Brow Beat

Game of Thrones Tried to Make Arya’s Big Moment Both Surprising and Inevitable

We’ve been preparing for Arya’s Game of Thrones destiny for a long time. We just didn’t know it.

Arya in Game of Thrones
Arya in Game of Thrones.
Helen Sloan/HBO

This article discusses the plot of Game of Thrones’ “The Long Night.” All men must spoil.

She was meant for this. The Battle of Winterfell may have been the most complicated undertaking in Game of Thrones’ history, but in retrospect, the episode had one simple purpose: convincing the audience that, after 70 hours and nearly eight years, the fitting ending for the show’s apparently immortal, nigh-all-powerful Night King was a knife in the gut from a teenage girl. The ground troops who were slaughtered by the thousands—and, in some cases, reanimated and killed again—didn’t matter in the end. It was Arya, with the Valyrian steel dagger, in the godswood.

“The Long Night,” as the episode is formally called, splits roughly into two parts, the first concerned with what happens outside Winterfell’s walls, the second, after the dead breach the castle gates, set within them. During the first part, which she spends standing atop the battlements with her sister, Arya is mostly a bit player: She lets loose a few well-timed arrows (the Hound says thanks), exchanges some significant glances, and hands a dragonglass dagger to Sansa before sending her down to the crypt. When Sansa balks, insisting she doesn’t know how to use a weapon, Arya advises her to “stick ’em with the pointy end”—a reference that goes all the way back to the second episode of the series, when Jon Snow gave Arya her sword, Needle, with identical words of wisdom. The reversal is a reminder of how far Arya has come, but it also foreshadows the end of the episode, when she and Jon will switch their expected roles: He’ll be the one helplessly pinned down by a larger enemy, and she’ll be the one to slay the (figurative) dragon.

The episode featured several nods to Arya’s past, including her sword-fighting tutelage in King’s Landing under Syrio Forel, whose refrain was picked up by the mystical Red Woman: “What do we say to the God of Death? Not today.” Fulfilling her prediction that they would meet again, Melisandre recalled her prophecy of the eyes Arya would one day shut forever: brown, green, and [pause for emphasis] blue. That took us back to Season 3, two years before Arya began her assassin training in earnest, and two more before Bran passed on to her the dagger she would use to save his life and kill the Night King. (That dagger itself had been wending its way toward the climactic moment for years; it’s the one an assassin used to try to kill Bran in Season 1.) The episode also pointed ahead to its surprise ending by frequently cutting between Arya and Lyanna Mormont, also a pint-size female badass, who, while being crushed to death in an undead giant’s hand, still mustered the strength to draw her sword and stick him in the eye. (Underlining the idea that there’s no correlation between size and bravery, Lady Lyanna’s last stand and Arya’s battle with a horde of zombie wights were intercut with shots of the towering Sandor Clegane cowering against a wall.)

“The Last Night” worked to conceal its Arya ex machina twist from first-time viewers, dropping Arya from most of its final act in hopes that we’d forget her purposefully striding away from the Red Woman and the Hound, a killing look set on her face. But watch it again and the episode is making a sustained argument—a plea, really—for us to see Arya’s killing of the Night King as a satisfying, even inevitable, culmination. This isn’t just chance—which is good, because no one is that lucky—it’s fate, the fruit of a design so grand that even the Three-Eyed Raven and the Red Woman can only glimpse its outlines. Beric Dondarrion, who’d come back from the dead a half-dozen times, lived so that he might sacrifice himself for Arya. Theon Greyjoy’s death might seem a pointless one—why charge at an enemy you know you can’t wound?—but you can theorize that he gained Arya the few precious seconds necessary to ensure she could launch herself at the Night King before he drew his sword and killed Bran. When Theon apologizes for betraying the Starks, Bran monotonously reassures him, “Everything you did brought you here,” a tautology tinged with mystical purpose.

Seeing her father beheaded set Arya on a course to becoming a killer rather than watching others be killed, but here she’s face to face with the fear that her own death might be as pointless as Ned Stark’s. As the Hound says, they’re not just fighting the dead: They’re fighting Death, and death always wins in the end. The sequence’s mechanics are pure video game, but there’s real terror in Arya’s eyes, a vulnerability we haven’t seen since the days when Arya didn’t know which end of a sword to use. But when the Red Woman reminds her that she’s been training very nearly her whole life for this, she surmounts her fear. She’s been waiting for her moment, and so have we.