Once upon a time, a girl sat on the steps in the Tower of the Hand. By her side was Lord Eddard Stark, current Hand of the King and the proud if somewhat befuddled father to Arya Stark. His child was at this point taking every lesson of her “dancing instructor”—her sword master—to heart and repeating verbatim that swordsmen should study cats, because “they’re quiet as shadows and as light as feathers.” For Ned Stark, it is heartwarming to see Arya so happy, yet he is vaguely troubled that she views this sword fighting as more than a simple indulgence. When talk of the future comes up, he tells his daughter, “You will marry a highlord and rule his castle, and your sons will be knights and princes, and lords.”
Arya is unequivocal in her reply. “No, that’s not me.” From that moment on, even if it was not completely obvious to Lord Eddard or the millions of readers and viewers who were embarking on a long journey with Arya Stark, the child’s destiny would take her far away from the expected roles of highborn ladies in feudal settings. And on Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, “The Long Night,” that destiny took a surprising yet, in retrospect, fitting turn.
The girl who did not want to rule a castle was now the woman who would save one—Ned’s to be exact. Below Winterfell, Ned Stark himself might’ve been crawling out of the grave due to the forces of supernatural darkness ushered in by the Night King, but Arya was the one to put an end to it when she proved to be as quiet as a shadow and light as a feather by getting the drop on the Night King and revealing another Syrio Forel lesson to the icy blue demon: watching is not seeing, and while he watched her come at him with a Valyrian dagger in her left hand, he did not see she really planned to kill him with it via the right.
It’s a journey that’s been eight seasons in the making, yet there are those online complaining that Arya Stark is a “Mary Sue” and did not deserve the “right” to kill the Night King. Such are the times we live in that fandom’s, particularly male fandom’s, sense of entitlement becomes overbearing. Arya, the woman who was once a girl that eschewed the traditional path laid out for her by even the most benevolent aspects of the patriarchy, proved an iconoclast who could change the direction of history—and it’s still not enough.
Disappointment with finales is nothing new. It is likely impossible to satisfy anyone with an ending years in the making, decades for those who read A Game of Thrones when it was first published in 1996, and when it comes to properties and stories that cultivate devoted, intense fandoms, it might be a fool’s errand. I’ve written before about how fans generally loathe any sort of ending, because it will never satisfy the climax in their heads, and then it also has the audacity to end.. with, like, zero room for speculation about what comes next. So the growing backlash to the final season of Game of Thrones is hardly a surprise. I suspect it will only rise over the next three weeks too. What is a shock, however, is that so many would dismiss Arya’s beautifully complex arc which elegantly built to this moment as fan service, political “virtue signaling,” or worst of all, the use of the “Mary Sue” archetype.
The term “Mary Sue” itself has reached the point of being meaningless. Originally an academic term used by literary scholars, a Mary Sue was meant to describe female characters devoid of much personality, background, or discernable flaws so that the target demographic—likely women—could place themselves in the protagonist’s rose-tinted shoes and live vicariously through her adventures. This of course exists in popular fiction (personally, I would argue Bella Swan is the academic definition of a Mary Sue), but it has been coopted and diluted by politically triggered groups of fandom predisposed to dislike the focus shifting to any major female characters. This most visibly occurred when male fanboys were horrified that Daisy Ridley’s Rey was now the main character of the Star Wars franchise instead of white male characters like Luke Skywalker or Anakin Skywalker. But a larger political subculture that tends to dismiss the achievement of any women, even fictional ones, has latched onto the term as a blanket critique of any female character who is little more than a damsel in distress. These are likely the same online circles that attempted to discredit Katie Bouman’s work on photographing a black hole by suggesting it was actually the main achievement of a man.
Which brings us back to Arya Stark. Like each of the Stark children to survive this far into the Game of Thrones narrative, Arya Stark has endured a dramatic and emotionally rich character transformation by getting exactly what she wanted in the most nihilistic terms. Like a monkey’s paw bedtime story, each of the Starks received a variation on the life they wanted and then lived to regret it. Jon Snow wanted to go on amazing adventures beyond the Wall as a chivalrous member of the Night’s Watch, only to find most of his brothers to be illiterate criminals who hated his privilege, even as a bastard, and the wildlings he went to skewer could be reasonable and even lovable. He also finally became an accepted member of the Stark family after his perceived father and brother were murdered and his sisters abused and scattered to the wind. Sansa Stark wanted to meet a prince and live as a queen in a palace; she got to live at the height of royalty in the Red Keep as a hostage for Prince and then King Joffrey… who tortured and harassed her.
Arya wanted to go on an adventure and live like a man, making her own way in the world. She most certainly has, but not before being forced to beg on the streets of King’s Landing when her father was executed in front of her, and then as a boy hidden first by Yoren and then the Brotherhood Without Banners and the Hound. It was a grim adventure filled with death (including Yoren, the most altruistic of these saviors), all while she discovered her mother and brother were slaughtered when she was mere yards from them. These days, she doesn’t need a protector/hostage-taker like the Hound to make her way in the world, but that is because she received sadistic training/brainwashing by the assassins at the House of Black and White.
Arya is a peerless assassin, but if you think that makes her a flawless Mary Sue, you must’ve missed the heavy price that came with it, as seen in season 7 when she first reunites with Hot Pie. Forget the siblings she hadn’t seen since season 1, as it was alongside Hot Pie, Gendry, and Lommy that she was most in her element, dressed as a boy and going on what should’ve been Dickensian adventures across the riverlands. But as the riverlands burned, Lommy was murdered and Gendry nearly tortured to death by the Mountain. Still, Arya kept her relative innocence by the time Hot Pie and Gendry abandoned her and went their own ways. But upon reuniting with the former in season 7, she was a hollow shell of the girl she was, unable to make a discernible connection to one of her last friends beyond a pitch black joke about baking her own pies nowadays. The trauma that she earned alongside her skills left deep scars that crippled her to the point of considering her sister a possible enemy.
Arya has regained some of her humanity in recent episodes, not least of all by finding peace and even kinship with Sansa, the older sister she once loathed, but she is still a product of the hard lessons she learned. Lessons such as Syrio Forel telling her, all the way again back to that first season, “Remember child, this is not the dance of the Westeros we are learning, the knight’s dance of hacking and hammering. This is the Braavos dance, the water dance. It is swift and subtle.”
So it is that Arya became a product not of Westeros—like the Night King and his desire to destroy this world—but one of Braavos. It was Syrio who taught her to fight like a cat, and it was the elite Braavosi order of Faceless Men who gave her an assassin’s acuity and silence. This direction was unsurprising given how damaged Arya was becoming even in the second season where she met Jaqen H’ghar. Then, while acting as Tywin Lannister’s cupbearer, she rather coldly told the Warden of the West, “Anyone can be killed.” She was likely thinking of seeing her beloved father, tired and defeated, being bent on Baelor’s steps and beheaded, but she was also obviously threatening Tywin Lannister himself. If anyone can die, then she would train herself to kill those who wronged her.
The prayer that was born out of this mindset, a prayer to the God of Death, evolved and changed, but the message remained the same: she would list the names of all those who wronged her or her house, the Starks’ enemies, and pray for their deaths to come. After the Red Wedding, she hollowed further, taking life freely and uncaringly by the Hound’s side. It was around this time she met Melisandre who looked into Arya’s deadening stare and foresaw hardly anything meant to be flawlessly just. “I see a darkness in you, and in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes, blue eyes, and green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever.”
Arya wanted adventure more than living in a castle, but the adventure she went on was so harrowing, it both ruined her life and prepared her to save her family’s castle by shutting a pair of blue eyes forever. It is curious if Game of Thrones showrunners knew as early as season 3 that Arya would kill the Night King—a character of their own creation who had not yet even been introduced in 2013—but it seems highly plausible, not least of all because they introduced the Night King and his very blue eyes shortly afterward in season 4. She was able to approach the Night King, the bane of man created by the Children of the Forest to ruin Westeros for the First Men, because she learned to fight unlike the Westerosi. She was as graceful as a cat, and as fluid as water as she approached from above—not head-on like Theon Greyjoy or Jon Snow. Rather she descended from the branches of the weirwood, pouncing like a cat atop her prey.
As Syrio would teach, Arya changed sword hands and made good on another of his musings: “All men are made of water. If you pierce them, the water leaks out and they die.” What is ice but so much frozen water? Arya pierced it, it leaked out, and the Night King died. As she promised Tywin Lannister so many years ago, anyone can be killed, and the Night King’s icy baby blues were shut forever. And she did so while using the same dagger that Littlefinger engineered to hasten the War of the Five Kings by sending it to murder Bran Stark and then blaming it on the Lannisters. Now it was used to end the Great War.
There are of course those who wanted Jon Snow to be the one to kill the Night King. There are also those that believed he was the prince who was promised, or Azor Ahai reincarnated. But these are just prophecies, and time and again Game of Thrones has reminded us words are wind. Stannis Baratheon also believed himself to be Azor Ahai, and look how destiny turned out for him. Arya found a way to make her own destiny, and in doing so she rewrote how the game is supposed to be played. Game of Thrones always goes for subversion, and the noble hero of light vanquishing the champion of darkness, perhaps with Jon Snow even wielding a flaming sword, is the storybook ending that would’ve left Arya as the wife of a highlord. This isn’t that storybook, however, and Arya would not play the role expected of her. She has always shattered convention, hence her shattering the Night King is kind of perfect.