In many ways, Game of Thrones is a series of sacrifices made by people who refuse to turn away from the truth of their death. Ned marches south to King’s Landing, knowing it is a viper’s nest he is ill suited to take on. Stannis marches on the Bolton-occupied Winterfell knowing that the majority of his men have abandoned him. Olenna Tyrell eagerly drinks the poisoned wine proffered by Jaime so that she can deliver one last barb. Jon charges into Ramsay’s army and would have died but for Sansa’s timely intervention.
This ethos, that one faces death head on and, in doing so, dies with honor, is undercut in one key moment in season one, episode eight, “The Pointy End”—the first episode written by George R.R. Martin himself. During the Lannister purge of Stark men, Arya is beset by Ser Meryn Trant of the Kingsguard while training with her combat instructor, Syrio Forel. Arya wants to stay by her teacher’s side and help him fight off his attackers, but Forel repeats a line from an earlier training session: “What do we say to the god of death?” Arya responds with “Not today” and runs.
That discretion is the better part of valor is an idea that has largely been lost on Game of Thrones and Sunday’s epic, hour-and-a-half long battle is no exception. The Dothraki charge headlong into the army of the dead, arakhs ablaze and heralded by flaming stones reminiscent of the red comet, only to be snuffed out, almost to a man. Theon, having been given absolution by the family he wronged, charges at the Night King, heroically but futilely, and is impaled on his spear. Lyanna Mormont, already swatted aside by an undead giant’s club, returns to stand against him, stabbing him through the eye but only after she has been fatally crushed. Beric Dondarrion holds fast, posed Christ-like in the halls of Winterfell to give Arya and the Hound a chance to escape. Jorah Mormont doggedly faces dozens of the dead to die protecting his queen. They are all heroic moments—each iconic and worthy of the show’s catalogue of sacrifice.
And even where death is not the result, characters charge into it without looking back: Brienne, Jaime, Grey Worm, Gendry, Tormund, and Podrick fight with their backs (literally) to the wall. Jon takes on a rotting Viserion, blue flame guttering out of the sides of its ruined face. And the enemy they all refuse to turn from has never been clearer. In what turns out to be their last battle, the dead are portrayed not as a shambling horde, but a tide. They flow over Dothraki, Unsullied, Vale Knights, and Northmen as a crashing wave of limbs and teeth and ice blue eyes. They claw their way out of Winterfell’s solemn sarcophagi and skitter between the holy boughs of the Godswood, violating the last sacrosanct places in the castle that has served as home for the viewers and survivors this season. There seems to be nothing to do but face this tide and die in its onslaught.
Arya’s story, however, has always been much more complicated in its relationship to death. In season one’s penultimate episode, at the moment when the series shows its hand regarding the ubiquity of death in the beheading of Ned Stark, Arya is shielded from the moment of her father’s execution by Yoren, the Night’s Watch recruiter. When Arya is outside the main hall of the Twins, she is prevented from entering the main chambers and does not witness Robb or Catelyn’s murder. Her time spent with the Brotherhood Without Banners is one where she sees the finality of death banished in the form of a continually resurrected Beric Dondarrion. She channels her meditations on death into a nightly prayer about future actions, rather than an acceptance and mourning of her deceased loved ones. Through her list, Ned Stark becomes “Joffrey, Cersei, Ilyn Payne.” Syrio Forel becomes “Meryn Trant.” Mycah the Butcher’s Boy becomes “The Hound.” Robb and Catelyn become “Walder Frey.”
Even her long association with the Faceless Men of Braavos is a strange detour away from facing death. We are told in the novels that the Faceless Men began as Valyrian slaves who, in the slag pits and mines of the old Freehold, offered their fellow slaves the gift of death—peace at the end of their struggles. In their current iteration, they are death doulas as well as assassins. People come to their House of Black and White to die with dignity. But the Faceless Men themselves do not face death. They cannot. As their name implies they have no face with which to do it. They use the faces of the dead to do their work in secret, but in doing so, they resurrect those who have passed. They even have their own transmutational prayer: “Valar Morghulis” they say in High Valyrian, “all men must die.” But it is the first half of a call and response. All men must die is answered with “Valar Dohaeris,” “all men must serve.” For the cult, death is transmuted into service and they exempt themselves from the process: all men must die, but they themselves are no one.
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So Arya, who has, for four seasons now, served the Many-Faced God, the god of death who all men must face, has actually run determinedly from death at every turn. She does not grieve—she avenges. She is still the scared little girl who cannot and will not face death, so she wears its face instead. Compare this with her sister who, in the first novel, goes from thinking that Joffrey “can make me look at [her father, Ned Stark’s head…] but he can’t make me see [it]” to telling her estranged husband in last night’s episode, “That’s the most heroic thing we can do now: look the truth in the face.” Sansa looks dead on at death, horror, and truth; Arya says “not today.”
But both the novels and the show have a remarkable penchant for turning iconic lines on their head. Jaime Lannister’s coy bon mot, sending his regards to Robb Stark, is later repeated by Roose Bolton as he murders the Young Wolf and becomes the seed of a false conspiracy in Lady Stoneheart’s mind, convincing her that Jaime was personally responsible for the Red Wedding. Ned Stark’s assurance to his daughter that he will always be there for her in his assertion that “the lone wolf dies but the pack survives” becomes Sansa and Arya’s pact to protect one another now that he is dead. And Melisandre, whose limited gifts of foresight have previously allowed her to repeat Ygritte’s last words to Jon Snow, now allow her to channel Syrio Forel’s to Arya: “What do we say to the God of Death?” What began as a bravo’s bold intention to cheat death has become a little girl’s determination to never face it. But here at the end of the world, a broken prophetess who once sacrificed another little girl who wore death on her face, now offers the same line to Arya, reforged into an imperative.
The God of Death has come to Winterfell. Not the metaphoric, Many-Faced God that Arya has worshipped, but the literal one: the extinction of mankind, the eldritch, frozen king of the dead. Jon Snow locked eyes with him once at Hardhome and ran. During his second encounter, at the shattered Gates of Winterfell, he hesitated and lost his chance. Daenerys Targaryen attempted to bring him down and found herself wanting. Theon Greyjoy charged straight at him, but did so knowing that he would be brought low and might only succeed in buying some time for surrogate brother, Bran. But Arya—who has never truly stared death in the face; who lost her family to deaths she could not see; who cloaked herself in death so that all men might serve; who gave up her life, her identity, her chance to be human, so that she might channel her loss and grief into vengeance and action—Arya is asked to remember what we say to the God of Death.
For Beric, death is a purpose he has moved towards his entire life. For Lyanna and Dolorous Edd, it is a final chance to defy injustice and protect their loved ones. For Theon and Jorah it is a chance at redemption with those they betrayed. For Melisandre, it is an opportunity to step away from a centuries-long vigil after a job well-done. For Arya, it is a truth she has avoided from the very beginning of the show, and one that, alongside the viewers, she faces at the end of all things, and answers “Not Today.”
Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.