Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, executive editor Matthew Yglesias, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and culture editor Todd VanDerWerff. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Todd VanDerWerff: Here's a plot I've barely seen discussed in this past week's chatter about Game of Thrones: whatever Arya is up to over in Braavos. The show has often used Arya and Sansa as vague mirror images of each other, and it very well might be doing the same thing here. And if that's the case, then I'm marginally more interested in wherever Sansa's storyline is going — while still thinking it's a largely predictable and unnecessary tangent.
Arya is told by Jaqen at the end of her storyline in "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" that she is not yet ready to become no one, but she might be ready to become someone else. In short, just as Sansa is forced to embrace her name — and all the horrors that go along with being a woman of the ruling class in her world — Arya is giving hers up in order to become whatever it is she has to be.
This is, in some ways, George R.R. Martin's major theme about government writ large: the more one tries to cling to the old, corrupt system, the more one will be damaged by it. Arya literally has to become someone else if she's going to get anything done. Sansa is stuck in place because she is required by Littlefinger's (completely inscrutable, I might add) plan to be Sansa.
It's worth pointing out here that in the book, the person who fills Sansa's role, more or less, is a minor character who poses as Arya Stark, which underlines even more what Martin might be going for here. While Arya gives up her life, somebody else is waiting to pick up her name — only to find herself subjected to horror after horror when she does.
Indeed, you can broaden this out a bit. In this show, anybody with the last name Stark is there to get punished. That becomes predictable too easily, but it would sort of make sense that the only way for Arya to get revenge for what happened to her family would be to literally stop being one of them.
This doesn't, to my mind, excuse the show's sometimes too callous use of sexual violence as a button it pushes to shock the audience, but it at least places it within a larger thematic context. The current system is horrible to women, so women should be working to avoid or destroy it as much as they possibly can. Of course, when you put it that way, it can seem like the series' themes are blaming victims — like Sansa — for trying to make the best choice out of a series of bad ones, so it's not like this completely absolves anybody.
It does, however, make more sense out of the series' choice to juxtapose Arya's story with everything else in this episode. In isolation, Arya's plot increasingly seems like one of those episodes of Lost where the characters were hanging out with the Others but couldn't get any good answers or information out of them, leading to frustration within the audience. When combined with everything else, however, Arya's storyline at least offers the hope of something new. She and we might not know just where it's going yet, but we at least have the promise it might be better than what came before.
This, admittedly, is grasping at straws to figure out why this episode was such a stinker. But there might be something deeper at play here, even if it didn't really work. And that's worth keeping an eye on in the weeks to come.
Read the recap. Come back tomorrow for discussion of the next episode.