As much as it pains me to do this: welcome, one and all, to the honorable mention update!
There is nothing that would please me more than to rank Arya Stark among the best of the best, but I can't do so without breaking the rules that I wrote.
I have no doubt that Arya could kill pretty much anyone else on the show — she's quick, smart, and wastes less time than anyone else. We see her sprint and flip through Braavos after taking multiple knives to the gut. We see her straight up baffle and embarrass Brienne. But we also never see her kill anyone in a real fight.
At this point, it will only take one solid battle for me to rocket Arya straight up to the top, but for now she's an honorable mention. In the meantime, let's talk about what she does well and where she falters.
The best insight into Arya's prowess and style comes from her sparring match against Brienne. As far as I'm concerned, a real fight between the two would have been decided within a second. I know this because within the first second of the fight, Arya presents her weapon for Brienne to knock out of the way, deflects Brienne's attack, and holds her sword up to Brienne's throat. Done and done.
This is tier one-level stuff. Tier two is full of characters who can exploit their opponents' weaknesses; tier one is full of characters who manipulate their opponents into making mistakes in the first place. Arya holding her sword out for Brienne to try and knock out of the way is a sign that Arya planned the entire exchange in advance.
Arya then dramatically dodges the next four out of five of Brienne's attack, having parried the middle one.
For the most part, Brienne begins her attacks before Arya begins her dodges. This is important — I consider the cardinal sin of stage fighting to be when a character begins to block or evade an attack that hasn't started yet. The fact that Brienne initiates all of those actions instead of Arya indicates not only that Brienne is trying her hardest but also that Arya is seeing the attacks begin and responding accordingly rather than simply dancing around.
Arya spends most of the fight showing off. She hits Brienne's off hand and shin. In a fight, these would be non-lethal blows, but Arya is simply demonstrating that her tempo is that much shorter than Brienne's.
And then, in pure Brienne fashion, she goes from getting her shit kicked in to adapting and turning the tide of a fight. Arya, at this point twirling around Brienne, inevitably slows down her tempo. By staying relatively stationary and focusing on blocking Arya's attacks, Brienne knows — or at least capitalizes on the fact once she sees it — that sooner or later she'll have a window of her own. Arya gets caught mid-twirl by a strong parry that knocks her off balance, and Brienne kicks her on her back.
I can neither fault Arya too much for this, since she would have won a real fight almost immediately and this was a training exercise, nor can I credit Brienne, as she only attacked into the window provided by Arya's eventual showboat-related mistakes. I'll talk about it more in the next post, but Brienne didn't improve over the course of the battle, as she did against Loras and The Hound, so much as Arya eventually screwed up.
Arya eventually gets disarmed because of a similar mistake — instead of continuing to evade Brienne's attacks, she parries them out of the way. This introduces musculature into a battle that had previously been determined by agility, and now Arya is hopelessly outmatched. The parries are pretty good — she deflects Brienne's sword instead of trying to stop it in its path. But Arya's parries also fail to put her in a position from which to launch an attack, so they don't help her regain control of the fight.
To keep things short, Arya shows that she belongs in the top tier, but we also never see her in a real battle. We know that she's killed plenty of people, but she's never done so in front of the audience.
When it comes to an honorable mentions deathmatch, I'm truly relieved that I previously demoted Syrio Forel to tier five — pitting him against Arya would have broken my heart. We don't see enough of Stannis at his prime to know how he would fare against Arya and Syrio, but I think it's safe to say that he would fall first of the three.
Daario strength comes from being able to adapt to just about any situation — so far he hasn't shown any weaknesses. But Arya is just so goddamn fast. Remember, she would have killed Brienne within a second or two, so I think she would eventually outmaneuver Daario as well.