For the past five seasons and change, we have followed the various characters in the world of Game of Thrones as they deal with the fallout of King Robert Baratheon’s death and the War of the Five Kings. Think back to how these characters were at the start of the story. Some were naïve. Some were foolhardy. Some were sullen and mired in lots of self-doubt and anguish. And some believed that they were blessed with power that would see them safe no matter what happened thanks to titles, positions, talents or wealth. As Catelyn Stark once told King Renly Baratheon, “These are the knights of summer and winter is coming.” Renly didn’t heed the wisdom of those words and he died. But others – the children of their great war – have and have heeded the lessons they have learned to survive.
One of these innocents is Brienne of Tarth’s squire, Podrick Payne, who, it just happens, runs into his old friend, Bronn at the Lannister siege of Riverrun. Podrick and Brienne have come to find a way to convince the Blackfish to strike his banners and come with them to the aid of Sansa Stark. While Brienne tries to convince Jaime to allow her to enter Riverrun, Bronn starts to assess what the young man has learned – by giving him a cheap shot when he’s not looking. As he continues to show him underhanded ways of winning, Bronn also questions the squire on the relationship between him and Brienne, whom he clearly points out is coveted by Jaime. In the aftermath of the War, it is as if there’s an understanding and an honesty between the two of them – one that compels Brienne to tell Jaime that she would fight him if needed. To Podrick this isn’t all that surprising. To Bronn, it’s the kind of behavior that would get them killed.
That fight, however, doesn’t come to pass. Though Brienne reaches the Blackfish, Ser Brynden refuses to heed Sansa’s call for help. Instead, he watches as Edmure Tully, his nephew and the rightful lord of Riverrun is sent by Jaime to order his men to lower the drawbridge and surrender to the Lannister and Frey forces. Jaime Lannister, the once-proud knight who rushed to meet every challenge with sword in hand, instead chooses to use the more underhanded techniques of his brother Tyrion to get what he wants – threatening Edmure with the death of his unseen son if he doesn’t surrender Riverrun. In that he’s taking the lessons that he’s learned from losing to Robb Stark as well as losing his hand in the War. Others aren’t so quick to adapt. The Blackfish stays true to his word and falls in battle, refusing to give his home or take flight with Brienne and Podrick. As Jaime watches them sail down the Trident, he stands triumphant – and alone. For Brienne, however, the escape is bittersweet. She has failed to win the Blackfish to Sansa’s cause and she knows she may not count on Jaime Lannister any more.
Jaime’s brother is one who has grown and changed as the War has ravaged the world. Tyrion has gone from the drunken, whoring, not-a-care-in-the-world Imp to a man capable of managing cities and overseeing kingdoms. His abilities have allowed for peace to come to Meereen. Trade flows, the red priests preach the talents of Daenerys and Varys sails off for new missions. He’s even getting Missandei and Grey Worm to relax and drink and share jokes. Into his peace arrives a fleet from the Slave Masters to lay siege to them. It immediately appears that, for all Tyrion has learned, he still hasn’t realized how to manage enemies like the former rulers of Slaver’s Bay. Lucky for him, Daenerys has learned that in her travels and she arrives with Drogon and her khalasar at the right moment to defy the old ways once more.
However, Tyrion’s and Jaime’s sister, on the other hand, is one who is refusing to adapt to lessons the war has taught her. She has been shamed, stripped of power and relegated to the sides by the High Sparrow and her uncle Kevan. Rather than looking for some way to outmaneuver the High Sparrow, she is eager to confront things head on. So when Lancel and other Poor Fellows arrive demanding she accompany them to the Great Sept, she insteads chooses to pit them against The Mountain. He promptly delivers blood and death. However, in that action, she reveals to the High Sparrow what her course of action will be: a trial by combat. Rather than allowing her to escape him that way, the High Sparrow quickly moves to make Tommen outlaw trial by combat and force the trials of both his mother and brother-in-law, Ser Loras, to be held at the Great Sept with seven septons as judges. Cersei has been outmaneuvered but her scheming is not at an end yet.
One not used to scheming is Sandor Clegane. Even as the year recuperating and rebuilding has passed, he remains one who is more comfortable heading into a problem and letting his fists and skills solve things. So he does in his quest for the murderous members of the Brotherhood without Banners who killed the peasants he was living with and helping. He cuts a path through the murderers until he reaches their leaders – as they are about to be hung by the Brotherhood’s leaders, Ser Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr. They allow Sandor the chance to exact his revenge even if it’s not as he wants it. Then they all sit and consider uniting forces. The Brotherhood claims to be fighting a cause greater than themselves. The man who was The Hound sits to consider it. Before, he fought for money, for drink, for the sake of violence. Sandor Clegane may now instead, after all the years and all the pain, choose to fight for a nobler cause.
One of his former causes was looking to pawn off Arya Stark on family for a reward. Instead, Arya escaped to Braavos to take up with the Faceless Men. That course, unfortunately for her, ended with her getting stabbed by the Waif. With nowhere to turn, Arya turns up at the mummers troupe where Lady Crane acts. The woman, glad to be repaying the favor to her young savior, takes her in, bandages her wounds and lets her heal. For this, the Waif comes and kills her – as had been demanded when the understudy had spoken her name in the House of Black & White. Then she chases Arya as the former protégé tries to flee from her across the streets, alleyways and markets of Braavos. She thinks she has cornered Arya, but instead it is the young student who produces Needle and takes the fight to her. When it’s done, she returns her face and that of Lady Crane to the House of Black & White and tells Jaqen H’qar that she’s done with them. She is Arya Stark of Winterfell.
Let’s look back at where Arya started her journey. She was a girl who didn’t want to be a lady, who hated to needle and dance and do the things noble-born girls were instructed to seek. Her father, seeing this in her, provided her with the first of her many tutors, Syrio Forel. From him, she learned how to fence and how to dance. When her house fell, she used those skills to escape the Lannisters and eventually fled King’s Landing with Brother Yoren of the Night’s Watch. Her journey took her across the Kingdoms as the War of the Five Kings was waged. She was a servant of Lord Tywin Lannister in disguise and, thanks to freeing Jaqen, was able to escape. She was then captured by the Brotherhood before the Hound nabbed her and tried to ransom her off. When Brienne fought him, she took the chance and fled. In all that time, she has been Arry and Weasel, Cat and Mercy. She’s taken on being a blind beggar, a seafood vendor, a lowborn girl and a servant to a god of death.
However, deep down, she was always Arya Stark. The Waif was right about that. It’s just that Arya Stark has not always been a safe name to travel or live with. Not while Lannisters and others sought her out. Not while she was a weak child, incapable of looking out for herself. But her triumph over the Waif has shown her that she need not fear anymore. She can defend herself. She can use all her lessons learned in her absence – how to lay traps, how to dance in the dark, how to gain trust – to ensure that she lives and her enemies die. She’s not a child anymore.
And now, Arya Stark has only one goal in mind: to return home to Winterfell, where her sister and half-brother are headed to root out Ramsay Bolton and save her baby brother.