Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones season six, episode eight, "No One."
Turns out a few stab wounds to the stomach aren’t too hard to shake off for Arya Stark.
After refusing to carry out an assassination attempt ordered by the Faceless Men and attempting to escape back to her home continent of Westeros, our hero was ambushed and stabbed by her nameless female Faceless Man rival in last week’s episode. (Since that character’s analogue in the books is called "the Waif," that’s how I’ll refer to her here.)
Things looked grim for Arya as she stumbled through the streets of Braavos gushing blood from her wounds. But over the course of this episode, she somehow managed to turn the tables on this supposedly expert assassin — and apparently win the Faceless Men’s assent to quit the organization and head back to Westeros untrammeled.
It made for some serviceable action, yet it struck me as an odd, lazy end to a story arc that’s lasted for two full seasons — and it calls attention to how uninspired and uninteresting the show’s portrayal of the Faceless Men is compared with their depiction in George R.R. Martin’s books.
How Arya managed to survive the Waif’s attacks
After Arya’s stabbing by the Waif in episode six, fans speculated intensely about just what they had just seen happen.
Would Arya really strut around the Braavos marketplace, throwing around a big pile of money and without even her sword to protect her, just after going AWOL from an assassin death cult?
And would a member of this assassin death cult really be so bad at killing people that when she found Arya and stabbed her several times, she’d just end up giving her a few non-fatal, and indeed not even particularly debilitating, wounds?
Since the Faceless Men’s magic involves, well, face changing, all sorts of theories were thrown about. Maybe the "Arya" who was stabbed wasn’t really Arya but rather the Waif — and Arya was the perpetrator of the attack! Or maybe "Arya" was, somehow, head Faceless Men honcho Jaqen H’ghar, who was testing to see if the Waif could overcome her grudge against Arya and truly become "no one."
Turns out these creative fans were just overthinking it. Everything was just as it appeared to be.
In this episode, a wounded Arya managed to make it backstage to the theater troupe to ask help from Lady Crane. (That’s the actress Arya befriended a few episodes back via offering some constructive criticism on her stage performance and, er, warning her that her co-worker wanted her dead.)
Lady Crane dressed Arya’s wounds and helped her out before, inevitably, being discovered and horribly murdered by the Waif. But Arya managed to escape and lead the Waif on a chase through Braavos back to a room she’d recently been sleeping in — to spring a trap.
Remember, Arya’s storyline in episode six ended with her reclaiming her sword, Needle, taking it out in her room, and blowing out a candle. And now this week, once the Waif arrived with her knife, Arya drew her sword, extinguished the candle — and the scene cut to black.
I assume that Arya had been training herself to fight in that room in the darkness, and that that training helped her get the upper hand on the Waif and kill her. (Update: Several kind readers have reminded me of a point that should have been obvious to me — that Arya learned to fight while blind at the beginning fo this season.)
Subsequently, Arya somehow manages to sneak into the Faceless Men’s temple and add the Waif’s bloody, eyeless face to their hall of faces. Jaqen admits he approved the hit on her, but congratulates her for surviving the attempt and tells her she has become "no one."
But Arya declares that she’s Arya Stark and she’s headed home to Westeros, and that's apparently convincing enough for Jaqen, who just stands there and lets her leave.
This is all very strange compared with the Faceless Men of the books
Overall, I found the HBO show's handling of this storyline to be very befuddling.
In the books, Arya is still with the Faceless Men, so we don’t know how or whether she’ll leave them (though most fans assume she will at some point). Now, we can be pretty sure it won’t be by befriending and refusing to kill an actress in the theater troupe, since the troupe aspect of the storyline was already resolved in a sample chapter from The Winds of Winter. But I have no idea whether Martin plans to wrap this up in a more satisfying way.
Yet what I find most odd has been the show’s portrayal of the Faceless Men themselves.
First of all, there only seems to be two of them of any significance. In the books, Arya does interact with two Faceless Men the most — the Waif and the "kindly man" — but the House of Black and White is a place bustling with activity. At one point, Arya observes a meeting of a large group of Faceless Men discussing their next targets. But the show's version apparently has just Jaqen and the Waif.
Second is the question of identity. The whole point of the Faceless Men is that you pledge your identity to the cult, surrender your grudges, and agree to become "no one." And the ending of this storyline in the finale of last season — when "Jaqen" drank poison and a horrified Arya grabbed at his face to see that he wasn’t Jaqen at all, just before another "Jaqen" stepped out behind her — seemed to hammer that theme home.
But now, this season, the showrunners have decided to build this storyline around what seems to be a personal grudge the Waif has against Arya. They also seem to have reverted to the idea that Jaqen is, well, just Jaqen, and that there’s just one of him who’s running the show.
Furthermore, after Arya reveals that she has killed the Waif in this episode, Jaqen praises her and tells her she has truly become "no one." But that makes no sense. Being "no one" isn’t about demonstrating fantastic killing ability; it’s about surrendering your identity to a crazy assassin death cult. And Arya had refused to do that by not carrying out the assassination they ordered.
And this doesn't even get into how ridiculously bad the Faceless Men, a supposed organization of master assassins, seem to be at killing people this episode. Or maybe they just mysteriously lose their normally amazing abilities when a main character is at risk?
All in all, this episode was a disappointment to me, and made me instead yearn to know how George R. R. Martin will wrap up this plot line. Hopefully he finishes The Winds of Winter someday and we get to find out.