Game of Thrones has never been a particularly welcoming environment for female friendship. While the show has had many an excellent bromance—Tyrion and Bronn, Jaime and Bronn, Tyrion and Jon, Jon and Davos—women have tended to treat each other as rivals or, at best, allies of convenience. Although the relationship between Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams has blossomed into a beautiful friendship, complete with matching tattoos, in real life, their characters have rubbed each other the wrong way since the beginning. As Sansa acknowledges, theirs is not the reunion we have been waiting for. The show’s closest non-familial female duos tend to be hierarchical: the Daenerys-Missandei and Catelyn-Brienne bonds, while built on genuine respect, are still lady-liege relationships. The closest we’ve seen to female friendship may have been between Sansa and Margaery, quasi-rivals bound by that mysterious bond that comes from having dated the same douchebag.
That’s what makes the newfound sisterhood of the traveling swords developing between Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth in “The Spoils of War” so damn exciting—or is it actually yet another bromance?
It’s not exactly your traditional #squadgoals sorority, but then again, Arry and “Ser” Brienne are not your traditional women. Arya and Brienne are women who found that the best way to deal with the suckiness of being a woman in the Seven Kingdoms is to become a warrior instead. Both eschew the trappings of traditional Westerosi ladyship—the gowns, the finery, the arranged marriages—in favor of becoming great fighters, ready to defend their allies and protect themselves with a sword, be it Needle or Oathkeeper, in hand. As Lady Sansa—who watched the pair spar from above—now knows all too well, the only way to truly guarantee your safety as a woman of Westeros is to learn to do it yourself.
Brienne regularly objects to being called a lady by her bumbling squire Podrick, but in this episode, her burden of duty finally relieved, she allows it—just this once.
“You’re too hard on yourself, m’lady.”
“I’m not a— thank you, Podrick.”
Like Brienne, Arya, has been mocked for her lack of femininity, and even evaded capture by posing as a boy—although as Hot Pie noted, the former Arry does look quite a bit different now. And like Brienne, she’s also not too comfortable with gendered titles, practically gagging on the idea that she has to call her sister “Lady Stark.”
Even in their tense first meeting, the unorthodox women’s interest in one another was palpable. We last saw them together in the fourth season, when Brienne attempted to take Arya from Sandor Clegane’s protection into her own. The Lady of Tarth’s first sighting of the wolf girl was of her practicing her Water Dance, though she did not realize who she was. “I like the sword,” she said smilingly to the mysterious mini-me holding it aggressively before her. “Are you a knight?” Arya asked, seeming intrigued by the fact that Brienne carried a sword and knew how to use it, the first woman she had seen do so. “Does it have a name?” she asked, as she put her own away and walked closer. The women traded stories of the sexism they had faced in wanting to become fighters, and of kind fathers who had shown reluctance at first— “fighting was for boys,” they were both told—but had eventually given in and encouraged their interest.
“I kept fighting the boys anyway,” said Brienne. “I kept losing. Finally my father said ‘If you’re going to do it you might as well do it right.’” Arya beamed.
It was when the Hound appeared and the situation became clear that Arya’s wall came back up, that nascent friendship extinguished. “Safety? Where the fuck’s that?” sneered the Hound when Brienne offered to take Arya to safety, before dueling with Brienne for the right to be the one to watch over her. Was this the moment that Arya realized she would be ferried from protector to protector indefinitely, unless she learned to truly defend herself? Either way, the wolf girl was not having it, hiding from the victorious-but-suspicious lady knight as she desperately called her name.
Behind the relative safety of the walls of Winterfell, the women are free to explore their budding connection. Arya, now a serious fighter, recognizes herself in Brienne: a warrior woman, one of the best fighters in the realm, able to mow down fully grown men as if they were children, yet still consistently underestimated. Arya has had no shortage of fighting mentors, from to Syrio Forel to Jaqen H’ghar, but now she wants Brienne to train her … for who better than the woman she watched take down the Hound in some of the most impressive hand-to-hand combat she had even seen?
Their sparring chemistry was electric, especially compared to the dull practice partner Brienne has in the form of poor old Pod. Once Brienne realized that the young Stark she was once sworn to protect is very capable of protecting herself, neither felt the need to go easy on the other. This was real, fun practice for them both: Arya learning to maneuver around Brienne’s brute strength, and Brienne attempting to keep up with Arya’s lightning speed. Brienne, sensing the small girl’s power, knocked Arya to the ground with a boot to the chest. But Arya, trained by a master of the Water Dance, was quickly up on her feet, dagger drawn. Perhaps Brienne will learn a thing or two from her new young friend? The women—panting, weapons to each other’s throats—locked eyes as equals and smiled.
The new besties aren’t the only women eschewing traditional gender roles these days. While Cersei has always been content to leave the actual fighting to the men, Westeros’ newest queen ignored the advice of her male advisers and flew into battle alongside her men, in one of Game of Thrones best battle sequences ever. Admittedly, Daenerys didn’t realize quite how much risk she was taking on flying near the Lannister’s new dragon-killing machine, but you can bet she’ll be back. She’s not one to sit with the other ladies in Maegor’s Holdfast during a battle.
But while both Arya and Brienne are amongst the fiercest fighters in the Seven Kingdoms, neither is a ruthless power-seeker. Unlike those who fight for money or glory, they’re figures driven by love and loyalty. For a while, Arya looked to be straying from that ethos, turning to vengeance as her driving force, but she was quick to change her path from King’s Landing to Winterfell upon hearing her family had reclaimed it. Perhaps Brienne’s greatest influence on Arya as a mentor will be teaching her honor and mercy, qualities of a true knight that Brienne has over many of the “knights” of Westeros.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for Daenerys to hurry up and take King’s Landing/kill the White Walkers/yada yada yada, so that the adventures of Needle and Oathkeeper can truly begin.
I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Correction, Aug. 7: This article originally referred to Brienne’s sword as Oathbreaker. As noted elsewhere in the article, it is Oathkeeper.