Featuring more than 40 main characters over the course of eight seasons, each with his or her own complex, compelling arc, it can often feel difficult to pin down whose story HBO's blockbuster fantasy series is telling. Which character is Game Of Thrones really about? At first it seemed like the story of noble Ned Stark… until he lost his head. Then Tyrion Lannister took the ostensible lead, appearing in more episodes than any other character, with Peter Dinklage earning first billing starting in Season 2. As the saga continued, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen drew ever closer to the forefront, serving as the titular counterparts of George R.R. Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire. But with only one episode to go in the show's history, it's feeling more and more like Game Of Thrones is the story of Arya Stark.
It's equally hard to pin down a single main protagonist on the page because of the way Martin tells his story, with each chapter narrated from a different character's point of view. Each character is the protagonist of their own story, whether it's Bran Stark and his quest to find the Three-Eyed Raven or Cersei Lannister and her struggle to maintain power in King's Landing. Sometimes these stories intersect and sometimes they stand more on their own — but the way Martin grants the reader access to each character's singular perspective gives them all equal narrative weight. That might be part of why it's been so hard for him to finish his saga; as you approach the end, you have to start deciding what's most important to your conclusion, both story-wise and thematically.
Martin seems reluctant to dismiss any of his well-crafted characters and storylines as fundamentally less "important" than others, and has therefore proven himself unable to start narrowing his narrative towards an end point (at least so far). Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, on the other hand, started mercilessly collapsing their own version of the narrative with the Season 6 finale, killing off a wide swath of supporting characters in one explosion, finally sending Daenerys to Westeros after 60 episodes in Essos, and hurtling towards a conclusion at a breakneck speed so antithetical to the show's former leisurely pace that it gave viewers whiplash.
Entering the series finale, there are only about a dozen main characters left alive, some of whom (Tormund, Sam, Gilly) may have already said their final farewells. If asked which of these remaining characters would be most crucial to the show's swan song, most viewers would probably cast their votes for Jon or Dany, or maybe Tyrion. But I would argue that Season 8's game-changing penultimate episode, "The Bells," centers Arya Stark as the character on whom the events of the finale — and therefore the thesis of the entire show — hinges.
No matter what you thought of that controversial episode, there's no denying that it was the episode this season that most closely mirrored Martin's narrative style, thanks to the way director Miguel Sapochnik chose to tell it. The story of the Battle for King's Landing wasn't told from an omniscient point of view, but rather through the unique perspectives of the various characters present in the city: Jon and his horror on the ground, Jaime and his attempt to rescue Cersei, Sandor and his confrontation with his brother, and Arya and her desperate flight through the streets of King's Landing.
It's important to note that "The Bells" didn't end with a shot of Daenerys burning the innocent citizens of King's landing from Drogon's back; or of Jon Snow or Tyrion Lannister watching her in despair; or even of Cersei and Jaime Lannister dying in each other's arms. Instead, what Benioff & Weiss chose to end the episode with was a shot of Arya, riding through the ashes of King's Landing on the back of a white horse. Why was this chosen as the final image of Thrones' second-to-last episode? I would suggest that it's because Arya has a choice to make in the finale, the outcome of which will have huge ramifications for what kind of show Thrones will prove itself to be.
Plenty of arguments can be made for which character has changed the most over the course of the series: Jaime Lannister and Theon Greyjoy would certainly be top contenders, while the showrunners themselves have said it's Sansa Stark. Arya is certainly high on the list, having gone from young tomboy to scarred survivor to cold-blooded killer to nameless assassin to war hero. First Arya was stripped of her humanity, thanks to the murders of her family members, being taught how to hold a grudge by Yoren, and how to kill by Sandor. Then she was stripped of her identity, literally becoming "no one" under the tutelage of Jaqen H'ghar and the Faceless Men.
Arya's journey over the past few seasons has been about finding those parts of herself that she lost along the way. First she reclaimed her identity in the Season 6 finale, telling Jaqen, "A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I'm going home." But she still had a long way to go in order to reconnect with her humanity. Throughout Season 7, she was Arya Stark in name if not in deed; she murdered an entire family, whether they had directly participated in the Red Wedding or not, and she nearly murdered her own sister, so deeply conditioned as she was to expect betrayal and to answer it immediately with violence.
A person with identity but without humanity is a hollow shell, so Arya's journey in Season 8 has been about finally regaining the humanity she lost when she was so young. Over the past five episodes, she has reunited with her closest family member, Jon; she has given in to passion with Gendry; she has experienced fear at the hands of the wights. But her biggest test on the path back to herself came at the doorstep of the Red Keep.
Part of the reason "The Bells" felt so tragic — apart from watching Daenerys burn thousands of innocent men, women, and children alive — was because it found so many characters unable to escape their own harmful cycles of violence. "That's you," the Hound said to the Mountain when his brother's scarred face was revealed. "That's what you've always been." That's a surprisingly pessimistic thesis statement for a show that's so often been about characters forging their own identities, choosing their own families, and finding near-impossible paths to redemption.
In its eleventh hour, Thrones saw several of its most significant characters reverting to their starting points and being doomed for it. Sandor pursued his vendetta against Gregor to his own death, with the brothers symbolically perishing in flames, the substance that first ignited their lifelong enmity. After nearly finding escape in the arms of Brienne, Jaime gave in to his addiction to Cersei and returned to his corrosive relationship with sister-lover, so they could die together in the rubble of the Red Keep. After years of fighting against her family's tendency towards madness, Daenerys gave into her worst impulses… and will almost certainly die for it in the finale.
In this sea of despair, Arya was the only character who made an active choice to escape her dark destiny and forge a new path for herself. Literally steps away from crossing the final two names off her list — Cersei Lannister and Gregor Clegane — Sandor convinced Arya to abandon her single-minded desire for revenge, the desire that has fueled her and driven her since Season 2. At the last moment, Arya chose life over the satisfaction of vengeance and the certainty of death.
But will that choice last? After abandoning her list, Arya quickly found herself caught in the horror of Daenerys' destruction; she paid witness as innocent civilians were crushed by debris and cut down by Dothraki and burned alive all around her. This street-level view of a traumatic incident brought Arya's story full circle, as it directly paralleled an event from Season 1: Ned's beheading. Back then, as in this episode, Arya found herself swept up in the crowds of King's Landing, only able to bear witness to that atrocity as she found herself powerless to stop it from occurring.
Ned's beheading was the formative moment that set Arya on the path that cost the young girl her humanity and her identity. Will this be the moment that sets Arya on that same dark path again, leading to her doom? Or will she be able to escape the cycle this time and choose her humanity over vengeance? Fans have endlessly debated the meaning of the final image of Arya on the horse since "The Bells" aired. Is she riding out of King's Landing, "leaving the fire and blood in her rear view," as Vanity Fair's Joanna Robinson claims? Or has she literally become death, as user zakificus posits on Reddit, pointing out the parallels to a famous passage from the Book of Revelations? "I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death."
Many fans are now theorizing that Arya will be the one to kill Daenerys in the finale. And while, in the moment, that might deliver audiences a brief thrill — "Hell yeah! Badass Arya takes out another Big Bad villain!" — such a turn of events would have disturbing implications for what Benioff & Weiss are trying to say about the themes of their show.
I don't think it's overstating things to say that the legacy of Thrones will be determined by the choice Arya makes in the finale. That's not to say that the journeys of characters like Jon, Dany, and Tyrion haven't been important. But the path that Arya chooses — humanity or vengeance — will determine the legacy that Thrones leaves behind. When the credits roll on the final episode, will Game Of Thrones have been a show about hope, about breaking the wheel and choosing to forge a new, better path for yourself? Or will it have been a show about nihilism, about how it's impossible to change your true nature or escape your fate? "That's what you've always been"… so why bother to fight against it?
The fact that Arya is the character upon whom this crucial question hangs means that this has really been her story all along. I hope she makes the right choice.