Please note, it’s possible to enjoy the show and still be critical of it. It’s also possible to point out why something works in the books not out of a desire to have everything be exactly like the books, but to provide a contrast for where the adaptation might have failed. Adaptation is hard, but that doesn’t mean we can’t critique it. Besides, D&D are rich as fuck, so chill.
If Santa Claus could kill
Whether you still like her or not, it’s hard to argue that the popularity of Arya Stark has not taken a hit in season 7, at least within the core fandom. In a strange way, this shift in her character can largely be blamed on the show’s (understandable) exclusion of Lady Stoneheart, and their simultaneous attempt to give Arya the role that the books give to her undead mother
Arya was about my favorite character for the first 4 seasons of the show, yet as soon as she went to Braavos, my enjoyment of her story and my appreciation for her character began to dissolve. Yes, part of it could be the isolation of her character and the formulaic nature of her “assassin training” story arc, but if this were the case, she should have gotten better this season. Yet she actually gets much worse when she returns to Westeros and realizes the vengeance she desired.
I’d argue that the reason Arya was popular and enjoyable in the first place was never about how strong she was, or how good an assassin we expected her to become, but rather how the audience could identify with her feelings. She was the point of view for the death of Ned Stark (even on the show, so much of that scene was about Arya watching her father’s demise unfold). Later, her hopes of reunion are dashed at the Red Wedding (again, a big chunk of the tension of the Red Wedding is knowing Arya was minutes away from reuniting with her family). Arya is essentially placed at the center of two of the story’s biggest tragedies, and so we too felt her desire to exact vengeance upon the people who destroyed her family.
When Arya prayed for the chance to kill her enemies every night, the audience prayed with her. We wanted to see someone take down Walder Frey, King Joffrey, the Mountain, and Queen Cersei. We too wanted that revenge, and like Arya, we were ultimately powerless to do anything to affect it. The story is out of our hands too. Even when Arya is fortunate enough to knock off a few low level names off the list, the big names are still an impossibility. Arya’s prayer to the god of death functioned like a child’s wish list to the Santa Claus, and there was something really charming about that. Not because we expected she would actually complete the list, but because we felt her anger.
In a world without Zombie godmothers
There is a reason why the books have Catelyn reanimated into the walking terror that is Lady Stoneheart. It’s fitting that shortly after witnessing the climax of the Red Wedding, Arya has a wolf dream in which she (warged into Nymeria) pulls her mother’s corpse from the water and wishes for her to rise and hunt with the pack. And that’s basically what happens. Arya is an integral part of Catelyn’s resurrection as Lady Stoneheart, and when Beric passes his life over to her, Lady Stoneheart serves as the undead fairy godmother in Arya’s fairy tale of vengeance. While Nymeria and Needle are externalization’s of Arya’s soul and identity, Lady Stoneheart is as much an externalization of Arya’s desire for vengeance as she is a revenant of Catelyn.
The point of Lady Stoneheart is to show us how terrifying and indiscriminate vengeance can become, and hence her presence will be thematically integral to The Winds of Winter. That’s why we don’t get Lady Stoneheart’s point of view like we did Catelyn’s. She isn’t meant to be likable, or relatable, or heroic. Stoneheart is meant to be a monster, that grants Arya’s and the reader’s wishes, but makes us question whether we should have ever wished them in the first place. Despite the wickedness of the Red Wedding, and how righteous it is in theory to bring those responsible to justice the world is messy and vengeance is a nightmare in practice. Lady Stoneheart turns the Brotherhood Without Banners, which under Beric Dondarrion had been a rag tag team of knights, bandits, and kingsmen who served the good of the common folk, into an insurgency for Stark and Tully vengeance and restoration. Lady Stoneheart is an exploration of the collateral cost of vengeance upon the innocent.
Upon her return to Westeros, show Arya essentially becomes a less believable Lady Stoneheart without the core concept. Arya becomes a seemingly unstoppable force of vengeance that is able to sneak into the Twins, murder Walder Frey’s sons, bake them into pies, feed them to Walder Frey, kill Walder Frey, take his face, and then kill every single Frey guilty of the Red Wedding while sparring the innocent bystanders. What’s more she does this all by herself. Even the Lord of White Harbor couldn’t do that. Even Lady Stoneheart, the fairy godmother of death can’t pull that off. In the books Frey Pies was a fucking project. And though we can expect a counter Red Wedding, it too will be a team effort.
What’s worse, the showrunners artlessly throw in the line about how Arya only killed the Freys who were specifically involved in the Red Wedding, and none that weren’t involved, making it so that while Arya is actually more capable of exacting vengeance than LSH, she comes without the drawback of being devoid of mercy.
Like Lady Stoneheart, we don’t really get Arya’s point of view when she kills the guilty Freys. In trying to pull out a big “ta-da” moment for the downfall of old Walder, the showrunners actually end up giving us these scenes from the point of view of the Freys themselves. We don’t watch Arya plan, or sneak, or struggle to accomplish her goals, we have the death of the Freys sprung on us. It becomes about spectacle. It’s meant to be triumphant not terrible. By not showing us Arya’s struggle, the struggle ceases to matter. Like Stoneheart, Arya becomes a force of vengeance that is beyond the audience, and in being beyond the audience we can no longer relate to her in the same way we once did.
Hence why there are limits to the show’s consolidation of characters and plotlines.
Why you can’t make Aladdin into a Genie
While many argue that Arya has simply become like Jaqen, I’d argue that is neither fully true nor the point of Arya, nor a good idea. Arya was never supposed to be Jaqen. The whole point of Arya leaving the Faceless Men is that she keeps her identity, but also never becomes the grim reaper incarnate. It’s a trade off. That’s not to say it doesn’t make sense that Arya gained some skills, and learned a thing or two about being stealthy and manipulative, and even how to fight. But at least Braavos, Arya had to run away from the Waif and trick her into a fight where Arya would have the advantage. Unlike Jaqen, we still see Arya struggle.
The reason Jaqen was such a good presence in season 2 is because he was Arya’s mysterious kill genie. The audience was in the same position as Arya with respect to Jaqen. We don’t know how he does what he does, nor what goes through his mind. We only know that Jaqen is death, and death is a stranger. Even without the point of view structure of the books, the show cannot make Arya’s presence resemble Jaqen’s without committing to making her an enigma to the audience. Except the reason the audience became so attached to Arya in the first place wasn’t because she was the kill genie, but rather because she was Aladdin.
All of this leads up to Arya’s return to Winterfell in season 7, and her role in the shoddy Winterfell plot. The problems with the Winterfell plot could be a whole other essay. But in short, Littlefinger is in completely over his head with the super powered Starks, he is a political villain in a post politics story, Bran could seemingly end the conflict upon arrival, it all leads up to a cheap audience fake out without ever making clear at what point the Stark siblings began working together, we aren’t sure if Arya’s psychopathy is an act or a genuine display of murderous intent, it’s unclear what purpose it actually served if it had been an act, and Littlefinger is executed without evidence on a series of improvable accusations (yes they’re true, but the lack of evidence makes it borderline barbaric).
Yet despite all of the bad writing of the Winterfell plot, my empathy towards Sansa as a character is not suspended. Only of Arya. Even though Arya was perhaps my favorite character for four seasons of the show, while Sansa had been nowhere close to that, Sansa still feels believable, and I still feel that I’m watching her struggle and learn and grow as a person. It’s hard for me to say the same about Arya given what came before. It’s not clear whether Arya is still a point of view character like Sansa, Tyrion, Jon, Sam or Daenerys, or has she become an enigma like Bran? And though I’m hoping that the existential terror season 8 promises brings Arya back to being a character who’s struggle we can witness and relate to, the showrunners must choose.
Are we done watching Arya struggle? Has Arya become our kill genie, or is she still our Aladdin?