Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones season seven, episode two, “Stormborn.”
And now, six full seasons later, they’ve finally met again.
Their reunion in “Stormborn” is a reward for Thrones fans who’ve been watching all the way since the beginning. We haven’t seen or heard anything about Nymeria since back in 2011, and now the show has at long last tied up this loose thread.
But contrary to some hopes, Nymeria’s return seems to be a curtain call rather than a reintroduction of the direwolf as a recurring presence. Arya asked Nymeria to return north with her, but recognized that her direwolf — now absolutely enormous, and leading a large wolfpack — had changed.
So in the end, Nymeria decided to roam free with her pack rather than staying with Arya. And according to showrunner D.B. Weiss in the “Inside the Episode” segment, Arya’s final words to Nymeria, “That’s not you,” are a reference to something she herself told her father back in season one. (When Ned said she’d grow up to be a lady, Arya said, “That’s not me.”)
George R.R. Martin’s books, meanwhile, have been handling this subplot very differently. Though Arya and Nymeria have not yet met again in person and it’s unclear if they ever will, the book version of Arya has developed similar magical “warging” powers to those of Bran, and has been warging into Nymeria from afar for the past few books. So in a way, the pair has been closer than ever.
The TV show’s adaptation of the storyline is of a piece with the way it has generally downplayed the Stark direwolves. Partly due to technical special effects limitations and partly due to what seems to be a desire to not overuse magic, Game of Thrones has shunted the wolves, who are omnipresent in the book series, to the side.
So remind me what happened to Nymeria in the first place?
Nymeria was among the pack of direwolf cubs the Starks discovered and adopted as pets back in Game of Thrones’ very first episode. There were six, one for each of the Stark children.
And then Prince Joffrey had to ruin everything.
When Ned Stark journeyed south to serve as King Robert Baratheon’s Hand in the series’ second episode, he brought Arya, Sansa, and their two direwolves with him. They traveled together with the king’s party, which included Queen Cersei and Prince Joffrey.
While the wagon train was stopped one day, Arya was practicing swordplay by fake dueling with sticks against Mycah, the redheaded son of a butcher. Joffrey saw them and pulled his first dreadful power play of the series, demanding that Mycah try practicing against him — while Joffrey wielded a real sword.
The prince pressed his sword against Mycah’s cheek and drew blood, and Arya fought back, striking Joffrey with her stick. Joffrey attempted to fight back with his sword, but Nymeria jumped on him and sank her teeth into his arm.
Nymeria had wounded a prince, drawing royal blood, so Arya knew the Lannisters would never let the animal live. She decided that to save Nymeria’s life, she had to send Nymeria away — and threw rocks at her so she’d run off in a sad scene.
Since then, the Stark direwolves have died, one by one:
- First was Sansa’s wolf, Lady, whom Cersei demanded be executed for Nymeria’s attack on Joffrey.
- Then Robb’s wolf, Grey Wind, died along with Robb Stark at the Red Wedding.
- In season six, Rickon Stark was betrayed by the Umbers and handed to the Boltons — and his direwolf, Shaggydog, was beheaded.
- And later in that season, Bran Stark’s wolf Summer was killed when the White Walkers attacked the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave.
Now only Nymeria and Jon’s white direwolf Ghost remain. And while anything could happen in season eight, Arya and Nymeria’s reunion scene in “Stormborn” sure felt like it would be the last time we’ll see Nymeria, who will go on living her best life in the woods of the Riverlands.
The TV show has downplayed the direwolves compared to the books
The direwolves are an integral part of Martin’s book series. The Starks who still have their wolves are rarely seen without them. And importantly, the book versions of Bran, Jon, and Arya all seem to have some form of warging ability (the power to enter their wolves’ minds).
This power is most fully developed in Bran, but Jon and Arya see through their wolves’ eyes and perhaps even direct their wolves’ actions when they dream. Arya in particular rather disturbingly dreams of killing and eating people as Nymeria, who (as in the show) is now heading a large pack of wolves.
But the HBO adaptation has gone in a very different direction. Though the series showed a lot of the wolves in season one, their appearances have been noticeably rare in later seasons, with two being brought back in season six only to be unceremoniously killed off.
That’s no accident. Game of Thrones has found that now that the direwolves are big enough that they have to be CGI creations, they’re very expensive and difficult to animate. (They seem to have been much more challenging than the dragons, perhaps because it’s more difficult to convincingly animate an animal that we expect to look and move like a real wolf.)
For instance, the original script for last year’s bravura “Battle of the Bastards” episode featured Ghost fighting at Jon Snow’s side throughout the battle — but Game of Thrones’ creative team concluded it would be too expensive to heavily feature both a wolf and a giant in the same fight.
"[Ghost] was in there in spades originally, but it’s also an incredibly time consuming and expensive character to bring to life," the episode's directo, Miguel Sapochnik, told Business Insider last year. “Ultimately we had to choose between Wun Wun and the direwolf, so the dog bit the dust.”
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss also decided to make Bran the only Stark child with magical warg powers (so far), and have never introduced any wolf dreams for Jon or Arya. I’d speculate that this change was motivated by a desire not to overuse magic, and to focus on the other aspects of Jon and Arya’s storylines.
All of this is to say that the somewhat underwhelming and anticlimactic role of the direwolves in the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones could turn out to be quite different in the books, which are not constrained by budgeting or special effects concerns. But until Martin finishes writing them, we’ll never know what that fate may be.