The first time we saw Arya Stark, she was a tomboy begging to fight in the Winterfell courtyard, disgusted by her sister’s princess fantasies. Back then, she was a sulky, rambunctious little thing whose greatest delight was the gift of a pint-sized sword to call her own. When we first see Arya in the cold open of the Game of Thrones season-seven premiere, she has just slit Walder Frey’s throat, baked a few of his sons into a pie, and poisoned every man in House Frey in one fell swoop. Talk about a teen gone wild.
In seven seasons, Arya has fully progressed from a scared but fierce little fighter, donning disguises to avoid capture by her family’s enemies, into a malicious murderer who dons disguises to slaughter her enemies. Throughout this transformation, GOT fans have unabashedly cheered for Arya to finish her Kill List, the one she’s recited so many times as she drifted off to sleep, like some sort of deranged sheep-counting exercise: “Joffrey, Cersei, Walder Frey, Meryn Trant …” That thirst for revenge was certainly on display in Sunday’s premiere, with her savagery earning ample praise on Twitter — and the suggestion that it helped make the episode the “most feminist ever.” As a young woman whom we’ve seen grow from childhood, it’s tempting to see Arya’s path as empowering. But what do we make of a character whose “enlightenment” comes in the form of brutal violence? And why is it still so easy to root for her?
Perhaps it’s a matter of character development. On almost any other show, Arya’s growth from pipsqueak to water dancer to girl-in-disguise to cupbearer to Hound-in-training to Faceless Woman might have been an ode to femtastic badassery, but in Game of Thrones, she’s given room to wander and evolve as an anti-hero. Now, with the show drawing closer to its end, the question of who Arya has become — and who she will become — takes on an especially charged meaning when you consider the plight of Westerosi women. The women of Westeros have been oppressed, degraded, spat on, assaulted, and raped for six seasons. Is it any wonder our hearts stir when one of them finally triumphs?
Yet Arya is the only major female character who has slid down the spectrum of good toward evil, but whom we still think of as champion and not a villain. Brienne of Tarth also doesn’t hesitate to kill, but she does so for honor and loyalty, the way any male knight would. Sansa’s evolution from corseted plaything to fierce defender of the North has tracked with her growth as a legitimate and savvy leader; she understands her enemies and reacts accordingly. Daenerys’s brutal conquest tactics made her the General Sherman of Slaver’s Bay, but those crucifixions and slaughters served a utilitarian purpose, and her agenda seeks good.
Compare all of their violent acts to Arya’s. Her first murder was committed in self-defense, the accidental stabbing of a stable boy in the midst of her escape from King’s Landing. The second and third were both unnamed soldiers. But in season four, when she delicately slid Needle though Polliver’s throat and repeated back to him the words he’d used to taunt a small towheaded boy that he killed, she morphed from traumatized child soldier to vengeance machine. A psycho pixie bent on elaborate, gleeful revenge.
Ever since, she’s maintained a steady drumbeat of vengeful violence. After tunneling her way into the Hound’s blackened heart, retribution won out over conscience and she left him for dead. Apprenticing herself to the House of Black and White in Braavos, she fought to leave behind any trace of Arya Stark, but the call of murderous satisfaction was too strong: When she caught sight of Meryn Trant — the Kingsguard knight who slayed her beloved sword-fighting teacher Syrio Forel — she abandoned murder for hire and returned to murder for personal satisfaction.
It was this moment, in season five, that raised the question of if and how Arya used her youth and gender to bait and kill her enemies. As Trant demanded younger and younger prostitutes in a Braavosi brothel, finally demanding that prepubescent girls service him, Arya slipped in wearing the disguise of an even younger girl than herself, waiting to lay waste to Trant in one of the show’s most bloodthirsty scenes. Stabbing him in the eyes and the gut, and then finally slitting his throat, she made sure Trant knew that one of those girls he’d considered so expendable was responsible for his death. Her tactic with Walder Frey was similar: She wore the mask of a pretty young girl waiting at table, luring in another bawdy old man with To Catch a Predator tendencies. Just as Jaqen H’ghar always referred to Arya as “a girl” and never as “a woman,” we too have thought of her that way for years. That identity, coupled with her ability to use men’s misogyny against them, to outthink and outmaneuver men twice her size and three times her age, made Arya a feminist fantasy come to life. We love to support the underdog, and who is more of a dark horse than a hunted runaway orphan scraping by in a feudal society?
Thanks to GOT’s rather confusing relationship with time, it isn’t clear exactly how old Arya is at the start of season seven, but it seems safe to assume she is a young teenager. In the books she is “almost 11” when she lands at Braavos, and at least a couple years must go by as she trains with Jaqen and assumes her new Dickinsonian identity as “No One.” Meanwhile, the show has carefully pushed her toward that hazy adolescent space between childhood and adulthood. It’s a crucial distinction: Arya’s identity as a young woman tempts viewers into creating a different set of expectations for her than it does for the show’s other murderers. Surely, we shouldn’t think that Arya behave any differently than a young man would in her situation, but would we similarly throw up our hands in delight if Rickon Stark had gone on the warpath instead? It’s unsettling the degree to which we celebrate Arya’s behavior because she’s a young and feisty. I don’t want to celebrate young women because they’ve taken on the very worst qualities of their elders — even if that means the Red Wedding goes unpunished.
Of course, Westeros is a place where we salute treachery and delight in duplicity, where characters slip back and forth across the spectrum of good and evil. That’s what makes it such good television. There are a few Ramsay Boltons and Hodors tossed in for ballast, but characters like the Hound — whose loss of his friend Septon Ray left us weeping for him in season six, despite his earlier unimaginable cruelty — give a series populated by dragons and undead armies enough humanity to render it emotionally credible. Arya, too, tries to orient herself with her moral compass, saving Lady Crane’s life when she grew fond of the actress in season six. In the season-seven opener, we see more of Arya’s humane side: Gathered around the fire, munching rabbit with her newfound Lannister soldier pals, Maisie Williams’s spot-on facial expressions make it obvious that Arya is at once pained and heartened to see the humanity in her enemies. If these young lions have babes at home and Ed Sheeran songs in their hearts, how could she ever run them through with her Needle? It’s tempting to believe that her polite chatter and swig of blackberry wine is evidence of a soft heart still lurking beneath her assassin’s gaze, that we can root for Arya because beneath the literal and figurative masks she wears to destroy her enemies, she’s still just a babe in the woods. But Arya hasn’t become empowered. She’s learned how to abuse power, adapting the techniques of the Faceless Men and putting them to her own purposes.
It’s notable that as Arya served up that steaming pie of Frey fingers and slid her blade across Walder’s throat, she riffed on a line Cersei gave to Septa Unella earlier in the same episode: “The last thing you’re ever going to see is a Stark smiling down at you as you die.” She’s echoing the language of a madwoman who just blew up a church with dozens of people inside, all so that she might escape the consequences of her actions. Or, as seen from another angle, a woman who is too often thought of as ineffectual by men in power, and who has responded by raising the stakes with violent retribution. (Sansa too expressed some stifled admiration for Cersei’s methods, telling Jon that she “learned a great deal from her,” but that didn’t lead anyone to wiggle their eyebrows in elation.) Either way, when you’re drawing comparisons to Cersei Lannister, you know you’re headed far from the path of heroic righteousness.
Unlike Sansa, Brienne, or Daenerys, Arya’s goal isn’t to denude her oppressors of power. It’s to make them suffer, cruelly and viscerally, before they choke on their own blood. And she doesn’t walk away saddened when she takes a life, the way her father did after beheading a man who deserted the Night’s Watch in season one. Arya calmly basks in the satisfaction of a job well done, and then smiles to herself. Like a true psycho killer.