Just like episode 8.3, this post won’t be about Jon Snow.
What I want to discuss in this post is one thing that made Arya’s defeat of the Night King so controversial. I’m not arguing here about whether or not it was bad, but instead focusing on why there is so much disagreement and how that relates to the craft of writing.
The issue I want to focus on is what happens off camera and how much the audience is meant to fill in with their own imagination.
A Tale of Two Aryas
Consider two alternative versions of Arya’s story:
In Braavos, Arya trained to be a master assassin. In addition to learning to be sneaky, she got extensive combat training in a variety of techniques. During the Battle of Winterfell, after she takes off running towards the God’s Wood, she relies mostly on her stealth skills like we saw in the library sequence to sneak past the wights, and then when she reaches the God’s Wood, she uses the uber assassin skills she got from the Faceless Men to do that amazing knife switch.
We’ve seen Arya be very quick and agile, and while we didn’t see her train in knife combat or anything really similar to what she does in the sparring match with Brienne and against the Night King, we know she’s been training to be an assassin and that a single Faceless Man can whoop a whole squad of Lannister soldiers, so they must have some really great combat skills. So, this is a fair version of what happened.
Now for the other:
In Braavos, Arya was mostly trained in observation. She learned to read people and play the Game of Faces. She got some combat experience, but it was mostly an exercise in listening and watching, what Syrio earlier called “the true seeing.” During the Battle of Winterfell, after she takes off running towards the God’s Wood, she encounters hallways packed full of zombies like we just saw her running from, and what Jon has to carve his way through on his own path to the God’s Wood.
When we see Arya in Braavos, the training did put a lot of emphasis on observation. Her first assignment was to go to the harbor, not to gather information (Jaqen already had it), but to test “what she would see and what she would not see.” While we do see her have combat training with a staff, we see her train with a staff exclusively, and even those scenes put a lot of emphasis on observation rather than combat technique. When she’s given an assassination mark, both times she’s given poison, not a knife or other weapon. Again, based on what we’ve seen on screen, this is a fair version of what happened.
Arya killing the Night King is so controversial (in part) because if you imagined the first scenario it makes a lot of sense, but if you imagine the second scenario it comes out of friggin’ nowhere and is absolutely crackers. The problem is that neither audience member is necessarily wrong, but they end up with wildly different reactions to the story.
When I teach academic writing, I routinely tell my students to leave as little as possible for the reader to fill in for themselves because you always run the risk that the audience will fill in the gaps with something other than what you intended. In the case of Arya, the gaps could be filled in with the exact opposite of what the writers had in mind.
Two Plus Three Equals What?
A few years ago my MFA program was visited by novelist Andrew O’Hagan who gave a talk on the craft of writing. One of the bits of advice he gave us was (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here): “Don’t tell the audience two plus three equals five. Just give them two and three and let them figure out the rest.”
It’s important to not lay everything out on a silver platter for the audience. The best story telling (like the best King’s Landing whores) leaves something to the imagination; it turns your brain on, not off. But if that’s the case, what went so horribly wrong with Arya? We can figure that out by first examining a case where the show got it right.
“I Serve the Realm”
Is the show version of Varys genuinely egalitarian with the good of the realm as his main motivation, or does he simply use that persona to disguise some ulterior motive? We don’t know, and viewers are bound to come to different conclusions about this. While the ambiguity in Arya’s story brings the show down, the ambiguity with Varys elevates it.
The show has given us two and three. We overheard Varys and Illyrio discuss removing Ned, bringing war to the realm, and restoring the Targaryen dynasty. We’ve seen Varys privately tell Littlefinger he has no ulterior motives in a conversation where he doesn’t have great reason to lie. We’ve seen him give a very believable speech to Tyrion about how Daenerys will make for a great queen. And, we’ve seen him realize a personal vendetta against the sorcerer who cut him. The show has given us lots of information about Varys, but has simply stopped short of telling us what to do with it. It’s given us the two and three, and now we can theorize and debate about what they add up to. (No you fool, you subtract the three! The answer is negative one!)
Two Plus What Equals Five?
Now we can contrast the ambiguity with Varys against the ambiguity with Arya. With Varys the ambiguity is in how to interpret the character. With Arya, the ambiguity is in what the facts of the story are. Was she trained in that type of fighting or was her training mostly just how to observe? Were the halls of Winterfell filled with zombies, or were there large rooms she could sneak around in?
The show has given us some of the information, then left a large blank, and finally told us the answer. It’s said, “Here’s a two. We’ll let you figure out the other number. …..Tada, the answer is five!” Everyone who was imagining three is satisfied (or less disappointed) with the outcome. Anyone who thought it was one or four can’t figure out how the hell the show came to the conclusion of five.
Leaving us wondering what Arya killing the Night King means for her, for her relationship with Jon, and for Jon’s relationship with the people who follow him is all great. Leaving us wondering how she killed the Night King is not.