The second episode of Game of Thrones season 8, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” was also the 69th episode of the series overall, which heavily foreshadowed there was going to be sex. And not just any sex. Not (s)exposition sex, like we got in the series premiere with Bronn and a couple of whores we are never going to see again, or like what made up like 40% of the entirety of season 1. Important Sex. The kind with narrative relevance and major characters.
And boy did we. Because while Meg Shields and I thought it might be Jaime and Brienne to heat things up (and to be fair, some serious eye action went on—the feelings are definitely there), it turned out instead to be none other than Arya Stark and her old traveling companion Gendry who went all the way.
Online reactions followed almost instantaneously, and it quickly became clear that some people were absolutely not okay with it. And, you know what, generally speaking, fair enough. People are free to like things or not like things, but this is Game of Thrones, and if you’re still watching the show by this point, meaning you haven’t been entirely, irrevocably put off by any of the sex stuff it’s done previously, this scene was a really weird one to have a strong reaction to, because it’s basically the most tastefully done, well-handled sex scene this show has ever had. Sure, Jon/Ygritte and Grey Worm/Missandei were also cool, but even putting aside character preferences, etc., it’s still definitely in the top three.
Maybe you’re reading this because, like me, you’ve had a smug little smile on your face since the episode aired, because you totally called it since Harrenhal (obviously not then, because she was a child, but, y’know, endgame), what we got in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was heated yet heartwarming content, and you’re reading this article because you’re basking in your victory. Or maybe you’re one of the people who felt squicked, or unsettled, and you’re reading this because you’re curious what the other side of the argument is. Or because you enjoy hate-reading things. Whatever the case may be.
Let me just be clear that I unabashedly love Game of Thrones. Sure, I know it has its share of faults and I enjoy griping about the writing every now and again and there were parts of season 7 that left me shouting at my television because why have everyone’s IQs dropped like 50 points all of a sudden?! but I digress.
That being said, the treatment of sex on the show has never been my favorite thing. First of all, there’s the way the show treats women and women’s bodies in sex scenes. Basically, any time the show needs to do anything with exposition, it flashes some boobs around, presumably in the thought that backstory and worldbuilding are not enough to hold viewers’ attention, but naked women are. And it is always women. There have been a handful of dicks that have ever been shown in Game of Thrones—from the guy being tortured for attempting to poison Daenerys in season one to the actor in Izembaro’s troupe in season six literally holding out his dick to ask if it looks diseased. Honestly, the second instance pretty much felt like an intentional middle finger to the various commentators who were grumbling about the unequal treatment—as in, you dared us to show more dick on screen, so here you are, how do you like them apples?
And then, once you get past how the show has consistently treated women’s bodies as something to be ogled and objectified but men overwhelmingly get to keep their shirts (and everything else) on, there’s the rape. And the thing about the rape scenes in Game of Thrones is that, for all the content from the books the show had to cut for time, it added extra rape scenes that are not in the books. Daenerys’ first time with Khal Drogo, for instance. In the book she gives consent. She’s nervous, and the consent is definitely dubious considering how Viserys coerced her into the marriage, but she says “yes.” In the show, she says “no,” but her “no” doesn’t do her any good. And then there’s the infamous Cersei/Jaime sex scene in “Breaker of Chains,” which in the books, while still uncomfortable—they are having sex next to their son’s corpse, after all, even looking past the whole twincest thing—reads as decidedly consensual, while in the show it most definitely does not. And then, of course, there’s what happens after Sansa marries Ramsay Bolton in the Dark Time that was season 5. And Theon. We mustn’t forget Theon (even though we really want to unsee some things). We could even throw in Gendry because while he might have initially been a-okay with Melisandre’s seduction, he certainly was not into it once the leeches got involved.
And then, once you get past all of the superfluous sex scenes that show off boobs just because they can and all of the sexual content with serious consent issues, you still have all the incest, both intentional (Cersei/Jaime) and accidental (Jon/Daenerys)—and, while we’re at it, might as well throw in that one instance of attempted accidental incest (Theon meeting Yara again—yikes).
So by the time episode 69 rolled around, Game of Thrones had a lot of sexual history and I, as a viewer, had some issues with about 75-80% percent of it. I stuck around for the Starks and the dragons and the epic battle scenes and all that other good content and just rolled my eyes at the inevitable brothel scene.
And then came “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” Now, there are two main reasons I think the Arya/Gendry scene is the most well-handled sex scene Game of Thrones has ever had. The first is in how the scene itself is done, and the second is that presuming they both live through the next episode, it could point to a really fascinating narrative arc for Arya.
Let’s talk about the scene itself first.
It all starts when Gendry gives Arya the double-headed spear her built for her, according to her specifications. The two scenes they have had since their reunion prior to this have both been decidedly flirtatious, so the appreciative looks going both ways aren’t exactly news. And when Arya starts asking questions about Melisandre, at first it just sounds like two old friends shooting the breeze on the eve of what might be the end of the world. And then Arya asks a decidedly pointed question: “Was that your first time?” No other Game of Thrones sex scene has featured the two characters actually discussing their sexual history quite so openly before, but communication is important, and this is the kind of content I like to see. And then, once she’s sure of what she wants, Arya makes it explicitly clear what she wants, and then she goes for it.
The actual amount of nudity shown in the scene is relatively tame by Game of Thrones standards, but it does show some of Arya’s scars. And, speaking as a woman with scars, showing a female character be very confident in a situation like that with scars is nice to see on television, and not all that common, so that’s another little thing I appreciate.
A lot of people who take issue with the scene seem to be hung up over Arya’s age, but her character is 18, and an 18-year-old not wanting to die a virgin when the world might be ending, particularly when there is a guy right there who she trusts and is attracted to, is easily one of the most normal, relatable things Arya has done in seasons. All she did last season was kill people, wear their faces, lurk around, and then slit more throats. I am here for troubled, badass, but still-a-human-being-with-feelings Arya. But, some of you might be thinking, the AGE DIFFERENCE?!??? Look, I’m not sure how old Gendry is supposed to be on the show, but in the books, he’s five years older than her so let’s say middle-ish 20s—everyone is always calling him a “boy” or “lad” so it feels pretty safe he’s not supposed to be Joe Dempsie’s actual age of 31—which is a perfectly reasonable age difference (and if the gap between 18 and mid-20s weirds you out, just wait until you read the books because boy are you in for a surprise). So, in sum: the scene is tastefully done. There is enthusiastic consent on both sides and they are not related to each other, A+, gold star.
And finally, this brings us to the second part: what it could mean for Arya, presuming they both live through the battle. Arya has, very adamantly, never wanted to be a lady. She has always fought against expectations, against the idea that she would marry, or do anything that a normal lady would do. “That’s not me,” as she told her father. Now, some viewers have looked at this final shot of Arya lying awake in bed (she wore Gendry out, clearly), and have interpreted to mean that she was underwhelmed by the experience, etc. I don’t think so. For starters, there’s the song Podrick is singing. When it cuts to Arya and Gendry, the lyrics are “spun away all her sorrow and pain,” and the camera moves from Gendry to Arya, and the focus pull there, in particular, suggests that although she’s facing away from him, she’s thinking about what has just happened. And if you think the music doesn’t matter, you have not been paying attention—for example, just go back and watch the scene from “Winterfell” and listen to the different swells of music as Arya sees Jon, Sandor, and Gendry arriving. Also, she’s lying under what very much appears to be Gendry’s cloak, which has a lot of significance within the world of Game of Thrones considering Westerosi marriage customs.
Before they parted ways, Gendry was arguably the last true “friend” Arya had. Ever since then, her driving motivations have been violent—have been about vengeance, about killing. But before everything went to hell in a handbasket, Arya was an incredibly affectionate, passionate person. She was quick to anger, but just as quick to make friends. I think that last look we see of her is one of a burgeoning internal conflict. Of course, the Army of the Dead must be dealt with first but presuming they both live to see another day, what remains of season 8 might see Arya having to decide between getting the vengeance she has wanted for so long—particularly when it comes to Cersei—and determining there are other things (or, ahem, people) that she wants more; between exacting retribution for the sins of the past and focusing on the possibilities of the future. Regardless, this new development is the first time in a long time we have seen Arya have a plotline not entirely centered around killing people, and I for one can’t wait to see where her story goes next.