CAUTION: This post contains SPOILERS for Game of Thrones Season 7
“I have a hole where my heart should be, she thought, and nowhere else to go.”
– Arya Stark, A Feast for Crows
Arya Stark was once named by George R.R. Martin as one of five key characters originally intended to survive to the end of A Song of Ice and Fire. Considered alone, that doesn’t mean much. The series was once meant to be a trilogy, according to Martin’s original outline. Sansa was set to have Joffrey’s child. Arya herself was to be the center of a love triangle between Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. Things have changed since Martin started writing the books, and it’s possible that this information no longer holds true.
However, the show has now pulled ahead of Martin’s novels. The four other characters who were supposed to live to the end—Bran, Jon, Tyrion, and Daenerys—have become crucial to the overarching story. In fact, all of them are currently more important to the plot than Arya, who’s on a very personal revenge mission. But there’s still time, and Arya, as one of Martin’s original key players, will likely have a bigger role to play than that of the lone assassin.
Recent photographs taken on the set of Season 7 show actress Maisie Williams wearing a new costume reminiscent of the clothes Eddard Stark used to wear. The general consensus is that Arya will return to Winterfell at some point next year. Mine is that she will give up on her desire for vengeance to do so, and that vengeance itself is a pit stop on the road to a higher purpose.
The Stark Identity
There’s a lot more to Arya Stark than tomboyish tendencies, a big mouth, and excellent kill-stats. When pondering her future plans, it’s vital to note that revenge was not always her priority. Her decisions are usually informed by emotion, but she also holds high ideals of justice and truth, as the Starks generally do. As Arya has grown, her ideals and identity have been damaged by trauma, but she has demonstrated a strong moral center even in more recent times. The girl who left Winterfell is not the same girl who killed Walder Frey, but she is not entirely lost, either.
Throughout the series, Arya has demonstrated a lack of tolerance for liars. She frequently calls others out for dishonesty and hypocrisy without fear. Sansa, Joffrey, Beric Dondarrion, Melisandre, and the Hound have all borne the brunt of Arya’s outrage after falling short of her standards. In Joffrey’s case, Arya angrily abused him in front of his parents even though the consequences of insulting a royal are generally grave. (“The Kingsroad.”) This indicates that Arya possesses a reckless kind of bravery, but also proves how much she values honesty, a Stark ideal. Even though she can lie to protect herself, her general inclination is to be upfront. Falseness, in short, does not suit her.
Arya is also a compassionate person. We see this best in Season 2, when Jaqen H’ghar offered to kill any three people she named. Arya could have sought vengeance against any number of parties, but her first action was to save the captives of Harrenhal from further torture at the hands of the Tickler. Her instinct is generally to protect innocent victims or avenge them if she fails. As we see with characters like Mycah and Lommy, that urge to protect carries on long after the victim is gone.
Finally, Arya is a character who loves her family. Finding them was once her top priority, so much so that she turned down Jaqen H’ghar’s original offer to join him in Braavos. (“Valar Morghulis.”) She is often moved by a desire to protect her loved ones, as seen when she rushed to protect her father at his execution with little concern for her own safety, and tried to do the same for her mother and brother at the Red Wedding. Even when she was furious with Sansa for failing to tell the truth about Joffrey, she still defended her when Cersei ordered the execution of Lady. This protectiveness also extends to characters like Gendry, whom Arya adopted as a surrogate brother. Her desire for family is so strong that she looks for it in people she meets on her travels. These are not the actions of a heartless person.
Both the books and the show explore the theme of identity. They have plenty of opportunity when it comes to Arya, a character who goes by many names. “Your name is?” Robert Baratheon asks upon meeting her for the first time. (“Winter is Coming.”) This question, posed only to her, set her season-to-season arc in motion. Six seasons in, and Arya’s identity as a Stark is still the driving force behind her decisions.
The events of the Red Wedding sent Arya into a downward spiral of blood-soaked retribution. Sandor Clegane, her captor at the time, oversaw this transition, and acted as both a negative and positive influence.
Assuming the role of a (somewhat inept) father, the Hound introduced Arya to a more brutal world. He actively encouraged her to enjoy killing, often imparting his own brand of pessimistic wisdom during violent situations. This back-and-forth evolved into a strong familial bond, with Arya taking advice from him and even tending to a wound on his neck. On Sandor’s part, he continued to protect her even after he stood no chance of selling her to a relative.
Arya: “I don’t need saving.”
The Hound: “No, not you. You’re a real killer, with your water dancing, and your Needle.”
The Hound says this to Arya after Brienne badly wounds him in their fight. There’s a striking amount of affection in there. He was, after all, dying of wounds sustained during a fight for her safety. Offered the chance to finally finish him off, Arya left him to succumb to his injuries.
Arya’s decision at this point speaks to her true nature. The Hound had killed her friend Mycah, and logic dictated that she would avenge him. She decided against it because the bond she and the Hound had formed meant more to her than his place on her list. And yet, in her mind, leaving him there to die fulfilled her obligation to Mycah while staying true to her own code. Family—even surrogate family—took precedence over vengeance.
After saying goodbye to Jaqen in the finale of Season 2, it took Arya another two seasons—and two more dead relatives—before she hopped on a ship to Braavos. The implications of her leaving Westeros were clear—she was giving up hope of finding her siblings and making revenge her primary focus. Where before, her desire to go home had driven her, the lust for vengeance brought her to the House of Black and White. Honesty and protectiveness had given way to the desire to cause pain.
By that point, all Arya cared about was her list, and what she could do to improve her chances of completing it. In short, she had forgotten what was truly important. Considering this, it’s no surprise that Jaqen ordered her to discard her identity upon arrival.
The correlation between abandoning both family and identity is difficult to ignore. Although she didn’t forget herself completely—Needle isn’t sitting at the bottom of the bay, after all—focusing solely on revenge meant living in opposition to the Stark way of life. The mutilation of Meryn Trant is an example of this. The man who passes the sentence must swing the sword, but the brutality of his murder went beyond a simple act of justice.
Objectively, blindness seems like a trade-in for the mutilation of Trant’s eyes, but it represents something deeper. Arya had literally lost sight of who she was. The physical handicap Jaqen inflicted upon her was a poetic reflection of the fact.
The Importance of Lady Crane
Lady Crane: “Do you like pretending to be other people?”
Arya: “I have to go, my father’s waiting for me.”
Arya despises liars and hypocrites as fervently as she hates those who harm the innocent. Had she followed through on Jaqen’s order to assassinate Lady Crane, she would have become all three. Ignoring her most dearly held principles would have severed all remaining ties to the Stark ethos of justice and fair play. No task could have proved more difficult.
It makes sense that Jaqen ordered her to do it. At that point, the most Arya had done to become No One was divest herself of material possessions. The actual process is more complicated, and involves a complete shutdown of personality, morals, and emotions. Such an act would have brought Arya closer to actually becoming No One than anything else she had accomplished in Braavos. Faced with such a prospect, Arya chose to do what Arya Stark does as a rule. She chose to expose the scheming Bianca, protecting Lady Crane and throwing herself in the line of fire.
True, when she went against Jaqen’s orders, Arya was aware that she had a particular skill that she could use against the Waif, the woman Jaqen sent to assassinate her. But she had no way of knowing that she would succeed in the fight for her life. The decision she made was brave, worthy of admiration and worthy of the name of Stark. To those who believe that Arya is nothing more than a heartless killer, consider that she could not harm an innocent woman. Consider that she was prepared to face death in order to do the right thing.
The Frey Pie Problem
Upon returning to Westeros, Arya murdered Walder Frey, but not before killing two of his sons and taking Hot Pie’s musings on a full-bodied gravy far too literally.
Killing a man and baking him into a pie is pretty disgusting, and it’s worrying that Arya would do it. However, we recall the story of the Rat Cook, recounted by Bran in the final episode of season three. The Rat Cook was a member of the Night’s Watch who killed the son of a visiting king. He then served the prince to his father in a pie. As both were guests beneath his roof, he acted in defiance of the ancient law of guest right. This breach of hospitality angered the gods more than the murder itself. They cursed the cook, turning him into a giant rat who was only able to eat his young. In Westeros, violating guest right—as Walder had done at the Red Wedding—is unforgivable.
Like Bran, Arya would have heard the story of the Rat Cook as a child. Walder Frey’s last meal was undoubtedly inspired by it. His death, therefore, appears to be an act of justice. Arya is not only punishing him for killing her mother and brother, but for violating a rite held sacred by her family, and her family’s gods.
Walder Frey originally set Arya on her murderous path by orchestrating the Red Wedding. He took two relatives from her, so she took two from him, before swiftly ending his life. By killing him, Arya could simply be bringing a circular plot to its natural end, ending the man who started it, and moving on to bigger and better things.
North over South
Arya has been bearing the cross of bereavement from a young age, but rarely allows herself to grieve. Compare her behavior to her sister’s. Sansa has wept and mourned, which has been mistaken for weakness, but she demonstrates tremendous mental strength, remaining unbroken by her suffering. Arya’s tactic is to channel pain into violence. This has left her emotionally stunted and able to embark on a stomach-churning murder sprees with alarming serenity. If she continued south and eventually crossed every name off her list, what then? Thirteen episodes doesn’t seem enough for her to complete this goal and magically find another calling. With no purpose left and the realization that revenge has not lessened her grief, there would be nothing for her to do but contend with her pain. In terms of the narrative, it would be a weak ending for a strong character.
The answer, for Arya, lies in Winterfell. The loss of her family is what drove her to the darkness, so uniting with them will push her back towards the light. As for her purpose, what better way to leave death behind than to fight for the living? Winter may have brought us a Stark resurgence, but it also brings the White Walkers. Arya left Braavos with advanced skills in swordplay and hand-to-hand combat, as well as the unique ability to fight blind. Those skills may be more befitting an assassin than a soldier, but they can certainly be utilized.
Despite her darkness, Arya remains a character who fights for the innocent. The chance to partake in the wars to come, to protect and be the hero, is one that she would relish. The Starks stand for justice above all else, and her identity is that of a Stark of Winterfell, first and foremost. She told us so herself.