Not for the first time, Game of Thrones opted to start its episode with a cold open. Emotionally satisfying, dramatically tense, and even a little bit funny, the Season 7 premiere scene involving Arya Stark of Winterfell is one for the ages. But there are a few lingering questions about what, exactly, we just saw and the huge ramifications it could have for the show going forward. If you’re all caught up, let’s take a deeper look.
Are you sure you’re caught up and ready to go? You have a full glass of Arbor gold at hand? Okay, let’s dive in.
A Glorious Callback: Let’s get some of the more straightforward points out of the way first. Arya Stark, using her skills acquired in the House of Black and White, slapped on Lord Walder Frey’s face, called a meeting of the all the Frey males, and, Cersei-like, took out an entire room full of enemies in one go. The sight of David Bradley’s Walder Frey toasting a candlelit room should, of course, evoke the Red Wedding, and I eagerly await to hear what the fandom decides this particular slaughter should be called. The Red Wine Tasting? It could use some work. Here, in guise of Lord Walder, Arya coins a new Game of Thrones phrase: “Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are not safe.” That’s a fair improvement on the speech Walder gave in Season 6: “The Lannisters and Freys send their regards.”
Okay But How, Exactly, Does the Faceless Man Technology Work?: Previously, when we’ve seen the Faceless Men in action, their disguises have all been approximately similar to what we assume are their original forms. In other words, in the past Arya has played small-ish women or girls. The furthest we’ve seen a disguise differ from the wearer is when Jaqen (or was it Jaqen?) appeared to Arya as a black man. Here we see Arya do a full-body transformation. When she rips off her mask, Lord Walder’s clothes hang loosely on her. In other words, going forward, anyone could be Arya. More on that in a bit.
But first, how does it all work? According to the books, though the masks hanging in the Hall of Faces are part of how the Faceless Men disguise themselves, there is much more alchemy and blood magic involved. The first time Arya has one of the faces applied to her in A Dance with Dragons, the man training her explains how it works:
Mummers change their faces with artifice and sorcerers use glamors. .
.these arts you shall learn, but what we do here goes deeper. Wise men
can see through artifice, and glamors dissolve before sharp eyes, but
the face you are about to don will be as true and solid as that face
you were born with.
The disguise is applied using the blood, drawn in tribute, running down Arya’s own cut face. George R.R. Martin describes the process of pulling one of the dried out human masks onto Arya’s head: “The leather scraped across her brow, dry and stiff, but as her blood soaked into it, it softened and turned supple. Her cheeks grew warm, flushed.” Arya then starts to panic as she revisits some of the trauma of the dead girl whose face she is now wearing. The process is not always that in tense. In the books as well as on the show, Jaqen H’ghar changes his look by simply waving his hand in front of his face.
And obviously, in the show, Arya Stark is not cutting her face up every time she puts on a new face. For a show so often preoccupied with the rules of magic (see: warging, greenseeing, White Walkers, wights, dragonglass, etc.), this is a process that seems to require the most suspension of disbelief. In the Hall we only saw faces, but there definitely appears to be some wig work involved here as well.
The question of how Arya not only baked two Freys into a pie last season, but also stripped Walder of his face and disposed of the body without being noticed this season will likely always remain a mystery that doesn’t take away from the emotional satisfaction of seeing Arya take revenge for her family.
Potential for Comedy: Arya is a good actress and an even better liar. This qualities were both baked into her character and beaten into her last season. So when we see any Faceless assassinations from her in the future, she’ll likely be as committed to her character as she was playing Lord Walder here. That being said, it might be nice to see a little bit of extra comedy in the performance should a disguised Arya find herself in a situation that’s more difficult to bluff her way through. Unlike the real Faceless Men, Arya isn’t “No One.” Her personality (and personal vengeances) will always come shining through even as she continues to use the tools of the assassin’s guild she flunked out of. One of the joys of the last two Harry Potter movies was watching Helena Bonham Carter play Hermione Granger playing Bellatrix Lestrange. Game of Thrones will never be a screwball comedy (nor should it be) but some light Polyjuice antics might provide a nice respite from all the murder.
A Narrative Flaw: Light antics should be the emphasis here, because if Game of Thrones leans too heavily on the Faceless Man bit (and there’s no reason to suspect they will), then the already complicated series could get a little too messy. I love the way the trick is executed here. We know from the very beginning of the scene that this is probably Arya in disguise as the late Walder Frey. The lack of any bait and switch doesn’t take away from all the emotional highs of the scene. But if characters are forever ripping off masks to reveal—surprise—Arya Stark underneath, then Thrones will run the risk of straying into Mission Impossible II territory. The takeaway lesson from the weakest installment in that hugely successful franchise: a little mask work goes a long way.
Unfortunately, the mystical arts of the Faceless Men have already had a detrimental effect on the legions of Game of Thrones theorists. The crackpot explanations for fairly basic (and occasionally flawed) plot twists were off the charts last season thanks, in large part, to the notion that, in Braavos at least, anyone could be someone else at any given time. There’s still a group of theorists that believe Arya Stark died last season and the woman riding around Westeros this year is actually the Waif wearing her face. I hope this week’s Frey slaughter put that theory to rest, but I expect that won’t be the last we hear of “is that secretly Arya????” this year.
What Is Dead May Never Die: One rule we do know about the Faceless technology is that someone has to be dead before you can slap their face on. So that should, in theory, limit some of the crackpot theorizing. But now that a face we recognize has been used for Arya’s revenge plot, there comes the tantalizing notion that any of her future victims on the show might return at some point. No one expected to see David Bradley as Walder Frey again, and if Arya gets her hand on Cersei or some other familiar face, then bumped-off character might just enjoy a second life as a useful Arya disguise.
Does This Work on White Walker Faces?: I suspect . . . not. But there have been some tantalizing theories lately about what role Arya might play in the Great War to Come. Her greatest gifts seems to be assassination and disguise and there are some who wonder if she might be the one to take out the Night King. If so, what better disguise than one of his lieutenants. But that sounds awfully chilly, doesn’t it?
So Is Arya Officially Lady Stoneheart Now? Both the powers that be working on Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin himself have said have said that Lady Stoneheart, a.k.a. the zombified resurrected corpse of Catelyn Stark, won’t be appearing on the HBO show. But given how far HBO bent the truth during Jon Snow’s brief death at the end of Season 5, theorists can be forgiven if they held out hope that once again we were all being lied to for our own good. With this episode, though, I am officially ready to put the Lady Stoneheart theory to bed. In the books, Catelyn takes her zombie revenge on anyone who wronged the Starks including, oh yes, the Freys. In the books, one of her lieutenants says of her: “She don’t speak. You bloody bastards cut her throat too deep for that. But she remembers.” In this week’s episode Arya (borrowing a famous phrase from home) tells Walder’s young wife: “The North remembers.”
I was always a little wary of Arya and Sansa (who also did a little Stoneheart-style vengeance last year) taking on their mother’s role. Stoneheart isn’t living a good life or any life at all. She’s pained and she’s angry, and I’d much prefer the Stark girls find a bit more inner peace. The good news is the show seems inclined to temper Arya’s vengeance with some human kindness. Stoneheart would have slaughtered Walder’s young wife without a second thought. She also would have killed those young Lannister soldiers she encounters later in the episode. But Arya is learning how to make discerning kills. Once again, that’s both satisfying for all of us watching and hopeful that somehow the Starks can find a future on the other side of all this death.
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