With its mounting implausibilities, “Beyond the Wall,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’ penultimate season, has been met by widespread, and deserved, criticism. On our weekly Game of Thrones TV Club podcast, Seth Stevenson was apoplectic as he enumerated its various shortcomings. Writing in the Week, Lili Loofburow declared that finally, “Game of Thrones’ credit has run out. That the show uses spectacle as a crutch for its graceless Heffalump of a plot is putting it mildly. At this point, spectacle is basically all it has.”
Even the argument between Sansa and Arya, the only scenes this episode infused with the much-vaunted and now much-mourned “realism” that Season 7 has been lacking, came in for its share of shade. Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aaron Bady writes that the “Sansa and Arya thing … requires them both to be maximally petty and mean and lacking in insight or compassion,” while Sarah Mesle sees in the sisters acting “as the worst and most reductive versions of themselves” evidence that women’s “fears and anxieties are not, for the writers’ room of Thrones a source of sympathy or heroism,” particularly contrasted with the naked fan service north of the wall. But in this case, the critics (and the fans cooking up elaborate theories as to why this charged argument is all being faked) are wrong. Arya’s threats to Sansa are the best, most believable part of an otherwise calamitous episode.
I agree with Mesle that Game of Thrones is, as is often the case, handling gender badly. It’s a drag watching the menfolk constantly self-actualize while the women are confined to small spaces, both physically and emotionally. Furthermore, the Arya/Sansa conflict advancing at a glacial pace over two scenes—when every minute of the show counts as never before—made the fight feel like the kind of artificial stakes-goosing on which serialized TV too often depends. However, the problem is less that Sansa and Arya are shown as petty but rather that Jon and the other manly men get to fulfill power fantasies without suffering meaningful consequences. The show would be far better off if it took the approach to its male characters that it takes to Arya, one of the only characters Game of Thrones still uses to pursue its original mission of undermining fantasy tropes wherever it can.
Arya is a shape-changing child assassin who defies her society’s gender roles and survives against all odds to wreak revenge on the people who harmed her. The only way she could be more a creature of high-fantasy fan service is if she wielded a magic talking sword she had taken from a goblin king. It’s no wonder that fans love her and don’t want to see her acting like an actual adolescent. We want her to be a teenage Wolverine to Sansa’s young Cyclops, a wisecracking murder-hobo with superpowers. In the world of Game of Thrones, however, she can’t be. Arya may have grown more skilled over the years, but she has remained impulsive and vindictive. This season began with her slaughtering an entire house because of their role in the death of her mother and brother and then playfully testing Ed Sheeran and his gang of merry Lannister child soldiers to see if she should kill them, too.
This is not a psychologically healthy person, and it makes sense that, once reunited with her sister, the show’s original odd sibling out would continue to pursue her grudges against her far more glamorous and beloved older sibling, fate of the world be damned. Arya isn’t the most consistently written character on the show—Maisie Williams’ doggedly specific performance helps smooth out some of the incongruities—but her inability to think in the long term is one of her most durable traits. When we last left off their relationship, it was one of near-constant antagonism rooted, as Arya points out, in their relationship to gender expectations, their bastard half-brother, and their father. Arya is correct that Sansa was disloyal to her family in pursuit of fairy-tale dreams way before she wrote the incriminating letter. She also hasn’t been witness to Sansa’s remarkable transformation into Game of Thrones’ smartest and most capable leader. Instead, she sees someone who has committed a wrong against her that should, perhaps, be avenged—indeed, someone who might still betray her. Avenging wrongs is Arya’s joy in life, as we see in the pleasure she takes threatening her sister, but family loyalty is her prime directive, and the conflict between the two leaves her lost.
We could hope that Arya and Sansa would be ennobled by their mutual experience of trauma and band together to fight the greater evil. That’s the path that the rest of the crowd-pleasing Season 7 suggests they’ll eventually take. But it’s worth remembering that redemption through suffering is yet another trope that Game of Thrones is happy to undermine—just look at poor Theon Greyjoy. Arya threatening Sansa is akin to Ned warning Cersei, or Robb marrying for love, or Jon riding out in front of his army to save Rickon. It’s the choice that makes you scream at your television because the character you like is being such a moron.
Yes, Arya is acting petty, mean, and lacking in compassion. She keeps using the word pretty, weaponized with contempt, to describe Sansa’s handwriting, clothes, and ambitions. She criticizes Sansa for cozying up to Lannisters while conveniently forgetting that she served wine to Tywin Lannister for months and neglected to slit his throat. She shows no interest in her sister’s suffering, which she has refused to learn about. This is because Arya is petty, mean, and lacking in compassion. You’d have to be to murder dozens of people at a go but balk at killing a random stage actress because she vaguely reminds you of your mother.
It’s not as if the show doesn’t recognize all of this. Sansa even comments on the stupidity of their argument, noting that no one would enjoy their familial discord more than Cersei Lannister. The fight is also well in keeping with how siblings actually behave after they spend any amount of time back in the house in which they grew up. They gradually regress, until they can’t help but behave like they did when they were children. I recognized in Sansa and Arya’s conflict every single dumb argument I’ve had with my brothers over the holidays. Our fights aren’t about the fate of the Seven Kingdoms, of course, but Game of Thrones has always rejected the idea that we ever really transcend our weaknesses for the greater good. If anything, in Westeros, dire circumstances make us more ourselves, often for the worse.