She will not be a queen. She will not be a lady, nor a knight. She will never, she says, even see the North again. But Arya Stark will always be the unambiguous champion of Game of Thrones.
Insofar as Arya has a weakness, it’s that she’s been so steely that even as she has so often been near the heart of a story, it’s been tricky to tell whether she has a heart of her own. That changed in Season 8. Over the course of six episodes when so many other characters either got short shrift or else seemed to betray their own histories and even personalities, Arya did something different: She grew, finally learning that there are moments worth taking your armor off for.
She got laid, courtesy of her longtime crush, and then, when he asked her to please, pretty please, go live in his castle with him forevermore, she knew herself well enough to tell him no—that she is, in her words, “no lady.” Later, she followed the Hound into the Red Keep intent on killing Cersei—for so many years, ostensibly her tantamount goal in life—but then, as the Hound explained to her that her vengeance would also mean her own death, realized that she had other things to live for. She closed her eyes. She took a breath. “Sandor,” she said, as he paused on the way to his own deadly revenge, “thank you.”
Arya, for so long defined by her hatred and anger, learned to overcome both. We’d seen inklings of this in the past, as when she chose to ride north to Westeros (and her family) instead of hastening to King’s Landing (and Cersei). But it wasn’t until Season 8 that we could see how far she’d come. Oh, yeah, she also killed the Night King in the midst of all of it, saving her family, friends, and civilization writ large.
Now she will follow in the footsteps of a long-ago explorer—one who was not mentioned on the show. More than two centuries before the reign of Robert Baratheon, a young noblewoman named Elissa Farman dreamed of exploring the Sunset Sea, the body of water to the west of Westeros. At the time, Elissa was close to Rhaena Targaryen, the eldest sister of King Jaehaerys, “the Conciliator”; she begged Rhaena to build her a fleet to explore the west, but Rhaena refused. Elissa then left, stealing three dragon eggs as she went. She sold the eggs and built a ship with the profits; after recruiting a crew, plus two more ships, Elissa eventually set sail. One of those ships made it back to Westeros years later, where its captain, Eustace Hightower, recounted how the party’s third ship, sailed by his brother, was lost in a storm, and how, after finding three exotic islands, Elissa insisted on continuing to sail west, alone with her crew. She was never heard from again.
There are two popular fan theories pertaining to Elissa. The first is that the three dragon eggs that she pilfered—assumed, as was common wisdom, to have turned to stone over the years—eventually came into the hands of the Pentos magister Illyrio Mopatis, who presented them to a young Daenerys Targaryen the day she wed Khal Drogo. Whatever their provenance, we know that those eggs were most certainly not stone.
The second theory would have major implications for Arya. It holds that we have, in fact, seen Elissa on Game of Thrones—as a heavily disguised shadowbinder named Quaithe, who counseled Daenerys during her time in Qarth in Season 2. (A good explainer can be found here.) If that was Elissa—we’ve seen other characters use magic to substantially prolong their lives, after all—that would mean not only that her Sunset Sea adventure was successful (or at least survivable). It would also strongly suggest that what lies to the far west of Westeros is … Essos, and that the Westerosi–Essosi world might, in fact, be a sphere. If so, there may or may not be additional continents in between the two land masses. If you buy that Westeros is roughly intended as a supersize stand-in for Europe and the United Kingdom, and that Essos and Sothoryos are likewise meant to evoke Asia and Africa, then it stands to reason that some sort of Americas await Arya’s ships (and, alas, probably her germs, too).
Arya’s curiosity about “what’s west of Westeros” dates back to Season 6, when she raised the subject with Braavosi actor Lady Crane. One concern for our hero: While Elissa was a highly accomplished sailor, Arya doesn’t have all that much seaborn experience apart from two crossings of the Narrow Sea. She does, though, seem to have hired a crew; given the glitz of the direwolf figurehead and her silk brocade coat, not to mention her folk hero standing, it’s fair to think she could probably afford a pretty good one.
In its final episode, Game of Thrones suggested, perhaps more than a little self-servingly, that a good yarn is a singularly important thing. “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,” Tyrion tells the assembled lords of Westeros. “Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”
Tyrion, of course, uses this to justify naming Bran king. And to his point, Bran does have a good story—just not one that’s, well, nearly as good as his sister’s. She single-handedly—literally—killed the Night King, the one true existential threat to mankind. She mastered the magic of the Faceless Men. She brought down House Frey in the space of a single dinner. She defied the conventions of a male-dominated world to become one of its fiercest fighters, and indisputably its most meaningfully accomplished. And now, having done all of that, fodder enough for generations of songs about her, she is setting off on as grand an adventure as anyone in her world has ever had. The best story in Westeros isn’t Bran’s, or Jon’s, or Sansa’s, or Tyrion’s, or Davos’s—it’s Arya’s. And it’s all the better that as Game of Thrones lowered the curtain at last, her story is still growing.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.