The scene immediately sparked controversy among Thrones fans. Some of that is the understandable shock value of seeing Maisie Williams, an actress we’ve watched grow up onscreen, get naked on camera for the first time. Williams was 12 when the show began, and as the kid sister of the Stark family, she’s filled a similar role in the eyes of the viewer. But watching her grow into a woman is part of the ride, and her development into a sexual being shouldn’t be a reason to balk at the scene, which is fully in Arya’s control. Watching a young female character consensually sleep with a male of her choosing is almost revolutionary for Thrones.
But for me, the scene still has its issues—issues removed from the conditions of Arya’s agency, which are perfectly in place. There are both textual and practical reasons why it didn’t quite land for me, and why the Arya and Gendry dynamic has always skirted the line of unease. A big chunk of that has to do with the show’s inability to juggle its timeline.
When we meet Arya in season one, she’s a very young girl. In the real world, it’s been a decade since our introduction to the character. Maisie Williams is 22 years old; an adult woman. But how old is Arya? The official HBO Twitter account went out of its way to clarify that she’s of-age, but does that actually track with what we’ve been told? Baby Sam, for instance, can’t be more than two or three on the show, and he was born in season three. Honestly, none of this matters much on a show where travel times are condensed whenever its convenient for the sake of plot movement. But it can mess with our perception when it comes to certain characters, so it’s no wonder many were thrown when Arya made clear her intentions with Gendry. It’s one of the side effects of complicated time management.
By age 18 in Westeros you should have:
– Had a pet.
– Moved out on your own.
– Travelled extensively.
– Had a kill list.
– Pretended to be the opposite sex to evade capture.
– Been blind for a while.
– Ticked at least three people off of your kill list.
— HBO (@HBO_UK) April 21, 2019
There’s also the question of just how old Gendry was when he met Arya. Both are clearly consenting adults at the time their sex scene happens, but if Gendry was an adult when he first met the preteen Arya, it makes the optics a little uncomfortable. That didn’t personally weigh too heavy on my conscience, but coupled with Joe Dempsie’s comments on the scene to Entertainment Weekly—”It’s obviously slightly strange for me because I’ve known Maisie since she was 11, 12 years old,” he said—and his clear discomfort onscreen, it was hard to not feel slightly removed from what was going on.
But that gets to my biggest gripe with the scene. That feeling of removal. For seasons now, Arya’s storyline has struggled to fully coalesce. The plotting of her time in the House of Black and White was always slightly off, and her motivations never fully realized. She could never quite let go of her identity, refusing to fully shed the name “Arya Stark,” and eventually opting to leave and use her skills to enact vengeance on the people who betrayed her family. But her slaying of the Freys initially came at a cost. Sansa feared Arya when she returned to Winterfell with a bag of faces and a bloodthirsty attitude. We’re meant to think that, like Bran, Arya has lost a part of herself on the road home. But did she really?
Given the after-the-episode segment and Maisie Williams’ post-script interview with EW, the sex scene with Gendry was meant to be Arya reclaiming her humanity in whatever way she could. And while on paper that sounds lovely, the moment in action felt a bit blurred. Are we to believe Arya is so lost that she needs a human interaction to bring her back to the surface? Or has she slowly assimilated back to her old self and needs a reminder of where she stands? A little bit of clarity on Arya’s perspective might have eased the surprise of that scene, and made the seasons of build-up between the two characters resonate more positively. For me, it just didn’t; what should have been a beautiful, cathartic moment—like Jaime knighting Brienne, or even Jon admitting his heritage to Daenerys—felt abrupt and a little confusing.
It’s possible the remaining episodes will find a way to add context to the scene. Then again, I’m not betting on Gendry’s odds of surviving the Battle of Winterfell against the White Walkers. Regardless of how the final episodes play out, I’m happy Arya was able to have a moment of happiness before the coming doom. I only wish I could have known what to feel during her big moment.