By Lacy Baugher
It’s possible that Game of Thrones’ Sansa Stark has suffered more than any other character on television. The eldest Stark daughter has been a glorified hostage, forced to deny her own identity and profess loyalty to the people torturing her. She’s had to watch almost everyone she’s ever loved die – from her direwolf to her septa to her own father. She’s been married off to men she doesn’t love; she’s been beaten and raped and threatened with death repeatedly. She’s been left largely on her own, with no one to trust, in a world that doesn’t respect or reward her particular type of personality and brand of femininity.
In light of these events, the fact that Sansa has survived this long is amazing in and of itself. That she remains even a shadow of the girl we met at the beginning of the show is nothing sort of a miracle. It’s also precisely why she’s Game of Thrones’ best character, and why she’s the strongest candidate to emerge triumphant at the series’ end.
This is not to say that I think that Sansa will necessarily be seated upon the Iron Throne when the final Game of Thrones credits roll – though it is, not so secretly, my ultimate dream. However, her character has been forged in such fire (though perhaps not quite as literal as Daenerys’ version, I’ll admit), it’s hard not to believe that she will inevitably emerge from the crucible of current events in Westeros victorious in some capacity or other. Whether that ultimate victory means she’ll end up wreaking all kinds of vengeance on anybody who happens to be named Lannister or Bolton, tracking down her missing younger siblings, being crowned Queen in the North or something else entirely, has yet to be determined.
But it has to happen. It’s Sansa’s time to shine at last, if only because she’s come so far.
Sansa Stark began Game of Thrones as a frequently petulant teen obsessed with pretty dresses and lemon cakes, who just wanted to be a proper lady when she grew up. She believed in fairytales and happily ever after, and that her entire future could be secured by following the established rules of society, which included marrying a prince whose sole job would be to love her and treat her well.
So, you can see how great that’s all turned out for her thus far.
Sansa’s story is, in large part, about the destruction of her idealized notions about the world around her. She’s never been a rebel like her younger sister Arya, so watching her be hit in the face (literally sometimes) with the realization that not everyone shares her belief in the pre-established, ordered rules of polite society has been pretty rough.
However, one lesson of her youth has served Sansa extremely well thus far, though not in a way she probably ever would have expected. A lady’s armor is courtesy, her Septa Mordane once told her. It’s a phrase that basically becomes the singular rule by which Sansa lives her life, and it gives her the strength to get through terrible situation after terrible situation. Tyrion is annoyed by it. The Hound makes fun of it. Cersei thinks it’s stupid. Littlefinger seems to maybe tolerate it. But it’s how she survives. More importantly, it’s how she resists.
And, yes, Sansa does resist – actively and often. She’s as brave as any of her siblings, in that regard - it’s just that her brand of resistance looks very different from theirs. She can’t fight with a sword or throw her consciousness into her direwolf, so she has to keep her rebellion inside herself, and play within the rules of the system she’s currently trapped in. Courtesy is a lady’s armor, and Sansa’s has become practically impenetrable at this point.
The truth is, Sansa’s superpower has always been her unparalleled survival instinct. She’s sat down across the table from monsters, and made herself smile blankly into the middle distance over her food as they insulted her family and threatened her life. Yes, Arya probably would have stabbed Joffrey in the face at dinner one night if she were stuck in Kings Landing instead of her sister. That might have been super satisfying to watch, but Arya would most likely have ended up dead as a result of doing so.
Sadly, Sansa has often been derided by Thrones fans for her passivity and obedience, particularly in the earlier seasons of the show, as though it would somehow have been better or more interesting for her to tell the Lannisters and/or the Boltons to go [expletive] themselves and die for it, rather than to keep her mouth shut and stay alive. However, just like Arya has done, Sansa is using the skills she’s learned – courtesy, politeness, kindness, and the art of conversation – to keep herself safe. They’re just not necessarily as flashy as a sword.
And Season 5 showed the first hints of real agency from Sansa – teamed with master schemer Littlefinger, she set her sights on reclaiming her family home of Winterfell, and the title Wardeness of the North. For the first time, she got to be actively involved in making choices that would impact her life. We saw her stand up for herself and her heritage, even as she continued to do the things expected of her.
Unfortunately, the plan involved her marrying the vile human trashpile known as Ramsay Bolton, a gamble which ended up with Sansa back in the all-too-familiar position of victim, only this time with extra rape and domestic abuse thrown on top. Gross.
Dozens of thinkpieces have been written about Sansa’s rape and the showrunners’ decision to swap her book storyline for Jeyne Poole’s onscreen. (For those that don’t know, Book Sansa is currently still safely ensconced in the Eyrie, wearing the false name of Alayne Stone and under the direct tutelage of Littlefinger.) There are plenty of valid reasons to hate the twists that Sansa was subjected to in Season 5, and an argument can be made that in large part, they are a distinct backward movement for her development as a character.
It’s pretty infuriating, actually, that after everything Sansa’s been through, we not only had to watch her get shoved back into the box of perpetual victim, but we didn’t even get to see her save herself come season’s end. Her escape from Winterfell is just as much about Theon and his inevitable redemption plot as it is about Sansa’s own agency, and his involvement is the crucial linchpin on which everything else turns. Gross again, right?
Surely we could have let Sansa do something to further her own escape, besides being the first one brave enough to literally jump off a building?
So seems pretty safe to say that Season 6 has some work to do, as far as giving her character the well-rounded storyline she deserves.
However, I’m still hopeful – both for Sansa’s overall character development and her status as an ultimate Game of Thrones hero. Despite the seemingly constant stream of bad things that happen to her, we’ve seen that there’s a steel core underneath Sansa’s girly girl exterior. She’s learned that a thank you and a curtsy can be just as important as a shield. She’s polite and kind, but she’s no longer naïve, and she’s certainly not stupid.
She’s learned what it means to play the game of thrones, and while we’ve only seen her take halting and ultimately frustrated steps so far, her overall growth is clear. Sansa is strong, but hasn’t become ruthless or brutal. She’s a survivor in the face of all obstacles, and that indicates an inner strength that can’t be easily dismissed.
The Game of Thrones promotional engine – as well as Sophie Turner herself – has promised fans that Season 6 will be Sansa’s “best story yet”.
Let’s hope so.
There would be a certain justice if Sansa’s storyline, which began with the shattering of nearly every tenant in the world that she believed in, and has continued through more suffering than nearly any other major player in the cast, could conclude with her taking some form of power in her own right, through her own making. Wardeness of the North would be okay, Queen in the North would be better, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms by the end of the show’s run would be ideal.
But this season, I’d probably settle just for something good happening to her.
We’ve surely waited long enough to see it.
Follow Lacy on Twitter @LacyMB
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