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Game of Thrones Finally Let Arya Be a Teenager

Photo: HBO

Ahead of the slaughter that’s sure to come on Game of Thrones, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is full of touching, often funny scenes between the show’s surviving characters. Tormund, Brienne, Tyrion, Jaime & Co. gather around the fire, with Jaime knighting Brienne, and Tormund telling tall tales about his wildling past. Dany and Jon have an important parentage-related chat in the Winterfell crypt. Davos makes a big pot of stew. Arya’s agenda, meanwhile, is different: Knowing she might very well die in battle, she decides to lose her virginity with Gendry. It’s one of my favorite things Game of Thrones has done with Arya since Ned Stark’s head got cut off, and it’s also something I’m truly glad Game of Thrones found time for before the giant clash that looms in the future.

For some viewers, that sex scene was uncomfortable. Arya was a child when Game of Thrones began, and it’s hard to say how old she is now because the passage of time on this show is notoriously difficult to pin down. It certainly isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that Arya is now 18, though if Game of Thrones can fiddle with its timeline enough to make all that cross-continental travel happen, then “Arya is of consenting age now” feels like a reasonable leap.

The question of her exact age feels less important than how her sex scene with Gendry actually happens. Arya’s attraction to Gendry is well-established, but in case we missed that bit, there’s a nice little scene early in the episode of her ogling him while he works in the forge. When she tracks him down later, she’s clear about what she wants: She knows that this isn’t Gendry’s first time, and she explains that she wants to know what sex is like before she dies. Everyone in Winterfell knows that death could be very, very imminent; if Arya wants this, it may be her only shot. Gendry’s a bit slow to catch on, but when he does, his participation is enthusiastic. And crucially, in the little bit we see of the act, Arya is the one on top. In what the characters say and in the way they move, everything about that scene is pointed toward Arya being in a position of power. (Given how often we’ve seen female nudity on this show, I do feel like this scene could’ve been a nice opportunity for some turnabout-is-fair-play action. Much of the scene is shot from Arya’s eyeline. If she’s overwhelmingly attracted to Gendry, why not let him be one of the show’s much rarer instances of male nudity?)

There are few sex scenes like this on Game of Thrones, a show famous for unnecessarily explicit scenes that are often violent, deliberately taboo-breaking, or full of naked breasts that don’t even need to be naked. With so few opportunities for sweet, considerate sex, it feels notable that Arya’s scene with Gendry echoes one of the rare similar moments when Gilly has sex with Samwell Tarly in season five. Like the Arya-Gendry scene, that Gilly-Sam sex scene has Gilly on top, the one in charge of directing the action. To be fair, Sam had been grievously wounded and was not in tip-top physical shape. (When Jon later asks Sam how they even managed it, Sam says “carefully.”) But Hannah Murray, the actor who plays Gilly, insisted the scene be staged that way so it was clear Gilly has power and a voice. It’s meant to be vividly different than the character’s previous years of sexual abuse. Gilly with dialogue, and Gilly physically taking charge, are ways to signal that she’s having loving, pleasurable sex for the first time in her life. Arya and Gendry’s scene, where Arya has most of the dialogue and directs all of the action, sends out those same signals. Their scene also has an echo in one of the show’s other few truly loving, consenting sex scenes, between Missandei and Grey Worm in season seven. It’s not an exact mirror: Missandei and Grey Worm trade off physically initiating certain actions, and the shared history is different. But like Arya and Gendry, they speak to one another, making their mutual consent a necessary part of the experience.

Perhaps most importantly, Arya and Gendry’s long-term arc gives their hookup some additionally meaningful oomph. The last time these two saw each other, they were saying goodbye, possibly forever, and Arya was begging Gendry to come to Winterfell so she could be his family. They’ve changed a lot since that moment. Arya has forged her body into a weapon, closing herself off emotionally from the world around her to survive. Gendry, meanwhile, suffered a traumatic sexual assault at the hands of Melisandre, something the Arya-Gendry scene obliquely mentions to heighten the difference between the two — that was a gross violation, and this is a loving, consenting choice — though I do wish Gendry had been given more space to discuss what happened to him. It’s the thing that feels most buried and least considered about the scene. But there’s still enough groundwork for Arya and Gendry’s emotional connection and sexual attraction that the end result still makes sense for them both.

In spite of the obvious signs that Arya feels some very real Gendry thirst, and in spite of her considered, entirely reasonable desire to experience some form of pleasurable sexual contact before she perishes in a snowy ditch, the experience of watching Arya undress did make some viewers feel awkward. When Game of Thrones began, Arya was perpetually at the whim of older people, usually men, who generally wished her harm. The show’s relationship to her, at least before she became a cold-blooded killer, was often paternal or fraternal. Watching her now undress feels, as some people put it, like watching a little sister or a daughter undress. From that perspective, the scene might look like a violation of what should be a familial bond. Especially because Arya’s back in Winterfell with her older siblings, it’s easier to forget that she’s become a trained assassin. It’s another version of that audience-centric lens: When viewers think of Arya as a sibling or child, when we ignore her years of painfully earned self-possession, the priority is on the viewer’s experience of the show.

But there’s another way to see this scene. Rather than understanding Arya from the perspective of someone caring for her, it’s possible to read the sex scene from Arya’s own point of view. From where Arya’s standing, she’s an older teenager whose formative years have been spent balanced on the knife’s edge of survival. Her entire purpose has been to avenge her family’s deaths; she knows death intimately, and she is more than capable of caring for herself. But Arya has had no time to behave like a teenager. When Game of Thrones began, Sansa was often considered obnoxious for how much she focused on love and marriage. But she was a teenager — her behavior, annoying though it may have been, made sense for her character at the time. Arya was given no similar opportunity.

Part of what made Arya’s undressing so jarring is that over the past several seasons, she has strapped herself up in tightly laced leather armor. She’s done as much as she possibly can to make herself lethal and to shield herself from the world, which has also necessarily shielded her from Game of Thrones viewers. It’s difficult to think of Arya as a sexual person because everything about her — her goals, her costumes, her circumstances — has, for her own safety, deflected attention away from that aspect of who she is.

It’s uncomfortable for some to watch that sex scene because, for so long, all we’ve seen is the fully armored assassin. To see her remove her own clothing is to see her more deliberately vulnerable than she’s been in years, probably since Ned’s death. From Arya’s perspective, though, this is the most typical postpubescent thing she may have ever done. Boning down with a hot guy the night before the world ends is human in a way Arya rarely has a chance to be, and that Game of Thrones made time to include it felt like a notable turn for a show that was once known for using breasts as the fleshy equivalent of a siren emoji. Arya deciding to have sex is Arya claiming agency over her own body, and staking out a definition of herself as something other than an instrument of death.

Arya’s sex scene was a way for the character to own herself, and to finally want something other than survival and revenge. All I can do now is hope that she lives long enough that her first time will not also be her last.

Game of Thrones Finally Let Arya Be a Teenager