It didn’t happen exactly as I expected but Walder Frey met his end in “The Winds of Winter.” The Game of Thrones season 6 finale was full of huge moments and the elder Frey’s demise was one of the biggest. An episode after the ancestral home of the Starks was reclaimed at Winterfell, someone paid the Freys back for the Red Wedding. Arya Stark got revenge for her family and not only killed Walder Frey but fed his family to him before she did it. It is a huge crowd-pleasing moment but Game of Thrones didn’t exactly earn it. In fact, nearly everything from Arya in season 6 has been the biggest misstep for the series since the Dorne debacle of season 5.
The Long, Winding and Muddled Road
While Game of Thrones largely benefited from leaving George R.R. Martin’s source material aside and forging their own path, there were still some limitations. One of the big reasons that Game of Thrones season 5 is such a messy season is because the show was still adapting Martin’s messiest two books of his series. There is a reason that the Song of Ice and Fire series has been stalled and delayed countless times. George R.R. Martin is in a bit of a writing hole. The story is stuck and he is having trouble getting out of it, even if he has a plan for where things are headed.
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In Game of Thrones we’ve seen the limitations of this in big (hurried) plot twists like Stannis burning Shireen or nearly everything in Dorne in season 5. In season 6 the effects were still felt in Arya’s storyline as Game of Thrones was forced to get Arya out of Braavos quickly and had to do it in a very sloppy way. Arya, essentially, has been on the bench of Game of Thrones for several years. As the show reaches it’s endgame, Arya needed to get back to Westeros and the result was rushing through the rest of her training.
While Arya was supposed to become a Faceless Man, Game of Thrones never really convinced us that Arya has become the accomplished, face-changing killer that she is now in the narrative. The audience didn’t see Arya develop the skills except in a few montages. We certainly never saw the ability to change her face on-screen, which she displays in “The Winds of Winter.” It just sort of happened because the plot demanded it.
It was hard enough to believe that Arya could have killed The Waif in “No One” with her open gut wound and all the evidence that suggested The Waif was a far more skilled killer than Arya. It is equally hard to believe that Arya somehow made it to The Twins, murdered Walder Frey’s sons, put them into a meat pie, disguised herself as a servant and managed to be alone with Walder Frey to kill him. Arya has not only become a skilled assassin, she’s basically a one-woman army. Forget Dany and her dragons, Arya is unstoppable now. It’s ridiculous and makes Arya so over-powered that nothing seems like a threat for her now.
Making it Count
“The Winds of Winter” was full of absolutely insane and jaw-dropping moments. It might be the bloodiest episode ever, in terms of named characters, on Game of Thrones. Cersei’s wildfire bombing alone would be enough for a big finale moment yet it just started things off. However whether it was Cersei’s aforementioned medieval terrorist attack or Jon becoming the new King of the North or Game of Thrones proving, once and for all, that R + L = J is real, every bombshell was earned. Everything had been set up all season and the finale delivered. The pay-off to Arya’s story did not work because everything that preceded it was so mishandled.
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Arya’s story in Braavos went from being paced too slow to too fast and then finally just ended up being completely insane. Seriously, Arya’s slice of the episode “No One” makes zero sense. Very little of Arya’s journey in season 6 as whole makes sense too. Game of Thrones never explained why Jaquen felt such affection for Arya or why he would let her leave alive. The idiocy of the Braavos arc cheapens the big moment of Walder Frey’s death. It didn’t feel like Arya’s whole story was leading to Walder Frey’s murder. It’s just another thing that happened with Arya because the plot demanded it. There was no build-up or internal story logic to the act.
Crow-Pleasing vs. Logic
At the same time as hard as it is believe that Arya managed to kill Walder Frey, it’s equally hard to imagine any Game of Thrones fan who didn’t enjoy the moment. After Ramsay, Walder Frey is the last true villain of Game of Thrones. A lot of people might want Cersei dead but the writing and acting injects enough humanity into Cersei that she is more complex than evil. Walder Frey, however, is just as rotten as Ramsay Bolton. Walder Frey had no complexity or depth to him. He was just awful. There is no Game of Thrones character more deserving to intentionally eat his own offspring and then be murdered himself.
While Game of Thrones kills off evil characters they rarely give the audience a moment of catharsis. Joffrey died as a result of a plot but the people who killed Joffrey had never been directly tortured by him. If anyone present at the Purple Wedding should have been given the opportunity to kill Joffrey it should have been Sansa or Tyrion. They were both blamed for it, after all. Roose Bolton met a similar semi-anti-climactic end, no Stark or Snow got to kill him for the Red Wedding — Roose’s own son Ramsay did it. In this way, Walder Frey’s death stands apart. Arya gets to cross one of the names off her list directly and you can see her as the only surviving Stark of the Red Wedding. Remember, while Arya wasn’t present in the hall during the massacre she was at the Freys’ castle, The Twins, when Robb, Catelyn and Grey Wind were killed.
Game of Thrones is not a very fan-service heavy show. There will be occasion meta-commentary hidden into the dialogue that reacts to the opinions of the fans. Olenna Tyrell telling all the Sand Snakes to shut up because they’re not important was a perfect example of this in “The Winds of Winter.” Usually Game of Thrones marches to the beat of its own drum and tells the story it wants to tell regardless of outside input.
Arya’s killing of Walder Frey is probably the most blatant attempt to appeal to fans and that’s not a bad thing. Ultimately that’s probably what makes it such a memorable moment. At the end of the day, I don’t know if I really care that Game of Thrones didn’t earn Arya killing Walder Frey in the manner that it happened because it was so cool to watch.
But what do you think? How do you feel about Arya’s murder of Walder Frey? Do you think it makes sense? Did you see it coming? How do you feel about Arya’s training in Braavos?
(Images courtesy of HBO)