What HBO’s Arya Stark Taught Me Not to Do

And Walder Frey, for that matter.

Character complexity isn’t all that difficult to recognize, but it can be a real ass pain to write. It’s the story element that generates conflicts with others. Positive and negative traits help us to understand why he or she chooses to solve problems in particular ways when they arise. (And with all good drama, problems happen again and again.) Character complexity revs an engine, driving the story forward. To do this well, an author must be honest about the major players.

This takes time to develop. But if you just want to crank out a story, you can overlook this thoughtful nuisance.

Strip away a character’s complexity and the reader or viewer is left only with actions without consequences, readers’ assumptions and plot devices. It’s as if a mental dimension vanishes, and it treats the audience as nothing more than mindless puppets. HBO’s Game of Thrones Season Six does exactly this: By supersizing some character’s strengths, ignoring the flaws, and stuffing each episode full of Deus ex machina and red herrings, I began to feel like I was watching a crummy, late-night 1950’s Western.

Stick Your Fingers In

So, I’ll grab my three-dimensional puppets and make them play for you.

Arya Stark is bold, free-spirited. (There’s certainly more to her than this single positive trait, but I’m trying to keep this post brief.) While this quality certainly makes us like the character, it also works against her in context of the story world. Her sister, Sansa, practices the noble skills of being a “proper” lady under the scolding eye of Septa Mordane. But Arya finds this all boring and silly. Not only does she frequently antagonize Sansa and the Septa, but her audacious behavior eventually sinks the young girl into deeper problems when she encounters more deadly antagonists.

Walder Frey and treachery meld together in a heavy-handed way.  By delaying his troop deployments, he always ends up on the ill-gotten side of winning. Sure, he gains something for this untrustworthy behavior. And it’s obvious that his army serves only to protect Walder’s interests, not the Kingdom’s. But there are several lords who take issue with this unreliable behavior, and they probably secretly wish to put the man’s head on a spike.

Then, Poof!

HBO had managed to keep the characters moving along reasonably well up to and through Season Five. The stories deviate from the books, but I can mostly stomach this discomfort. Then Season Six happens and everything vanishes in smoke. We’re left with stylish effects. The characters fall flat and only devices drag their carcasses behind an action-packed production train.

Remember the movie Rocky? After a montage of training in the Temple of the Many-Faced God, all Arya is capable of is kicking ass without the final boxing defeat that Balboa suffers. Perhaps this is the greatest reason I really enjoy Rocky: despite losing the championship, he never gives up on his inner determination as he’s willing to take a brutal beating for fifteen rounds and still remain standing. Rocky’s positive trait takes on a new and better meaning when he yells out for Adrian, the person that really matters most.

But Arya’s good quality has morphed into something dull and ugly: anger. She’s more like two hours of Rambo III but with an elastic face. The girl now exists as a faceless killing machine (There’s some irony for you!) and we’re supposed to believe that a persistent hatred is a good trait.

I predict that some driveling speech at “The End” about how Westeros is a better place will somehow fix this character flaw. Technically, she’s becoming a serial killer, a villain. But the ends justify the means, after all. But it seems like a lie. A fresh face will reign, and just like all the previous rulers, murder and bloodshed helps plop a new tush on an uncomfortable throne. And life goes on for the Westeros small folk who never had to worry about slavery but must still be subjugated to yet another monarchy. No, Arya, you’re still just a rubber-faced cartoon.

Pulling Out the Final Pin

And speaking of surprises, do you like the abrupt murder of Walder Frey?

In context of everything that happens, it would be far more satisfying and believable to have seen Jamie Lannister eventually turn on Walder and take The Twins for himself. Walder’s treachery causes problems with the other lords who also have large armies. In raw terms of power, these are the Frey antagonists that matter. Arya is a small side effect.

But somehow Arya possesses a god-like power that allows her to kill off the Freys and murder cranky Walder. The event just happens, and we have to assume the rest. Will she bake another people pie for her next victim? The viewer can only expect to be mildly surprised by some newly devised way of how she’ll torture again.

And everything that came before this event is pointless: All it took was one blood-thirsty child to do him in. Why did Walder even exist? Why do the historical power struggles even matter when it can all so easily be solved with a melting face? Why should Daenerys bother to raise an army? The Dragon lineage has nothing over Arya.

There’s more. The pin is pulled and the structure collapses. It’s just action and devices, now.

Sansa Stark suddenly appears with Baelish’s calvary overnight. (Remember those 1950’s Westerns?) Forget that she told Pyter to fuck himself, earlier. A change of heart? A deal with the devil to help a loved one? Assume. Assume. And how was such a large force organized overnight? I seem to recall Sansa later muttering some brief nonsense to explain something. And Tyrion Lannister is now boring to watch. Boring!

Yep, this story has collapsed.

HBO jerked the viewers out of a deeper story by offering us Season Six. Style glosses over substance. I’m not up-to-date with the show, but I won’t catch up and watch Season Seven. I’m done with the series for good. I had given it a second chance, but my joy once again turned to ashes. I’ll wait for more A Song of Ice and Fire books to release. And go back to my writing. But I won’t jerk readers around.





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