Dany has purple eyes.) Maybe, if Melisandre’s word is to be believed, Arya will be the one to end Dany’s life next week.
Maybe. I’ve written before that I think we’ve all been investing far too much energy delving into prophecies when most of them have not come to pass on the show. Also, Arya has already killed someone with green eyes – Littlefinger. Melisandre’s words might have been only in reference to the Night King and nothing else.
What’s more, Arya deciding to abandon her kill list felt like a powerful, significant moment in episode five, one of the most powerful and significant moments of the season thus far. While Daenerys let her thirst for revenge drive her deeper and deeper into madness, Arya tugged on that little thread of hope from Sandor and pulled herself out from under the crushing weight of retribution.
Who knows, Arya might kill Daenerys next week. If this season of Game of Thrones has succeeded at anything it’s reminding us that anything – good, bad and very, very ugly – is possible. But somehow, I don’t think it will be Arya who does it.
This episode, Arya turned her back on vengeance and chose to live. And as the show hurtles headfirst towards what can only be its tragic finale next week, I think that choice will prove crucial.
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.