WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE THIRD EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8, “THE LONG NIGHT,” FOLLOW.
Seven years led up to the moment in the latest Game of Thrones where Lady Arya Stark, daughter of Lord Eddard Stark and his wife Lady Catelyn Stark (of House Tully), defended the ancient House Seat of Winterfell against the Night King’s undead army. A lifetime of trauma and training culminated in a surprising moment that yanks the narrative of Game of Thrones in an entirely new direction for its remaining three episodes. With a single advanced move learned by the best assassins in the world, Arya Stark snatched victory from the jaws of ancient prophecy to kill the Night King where he stood. But was Arya Stark merely a catspaw for a larger organization without her knowledge? Was the death of the Night King really the success of the Faceless Men and their Many-Faced God?
A Journey Of A Thousand Deaths Begins With One
Everything that happened at the end of “The Long Night” was the culmination of a little girl watching her father beheaded in front of a cheering crowd. But even before that life-altering moment, Arya Stark was already on this path with her “dancing” lessons. Way back in Season 1, Ned Stark hired one of the best “water dancers” in the world to train Arya in sword fighting. Syrio Forel allegedly hailed from Bravos, where he was the First Sword to that Free City’s Sealord prior to making the jump to King’s Landing for unspoken reasons. First Swords of Bravos are chosen for their observant nature and ability to protect the Sealord from threats both seen and unseen.
It is Syrio Forel who introduces Arya Stark to the words she would live her life by. “What do we say to the God of Death? Not today.” While never definitively proven to be a member of the ranks of the Faceless Men, Syrio Forel’s words echo their teachings. Whether by coincidence, fate, or the machinations of shadowy figures moving people across the board of history, Arya Stark’s encounter with her master-at-arms would give her the beginner’s skill needed to survive her escape from King’s Landing. She wracked up her first kill with Needle, using it to kill a stable boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. From that moment, Arya was on the path to kill a King. But was it her own choice or were there machinations from across the Narrow Sea guiding her destiny?
Meeting For The First Time (Again?)
After her flight from King’s Landing, Arya Stark made her way North with recruits for the Night’s Watch. It was during this pivotal moment in her life when she met the Faceless Man she knew as Jaqen H’ghar. Since Syrio Forel’s alleged death happened off-camera, there will always be theories that Jaqen H’ghar was merely another face for her swordmaster. If that is the case, then Arya Stark was marked for greatness by the Faceless Men long before she knew they even existed.
Under Jaqen’s tutelage, Arya would learn the importance of choosing the right targets. When given the gift of three deaths for saving H’ghar’s life, Arya uses them to retaliate against those in her immediate circle: the torturer known as The Tickler and the suspicious knight Set Amory Lorch. She later demands Jaqen H’ghar as her third death unless he helps her and her friends escape Lord Tywin Lannister’ clutches. It is only in the aftermath when Ayra turns down Jaquen’s offer to travel to Bravos with him, that reality sets in. Had Arya assassinated bigger players in the game, the course of history might be less bloody. It was a lesson she would retain for the rest of her journey.
The “Valar Morghulis” coin given to Arya would also serve as a constant reminder during the rest of her time in Westeros that another way to vengeance lay just across the water. A token not given lightly and certainly meant to entice the angry young Stark into a life in the service of the Faceless Men.
A Hard-Knock Life
The next several years would not be kind to Arya Stark, but they would prepare her for her destiny. Captured by Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, Arya would bear witness to the slaughter of the Red Wedding, go so far as to see the Freys and Boltons parade the mutilated corpse of her brother Robb Stark. She would kill her first grown man — a Frey — with a knife stolen from The Hound. A chance encounter at a tavern with Polliver would end with his death and the return of the sword Needle to Arya’s possession. The Hound encouraged Arya’s rage, telling her that it was a good motivator in dark times. He was also the one to teach her that fighting pretty won’t save her life, but fighting dirty will. A lesson that would come back to haunt Sandor Clegane when Arya Stark left him for dead, rather than being goaded into killing him.
Across The Narrow Sea
In Bravos, Arya Stark’s transformation became complete. Not into “no one” as the man wearing Jaqen H’ghar’s face would tell her. But into Lady Arya Stark of Winterfell, Champion of her House. Joining the House of Black and White, Arya would spend at least two years learning the ways of the Faceless Men. Trained by “Jaqen H’ghar” and the enigmatic Waif, Arya Stark underwent many trials. She learned the art of patience while waiting outside the House of Black and White for the Faceless Men to accept her. She learned respect for the dead. She learned the use of dark magic to steal the faces of the dead. She learned to use all her senses when her vision was stolen with sorcery. She learned how to become a deadly assassin, devoid of emotion. But she never quite learned how to stop being Arya Stark.
During her time in Bravos, Arya would get vengeance on Ser Meryn Trant, killing him in cold blood in a brothel. While punished for killing outside the bounds of the code of the Faceless Men, it was that decision that cemented Arya would not forgive and she would not forget. The death of Ser Meryn Trant would kick off a series of events culminating with Arya killing the Waif with Needle, yet another token of her life as a Stark of Winterfell. Her mission to forget her past a complete failure, Ayra Stark abandoned the Faceless Men and set sail back to the Seven Kingdoms. Back to her home. Highly suspect for an organization like the Faceless Men to let an unfinished trainee out into the world where their secrets could be revealed. Unless they were playing a higher level of political game. One that needed Arya Stark to remember who she was, in order to save the world. Otherwise, it seems highly convenient that a Faceless Man, who are known for the their ability to vanish without a trace, changing their skin like men change clothes, just happened to be where Arya Stark, slayer of the Night King, would be.
Home Again, Home Again
The Prodigal Daughter returned to Westeros with a vengeance. Literally. Using the skills learned over six years, Arya Stark donned the face of a servant and destroyed House Frey, root and stem. In revenge for the Red Wedding, Arya Stark murdered the entirety of House Frey with cannibal pie and poison, then sauntered out as if she wasn’t steeped in metaphorical blood. She would go on to Winterfell where she would assist her sister Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell in ridding herself of a bothersome mockingbird. Reunited with her family, Arya Stark joined the war council to plan the battle that would ultimately lead to her assassinating the Night King and saving the North, perhaps even all of humanity.
But the question remains: how powerful are the Faceless Men? They are allegedly responsible for the downfall and utter decimation of Old Valyria. They clearly have ancient, powerful magic. When Jaqen H’ghar allows Arya to leave the House of Black and White, despite not completing her training, was it in service to the Many-Faced God? Different cultures worship the god of death under many names, and two of them are R’hllor and the weirwood trees. Has Arya been a creature of the Many-Faced God this entire time? And if so, is the Many-Faced God a friend? Or a manipulative foe?