On Sunday night, Game of Thrones polarized viewers once again with an unexpected sex scene involving a sympathetic female character. But this time, the character wasn’t violently raped by her new husband, or offered up as a sexual reward for male heroism, or killed in some needlessly intricate and dehumanizing way. Rather, the character instigated the sexual encounter, reclaiming her humanity and her adolescence by satisfying a primal curiosity. In so doing, she became one of the very few high-born women on the HBO drama who were able to bypass sexual trauma as a key stop on their coming-of-age journey. Fans were fiercely divided, but they shouldn’t have been. Arya’s decision to lose her virginity—and the specific way that she went about it—is the best bit of character development the show has given her in years.
Admittedly, the detractors are easy to understand. We met Arya as a prepubescent kid, and given the hard-to-measure passage of time on the series, there was some confusion about how old Arya’s supposed to be; HBO tweeted that she’s 18, as if our contemporary standards for sexual maturity should have any bearing on Westeros’ medieval culture. As much as none of us want to be the dad threatening to hurt his daughter’s date if he tries anything funny, the protective impulse is hard-wired in many of us. The flash of actress Maisie Williams’ side boob probably recalled for much of the audience all the other times showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have given us reason to distrust them when it comes to depictions of female nudity and sexual interactions. For her part, the 22-year-old Williams, who was 20 at the time of filming, said she was told, “You can show as much or as little as you want.” But even to Williams the scene was jarring enough that she initially thought it was a prank the writers were playing on her.
Perhaps Williams, like many fans, is comfortable only seeing Arya as a Terminator-like revenge bot, a tomboy who scrapes herself so completely of the last bits of her vulnerability (often coded as femininity) that she could rival her younger brother Bran for bloodlessness. (Arya was so determined to transform into a vengeance demon that she even flirted with the idea of giving up her own face.) The epitome of that metamorphosis was her tricking Walder Frey, the organizer of the Red Wedding, into cannibalizing his own children. It was a checkmate move that reveled in cruelty and sadism, the kind of punishment Joffrey might have thought up if he hadn’t been such a self-satisfied ninny, as well as the kind of twist that proves how hollow and abject the term “badass” often feels as applied to the events of the show. Arya once embodied an idealistic resistance to the ways of Westeros, but as the seasons have progressed, she has come to embody much of the tribal myopia and power-for-power’s-sake that make this universe such a difficult place to survive.
But in its final season, Game of Thrones may be finally restoring Arya’s humanity. Her seeming peace with the Hound and Beric Dondarrion, both of whose names once sat on her kill list alongside more powerful players like Cersei and Melisandre, suggests an increased understanding of moral grayness, as well as the relativity of power and the redemptive potential of some of her enemies. The Hound, for example, may have helped kill her father, but he, too, is a victim of familial and royal brutality. In other words, she regained her soul—or, if you prefer, stopped being such a know-it-all teenage shit, with the black-and-white ethics to match. Completing the kill list at this point of her character arc, in contrast, would feel like settling permanently into arrested development.
That’s why Arya’s no-frills seduction of Gendry was such a welcome detour. It was the first time in a long time that we got to see her be anything resembling a normal teenager. There were signs of the Arya we knew: She took charge of the situation, asserted herself as the physically dominant partner despite her diminutive stature, at one point pushing Gendry down on a stack of hay, then telling him to take off his pants. As such, she pulled off a gender reversal of the familiar trope of the young soldier’s last night before shipping out. But she also wasn’t smooth about it in any way; there was an undercurrent of desperately papered-over awkwardness throughout the scene. Where perhaps some saw only confidence in Arya, I saw bravado, particularly in her bringing up Gendry’s other partners, pretending not to be bothered by Melisandre’s interest in him, and trying to gain the upper hand with a more experienced partner by feigning detachment and condescension. (Nothing screamed adolescent stiffness more than her decision to ignore Gendry’s horrifying revelation that the Red Witch put leeches on his penis.) Despite her obvious fond feelings for her friend, she never lets him know that she cares for him, or that she probably chose him because she feels safe with him. Instead, she explains her actions only in the context of an almost biological curiosity. Her discomfort, and her overcompensating efforts to cover it up, is juvenile and transparent.
Game of Thrones has long held onto its own version of the virgin-whore dichotomy. There are women who realize how dangerous the world is and empower themselves accordingly, and there are those who do not. As an early member of the former group, Arya appeared to have seamlessly transitioned from an unfeminine misfit to a hardened assassin. That reinvention involved tamping down the more feminine aspects of herself—the facets that made her most vulnerable—either by denying her desire or her gender. Her development into a wizard warrior was often fun to witness, but it was also a relief to see that she’s still able to explore the other sides of herself too. After watching so many other women learn the hard way that they must toughen up, it was fascinating to see Arya learn that she can soften herself, however fumblingly, without being any less powerful.
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