From Jaime knighting Brienne to Tyrion pouring Podrick a full goblet of wine, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was an episode filled with characters acting on traits and motivations that had been constructed over seasons and years. This was less true for the big scene between Arya and Gendry, which felt more motivated by presumed expectations than well-plotted romance or finely-tuned character development.
While Arya and Gendry may have been reunited in last week’s season 8 premiere, tonight was the night when they had a chance to really, um, connect. As Winterfell waits for the White Walkers to attack, the members of the living army spends their final pre-hours battle in various ways. Sansa grabs a snack with Theon in Winterfell’s hip outdoor market. Podrick leads a motley crew of characters in his favorite Florence and the Machine song. And Arya has sex with Gendry.
As nice as it was to see Arya, a young female character (Maisie Williams is 22 in real life, and Arya is 18, if you haven’t already Googled it) taking ownership over her own sexuality and specifically asking for what she wanted—and it was nice, especially for a show that hasn’t always been so respectful of women’s bodies—it was a major twist for a character who has never shown much interest in exploring the romantic and/or sexual aspects of her identity, and one that the show didn’t put much effort into contextualizing for us.
Here, Arya’s interest in exploring her sexual identity is explained with one line from Arya that she wants to know what sex feels like in case she dies. Given Arya’s comment, the plot development was seemingly driven more by the Must Not Die A Virgin trope than any well-articulated character motivation.
Tropes aren’t inherently good or bad. They are, by definition, overrepresented, but that doesn’t mean a story beat can’t fulfill one and also be good writing. Arya sleeping with Gendry was not one of those satisfyingly-fulfilled tropes; it was undermotivated in an episode that was, otherwise, filled with characters actively accomplishing things we’ve known they’ve wanted for a very long time—the best example being Brienne’s acquisition of “knight” status, but also included Theon returning to Winterfell to fight for the Starks, Bran confronting Jaime, and Ser Jorah getting further back into Dany’s good graces.
Even growing up, before things got traumatic, it was Sansa who always imagined herself marrying a handsome prince; Arya just wanted the chance to fight like the handsome prince. While we do see Arya growing closer to Gendry in Season 3 before they part, even going so far as to call him family, it never turns explicitly romantic or sexual.
This doesn’t mean that Arya’s sexual and/or romantic identities aren’t something she hasn’t been or couldn’t be interested in exploring as a character; it’s just not a character desire that Game of Thrones has ever put much narrative time or energy into depicting in Arya, instead falling back on status quo-driven expectations concerning those parts of Arya’s identity.
“This [kind of relationship] is something she’s stayed away from, an emotion we’ve never really seen her engage with,” Maisie Williams told EW of the development, adding showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ interpretation as communicated to her: “[They] were like, ‘It’s the end of the world, what else would you have her do?’”
Other activities Arya could have spent her potentially final hours doing that make sense given the context of her character and motivations so far include: hanging out with any of the siblings she, until recently, hadn’t seen in years; spending time in the crypt, a la Jon, contemplating the role her family has played in her journey so far; sharpening her weapons; straight-up sleeping in preparation for the battle.
Of course, we’re forgetting another important factor in this scenario: the Gendry of it all. While we don’t know Gendry very well—given that he hasn’t been around since Season 3 and, even then, was a supporting character—we do know that his first “sexual” experience (it was not sexual, but was presented as such by the show) was when he was being used for his blood by Melisandre.
Arya brings up Melisandre here, and Gendry is asked to recount the traumatic experience—not something that seems like it would put Gendry in the mood. However, like so many stories before it, it assumes that the man is game, no matter the circumstances, therefore there is no need to articulate why he might want to consent to sex.
I really hope that Gendry has worked through the trauma of being sold by the Brotherhood Without Banners and creepily seduced for his blood by Melisandre, but I’m not going to call his being male as well-written character motivation for his sleeping with Arya.
It’s not that I can’t imagine these two characters wanting to sleep together, or even that I don’t ship it. It’s that Game of Thrones didn’t even put the bare minimum into motivating the action. Frankly, in a worse episode, this development might not have stood out so much. But, in a Game of Thrones installment that so beautifully built on what we’ve seen from its characters and their dynamics over the past seven seasons, the Arya and Gendry dynamic deserved more.