Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 3, “The Long Night.”
When Arya stabs the Night King at the 11th hour in the Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night,” it was a shocking relief for the high tension of seeing most of the show’s fan-favorite cast overwhelmed by the sheer mass of undead. But showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss explain that they’ve known about the twist for three years now, and they’ve been foreshadowing it in the series since 2016.
“For… God, I think it’s probably three years now, we’ve known that it was going to be Arya who delivers that fatal blow,” Benioff says in a behind-the-episode clip. “She seemed like the best candidate, provided we weren’t thinking about her in the moment,” Weiss adds. “Jon Snow has always been the hero, the one who’s been the savior, but it just didn’t seem right to us for this moment,” Benioff says.
The showrunners wanted a big surprise, so that meant picking scrappy underdog Arya for the series’s largest kill to date. But while audiences are supposed to be surprised by Arya’s one-two assassination of the Night King, the showrunners sprinkled a few subtle clues throughout seasons 7 and 8 that hinted at the outcome. While season 7 was under production in 2016, clues were already written into the script.
In the season 7 premiere, the scene opens on Walder Frey, who we saw Arya kill in season 6, hosting a large celebration and ordering most of the members of House Frey to drink poisoned wine. There’s an interesting shot of the side of Frey’s face that comes up again in “The Long Night,” mirroring the side-angle shot of one of the White Walkers just before Arya approaches the Night King from behind.
The writers don’t lay out the process that lets Arya sneak past the other White Walkers to make her way to the Night King, but it’s possible that she used her Faceless Men magic to disguise herself as a White Walker, the way she assumed Frey’s face. As she explained to Sansa in season 7, she “can become someone else, speak in their voice, live in their skin.”
Then again, the White Walker seems to look back in the direction the wind is blowing, indicating that it’s simply sensing Arya walk by. It’s also true that Arya is extremely stealthy, which Jon commented on in the season 8 premiere. Either way, Arya’s massacre of the rest of House Frey establishes her as one of the show’s deadliest killers. The sequence where she kills off House Frey cuts directly to a shot of the Night King marching south.
Later in season 7, Arya reunites with Bran under the weirwood tree, which is the exact spot where she ends up killing the Night King later, and he hands her a Valyrian steel dagger that was once used in an assassination attempt against him. “I don’t want it,” Bran says, “It’s wasted on a cripple.” In that scene, he reveals that he has a lot of intel on what Arya has been up to, but he doesn’t give away what he knows of the future. He just prepares her for it.
The dagger quickly becomes significant in Arya’s arsenal. First, she spars with Brienne and they seem evenly matched, even after Brienne knocks Arya’s sword Needle out of her hand. In a one-two hand-swapping move, she draws the dagger and gets it into a position where she can stalemate Brienne, foreshadowing the move she’ll later use on the Night King.
In the same way Arya drops Needle and must rely on her dagger, she loses her Gendry-forged custom dragonglass weapon while on the run from wights, and she goes head-to-head with the Night King using only the Valyrian dagger. That might be necessary since it’s unclear whether dragonglass could unmake the Night King (even though he was created by dragonglass). As Benioff put it in the behind-the-scenes explainer: “We knew it had to be Valyrian steel to the exact spot [on the Night King’s body] where the Children of the Forest put the dragonglass blade to create the Night King.”
Arya has often declared that she wants to kill Cersei. Is that also foreshadowing that she will succeed? What other twists do the showrunners have planned that were already embedded in earlier seasons? One theme that came up repeatedly in season 7 was Sansa’s desire for more power, and her worry over Jon Snow’s naïveté. Now that Jon knows his true identity as the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, perhaps these scenes were building up a foundation for Sansa to serve as Warden of the North or even queen of an independent North. We’ll find out soon.