I had really high hopes for Sansa in the first few episodes of this season. In short succession, she united with Brienne, reunited with Jon, and began planning how to retake Winterfell, with strong opinions of her own and allies all around her.
Sure there were some hiccups, like her forgetting the words to accept Brienne’s fealty, but overall, it was a plotline that looked to be going great, emotionally satisfying places. And by that, I mean I think I half-jokingly texted the words “QUEEN IN THE NORTH” to friends a billion times while watching those early episodes.
But none of that promise played out in later episodes, because the show is unwilling to do anything to change Sansa’s one defining characteristic — being the victim.
The first hints came in the premiere, when Sansa forgot the words to respond to Brienne and needed to be prompted by Pod. As a scene, this worked really well. Sansa’s stumbling over the words heightened the emotion of the moment, as the exhausted, fearful, still very young Stark stepped into a role she was never expecting and saw the end of Brienne’s seemingly hopeless quest. Sure, Book!Sansa wouldn’t have struggled. Book!Sansa would have thought how it was like a story and played her role to perfection. But this isn’t Book!Sansa, and this different direction worked well in this scene.
Except that forgetting the words wasn’t something that we could expect Show!Sansa to do either. The writers weren’t applying Sansa’s personality to the situation; they were writing a good scene and then molding Sansa to fit.
And that’s been the trend with Sansa for the past several seasons. Like many other characters, Sansa’s only been allowed one consistent personality trait, and it’s barely even a trait at all. It’s simply that she never has control of the situation, whatever The Situation happens to be. That’s it. That’s the only constant, no matter where her story goes.
So in this moment of reunion, Sansa doesn’t have any control — she forgets the words and has to be guided through them. And then, although we get glimpses of Sansa’s strengths, such as her sewing a wolf dress for herself and a replica of Ned’s cloak for Jon, they don’t play a role in her story arc for the season. Instead, we see Sansa attempt to win supporters in the North, and fail miserably. Despite the power of the Stark name and her own experience with court, she only wins over Lyanna Mormont, and that’s only because Davos steps in. She sends Brienne off to the Riverlands, and so loses her presence and support. She doesn’t speak up during planning sessions, and then complains that no one asks her opinion. She doesn’t trust Jon with information about Littlefinger’s army, because the show wants the cliche “surprise rescuing army” moment.
Of course, the show doesn’t want it to appear as though Sansa is “only a victim,” even as it doesn’t want to relinquish her victim status. So, while she’s powerless, it plays with the idea that secretly, maybe, off-screen, she’s actually a powerful badass. Not enough for it be part of her characterization, of course, not enough to show it onscreen, but enough to create a little bit of tension. She doesn’t trust Jon, not because that makes sense, but because that’s what a Powerful Player (TM) would do. The whole thing is portrayed as an empowerment arc for her — and we can talk about how gross that is in a second — but nothing changes except that she’s in less immediate physical danger.
She doesn’t even apparently notice that she should be the Lady of Winterfell and needs to be told so by Jon, before she says that she thinks he should be in charge, because… reasons. And then when Jon does (unrealistically) end up in charge, she says nothing again, but shares a glance with Littlefinger that suggest she might be plotting against him soon. She’s “empowered,” but only as long as she doesn’t actually gain any actual, tangible power for herself.
In fact, I’d argue that there are only two points where Sansa feels in control of a scene this season. The first is when she challenges Littlefinger about her rape, a scene that works in the moment but is worrying in hindsight, if the only time she’s allowed to show strength and control is when she’s discussing violence committed against her, meaning that her characterization is still developed through that “victim” lens. The second time is in episode 9, when she has Ramsay torn apart by his dogs, and grins in victory as she walks away to his agonized screams.
Book!Sansa would never grin over someone being torn apart by ravenous dogs. She even cried and felt sorry when Joffrey died. But this isn’t Book!Sansa. The bigger issue is that this delight in violence is Sansa’s big badass empowered moment of the season. This is when she gets to be in control and get revenge — by taking delight in seeing her rapist torn apart. It’s grim and gruesome, and it’s a very simplistic version of “empowerment,” where violence is committed against a female character, and she overcomes it by committing violence in return.
Obviously, Ramsay was a horrible character, and there was a certain narrative irony in this ending that meant he was bound to be killed off by someone in this way. But this was the culmination of a disturbing story arc that was spread over three seasons, and the only message seemed to be that Sansa has now grown up and shown that she can be ruthless too. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that someone as awful as Ramsay Bolton is “victimized” here, but that’s the path that the show seems to take, with Sansa as with other female characters. The only way to stop being a victim is to commit violence against — to, in some cases, victimize — others instead.
And even this parody of empowerment doesn’t last. Sansa is on a cycle — trust abuser, realize their awfulness, be stuck with them to survive, escape. And as of the final episode, it seems like we’re jumping into the cycle again, this time with Littlefinger playing an even more prominent role. Either that, or she’s genuinely going to team up with Littlefinger and decide that she wants the power he’s offering… I’m not sure which version would be worse, to be honest. But can’t we have a new storyline for her? Like maybe being Queen in the North? Something that puts all the potential we saw in her as a 12-year-old to use?
Of course, Sansa is just one of many characters who acts without much consistent characterization or sense. Why does Jon accept being king now, when he rejected being Jon Stark once before and walked away from power in the Night’s Watch after it killed him? Why do all the bannermen go for Jon, when Sansa is right there? Why did Jon conveniently forget Bran is alive? How come Varys can Apparate, but Brienne can’t return to support Sansa in the battle or in the finale episode, when time seems to have passed?
But Sansa’s characterlessness feels extra insulting, because of where it came from, and how it manifests. When Jon becomes bland, his bland character trait is “hero.” Brienne’s bland character trait is “person who looks angry and hits things with a sword.” Sansa’s bland character trait, on the other hand, is “victim.” No matter what happens, no matter where she goes or how the plot develops, she’s not in control. She’s the one threatened and used. Things were set up, again, as Sansa learning to be a badass master manipulator because of past abuse. Her abuse was presented as her big Reason for Future Awesomness. And then after one show of extreme violence, we just cycle back into that powerlessness again.