“The Spoils of War” was one of the most explosive episodes of the season – definitely the biggest episode in the first half. Figuratively, this is largely because of Arya Stark’s long-awaited return to Winterfell. In a more literal sense, this is because of Daenerys, Drogon, and the Dothraki’s battle against Jamie, Bronn, and the Lannister soldiers. No matter how you look at this episode, though, it is an incredible and dense episode (especially considering it is the shortest of the season).
With me being both a psychology student and a huge fan of both Arya and Daenerys, I am uniquely suited to look at one specific critique of this episode, focusing on two scenes. Prior to being interrupted by Jon Snow (all the more amusing if you look at Jon as Daenerys’s annoying nephew, despite them both being born around the same time), Daenerys is walking with her best friend, chatting happily and attempting to inquire into the topic of the “many things” that happened between Missandei and Grey Worm just like any pair of friends who have not been through the death, destruction, and slavery they know. In the North, Arya Stark came across Brienne of Tarth sparring with Podrick and was overjoyed to encounter a female soldier that she could spar with as an equal, gleefully challenging her and dueling with the same grin on her face that a similar girl in the real world might display during a heated game of football/soccer.
Daenerys has been through an almost unbelievable number of ordeals. She has been at the mercy of the dothraki many times, sold to a culture where rape is as common as breathing. She has lost her husband, her unborn child, and most of the people she knew as friends. She has been forced to risk her life in desperate bids to survive more than once. And she has been responsible for ordering many deaths, often by the method of burning the victim and/or feeding them to her dragons.
Arya has been through similar ordeals. She was present when her father was executed, which began a period of several years of desperately dodging the authorities. She was taken prisoner by the enemy, watched people being tortured while awaiting being selected herself, and escaped. After discovering that her mother, brother, and other relatives had been murdered, she was kidnapped and forced to travel around the countryside with an enemy who had given her ample reason to fear for her life, before she proceeded to train as an assassin and suffer life-threatening injuries. At multiple stages of her journey she ordered deaths, personally killed people, and mass murdered using poison.
What is the connection? Well, it has been argued by fans that the ordeals these two have been through make it highly unlikely that either of these two women would be likely to enjoy these activities. This article from Psychology Today gives some information why to expect that. Based on the article, soldiers are likely to risk their own lives to avoid killing others, and that those who have been forced to kill another are often subjected to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (a disorder that both Arya and Daenerys have been placed at risk for with the numerous severely traumatic events in each of their lives).
Some of the risk factors involved are seeing the victim as you kill them and your distance from them. This explains how someone like Cersei Lannister, who often has her victims killed from a distance where she doesn’t have to see them, is at less risk of psychological trauma. (It’s also noteworthy that Cersei is one of the biggest alcoholics on the show, something that is often used as a form of self-medication for PTSD and other disorders.) Arya has by far been the closest to her victims, killing with her sword, looking her victims in the eye as she poisons them, and even going so far in one case as to butcher two of her victims and make a meat pie out of them. Daenerys isn’t much better, when it comes to physical distance and faces; while her victims are rarely killed by her hand, she is usually close enough to make eye contact when they are executed on her command. The fact that Daenerys rarely kills by her own hand is unlikely to make a difference; prison wardens and others involved in executed prisoners also suffer mental distress.
Dehumanization by other means is difficult to wager. At one point I speculated that Arya would become the cold assassin trope common in science fiction and fantasy: the person who has become so hardened by trauma and killing that they have become a sociopath, barely recognizing their victims as being the same species as them. However, the genuine enjoyment and empathy that she displays at several points in Season 7 indicate that this is not the case. Daenerys, too, indicates a capacity for caring for the emotional well-being of others (she noticeably reacts when realizing that she is speaking ill of someone’s stature in front of someone much shorter). It’s possible, however, that both have managed to psychologically dehumanize their enemies, causing the Freys to be little more than animals in Arya’s mind. (If this is so, her encounter with Ed Sheeran actually made her more vulnerable, demonstrating to her that soldiers working for the Lannisters are as human as are her allies.)
Daenerys may have more trouble. Her equity and humanity have long been traits of hers: she views Dothraki and Westerosi as equal and campaigns against rape and slavery. An observation of social media indicates that there is a possibility that the actions and views of slavers are enough to dehumanize them in her eyes, however she still encounters them face to face and does not have the benefits of internet anonymity.
However, there is a silver lining in these two cases. PTSD risk has been demonstrated to have a genetic component that may account for as much as one third of the difference between individuals with similar experiences. Arya’s father was known to both fight (and kill) during war) and to execute criminals with his own hand, and by the time of his death he appeared to be not only relatively mentally healthy, but more to the point fully capable of enjoying laughing and joking with a good friend. The Starks were wardens of the North for hundreds of years, and one would expect that maintaining this post likely required a family history of similar mental fortitude.
Daenerys’s family is in a similar position. The Targaryens ruled Westeros for hundreds of years, in what was most likely a more high-stress position than that in the North. The Targaryens were never exactly known to be pillars of mental health, susceptible to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (as seen in Daenerys’s brother, Viserys), paranoid delusions, and other conditions that aren’t exactly favorable in your rulers, but one thing that was never referenced in family histories was a Targaryen who demonstrated signs specifically pointing to post-traumatic stress. This is even less conclusive than Arya’s family history, but again, maintaining rulership for as long as the Targaryens did most likely indicates a family that is resistant to the stresses of executing one’s enemies.
Since none of the evidence above is conclusive, let’s look at the worst-case scenario. If both Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen were sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, would they be able to enjoy sparring with a friend or talking about boys?
The answer is yes.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, of course. If Arya had a PTSD trigger related to someone swinging a sword at her because of her wound in Bravos or of simply taking any sort of aggressive action, then clearly her duel with Brienne would have a very high risk of causing flashbacks and other psychological distress. If it was related to meat pies, it may be a reason for her relatively brusqueness when speaking with Hot Pie (though I don’t really think it was). Obviously, talking about sex is less likely to cause killing-related stress symptoms, though there are other complications in Daenerys’s life that could raise other questions. A sample of self-reported data on a PTSD forum like the one here can quickly demonstrate that frequency of symptoms varies wildly, but the key takeaway here is that even one good day – one good hour – can lead to what we saw onscreen. Mental illness can be debilitating in many ways, but it doesn’t mean that someone can no longer experience any enjoyable things.
So, do Arya and Dany have PTSD? They may, they may not. Either way, I’ve come up with little reason to think that talking about sex with Missandei of Naath or sparring with Brienne of Tarth have any great likelihood of being completely out of bounds.
That says nothing of Jamie Lannister’s chances of having dragon flashbacks for the rest of his life, though.