“Hang on—how old is Arya Stark?” Is a question you might have asked yourself Sunday night, when the teenage assassin played by Maisie Williams jumped the bones of noted Westeros hottie Gendry (Joe Dempsie) on what might be the last night of their lives. In every other way, this story is kind of classic. Two people who have been staring at each other for a few seasons finally getting it on when their fear of losing each other overrides everything else—thats TV Drama 101. Change the setting a bit, and its an episode of Greys Anatomy.
Its great to see Arya getting hers, if this is what she wants, and certainly she deserves some happiness where she can find it. But still, for a large subset of the population, theres something that sticks out about this scene. Game of Thrones has played fast and loose with time and space, and Aryas age specifically. In the George R.R. Martin books, the story begins when the character is just nine years old, and shes barely aged over the course of five novels. (Its much easier to make time move slowly when child actors arent growing like weeds in front of your eyes.) On the show, Arya was aged up to 11 for the first season; thanks to Williamss gamine face, shes plausibly seemed to be a young teenager ever since.
Especially in recent seasons, the way this show has measured the passage of years has been . . . convenient. Initially, the show was painstakingly careful to create a realistic sense of time for the viewer—remember how long it took the Starks to get to Kings Landing? As its outpaced the books and been forced to plot its own journey, those fine details have given way. Take, for instance, Gillys baby, living proof of the shows confusing timeline: Little Sam was born in Season 3, but still appears to be a babe in arms as of Season 8—maybe a toddler, at most. “Obviously, the passage of time is murky on the show for lots of reasons,” veteran Thrones producer (and this episodes writer) Bryan Cogman conceded in a conversation with V.F.s Still Watching podcast on Monday. “Obviously, Tommen grew up really fast.” (The eventual boy king was first played by child actor Callum Wharry; from Season 4 until the characters death, he was played by the older Dean-Charles Chapman.)
Perhaps because everything has grown so confusing, the characters have stopped specifically defining their ages—though hours before Sundays episode aired, an HBO Twitter account tweeted a joke that indicated Arya is officially 18 now. That makes her just old enough to consent to sex without anyone making a fuss about it.
But theres a huge difference between announcing, via tweet, that a character has reached the age of maturity and writing a character arc over eight seasons that makes this maturity obvious. Whats most perplexing here is that while Arya has murdered, spied, escaped, and infiltrated—with the unnerving, cold heart of an assassin—weve never actually seen her go through the oft-wrenching process of female-bodied puberty. Shes never spoken about menstruation, or her changing body, or her new, weird feelings. Many viewers dont see the character as an adult woman because the show hasnt given us the arc of a preteen or pubescent girl, though it has given us similar story lines via Sansa—who, to her dismay, got her period for the first time in Season 2—and Ygritte, who in Season 3 proved her mettle to Jon Snow by pointing out that “girls see more blood than boys.”
Puberty is, of course, a crucially transformative time for girls—and it comes with a host of negative side effects. In the non-fantasy realm, it corresponds to plummeting self-confidence; the mechanics of menstruation can force some girls out of physical activities they once enjoyed, one week out of every four. Nearly every other female character on Game of Thrones has been defined by such an experience; two of the shows youngest female characters, Sansa and Dany, were both forced into marriage at a precocious age precisely because they were deemed to be post-pubescent.
Arguably, Aryas violent initiation into adulthood replaced puberty for her; her time in Braavos seemed to be a coming-of-age, albeit a meandering one. If anything, though, that points to even more dissonance between what Arya used to be and where the show has put her. Aryas defining story for the last several years has hinged upon how deeply inhumane she has become, a killer intent only on finding her marks. That Season 7 interlude with Nymeria (remember Nymeria?) and the period of time where she gave up her own name indicated a lot of internal anguish, the sort that naturally follows after watching ones own father being beheaded, then coming achingly close to reuniting with ones mother and brother before they were killed, too.
I wonder where all those feelings have gone, now that Aryas back at Winterfell; certainly, if shes trying to get close to someone she cares about on the last night of her life, youd think that some of them would come spilling out. Yet Arya is eerily calm and controlled about sex with Gendry. In its own way, this might be an interesting take on compulsive, risky behavior from traumatized individuals—Aryas always been eager to prove herself. Then again, based on V.F.s interview with Cogman, Arya and Gendrys sex scene was simply supposed to be about hormones. “Teenagers have sex,” he said. “Shes not a kid anymore.”
Arya would certainly not be the first girl in Westeros to grow up too fast—and more to the point, the series is ending in just a few episodes, which means theres only so much time left to tell deep character stories. Still, to me, the Arya/Gendry story is deeply unsatisfying—not because shes a teenager who has sex; not because it was non-consensual (Arya knew exactly what she wanted); but because it glosses over too many character beats, and indicates too many missed opportunities.
In order to grow, what Arya really needs to learn is not how to take charge, as she did with Gendry; shes always been able to do that. Whats hard for her, instead, is softness—vulnerability, honesty, openness, qualities that take real courage and work to manifest. Perhaps Arya has stuffed all of those feelings under all of her understandable armor—but that adds an element of tragedy to her sex scene with Gendry, one Im not sure the episode was conscious of. Gendry cares about his old friend, and would have been willing to share those feelings with her—but she pushed them away. In a world that has shown Arya and her loved ones nothing but violence, its hardly a surprise that shed be allergic to gentleness. But she needs it; we all do.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Game of Thrones Transformations: Season 1 to Season 8
Maisie Williamss Arya has grown from spunky tomboy to deadly assassin.Photo: Left, from AF archive/Alamy; right, courtesy of HBO.
Isaac Hempstead Wright took Bran from innocent kid to . . . whatever the Three-Eyed Raven is.Photo: Left, from AF archive/Alamy; right, courtesy of HBO.
Once upon a time, Lena Headeys queen had long hair and a closet filled with colorful frocks. Now, she rocks a pageboy—and armored black gowns.Photo: Left, from Album/Alamy; right, courtesy of HBO.
In Season 1, Emilia Clarkes princess was sold into marriage to a stranger; now, shes a warrior queen with three—no, two dragons at her back.Photo: Left, from HBO/Album/Alamy; right, courtesy of HBO.
No other characters coming-of-age has been as traumatic as that of Sophie Turners character—and nobody else may be as well equipped to survive Season 8.Photo: Left, from PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy; right, courtesy of HBO.
Peter Dinklages Lannister black sheep has kept his quick tongue—and now has a beard and a gnarly scar to boot.Photo: Left, from PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy; right, courtesy of HBO.
Long after Kings Landing crumbles into the sea, Conleth Hills Master of Whisperers will abide—looking exactly as appealingly sinister as always.Photo: Left, from AF archive/Alamy; right, courtesy of HBO.PreviousNext