Game of Thrones’ “No One” featured two on-screen decapitations, but its cruelest death was the murder of Lady Crane, perhaps the most promising actress in Essos.* The show’s sixth season has involved a lot of wheel-spinning, especially where Arya Stark is concerned: She spent weeks getting pummeled by the Waif and earning back her sight, then weeks more hemming and hawing over whether to carry out her orders from the assassins for hire called the Faceless Men. But the evolution of her relationship with Lady Crane, who went from Arya’s intended victim to her savior, proved as important as learning how to wield a sword or a staff and may ultimately have a greater influence on her fate.
In “The Door,” “Blood of My Blood,” and “No One,” Game of Thrones caught three performances from Lady Crane’s theater troupe, and each offered a different perspective on the endless cycle of vengeance and death. The first time we, and Arya, see them, the players enact the deaths of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark, effectively recapping the King’s Landing strand of the show’s first season. Both are played for grotesque comedy, with Robert’s gut spewing a tangle of bright-red intestines after he’s gored by a boar and Ned’s head flying from his shoulders as he’s executed. The audience roars their approval—all except for Arya, whose emotions turn when the figure exhumed for postmortem ridicule is her father. Ned Stark’s execution is Game of Thrones’ defining moment, and it’s Arya’s as well, setting her on the path from helpless child to Needle-wielding angel of vengeance. But in revisiting it through the lens of fiction, Arya begins to see that avenging her father’s death won’t be enough. It’s not simply a matter of killing those who’ve wronged her but of restoring the Stark family’s honor, and that will take more than putting a sword through Cersei Lannister’s heart.
The next time we see the troupe, they’re performing Joffrey’s death, and the tone shifts from bawdy to tragic. Cradling her son’s dead body in her arms, Lady Crane plays Cersei’s grief with a depth that’s alien to the troupe’s broad satire, and the audience doesn’t know what to make of it. Arya does, though, and she finds herself unexpectedly empathizing, at least fictionally, with her greatest enemy. She heads backstage, ostensibly to poison Lady Crane’s rum and carry out the contract on her life, but on the way, she walks by the wooden replica of her father’s severed head the production uses as a callous prop, and it triggers a fresh memory of her own bereavement. Instead of killing Lady Crane, she offers her praise for her performance, and a critique: “She wouldn’t just cry,” Arya tells her. “She’d be angry.”
In her third and, tragically, final performance, Lady Crane once more takes Joffrey’s lifeless body in her arms, but this time, the audience is in tears. Following Arya’s advice, she’s rewritten her own lines, and after pouring our her sorrow, her voice turns cold, and her thoughts turn to vengeance, “with noose or with knife, though it take me a fortnight, a moon, or my life.” That’s Arya’s arc as well. She’s dedicated herself to avenging the murders of her father, her mother, and her brother and very nearly lost herself in the process: Had she cold-bloodedly murdered Lady Crane, betraying her father’s determination to only dole out death as merited punishment and never in anger, she would truly have become No One.
Having disobeyed the Faceless Men’s commands, Arya has become their next intended victim, narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Waif. (You’d think a professional killer wouldn’t try to kill someone with a few inefficient stabs to the midsection, but perhaps the Waif’s desire to make Arya’s death painful made her sloppy.) When a blood-soaked Arya turns up backstage, Lady Crane doesn’t hesitate to take her in. It turns out she’s a vengeful woman off stage as well, repaying the rival actress who contracted for her death with a career-ending wound to her face, but her violent tendencies are balanced by a talent for healing: She’s good at putting holes in people, she tells Arya, but also good at patching them up again. That’s a talent, incidentally, that the real Cersei lacks: In the same episode, she explicitly “choose[s] violence” over negotiating with the High Sparrow, and it only deepens the rift between her and her only surviving child. How deep does it go? Note the blood dripping into the sewers below King’s Landing, down toward the tunnels where the Mad King kept his wildfire.
Lady Crane’s kindness leads to her death. Once the Many-Faced God has been promised a name, the Waif tells Arya, the debt must be paid. And now he’s owed something else: The Waif says it’s a name, but when it comes to people named No One, one is apparently as good as another. When he gave Arya her mission, Jaqen H’ghar told her that, one way or another, a new face would end up in the Faceless Men’s gallery, and though he meant it was either Lady Crane’s or Arya’s, it’s the Waif who ends up being de-faced.
For reasons that don’t entirely scan, Jaqen H’ghar seems to accept the death of the Waif as a substitute initiation. Sure, Arya didn’t carry out the mission, but she did kill the person who was supposed to make sure she did it: close enough. Arya, however, no longer wants to be no one, to perpetuate the cycle where people get holes put in them and patched up again, to avenge one death with another, which will be avenged in turn. She doesn’t want to be other people, whether it’s as a faceless assassin or a member of Lady Crane’s troupe, or to travel to the uncharted lands west of Westeros, as she planned before Lady Crane was killed. “I am Arya Stark of Winterfell,” she tells him, “and I’m going home.” There are, at least as far as Arya knows, no Lannisters to kill at Winterfell, and she’s so out of the loop she may not even know her ancestral home is currently held by a man who forcibly married and raped her older sister. But she knows it’s the seat of her family honor, and the Stark name is what matters most of all.
*Correction, June 14, 2016: This post originally misidentified Lady Crane as “the most promising actress in Westeros.”