One of the mantras of Game of Thrones is the phrase, “Winter is coming.” And in episode three of the show’s final season, winter finally comes. The Night King and his White Walkers descend upon Winterfell. There are – spoiler alert! – quite a few major casualties. But one character emerges as the hero of the hour.
At the end of the episode, Arya leaps out of nowhere to kill the Night King with a Valyrian steel blade. It not only destroys the terrifying creature, but all the people he reanimated for his army drop dead as well. The day is saved. And though beloved characters like Theon, Jorah and Lyanna Mormont are no more, the majority of the cast live to fight another day.
Arya’s act of heroism is spectacular. But it’s safe to say that not many people expected her to be the Night Killer’s vanquisher. Indeed, it seemed for a while that a character like Jon or Daenerys would get to do the deed. After all, there was the prophecy of Azor Ahai to consider – and Arya didn’t seem to fit the bill.
Yet it’s the tiny, deadly Stark daughter who manages to succeed where have others failed. And maybe that’s not so surprising when you look back over the show. All throughout, there have been hints about the important deed Arya would commit and how she would do it. The Hero of Winterfell was waiting in the wings all along.
After Arya slew the Night King, some fans weren’t just surprised – they were downright angry. Arya, they thought, had no right to strike the killing blow. She was given the label of a “Mary Sue,” which means an unrealistic female character with powers the plot never actually bestows upon her. Yet many spoke out against the very idea that Arya hadn’t earned her moment.
“To argue that Arya didn’t earn her defeat of the Night King is to willfully ignore her character arc throughout the series,” wrote Jessica Toomer for SyFy. “She’s grown from a scared, helpless waif to an assassin with steely resolve, one willing to sacrifice her life to save her people. She’s reclaimed her identity after spending years trying to shed who she was and where she came from.”
Others said the concept of the Mary Sue itself was wrong and sexist. “The term ‘Mary Sue’ itself has reached the point of being meaningless,” wrote David Crow for Den of Greek. “A larger political subculture that tends to dismiss the achievement of any women, even fictional ones, has latched onto the term as a blanket critique of any female character who is little more than a damsel in distress.”
Even Arya’s actress, Maisie Williams, worried about what fans might make of the character killing the Night King. “It was so unbelievably exciting,” Williams told Entertainment Weekly in April 2019, just after the episode aired. “But I immediately thought that everybody would hate it; that Arya doesn’t deserve it.”
“It has to be intelligently done because otherwise people are like, ‘Well, [the villain] couldn’t have been that bad when some 100-pound girl comes in and stabs him,’” Williams mused. “You gotta make it cool. And then I told my boyfriend and he was like, ‘Mmm, should be Jon though really, shouldn’t it?’”
But it was never going to be Jon; always Arya. And for a long time, the Game of Thrones writers knew exactly that. “I think it’s probably three years now, we’ve known that it was going to be Arya who delivers that fatal blow,” co-showrunner David Benioff said in a behind-the-scenes clip for the episode entitled “The Long Night.”
And to that end, the writers inserted a lot of foreshadowing. Going back three years takes us to season 7 – and there’s plenty of hints in there about Arya’s fate. In the opening scene of that season, the audience learns just how much of an effective and terrifying assassin the young Stark girl has become.
Using her Faceless abilities, Arya disguises herself as Walder Frey and poisons his whole clan while coldly reciting their misdeeds. It’s hard to argue that they didn’t have it coming. And the scene establishes Arya as someone possessing a lot of powerful abilities. And this, of course, includes her knack for stealth.
Another scene in season 7 provides even more foreshadowing. Bran – who can see into the future now – gives Arya the Valyrian steel dagger she will later use against the Night King. He tells her he doesn’t want it. But considering his own new abilities, there must be more to it than that. The scene also takes place in the same garden where the Night King is killed.
Another clue to Arya’s role came in the form of a training fight with Brienne of Tarth. During the fight, which leaves Brienne deeply impressed, Arya performs a clever two-handed move meant to deceive and destroy an enemy. This is exactly the same move she later uses to bring an end to the Night King.
The season eight premiere also sets up Arya’s victory. In one scene, Jon Snow is shocked when he turns around to find Arya behind him – because he didn’t see or hear her coming. “How did you sneak up on me?” he asks. And that conversation takes place at the Weirwood tree, exactly where the Night King dies.
Even “The Long Night” itself contains some tells for what will happen at the episode’s end. During the big battle, the Hound says, “We’re fighting Death! They can’t beat Death.” Beric Dondarrion answers back by pointing at Arya and saying “Tell her that.” In fact, he might have had something to do with her victory.
Curiously, the foreshadowing about Arya extends back far beyond those initial three years David Benioff talked about. Scenes from the earlier seasons have been recontextualized in the wake of Arya’s action. For example, why did Beric die and return to life so many times? Well, so he could be there to protect Arya on her way to the Night King.
In fact, even the very first scene in which Arya is featured gives a possible hint to her ultimate destiny. In the opening and aptly titled “Winter Is Coming” episode that kicked off the show, Arya is introduced. And she is presented as someone who is more powerful than anyone realizes.
The boys of the family are being taught to shoot bows and arrows, while Arya is stuck inside doing needlework with the women. Bran misses his shot, but suddenly Arya pops up – without anybody seeing her – and achieves a perfect bullseye with her own bow. So even as a child she was prone to sneak attacks.
And then there’s the Melisandre connection. Back in season three, the witch observes Arya and makes a prophecy about her. “I see a darkness in you, and in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes, eyes you’ll shut forever.” And those blue eyes turn out to belong to the Night King.
When Arya meets the Red Woman again during the Battle of Winterfell, she still remembers what Melisandre said to her all that time ago. “You said I’d shut many eyes forever. You were right about that too.” Melisandre answers her with “Brown eyes, green eyes… and blue eyes.” That makes Arya realize exactly what she has to do.
Melisandre also spurs Arya on with a reference to something in her past. She asks Arya, “What do we say to the god of Death?” and Arya answers with “Not today.” She learned those words from her first teacher, Syrio Forel, who died at the hands of Cersei Lannister’s minions after giving Arya time to escape.
At the end of “The Long Night,” Melisandre takes off the magic necklace that was keeping her alive. She then turns into a very old woman and dies almost instantly. With Arya’s purpose fulfilled, so too is Melisandre’s task – as she was one of the people responsible for getting Arya where she needed to be.
Actress Carice van Houten gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly about Melisandre’s last stand. She said she had had a feeling her character wouldn’t get a happy ending. “I was a bit emotional. I really like that we finally know what she came for, and it’s the end of her journey, “I can go now, my work is done” — without it being really dramatic,” she said.
The actress went on, “I expected to live a little bit longer. But I really liked the way they ended my character. She actually saves the day, so she’s a bit of a hero in the end, which is cool. For a long time she was hated – and fair enough. I got some points when I brought back Jon.” Melisandre did this back in season six.
Entertainment Weekly asked van Houten if she could talk about her final scene with Arya. She had enjoyed where Melisandre’s story had ended up. “I felt like that guy in the movie who gives the main character one last push to do it, like in a football game. I thought it was a cool moment,” she said.
Interestingly, it was also the Melisandre scenes which made Maisie Williams realize how important her role was to “The Long Night” and the ongoing story. “When we did the whole bit with Melisandre, I realized the whole scene with [her] brings it back to everything I’ve been working for over these past six seasons – four if you think about it since [Arya] got to the House of Black and White,” she told Entertainment Weekly.
The House of Black and White is where Arya trained to be an assassin. Her journey to become more powerful might not have initially seemed to have had much impact on the overall plot of the show and the advancing threat of winter. But that training was one of the many things which served her well in “The Long Night.”
The hope, Williams told Entertainment Weekly, was that no-one would guess in advance that Arya was gearing up to save everybody. “It all comes down to this one very moment. It’s also unexpected and that’s what this show does,” she said. And then she added, “So then I was like, ‘F**k you Jon, I get it.’”
Jon’s actor Kit Harington thankfully didn’t take that last comment too personally. “I was surprised, I thought it was gonna be me!” he told Entertainment Weekly about the twist. “But I like it. It gives Arya’s training a purpose to have an end goal. It’s much better how she does it, the way she does it.”
Harington continued, “I think it will frustrate some in the audience that Jon’s hunting the Night King and you’re expecting this epic fight and it never happens – that’s kind of Thrones. But it’s the right thing for the characters. There’s also something about it not being the person you expect. The young lady sticks it to the man.”
In fact, Jon might have been another person who helped Arya get within knife’s reach of the Night King. One curious scene in “The Long Night” involved him screaming – apparently for no reason – at the undead ice dragon Viserion. But actually, some fans think, he was trying to do considerably more than just yell.
One Reddit user, Applesoapp, pointed out that Jon was most likely screaming the words “Go, go,” for Arya. “Jon screamed at the undead dragon to distract it so Arya can run past and kill the Night King,” they said. “Ten seconds later… you can see the hair of a White Walker flying up when Arya sprints past the group of White Walkers. Jon once again was ready to sacrifice himself.”
The director of the episode, Miguel Sapochnik, said he deliberately set things up to imply Jon would do more in the fight than almost die for Arya. “I thought, ‘Hmm, if I see Arya running then I know she’s going to do something,’” he told Entertainment Weekly. So it’s not obvious what Arya is going to do until she does it.
Sapochnik continued, “So it’s about almost losing her from the story and then have her come in as a surprise and pinning all our hopes on Jon being the guy going to do it – because Jon’s always the guy. So we follow Jon in a continuous shot. I want the audience to think, ‘Jon’s gonna do it, Jon’s gonna do it…’ and then he fails. He fails at the very last minute. So I’m hoping that’s a nice switch that no-one sees coming.”
Strangely, though, another Reddit user may have predicted the entire Arya reveal all the way back in 2017. A person called gride9000 published a theory titled, “How the night king will die.” It focused on the journey of Arya’s blade. “Why does it deserve the screen-time in a season that can only be described as quickly paced?” they asked.
Seeing as how the blade had been passed along from Catelyn to Bran and finally to Arya, gride9000 posited that Arya would kill the Night King with it. Users who commented on the post were skeptical. But in the end gride9000 was vindicated. Arya really did slay the Night King with that exact weapon.
Game of Thrones has always let its characters change and evolve. All of the people whom audiences met in season one are now very different. Indeed, some of them are almost unrecognizable. Arya’s sister Sansa Stark, for example, went from a naïve little girl to savvy and powerful ruler.
But interestingly, Arya has undergone her transformation while still remaining true to herself. She doesn’t choose a traditional fairytale ending for herself, either. After the events of “The Long Night,” Gendry asks Arya to marry him. Arya turns him down with the words, “That’s not me.” This is exactly what she said in the first season when told she’d one day be a lady.
Arya could also have become a faceless assassin with no identity, but she chose not to be. She decided that her roots and her family were more important. At the end of the episode “No One,” she told Jaqen H’ghar, “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell and I’m going home.” All things considered, it’s a good thing she did.