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Game of Thrones is no longer a show where anything can happen

It's more predictable now — but that's a good thing.

Game of Thrones
The Waif closes in on her prey.
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. First up this week is culture editor Todd VanDerWerff.

Todd VanDerWerff: "What just happened on Game of Thrones?!" Vox writer Caroline Framke asked me on Sunday evening. When I admitted I'd started the episode late and was a few minutes behind, she said she'd just seen a lot of "keyboard smashing" on Twitter.

And then, after those few minutes, I arrived at the scene in question, which struck me as really unworthy of the keyboard smashing: Arya, having just booked passage to return to Westeros, came upon an old woman on a Braavosi bridge. The old woman promptly slashed at Arya with a knife, then stabbed her in the gut.

Arya removed the old woman's face to reveal the Waif, the woman always hanging out with Jaqen. Arya pushed the Waif away, then plunged into the river beneath the bridge, blood clouding up the water. She swam far enough to pull herself out of the water, then staggered down a crowded street, blood trickling out of her, looking for help and not finding it.

Is Arya dead?! I wouldn't stake my professional reputation as a solid predictor of TV plot twists on it — especially since the next episode is titled "No One," which could indicate a swan song, maybe — but c'mon. Arya's not dead. She hasn't seen Sansa again. She hasn't hung out with Daenerys yet (something I'm convinced will happen). She hasn't even seen her direwolf Nymeria again, for goodness' sake.

My mulling of Arya's potential fate is a result of all of the death Game of Thrones has served up over the years: For a couple of seconds, I actually pondered whether it might kill her off. Even though that would be narratively unsatisfying, death is often unsatisfying in real life. Maybe it will be here, too! But no. George R.R. Martin has built too many story promises around Arya. It wouldn't make a lot of sense to kill her now.

This is why I increasingly bristle at the idea that "anything can happen" on Game of Thrones, because there are plenty of things that either can't or won't. Dany isn't going to see her movement snuffed out before she gets to Westeros. The White Walkers are going to arrive before the end of the story. Jon Snow didn't even get to stay dead. The longer this story exists, in book and TV form, the more characters acquire "plot armor," and the more it resembles something conventional.

And this isn't a bad thing! Season six, despite stumbles early on, has easily been Game of Thrones' most satisfying season since its third (at least so far), and it's also by far the most conventional season, one that has by and large given fans things they want and mostly killed off supporting players in ways both tremendous (Hodor!) and perfunctory (basically anyone Ramsay has killed).

Arya dying would buck that convention, to be sure. But it would also result in a story where a lot of time was spent on something that ultimately just didn't matter. All of the relationships Arya built over the course of the series require some sort of narrative resolution to feel "satisfying." Can the show ignore that requirement? Sure. But it would be incredibly deflating.

Think about Martin's original pitch for the series as a trilogy. Both Ned's execution and the Red Wedding would have occurred in the first book in that trilogy, and that makes sense in terms of story structure: Act one is when you can plant the sorts of huge status quo shifts that Game of Thrones made its name on. But the deeper you get into a story and the more promises you make around certain characters, the less you can just remove them from the narrative.

Ned's death is the catalyst for the whole series, but it's also a sleight-of-hand trick. It suggests to us that anything can happen, while unveiling an event that the entire first book and/or season has carefully built toward. Arya's death would flout almost every narrative convention out there, should it happen. And while that might end up feeling cool (I'm all for flouting narrative convention), there are so many hurdles in its way that it probably just won't happen.

On some larger, meta-narrative level, Game of Thrones is about a bunch of characters who think they're in a historical fiction novel and end up living in a fantasy novel instead. And now that they're pretty firmly stuck on the latter side of the fence, the show should probably stop pretending anything can happen. The longer the story runs, the more trapped by convention we all become.

Read the recap.

The secret about Game of Thrones

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