I’m having too many feelings about Arya’s characterization on the show, so here we go:
I feel really, really strongly that D&D decided that Arya was going to be the “Strong Female Character” trope, and they took away all of her…softer character development/relationships and grafted them on to Sansa. It kind of reminds me of book Hermione and Ron vs. movie Hermione and Ron–by removing one character’s flaws and giving them another’s strengths, it shortchanges both.
So let’s just dive right in, shall we?
“I will remember, Your Grace,” said Sansa, though she had always heard that love was a surer route to the people’s loyalty than fear. If I am ever a queen, I’ll make them love me. A Storm of Swords
So, Sansa knows that fear is no way to rule. That’s important. The thing is, this is pretty much the first time we’ve seen this sort of awareness from Sansa. I don’t know that, apart from Joffrey, we’ve seen her worry about gaining the love of others. She gets along well with other lords and ladies, so it’s never really been an issue for her, though at this point in her story, she’s being shunned by the court. Still, it’s interesting to see her realize that she should observe what Cersei does, and then do the opposite of it.
How do you make people love you–specifically, people you rule? The phrasing of this is interesting, too. “I’ll make them love me.” Make is a forceful word. Compared to later in the series, when the Tyrells bring carts of food to win the love of King’s Landing for Margaery, make implies a certain amount of fear, or compulsion.
The Bread Riots are the first time Sansa is forced to reckon with the reality of poverty in King’s Landing, and the first time she’s really confronted with the fact that people who have never even met her hate her. In a lot of ways, you could say it’s the first meaningful interaction she’s had with people below her station. She has maids and servants, of course, but up until this point I don’t think Sansa truly comprehends how fortunate she is. She still faces danger in the Red Keep. Any wrong move could result in being beaten and humiliated, but that’s danger of a different sort than starvation or rape or death.
Arya, on the other hand, is, from the beginning, defined by her ability to connect with people who are different than her. Unlike Sansa, who enjoys the people at court, nobles and knights and lords, Arya loves the smallfolk. Blacksmiths and butcher’s boys, cooks and horse masters. Not only is this important enough that Sansa comments on it, it’s so different from Sansa’s own worldview that it is spoken of with derision.
Sansa knew all about the sorts of people Arya liked to talk to: squires and grooms and serving girls, old men and naked children, rough-spoken freeriders of uncertain birth. Arya would make friends with anybody. This Mycah was the worst; a butcher’s boy, thirteen and wild, he slept in the meat wagon and smelled of the slaughtering block. Just the sight of him was enough to make Sansa feel sick, but Arya seemed to prefer his company to hers. Game of Thrones
Everything Arya has done since this observation was made has only driven the point further home. Arya can make friends with anyone–from her tentative friendship with the Hound to her friendships with the Brotherhood to Lady Smallwood–as she continues on her journey, she has started to learn better how to interact with nobility, something Sansa has always excelled at. In Braavos, Arya is quite literally putting herself in someone else’s shoes.
Cat had made friends along the wharves; porters and mummers, ropemakers and sailmenders, taverners, brewers and bakers and beggars and whores. They bought clams and cockles from her, told her true tales of Braavos and lies about their lives, and laughed at the way she talked when she tried to speak Braavosi. A Feast for Crows
Arya’s ability to make friends isn’t just a casual thing, either. Maybe it’s the wolf in her. Maybe it’s the nobility in her–chivalry in the classical sense–but she protects people. She looks out for others, to the point where she knows she might do better on her own, but they wouldn’t, and she can’t leave them. This holds true for people she knows:
She would make much better time on her own, Arya knew, but she could not leave them. They were her pack, her friends, the only living friends that remained to her, and if not for her they would still be safe at Harrenhal, Gendry sweating at his forge and Hot Pie in the kitchens. A Storm of Swords
“You leave Weasel alone, she’s just scared and hungry is all.” Arya glanced back, but the girl was not following for once. Hot Pie must have grabbed her, like Gendry had told him.
The roof was gone up too, and things were falling down, pieces of flaming wood and bits of straw and hay. Arya put a hand over her mouth and nose. She couldn’t see the wagon for the smoke, but she could still hear Biter screaming. She crawled toward the sound…Jaqen saw her, but it was too hard to breathe, let alone talk. She threw the axe into the wagon. A Clash of Kings
And people she doesn’t:
“He is not a lord,” a child’s voice put in. “He’s in the Night’s Watch, stupid. From Westeros.” A girl edged into the light, pushing a barrow full of seaweed; a scruffy, skinny creature in big boots, with ragged unwashed hair. “There’s another one down at the Happy Port, singing songs to the Sailor’s Wife,” she informed the two bravos. To Sam she said, “If they ask who is the most beautiful woman in the world, say the Nightingale or else they’ll challenge you….”
…Don’t do that either,” said the barrow girl, “or else they’ll ask for your boots next, and before long you’ll be naked.”
…And suddenly there was a knife in the girl’s left hand, a blade as skinny as she was. The one called Terro said something to his fair-haired friend and the two of them moved off, chuckling at one another. A Feast for Crows
Arya’s training arc in Braavos is simply giving her better tools to do what she has always done: defend people. Superficially, yes, she’s learning how to kill people. The show seems to think this is the most important thing she learned in Braavos, but there’s more to killing people than just killing:
“Are you some butcher of the battlefield, hacking down every man who stands in your way?” A Dance With Dragons
As a Faceless Man in training, Arya is learning discretion, patience, and temperance. Particularly with what she saw as she traveled Westeros, this emphasis on the value of life, and the importance of not taking more than is needed, is pretty profound.