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Game of Thrones' bungled Arya plot explains why George R.R. Martin’s taking so long to finish the books

Martin keeps trying to organically get characters to certain places; the TV series just forces them to go there.

Game of Thrones
With all those oranges around, it’s a wonder Arya didn’t die.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Next up this week is culture editor Todd VanDerWerff.

Todd VanDerWerff: If there’s one thing "No One" underlined for me, it’s that Game of Thrones is spoiling George R.R. Martin’s upcoming books in ways other than the obvious ones.

Yes, we now know that "Hodor" means "Hold the door," and that revelation will be sapped of some of its power on the page (even if Martin insists it will happen under different circumstances). But we also know, I think, that Martin hasn’t really dreamed up the steps between the characters’ current locations and whatever end game he’s devised.

Arya’s storyline in "No One" is pretty well proof positive of that. It deflates like a punctured balloon, setting up a big confrontation between Arya and the Waif, then completely failing to follow through. Then, it seems as if Game of Thrones is preparing for a massive showdown between Arya and the Faceless Men, but that doesn’t happen either. Instead, Jaqen basically says, "Bye, Arya. Time for me to leave the show."

Now, if you’re Martin, this is cause for celebration. He can write a version of Arya’s story that will, hopefully, prove more powerful than what the TV show came up with. The odds of that are pretty good, actually. At this point in time, the show is in full-on, "Let’s just close off as many storylines as we can" mode.

But the larger point remains. One obstacle that’s slowed Martin down all these years is that he needs to get certain characters to certain places so they’ll be ready for whatever his end game is. I remain convinced that said end game will prove fairly satisfying, but the maneuvering required to get everybody into position for it has been going on for several books now with no end in sight. And because Martin’s world is so much larger than the show’s world, he’s essentially written himself into a corner.

He’s sometimes referred to his biggest problem as the "Meereenese Knot," or the idea that he needs to find a way to get a bunch of characters (notably Tyrion) into the same place as Dany at the same time, on the same side of the upcoming war. And because the book versions of these characters are separated by a vast continent, it’s easy to see why he’s so puzzled.

But on the TV show, as you may recall, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pretty much just dropped Dany and Tyrion into the same room and had them make common cause. It actually made for a surprisingly satisfying scene, even if the fallout hasn’t exactly been all that. (The two may have advanced Tyrion too quickly toward his end game state, which means now they have to stall.)

And there’s a certain advantage to this, especially in storylines where the TV show can jettison many of the added complications from the books, where additional characters and kingdoms can only gum up the works. But you really feel it in a storyline like Arya’s, where it’s pretty clear Martin didn’t give the showrunners a great idea of where to go with the character, and they found themselves simply capping off a story they’d spent a great deal of time on without much fanfare.

Now, all of this will likely prove important. I don’t doubt that Arya’s assassin training will be vital to whatever’s next for her, just as I don’t doubt that Tyrion and Dany will eventually get up to some good times and mischief. But for now, it’s clear that Game of Thrones just needs them to be in a certain place, so it’s willing to do whatever it takes to get them there. Martin pulls himself apart; the TV show just goes ahead and does things. I probably prefer the latter approach, but it’s much less elegant.

And this is what I mean when I say the TV show is spoiling the books in ways most viewers don’t really consider. By ending the Arya plot so abruptly, Benioff and Weiss have all but confirmed that it’s insignificant enough in Martin’s overall scheme that he didn’t tell them much about it. In short, Martin sent Arya to Braavos for assassin training, sure, but mostly to remove her from the narrative while he shuffled other characters around.

Martin, being the writer he is, likely wants to earn all of these stories before launching the finale. Will he get there? I think it’s probably impossible, given how expansive the story has become. But it’s nice to see at least someone putting in the effort.

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