This story contains “Game of Thrones” spoilers from Season 8, Episode 2.
Arya Stark thought it might be her last night alive, and she knew exactly how she wanted to spend it. After rolling her eyes and breaking off conversation with Beric Dondarrion and the Hound, she headed straight for the cellar, where Gendry had just finished forging her a spear.
“We’re probably going to die soon,” Arya said as she sidled up to Gendry, in a voice perhaps a little too similar to the one she uses when listing the people she plans to kill. “I want to know what it’s like before that happens.”
Then they had sex. And it was uncomfortable to watch.
Deeply, agonizingly uncomfortable.
The running theory for this discomfort, felt across the Internet, is Arya’s age. In the minutes during and immediately after the sex scene, there was a giant spike in users googling “Arya Stark age” and “Maisie Williams age.” (Williams, who is 22, plays Arya in the show.) While it seems the sex was all perfectly legal — Arya is 11 years old in the first season, making her 18 when things heat up in the forge — viewers have watched Arya grow up on screen. Many compared the scene to watching someone have sex with their little sister.
But our inclination to look away from potentially underage sex is only part of what made for such awkward viewing. There have been plenty of “Game of Thrones” characters who started the series as kids and who, over the course of several seasons, grew into sexual relationships or formed serious romantic attachments: Prince Tommen, with Queen Margaery, or Princess Myrcella, with the young prince of Dorne. (Sansa’s first sexual relationship, with Ramsey Bolton, was also hard to watch — but that was because Ramsey was a cruel sadist, not because Sansa was young.)
With Arya, the awkwardness stems partly from a lack of information about her gender identity and sexual orientation. Throughout the show, the audience is left to wonder: Does Arya identify as a woman? Is she queer? Does she like guys, or girls, or both? Perhaps viewers are still not completely comfortable not having answers to those questions. And they did not expect answers to come via an abrupt and completely unexpected sex scene.
From the very first episode — when Arya runs out of her needlework class to shoot arrows with her brothers — we know she’s a proud tomboy. After her father, Ned Stark, dies, she disguises herself as she travels north from King’s Landing, pretending to be a boy. When she breaks off on her own, traversing the countryside with the Hound and crossing the narrow sea to Bravos, she continues to avoid any overtly feminine clothing, except when dressing up to serve the many-faced God (who, it seems, sometimes called for skirts and Princess Leia buns).
As viewers, we don’t know how to picture Arya in a romantic relationship or a sexual situation, because — before the last episode, when her gaze lingered on Gendry just long enough to make it clear she might be interested — she’s never really dropped any hints about the kind of partner she would seek out. For most of the series, she is traveling alone, relentlessly and single-mindedly pursuing people on her hit list. The closest she gets to talking about romantic plans, perhaps, is at the beginning of Season 1, when her father tells her she will grow up to marry a high lord.
“No,” she says, looking her father in the eye. “That’s not me.” She immediately jumps up and returns to sword-fighting practice.
As with any conceivable romantic connection in a series as popular as “Game of Thrones,” there is a corner of the Internet that has believed deeply in “Gendrya” for years. But before this final season, so far as I can tell from watching an array of Gendry-Arya tribute videos on YouTube, Gendrya hinged entirely on a brief friendship when Arya was 12, and something Robert Baratheon, former ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, said to Ned Stark in the series’s first episode: “I have a son, you have a daughter. We’ll join our households.” At the time, he seemed to be talking about the boy he thought was his son, Prince Joffrey, and Ned’s oldest daughter, Sansa — but since that clearly didn’t work out, Gendrya fans say, maybe the king’s statement was foreshadowing a different union.
Arya is not the only female character on the show who shirks stereotypically feminine behaviors. Brienne of Tarth also prefers fighting to sewing, swords and armor to gowns. But unlike Arya, Brienne has made her sexual preferences clear from the beginning. When Brienne travels with Jaime Lannister in Season 3, lapsing into long conversations on the road and in the bath, there is obvious sexual chemistry between the two. Later, in Season 5, Brienne tells her squire about a ball her father held for her when she was young, when he invited all the young lords to their home.
“They whispered in my ear, how they wanted to marry me and take me back to their castles,” she says. “I’d never been so happy.” (The lords, it turned out, were just making fun of her.)
By the time Jaime shows up in Winterfell, viewers know Brienne is interested in men — and, most likely, in Jaime. A sex scene between Jaime and Brienne probably would not have been that shocking, particularly after the emotional knighthood moment.
But when Arya started to unbutton a leather jacket, fitted to look like a suit of armor, and stripped off a pair of pants, the audience wasn’t quite sure how to respond.