In the most recent season of Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister checked off a major item from her royal To Do list:
- Kill Sansa Stark
- Make Jaime do whatever I want
- Win – in general
Pay back the Iron Bank of Braavos
The crown’s overall debts were established early on in the series, and gradually new information revealed that the bulk of that debt was to the Iron Bank, a financial institution known to be ruthless in regards to collecting what’s owed them.
This might have not seemed an insurmountable problem in the first few seasons when the Lannisters were regarded as the most monied of houses, but Lannister gold reserves are no longer replenishable: their once-lucrative mining concerns have for some time been depleted.
The outstanding debt to the Iron Bank realistically had to be dealt with – not only was the Lannister unofficial motto of always paying their debts now in doubt, but the Iron Bank had proven themselves not at all reluctant in funding challenges to the Lannister regime. (It’s unclear if the Iron Bank added the cash they gave to Stannis Baratheon onto the amount already owed by “the crown”, but I wouldn’t put creative accounting past them.)
Cersei took advantage of one of her hobbies – punishing her enemies – to wipe away her debts with the bank.
The capture of rebellious Highgarden’s treasury squared accounts and put her back in the bank’s good graces – and allowed her to secure a new line of financing with which to bring in Golden Company sellswords to support her administration.
It’s worth asking why she bothered to pay off the bank with Highgarden gold and then shoulder a new debt from Braavos when she could have just lived with the old unpaid debt and used the spoils from House Tyrell to hire the sellswords.
If we are just looking at dollaros (Westeros dollars) amounts, it seems to be exactly the same. Either way, Cersei is in debt the bank but has cash in hand. The difference is that the goodwill of the Iron Bank and Cersei’s credit score vary significantly in these two situations. Mercenary companies might not want to be hired by individuals who don’t have a good working relationship with the Iron Bank. That’s just business.
Cersei negotiated extra time onto the repayment schedule from the bank’s representative, Tycho Nestoris, by suggesting that her rival Daenerys Targaryen was bad for the bank’s business. The disruption of the slave economy by the Mother of Dragons/Breaker of Chains would have been felt in the financial hub of Braavos. Cersei’s suggestion that the Iron Bank had investments in the slave economy raised the ire of book-knowledgable fans who were angry at the suggestion that any Braavos institution would be involved, however tangentially, with slavery.
Braavos was a city founded by escaped slaves and in the books had a fairly aggressive anti-slavery ethos. I don’t really want to argue for or against that (by bringing in boring details about economics and Volantene triarchs and so on) but the show has reasonably established the bankers as practical and focused on the bottom line.
When Stannis came to petition them for funds, they were only interested in how sound it would be financially to loan him money. They had no interest in the rightness of his claim or if his policies were socially just or even that he had the personality of a lobster.
Tycho Nestoris: Across the Narrow Sea, your books are filled with words like usurper, and madman, and blood right. Here, our books are filled with numbers. We prefer the stories they tell. More plain. Less open to interpretation.
It remains to be seen how much of a direct role the Iron Bank will play in the final season of Game of Thrones, but I assume that Tycho Nestoris and his buddies will be keeping a close eye their investments with Westeros ushering in an apocalyptic conflict. It wouldn’t do for the world to end with outstanding loans unresolved.
But the Iron Bank of Braavos isn’t the only powerful organization from that city, and Cersei isn’t the only person who might have to worry about foreign balance sheets and debts. I’m talking about potentially unfinished business between Arya Stark and the legendary Faceless Men.
Before we get much further, I want to assure everyone that my goal is not to try to defend Arya’s time in Braavos, or convince you that it ended satisfactorily. But let’s take things at face value.
Anyone who has used a credit card or has cashed a check has some experience in how banks work. We don’t have to know the particulars of Cersei’s indebtedness – we don’t need to know the interest rate, or if she had to put anything up for collateral. Even without knowing those details, we all more or less understand the banking rules.
But the rules surrounding the practices of the Faceless Men are a bit murkier. We have to intuit things from Arya’s first-hand experiences with the mysterious murder-cult.
Arya earned her tuition to Assassin Hogwarts by making the acquaintance of Faceless Man assassin Jaqen H’ghar. While Jaqen and two ne’er-do-wells were trapped in a cage, Arya saved the three of them from certain death in a fire.
As a result, Jaqen approached Arya with a straightforward proposition: Arya had prevented three deaths so to fix this imbalance Arya must nominate three people for Jaqen to kill. (This wasn’t presented as something Arya could refuse.)
Arya eventually twisted the choices offered her by her murder-genie to secure her escape from Lannister-held Harrenhal; Jaqen was forced to help in Arya’s escape or kill himself as one of her named choices.
This communicated at least some idea that the Faceless Men observed a kind of ledger of deaths and lives, and recognized a need to keep things in balance or equilibrium.
Over the course of several seasons, Arya traveled to Braavos to learn the ways of the Faceless Men, headquartered in the House of Black and White. While in the House of Black and White, Arya learned some of the mysteries of this Death cult. She assisted with euthanasia, learned about poisons, and developed the skills to remove faces from corpses – a primary component in the Faceless Men’s signature ability to magically assume another’s identity.
And she was registered in hands-on assassination classes. There were rules to this activity: Arya was tasked to give “the gift” to an unscrupulous maritime insurer, but she ignored him to attack a target of opportunity: her longtime nemesis Ser Meryn Trant.
Arya was punished for giving the gift to the wrong person, since as a Faceless Man initiate the act of death-dealing fell within strict House of Black and White regulatory codes: one could not go about killing willy-nilly.
Arya broke with the House of Black and White after she opted not to kill another target, and was briefly hunted by “the Waif” whom she lured into a trap. (I’m being very charitable with this summary, okay?)
Presenting the Waif’s face to her guidance counselor in the House of Black and White, Arya announced her intention to return home.
Arya: You told her to kill me?
Jaqen H’ghar: Yes. But here you are, and here she is. Finally, a girl is No One.
Arya: A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I am going home.
Jaqen: Splendid. Feel free to take a bunch of faces, and here’s your graduation diploma. A man is very proud.
Okay, maybe the guy-who-uses-the-Jaqen-face didn’t actually say that last bit. It was more like this:
When we next see Arya, she is using a borrowed face (either one from the House of Black and White or one she … obtained … during her travels) to set up Walder Frey for his last family meal. Literally.
And then she used his face to commit mass Freyicide.
I think it’s worthwhile to consider that even though Arya feels that she’s quit the House of Black and White, she might not be free and clear of their regulations and professional ethics when it comes to killing people. Especially when killing people using Faceless Men abilities and talking about training to be a Faceless Man.
These activities feel like they’d fall into the same unsanctioned category of killing Meryn Trant.
Would the House of Black and White consider this a problem? We don’t necessarily have any evidence either way from Jaqen’s inscrutable reaction to Arya leaving at the end of Season Six. But my gut reaction leans toward the argument that it is probably not easy to walk away from a religious order of assassins.
Maybe Arya had squared things with the House and Black and White by killing the Waif (in the grand order of things, it might all be the same to the Many Faced God if the Waif killed Arya, or Arya killed the Waif. There’s a death and a life.) Maybe there were no hard feelings about Arya leaving, but she’s been racking up kills which is measurable currency in a way to the Faceless Men.
Please indulge me in a thought-experiment.
Imagine if Cersei, after paying off the Iron Bank, opted not to borrow any more money.
Cersei: Yup. I’m going to make money the old fashioned way. I don’t know what that means, but I’ll think of something.
Tycho: Well, if you ever want any cash, just send us a raven.
Now imagine that Cersei, not really fully understanding things or thinking things through, sent a raven to the Iron Bank with a “Hey, send me some money” message. And that the bank did just that. (I’m visualizing a very large raven hauling a sack of gold to King’s Landing.)
Cersei: Free money! Delightful! I’ll send another raven.
Eventually, the bank would come calling for the loan to be paid back, probably based on the interest calculations from before.
Cersei: Wait, I have to pay this back? But I don’t want to!
Tycho: I see. Unfortunately that’s not a choice you can make without consequences.
In similar fashion, if Arya Stark is going to act like a Faceless Man, she is probably expected by the House of Black and White to behave like one. With consequences.
Clearly I’m creepng into Season Eight speculation, and I want to make it clear that I have no advance knowledge of any plot details for the upcoming season. I have no friends in the industry to leak to me any scripts, I’ve not been staring into mystical fires, nor letting swamp witches taste my blood in exchange for prophecies. So don’t worry.
I don’t know how likely it might be for the eighth season of Game of Thrones to feature a visit to Arya by a Faceless Man representative. The show has a fair amount of serious plot to burn through already.
But it makes sense that the Faceless Men wouldn’t let face-changing Arya’s murder-spree go unchecked, no more so than the Iron Bank would uncharacteristically forgive any debts from Cersei. And regardless of how much sense it would make for the Faceless Men to get involved, the major advantage would be in giving Arya Stark a meaningful storyline in the final season.
Arya Stark’s story started strong in the series, with the plucky wolf-girl struggling to survive as she was dragged from one conflict zone to another. Then she broke free and spent a significant amount of her narrative arc in Braavos with the Faceless Men.
We know that Arya has some well-established character motivations: she has her list of names to kill. What’s she’s lacking is complication and stakes.
It’s possible that Arya’s storyline in Season Eight will consist of her successfully pursing revenge by killing Cersei and somehow killing Ser Gregor Clegane, but that seems a bit obvious and on-the-nose. And let’s face it, we all kind of want Cersei and the Mountain to be dispatched by people other than the wolf-girl, possibly by respective fraternal relations.
It would be more interesting if Arya had some plot complication – possibly in the form of demands from nigh-unstoppable identity-fluid assassins.
Faceless Man: A girl has been taking liberties.
Arya: Whatever. Please tell me that someone has taken out a hit on Cersei. I’ll do it!
Faceless Man: A girl is guessing wrong. A girl must not give the gift to the queen.
We don’t really know the opinions of the House of Black and White in regards to the White Walkers invading Westeros. Unlike the interests of the Iron Bank, who will most likely be concerned by how this might effect their investments. But I can imagine that cash from the Iron Bank could be used to secure Faceless Man cooperation in protecting certain business partners.
Tycho: Things are a bit crazy in Westeros at the moment, and there’s been a ridiculous amount of regicide lately.
Faceless Man: And?
Tycho: We’d rather that Cersei Lannister not expire before she makes good on our recent financing agreements. In case you know of any homicidal moppets who might wish the queen harm, it would be conducive to business if you can rein such a person in.
Faceless Man: :-/
There’s a certain harmony in the checks and balances of the Faceless Men and how they view life and death, I can imagine a representative of the House of Black and White presenting Arya with an equation showing that the unsanctioned deaths she has caused can be balanced out by her giving up any plans to pursue the last people on her list. No more gift-giving.
With the added incentive, I’m assuming, that any further Arya violations might be balanced out by even more death, the unfortunate deaths of those near and dear to her. Unless she cooperates with the House of Black and White.
Arya: Wait. You can’t balance out death with more death.
Faceless Man: Don’t look to deeply into this. That’s how we got all those crazy Braavosi Fight Club theories during Season Six.
Syrio Forel: Just so!
It would also be somewhat ironic (and consistent) for Arya’s obligations to her instructors to be a hindrance in carrying out her personal wishes.
Will there be enough time to squeeze in something like this in the final six episodes of Game of Thrones? I hope so, if only to provide a more organic basis of conflict for Arya’s storyline (as opposed to the manufactured-feeling of last season’s Arya-Sansa-Littlefinger dynamic) and also to somewhat redeem the time Arya spent in Braavos.
As viewers, we invested time and attention in Arya’s journey to becoming a Faceless Man.
In my opinion, Braavos owes us some returns on that investment.