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 culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matt Yglesias, climate change writer David Roberts, politics writer Andrew Prokop, and deputy culture editor Jen Trolio. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Dave Roberts: I'm coming in at the end here, and my illustrious colleagues have already hashed over the attention-grabbing scenes from last Sunday's episode, "The Dance of Dragons." For the record, I'm with Jen on Stannis's sacrifice of Shireen, with Todd on Game of Thrones' larger aesthetic problems, and apparently the only one who thought the Meereen scene was a mini-masterpiece.
But I want to talk about Arya.
I'm probably not alone in ranking Arya as my second favorite character, at least based on the books. (Tyrion is everyone's favorite, including people who lie and say he isn't.) She's a scrapper. Despite all the grim circumstances she faces in her travels through Westeros, her spirit only seems to get stronger. She's virtually alone among the main characters in having traveled only the low road, with the commoners, slaves, servants, and soldiers, the victims of the struggles between bloodlust-driven lords and their knights. Her stories reveal the everyman's perspective.
In the books, Arya's arrival at the House of Black and White marks a radical turning point for the character. She has survived by nursing her hatred, chanting the list of men she intends to kill. The guild of the Faceless Men asks her to renounce all that, to become no one, the Girl, an instrument of the Many-Faced God. She's asked to leave behind both Arya and her list.
It's a long, difficult struggle. And throughout it, she's trained: to become someone else, to kill without being detected, to disappear. At one point she is blinded and taught to detect whether someone is lying by employing her other senses. Arya's life at the House of Black and White is, I've always thought, some of George R. R. Martin's most evocative and atmospheric writing.
The TV show is not doing it justice.
Take Arya's first assassination run in "The Dance of Dragons." In the books, she wears one of the masks of the Faceless Men — that of a broken, disfigured girl — but on the show, her face is scrubbed clean and her hair is done up in cute little braids. She pushes her cart to within 20 feet of the insurance gambler she's meant to poison, sets it on the ground in the middle of the street, stares at him for several seconds, looks down, pulls the poison out of her bag, contemplates it for a moment, looks at the gambler, glances around furtively, hides the poison in her waist pouch, picks up her cart, and walks toward him.
Then she stops right in front of him and starts staring at someone else, ignoring the insurance gambler's calls for oysters. Naturally, this causes him to yell louder and louder, drawing attention to Arya, who is standing on the dock staring fixedly at the man she now intends to kill instead of her original target. It's Meryn Trant, one of the people on her list, and he is on a boat being docked not 30 feet away, in a clear line of sight.
Now, I am not an assassin. And I don't mean to tell anybody their business. But it seems like one of the things a spiritual death cult ninja assassin school might teach its prospective killers is not to approach their targets in broad-ass daylight wearing their real faces, while also staring intently and fiddling with small vials of colorful fluids.
Anyway, making a mockery of her vows to the Many-Faced God on her very first assignment, Arya — definitely Arya now, not the Girl — decides to follow Trant. In the process, she allows him to get a clear look at her face several times, and later that same night, she allows herself to be dragged in front of him at a brothel, almost ensuring suspicion. Then she continues staring at him through an interior window, eventually drawing the madam's ire and guaranteeing that she, too, notices and will remember Arya.
I'll reiterate here that my experience with assassin training is limited. But allowing a man who might recognize you for who you really are to see your face, repeatedly, at intervals throughout his day such that he is almost certain to notice you and raise an eyebrow, seems like the very sort of thing assassination instructors would counsel their pupils against.
Anyway, not to belabor the point, but Game of Thrones makes Arya's training at the House of Black and White seem brief, shallow, and not particularly effective. She immediately reverts to being one of the revenge-obsessed individuals doing impulsive things that get people killed on this damn show all the time.
[Mild spoilers follow for The Winds of Winter, Martin's upcoming sixth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series.]
At the beginning of the forthcoming The Winds of Winter, Arya, under the new name "Mercy," has been sent to apprentice with a Braavosi named Izembaro. In a preview chapter that Martin released in April, Arya encounters Raff the Sweetling, one of the men on her list, and seduces and kills him. I'm guessing the show is drawing on that storyline but will substitute Meryn Trant, and we'll see it go down in this weekend's season five finale.
The problem is, that story choice makes Arya seem flighty and incompetent. I miss Badass Ninja Arya. Or rather, Mercy.
Read the recap. Come back for more discussion throughout the week.