Arya leaping from the shadows to shank the Night King was not badass. But why not?
Plenty of people have lobbed well-founded criticisms at that moment: The Night King was Jon’s adversary, not hers; her ninja skills leveling up was out of nowhere; the Night King’s invasion ended way too quickly; you can’t just retcon in a friggin’ prophecy; the list goes on. They don’t get to why it wasn’t badass though.
Badassery is actually something very specific in story telling, and we can break apart the story elements to see how it works and why it failed with Arya.
Goal -> Obstacle -> Struggle -> Resolution
Stories are inherently about conflict. Someone wants something, and there’s some number of obstacles in their way. Without the obstacles, there’s no story.
In Stand By Me, a group of four boys have heard about the dead body of a missing kid in the woods. So they call a taxi, and it drives them right to the spot. The end. What an awful movie that would have been. “Man wants something, gets it” is not a story. “Man wants something, there’s an obstacle in the way, he struggles to overcome the obstacle, and then gets the thing” — that’s a story.
Let’s apply this to Arya during the Battle of Winterfell and see how it goes:
Arya wants to survive the zombie apocalypse. She fights hard on the castle’s battlements, gets overwhelmed by zombies, tries to escape, is injured in the process, has to sneak through the library, but eventually makes it to temporary safety at the hearth with Melisandre. That’s actually doing a pretty good job. Her goal is to stay alive, the obstacle is a hundred thousand zombies, and she struggles against them. She’s sort of a badass there. Now compare it to what follows:
Melisandre tells Arya to go kill the Night King. Then she does.
That’s not even hyperbole. Arya gets a new goal, and the next time we see her, she completes it with ease. What’s missing is the struggle.
The Struggle Is What Makes A Character A Badass
Compare Arya’s scenes in 8.3 with Jon’s fight against a White Walker at Hardhome. He’s thrown to the ground and disarmed, finds another sword, has is break against the Walker’s weapon, gets bludgeoned in the chest and falls hard, then he recovers Longclaw, tries to run, can’t get away, fights with the Walker, blocks the attack, gets in the counter-stroke and kills it. Badass.
Compare it to the non-badass version: the White Walker throws Jon away from the dragon glass; he draws Longclaw, blocks the Walker’s next attack, counters and kills it. The audience’s reaction isn’t “wow, badass!” it’s “lolwut?” The reason it stops being badass is because Jon didn’t struggle to overcome the attack. This is why the audience barely remembers Jon killing the second White Walker during the Folly Beyond the Wall; he just does it with ease.
Plot Armor And Deus Ex Machina Are Badass Repellent
Where stories often go wrong is having the obstacle overcome by something other than the character’s effort. The Battle of the Bastards is an example of this, and why it doesn’t stand out as a “badass” moment for Jon. He doesn’t overcome the Bolton army through his own effort — he’s rescued by the Knights of the Vale. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of awesome action in that episode, but none of the characters are badasses. Fabian Wagner, the episode’s cinematographer, is a badass.
This is also why plot armor feels so incredibly wrong. It allows the character to achieve their objective not through their own personal effort, but because the hand of God has intervened to remove obstacles from their path. Plot armor not only makes us question the rules the story is operating under, it robs characters of the opportunity to engage with their obstacles.
Power Is Not Badass, And Wars Not Make One Great
Characters who are so powerful that they don’t struggle to overcome their obstacles are not badass. If there’s no struggle, they’re not even really obstacles. This is what makes Daenerys ultimately so underwhelming at times. Flying on a dragon and burning her enemies produces some really awesome visuals, but it’s not badass; it’s just easy. Dany is actually far more badass when she’s sitting on her throne in the Great Pyramid receiving supplicants. She has the goal of ruling a peaceful, prosperous and free city, but all sorts of economic and political obstacles emerge, and she struggles to figure out how to navigate a complex system. She ends up being far more badass sitting on a chair than riding on a dragon.
Brienne isn’t a badass because she’s such a good warrior. If she was, we’d think The Mountain was a badass as well, but we don’t. Brienne is a badass because when she fights we can see the effort going into it. Totally different from Ser Gregor cutting down lesser men with ease. Makes Gregor an excellent obstacle for our other characters, but he is not himself a badass. Likewise with Arya sparring against Brienne, Arya isn’t a badass. It’s not a struggle for her; she’s toying with Brienne. Maisie Williams on the other hand, she’s right handed but learned to do her sword fighting scenes with Syrio left handed to stay true to the character. That’s badass.
We see the same problem with the ending of Rogue One when Darth Vader boards the Profundity and murders the shit out of a bunch of rebel fleet troopers. It might be a fun sequence, but when he destroys a squad of troopers with zero effort, it’s not badass. Compare that to Luke’s duel in Return of the Jedi. Beating down Vader and eventually cutting off Vader’s hand is also not badass. He has struggled to overcome an obstacle, but what’s gone wrong is that he’s no longer working towards his goal. But, then he remembers his goal and overcomes his hatred. When he throws down his lightsaber and says he is a Jedi like his father before him, truly badass.
Tyrion throwing down the Hand of the King badge on the steps of the Red Keep — His goal has become to live in a way he can be proud of, and now he has to be willing to give up his life to do so. Badass.
Littlefinger’s death — He posed no real threat to Sansa and Arya so he’s not an obstacle. Not badass.
“Your meat is bloody tough” — Robb and Greatjon Umber have just stumbled into a very dangerous situation for the two of them and manage to find a way out of it that preserves their lives and the alliance between their houses. Two badasses.
Euron’s fleet — Apparently it has stealth, teleportation, and perfect aim against non-plot armored enemies. Not badass.
Arya killing Ser Meryn — The actual stabbing is fairly easy for her, but it takes effort to get into the position to do so, including jeopardizing her status with the Faceless Men. Fairly badass.
Arya killing the Waif — Arya does struggle to lure the Waif into her trap, right? Seems like it should be badass. But, she already plot armored her way out of the Waif’s earlier assassination attempt, so she doesn’t seem like a true threat. Then the giant leap towards the end — is Arya just frantically running from the Waif, or was that leap (and the injury!) part of the plan all along? We have no idea, and it almost seems like she reaches the room with Needle by chance, not by design. Not badass.
Tyrion leads the sally against Stannis’s men at the Mud Gate — As badass as it gets.
Dany says “dracarys” and her dragons do all the work — No.