Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 7, episode 1
Game of Thrones’ season 7 premiere has finally aired, and it picks up right where we left off, with a scene many fans have been hoping for: Arya exacting revenge for the murder of her mother, brother, and sister-in-law at the Red Wedding. The opening scene was equal parts shocking and satisfying. For a moment after the HBO logo flashed, the first scene was confusing: “Didn’t Walder Frey get his throat cut in season 6? Is this a weird flashback to the moment before his death?”
Rather, that’s Arya, using the magic-assassin skills she’s developed over the past few seasons to punish the Freys. It’s been a long, frustrating journey to get here, but the payoff has finally come, as Arya seamlessly went from slitting Walder Frey’s throat to impersonating him to kill his followers.
From the start, Arya’s character development has largely been about honing her skills as a killer in the face of personal family tragedies. After her sword-fighting teacher from season 1 likely perished (or… maybe not?) and her father, Ned Stark, was beheaded, Arya went to a dark, vulnerable place. She wandered from one makeshift bed to another. She was imprisoned by the Lannister army for a while. She was chivvied around by Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, as a unlikely travel companion. Her objective for much of season 2 and 3 was to reunite with her mother and brother, who had rallied a Stark army in the North, and she made it as far as the town they were visiting, just in time for their deaths.
Then she spent two entire seasons in Braavos, attending a sketchy study abroad program at the House of Black and White, as a corpse washer / assassin-trainee. There, she learned how to assume other people’s faces. In a culmination of all her hard-won skills, Arya finally gets to cross names off her revenge list. For a while, that list just kept getting longer and longer. Now, we can count nearly all her living enemies on one hand. (They still include The Mountain, The Red Woman, Cersei Lannister, two of the Brothers Without Banners currently traveling with the Hound, and Ilyn Payne, the royal executioner who killed Arya’s dad.) Arya’s last scene in season 7, episode 1 has her telling a bunch of Lannister soldiers that she’s off to kill Queen Cersei. They laugh this off, but we know what Arya’s capable of.
Meanwhile, Arya’s older sister, Sansa Stark, is on her own quest for payback. We saw her get some of her just deserts in the season 6 finale, when she sicced Ramsay Bolton’s ravenous dogs on him. This season, she’s off to a feisty start, challenging the opinions of her brother (well technically, cousin) Jon Snow, who was recently crowned King in the North, and driving back the advances of her once-savior Littlefinger. Sansa, who experienced the same familial losses as Arya, and was also raped and abused in a forced marriage to psychopath Ramsay Bolton, is in no brighter headspace than her serial killer sibling, Arya — and she’s also out for blood and power.
There are several hints at what’s to come for Sansa’s personal character arc. For one thing, Sansa argues to punish the kin of the Karstarks and other clans who betrayed the Starks by taking their familial lands. When Jon is unwilling, Sansa retorts, “So there’s no punishment for treason and no reward for loyalty?” Her desire to settle debts speaks volumes about her possible future actions.
Another major sign of where Sansa’s going is the admiring way she speaks of Queen Cersei Lannister, who mass murdered all her enemies last season. “I learned a great deal from her,” Sansa admits. That’s a double-take moment, given Cersei’s violent mistakes, including inadvertently driving her son to suicide. Does Sansa really want someone like this as a role model? In the violent, abusive world of Game of Thrones, Sansa might feel that ravaging her enemies is her only path to freedom and safety.
In the grand scheme of things, all the heartbreak of the earlier seasons might seem worth it in hindsight if Arya and Sansa can turn the tables on the show’s less-savory characters. But will they still be our favorite, lovable characters if they commit the same cruelties and atrocities as their enemies?
At the beginning of Game of Thrones, the Starks represented all that was fair and just in Westeros, with Ned Stark handing out moral lessons about personal responsibility and duty. From the start, the show set up a dichotomy between the Starks and the more mercenary and expedient Lannisters. But as the seasons progress, the differences between the two is blurring.
Arya is now a murderer, making her little different from other cruel killers on the show, except that her story is featured more prominently in the overall narrative. Sansa sits at the head of an army, staring angrily at Jon, exactly like Cersei trying to advise her father Tywin, and repeatedly getting shot down and put in her place. Jon and Sansa also suggest parallels to Stannis and Renly, the deceased Baratheon brothers. They never could see eye to eye, although neither was a real villain. So far, the likability of the Stark sisters only seems to rise with each cruelty that they commit, given their long struggle and the obstacles they’ve faced. But they’re walking a thin line between justified vengeance that feels satisfying, and the brutal ruthlessness of the people they’re fighting. The last chapter on the Stark sisters has yet to be revealed, but it’s likely to be blood-stained — and morally compromised.