(Warning Season 5 spoilers below!)
As Season Five grows ever closer, we begin the annual question of who will live and who will die in the next brutal installment of Game of Thrones, but some characters’ ability to survive may not be as gratifying as we expect. In Season One, Cersei declares that there is no middle ground between life and death when you play the game of thrones, but by now we know she is not entirely correct. While many have lost their lives in the game, some have lost more—their morals, their identities, their souls. Perhaps an even greater fear than seeing a favorite character die is seeing them shaped and molded by the world they live in to become darker versions of themselves.
For Arya Stark, the journey into darkness, which began last season, will reach its climax in the next season, leaving us wondering if she is still the heroic girl we know and love.
These days, it’s easy to forget the girl we first saw in Winterfell whose greatest crime was failing at embroidery. Arya Stark has grown in past seasons, but as her character development turns ever more sinister, one cannot help but wonder how long it will be until she develops into someone as evil as those she first set out to punish.
“Stannis is a killer. The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer. Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers… so you better get used to looking at them.”
Westeros is made of killers, as Sandor Clegane informs Sansa in Season Two, and in such a world, if one does not do the killing then one is most likely to be the one killed. Still, it is difficult to see popular characters forced to adjust to the brutality of Westeros.
In the beginning of the series, the Starks represent the goodness of the world— morally white characters where those around them are grey. However, as the story has progressed, we have witnessed the Starks fall prey to the darkness around them—it is difficult to stay pure in a world where people are willing to go to any length to achieve power.
Some Starks succumbed to death, unable to see their way clear of the tangled web of lies and betrayal that is Westeros. Other Starks survived by compromising their morals. Whether they compromised in the name of survival or vengeance, we have seen every remaining Stark change in character to adapt to the dangerous world around them—from Bran warging into Hodor, to Sansa becoming partners with Littlefinger, and Arya’s increasingly savage murders (Rickon’s morals remain uncontested at the moment, much to the lament of those who wonder where he has gone). These actions were uncharacteristic in the beginning, and justifiable given the dangerous situations the characters were in. But more frightening than any of the horrors the Starks have been exposed to is how they have been subtly changed by their actions, until what was once uncharacteristic becomes part of their identity.
Arya Stark has changed dramatically since Season One. She has transformed from a girl fighting with sticks to a seasoned killer who lives by the words Valar Morghulis, or “All men must die.” But Arya’s development as a character is hardly complete. So far, Arya has managed to remain a hero in the eyes of viewers. She kills in the name of justice, inflicting death upon those who have hurt her friends and family. But in Season Five, as Arya travels to Braavos to learn killing from the most deadly of assassins, the Faceless Men, she may have to sacrifice more than ever before in order to become a killer capable of bringing down those who remain on her list.
Readers of A Feast for Crows will know that Arya is an extremely dedicated student to the art of death. Upon arriving in Braavos and finding her way to the House of Black and White, Arya strips herself of her past identity, giving up everything to fully immerse herself in the lessons of the mysterious “ kindly man” who teaches her. In her journey to becoming an assassin, Arya learns a great deal–from how to be blind to how to bestow the ultimate gift of death upon an unsuspecting victim. But perhaps most of all, Arya learns that she cannot be herself in order to survive. Instead, she gives up her identity as Arya until the only remnants of her past self remain in her dreams.
One cannot help but wonder if Arya has been consumed by her hunger for vengeance to such a point that she has lost herself along the way.
It is easy to become caught up in Arya’s exciting story and forget the tragedy of her character. Like all of George R.R. Martin’s characters, Arya is only human—she is no “badass killer girl” who serves as nothing more than a place-holder in someone’s novel. While she may seem invincible, Arya is just as vulnerable to the corruption of Westeros as anyone else. True, she has shown amazing strength of character, but as she continues to survive in a brutal world, her strength becomes something fueled less by a sense of justice than by cold, calculating hate. Even as we watch Arya grow in prowess at killing, we are watching something good begin to decay. As we watch Season Five, it will be interesting to see how the darker side of Arya manifests itself, and whether we still see her as a hero after the last episode.
Find out in Spring of 2015 as Game of Thrones returns to air.