How great were the last eight minutes of this week’s Game of Thrones?
So great that it was impossible to suppress the desire to slow-clap after Arya Stark dropped the mic even harder than Daenerys Targaryen did following her Vaes Dothrak temple fire.
So great that I originally planned to give this episode four stars, but bumped it up to five on the strength of that lengthy Arya sequence, complete with its insane chase through Braavos, the Waif face-off, and the confirmation that Arya Stark has finally become what we always knew she could be: a mutha-effing Jedi.
So great that on a day of enormous tragedy, those final moments felt like just the kind of uplifting escapism that might give our hearts and minds some much-needed rest.
For much of that last scene, which mixes action, suspense, and straight-up horror, the Waif seems like the Terminator, or possibly Michael Myers from Halloween. She’s unkillable and unstoppable, consistently coming for Arya no matter how hard that little Stark runs or how many endless flights of stairs she falls down. But Arya, weakened as she is from stab wounds and Lady Crane’s lousy soup, manages to stay alive. She’s Jason Bourne. She’s Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable. She’s a walking Chumbawamba song — she gets knocked down, but she gets up again, because the Waif is never going to keep her down.
By having her wander through the fog of that steam room and then choose to battle the Waif in total darkness, Games of Thrones gives us the ultimate, satisfying payoff for Arya’s brief period without sight. Not only did her lack of vision serve as literal eye-for-an-eye punishment for blinding Meryn Trant, but also so when the time came to face the Waif, she would know how to take out her foe’s eyeballs without using her own.
When Jaqen H’ghar praises Arya and tells her that a girl has finally become no one, we already know her response before she says it. Of course, it still sends chills up the spine when she utters those words: “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I’m going home.” Arya has pretended to be someone other than herself for several seasons in TV time, and for years in Westerosi time. She’s been living a life in disguise. It’s enormously satisfying to watch her reclaim her identity with such fierceness, to borrow a word that Jaime Lannister uses in this episode to describe Arya’s mother, Catelyn.
In the opening moments of “No One,” Lady Crane says the following line during her performance as Cersei: “Fight no more, sweet child, your wars are won.” She’s speaking onstage to a dead King Joffrey, but given her role nursing Arya back to health, it feels like those words also apply to her. There’s something lovely about a Lannister, or at least a woman who impersonates one onstage, helping a Stark get back on her feet. It’s not the only example of that dynamic in this episode, either. By insisting that Brienne keep his sword and continue serving Sansa, Jaime is helping a Stark, too.
And yet, as nice as it is to think that all the “wars are won” for Arya, we know that’s not true — not for her or anyone else. In this episode, absolutely no one gives up anything without a fight. “I choose violence,” Cersei bluntly says, when confronted with the prospect of succumbing to the Faith Militant or letting the Mountain go medieval on a few asses. Her terse comment is practically a mission statement for everything that happens in “No One.”
Admittedly, it’s more than a little discomfiting to watch so much fictional bloodshed on the same day as the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The tragedy in Orlando gives this episode an upsetting resonance it might have lacked had it aired on any other night. When the Hound tells Beric Dondarrion and his fellow members of the Brotherhood Without Banners that “lots of horrible shit gets done in this world for something larger than ourselves,” the line contains multitudes. Especially when you consider how it echoes something Ray told the Hound in last week’s episode: “Violence is a disease. You don’t cure it by spreading it to more people.”
On Game of Thrones, as in the actual world, violence sure as hell hasn’t been cured. It definitely keeps spreading to more people. Despite the Hound’s cynicism about things larger than ourselves, he has no qualms knifing and hanging the men who murdered his fellow villagers. While Meereen is under attack, Daenerys shows up just in time to protect her people from again being enslaved. Cersei, now ordered to trial by her own son — without the benefit of a trial by combat — also appears to be gearing up for battle. We don’t know much about the mysterious intel she gets from Qyburn confirming certain “rumors,” but it might have something to do with wildfire. And as the sneak peek at next week’s episode notes, the showdown between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton is still coming. That impending battle, a.k.a. the Battle of the Bastards, will undoubtedly involve horrible shit done for the sake of something larger.
So many of these conflicts share common elements. The battle for Meereen has been set in motion by a Lannister who, as Varys puts it, invited extremists to the door. Those words also apply to what Cersei did with the Faith Militant. Both the Faith Militant and the Brotherhood, who appear to be heading north, are motivated by higher powers to punish others. And Sansa’s insistence on reclaiming Winterfell is a desire that, unbeknownst to her, she shares with her Westeros-bound sister.
To further emphasize the degree to which the show is currently mired in conflict, every hint at love or harmony in “No One” is either undermined or cut short. When those villagers crudely joke about the proper approach to kissing a woman, they’re immediately ambushed by the Hound. When Bronn repeatedly asks Podrick whether he thinks Brienne and Jaime are having sex — a nice hat tip to all the Brienne-Jaime shippers out there — their conversation eventually segues into a lesson about fighting. (“Lesson No. 1,” Bronn says. “Assume everyone wants to hit you.” That’s good advice to be giving in this episode.) When Tyrion finally gets Missandei and Grey Worm to loosen up, they’re quickly interrupted by the ominous arrival of the masters’ ships, proving that Tyrion will never be able to finish any sentence that begins with “I once walked into a brothel with a honeycomb and a jackass.”
On Game of Thrones, it would seem that love doesn’t win because violence gets in its way. Or maybe not. Just before he seizes Riverrun, Jaime explains to Edmure Tully that he is driven to do everything, including all those acts of violence, because he loves his sister. It’s a speech that would practically sound noble if it weren’t for, you know, the incest. (Also: Is this entirely true? Cersei wouldn’t have approved of the bargain he strikes with Brienne, but he strikes it anyway. Perhaps he’s also motivated by his respect for Brienne. And, yeah, maybe even his love for her.)
Jaime also speaks of his deep admiration for both Cersei and Catelyn, characterizing them as women who are willing to “do anything to protect their babies.” Again, the Starks and the Lannisters — the houses that have been central to this story since the very beginning — are intertwined. All season long, Game of Thrones has been circling back to where it started.
Before Arya declares her intentions to go home to Winterfell, she tells Lady Crane she wants to travel to whatever is “west of Westeros.” Assuming the show’s world is as round as the one we live in, continuing to travel west would eventually just bring Arya back to where she started, too. That’s precisely where she, Sansa, Jon Snow, and Game of Thrones are headed. The Starks are hurtling toward Winterfell, where a war looks poised to break out in full force.