Monday, May 30, 2016

Arya Stark (spoilers through episode 6.6)

Promotional photo of Maisie Williams as Arya Stark
on Game of Thrones. © HBO
For all of Season 5 and half of Season 6 of Game of Thrones, Arya Stark has been at the House of Black and White in Braavos where she receives instruction from Jaqen H'ghar in a martial discipline of selflessness. Her learning curve follows a standard trope of combat training that includes endless repetitions of tedious, humiliating, and pointless exercises calculated to deflate the ego that gets in the way of discipline. The goal set before Arya is to become a girl who has no name.

Arya's pointless exercises include not only mopping the Atrium, which is the first room inside the doors where the poisoned fountain offers euthanasia for those who want it, but also washing the dead. The trope occurs in most boot camp movies (like Full Metal Jacket and GI Jane, but also more advanced training stories like An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun). The martial training trope also includes The Karate Kid—"wax on, wax off." There is no shame in using a trope that's been around for a while: this is what literature does: literature is the growth on the ancient literary tree, so it is at once new yet growing out of the tradition of which it seeks to be a part, and Game of Thrones makes the dramas of Arya's training fresh and new.

Arya's presence in the House of Black and White is complicated by the Waif, her immediate supervisor at her chores, her trainer, and her tormentor. It's not immediately clear why the Waif torments Arya. It isn't just that Arya hasn't yielded up her former being to become a girl who has no name. There are hints that the Waif is jealous of Arya's high-born upbringing, which is ironic because, of all the castle interiors we have seen, Winterfell is among the humblest. Nevertheless, Arya is a girl of privilege and in her life before the House of Black and White she was addressed as "my lady" or "m'lady."

Arya from the beginning is like a kitten pushing the envelope and venturing farther and farther from the nest before she returns to rejoin her mother and the litter. She eschews Sansa's sewing and all things lady-like and stereotypical foisted upon her because she's female. She has no plans on being a lady, but she is thrilled when Jon Snow gives her the skinny lightweight sword that she ironically nicknames Needle. In one of the most intimate parent-child conversations of the show—most of those, I have to say with some chagrin belong to Cersei, especially those with Joffrey—Ned sits down to talk with Arya to make sure she understands that the sword is not a toy. But Arya understands these things much better than, say, Sansa's sewing, and she answers her father's questions to his satisfaction. He sees in her the seriousness that he needs to see to bless her entry into swordsmanship. He arranges training for her in what her instructor calls "dancing lessons" (and what always properly effeminate Sansa believes actually are dancing lessons).

Arya's dance instructor is Syrio Forel, who, significantly, is from Braavos, and he teaches with a golden mean between harshness and kindness. He is exactly what Arya needs—indeed, the sword from Jon Snow, the heart-to-heart talk and lessons arranged by her father, and the encouraging pedagogy of Syrio Forel are the gifts that she needs to survive for the travails that lie ahead. That sort of alignment of stars falling into place provides one of the thrills of watching Game of Thrones multiple times because there is much going on that I won't recognize the first time through.

"Do you pray to the gods?" Forel says.

"The Old and the New," Arya says.

"There is only one god, and His name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: 'not today,'" Forel says.

It's a verbal lesson against the backdrop of the physical lesson of the water dance, and once we've seen all the show to date—I mean through to today's Episode 6.6—this attitude toward death should remind us of similar ideas bantered about by Jaqen H'ghar. Since we don't actually see Forel fall when the moment comes, he's left for Arya and for us, the audience, to assume that he is dead, but there seems to be a trope (or a rule) there: if you don't see the body, then he's not really dead. (Remember when we see Pasha Antipov's glasses fall in the snow in Doctor Zhivago? And there is a shock of discovery when we see that the infamously ruthless Strelnikov, is who we know as gentle but angry Pasha, who was dead...) And that's to say nothing of Jon Snow's sharp inhalation at the beginning of episode 6.2. But whether Syrio Forel turns out to be Jaqen H'ghar or not, he foreshadows him. Maybe all Braavosi have this ambiguous love-hate relationship with death.

There's one other bit of foreshadowing in about the same episode, and that is Arya, chasing a cat, finds herself deep in the bowels of the castle where the old dragon skulls, big as Volkswagen Beetles, are kept. She has to hide herself as two men deep in plotting to kill her father walk by. Then, lost, she comes out into the open through some castle cloaca. She is filthy and disheveled, and the guards at the gate do not recognize her as the daughter of the King's Hand. They assume that she is some urchin trying to con her way into the city to beg. They don't even recognize her as a girl but call her a boy. In short, she has at this moment completely lost her identity—she is not even a girl that has no name.

So Arya almost does become a girl with no name at the House of Black and White. Her commitment strengthened by defeating, though blind, the Waif at staves, she receives the gift of sight again. While the Waif seethes in the background, Jaqen H'ghar questions Arya and seems pleased. He says she can leave or she can accept a mission and stay. Arya accepts the mission to poison an actress who is performing with a troupe in town.

Yet it turns out that the troupe is performing a history play involving Robert Baratheon, the Starks, and the Lannisters—a kind of medieval live performance of Game of Thrones. (I'm too big a Bergman fan not to mention how Bergmanesque it seems to have a Medieval troupe performing a play within a play—a Game of Thrones within a Game of Thrones—though perhaps Shakespearean would stand equally well—Hamlet could apply here in many ways.) Though we don't know why Arya changes her mind at the last possible moment—I suspect that the troupe's drama brings her to realize she has a mission as great in life with a name as without—she knocks the poisoned flask out of the hands of the actor at the last possible moment.

Arya has tossed her old clothes of identity into the sea, but she has wisely witheld from discarding Needle. At the end of Episode Six, we see Arya tucking herself in with Needle in a dark hiding place. Meanwhile the Waif reminds Jaqen H'ghar that he promised she could be the one to kill Arya if she failed. A reckoning is coming soon.

I would like to think of Arya as one of those characters at the heart of the engine that drives the plot. But Game of Thrones is infamous for killing off its characters, and the characters at the engine seem to be those who get killed the most. I hope she makes it though. I was devastated last week when we lost Hodor. I don't think I could take losing Arya.

A Bit More about Diana Rigg

As I mentioned last week, Diana Rigg was a sexy sleuth among the plethora of television spy dramas spawned in the wake of James Bond. Although her primary gig was with Patrick Mcnee in The Avengers, she was lured off to do some small independent films that were shown at stag parties, although they didn't have any sexual content to speak of. Here are a few of those films. Think of it as what Lady Olenna Tyrell did for work in the old days before she retired from Her Majesty's Service.