The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, “The Bells,” has set the internet aflame. Were its character beats earned? Did its deaths mean something? Where do we go from here? But one of the biggest questions comes from the episode’s closing moments. Here’s what those final minutes mean and how they reflect the character arc of the person who might just be the show’s main protagonist: Arya Stark.
In the episode’s back half, Daenerys—grieving the loss of her beloved Missandei, and scorned by the betrayal of her once loyal followers—burns King’s Landing to ash, killing off several of our heroes and destroying any goodwill that might be left for her. We see much of the fallout of her tyranny at the ground level from the point of view of Arya, who runs through the rubble after abandoning her plot to kill Cersei. It’s a dizzying sequence, and director Miguel Sapochnik deserves as many awards as they can give him for the ruthless brutality he captures so devastatingly. Sticking with Arya was an especially smart choice, as it solidifies her role as the show’s version of Death: she who conquered the Night King must also be privy to the damning reality of unstoppable loss.
In “The Bells,” the show also made her status as Death quite literal. After surviving the wrath of Dany’s dragon, she emerges from the ash, bloodied and covered in soot, and discovers a white horse, who has—like her—miraculously survived. She takes the mare by the reins and rides off as the episode closes.
Where Did the Horse Come From?
There is some speculation, and no reason to believe otherwise, that the horse belonged to Ser Harry Strickland, leader of the Golden Company, who got their asses lit on fire at the very beginning of Dany’s invasion.
When Dany’s forces (led by Jon Snow) first arrive at King’s Landing, they’re greeted by the Golden Company, led by Ser Strickland. He rides on a white horse, and it seems as though the horse miraculously survived despite being on the literal front lines of the battle.
When Dany sets the Golden Company ablaze, the horse isn’t killed. It’s just pushed forward violently, and unconscious, rather than actually being dead. (It’s Strickland who is actually killed due to a bad case of Grey Worm.)
At the same time, the Dothraki rode in on plenty of white horses that also could have survived the mayhem. Since it doesn’t all the way matter that Arya take the horse of Strickland, her taking any of the white Dothraki or Northern horses still fits the show’s symbolism perfectly.
“His Name That Sat on Him Was Death”
The obvious allusion to the white horse is the pale horse, the stallion of Death from the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible. While it’s a little bizarre for George R. R. Martin to reference outside texts in his medieval fantasy universe, that hasn’t stopped him before. It’s also worth noting that Martin attended Catholic high school when he was growing up in New Jersey.
In Revelation 6:2-8, John sees a vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The final horseman John the speaker sees is Death, who is literally “followed” by Hell (or “Hades,” depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading from), signifying untold destruction that comes when Death rides in.
From the King James Bible:
“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”
What gets a little funny/complicated is that the horse Arya finds in King’s Landing is a white horse coated in pale gray ash. This has a double meaning due to the fact that two out of the Four Horsemen rode white and pale horses that differed in both color and symbolism.
While Death, the black rider, rode a pale horse (often understood to be ashen gray or sickly green), fellow horseman Pestilence/Conquest rode a pure white horse, thus earning the name “the white rider.”
Because translations of ancient texts can get iffy, the white rider has represented either widespread disease (pestilence) or military subjugation (conquest), depending on the translation. A white horse is also the horse Christ rides upon when he leads the armies of heaven to judge the people of Earth.
In terms of Game of Thrones, Arya finding a white horse coated in pale ash from the fires Dany unleashed upon King’s Landing is just a buffet platter of metaphors and allusions, even if it doesn’t all track perfectly.
Arya is definitely an avatar of death, having been trained to kill in oh so many ways and even teasing the God of Death. (“Not today.”) Although it was Dany who brought forth “hell” to the people, Arya riding on the white/pale horse could mean she is riding towards Dany, “followed” by Hell behind her. Though Arya originally set out to kill Cersei, Dany has taken that from her and in the process become a much bigger threat than Cersei.
What does this mean for the shows ending?
It’s hard to say if the Biblical allusion is foreshadowing or merely a reflection of Arya’s character development and her role in the story. It could telegraph the final episode—perhaps Arya will kill Daenerys for her deeds—but it’s just as likely that it’s another layer of mythical storytelling. The Bible plays into plenty of fantasy fiction, but it doesn’t always influence the outcome.
That said, we wouldn’t be surprised if the show is setting up a storyline where Arya rides off into the North with Jon, ready to protect Westeros from whatever invader—magical or human—will threaten it next.
Did Bran Warg Into the Horse?
Something that’s got the internet in a tizzy about Arya’s horse is whether or not Bran “warged” into the horse to help Arya out.
When Arya gets on the horse, the episode never cuts to Bran, eyes white and doing his usual weird thing. Bran was entirely absent from this week’s story, so it’s hard to say whether or not the horse was Bran’s doing. Perhaps we’ll find out next week if Bran actually sent a “Westeros Uber” to save Arya.
— Casey Baker (@CaseyBake16) May 13, 2019