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Sansa, Queen in the North

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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.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

20 thoughts on “Sansa, Queen in the North

  1. I really, really hope that Sansa finds out that Littlefinger was the one that sold Ned out. I do not want her to team up with him to plot against Jon. Especially not after that beautifully emotional reunion scene they had together!

    1. I’m not sure how that would work though…sure, a courtroom full of people saw Littlefinger pull a knife on Ned at the critical moment, but somehow Sansa never heard about it in the several years she was trapped at King’s Landing? It was probably written off as he was obeying/protecting the lawful king, but I think (from what I remember) the only people who knew Littlefinger actually BETRAYED Ned were Catelyn, Ned, and Renly Baratheon, all of whom are now dead.
      Unless Varys also knows, in which case she may find out someday.

    2. I LOVED that scene. That, along with the Brienne scene in the first episode, was one of the big things that made me want to watch the show again. I should have known that both those relationships would be in danger by the end of the season. 😛

  2. I am also disturbed that Sansa didn’t tell Jon about her supporters in the Vale. From a tactical point of view it’s madness not to wait for huge reinforcements if you can. There is no way of telling exactly when an army arrives, the knights of the vale could just as welll have arrived two days later or two days before, meaning that Ramsey could have taken them on one by one.

    I am guessing now but I think the show has made a bad attempt to connect to a book storyline. My guess that in the books, a resurrected Jon consider himself free from his oath to the night’s watch since he has died. He leads an army against Ramsey Bolton, supposing that Roose Bolton dies in the books too. Sansa is in the Vale and learn about Jon’s predicament, she decides that she should/must/want to help her half-brother against the Boltons. She reveals her true identity to the lords of the Vale, convincing both the Petyr Bealish-coalition and the Bronze Yohn Royce-coalition into riding to the North together and aid Jon. Then the North proclaim Jon their lord or king since they want a son of Eddard Stark rather than a daughter because of their patriarchal culture and prefer Jon above Rickon or Bran is Jon is an adult and Bran a cripple. I may be wrong and I want Martin to surprise me, but given that the northmen are patriarchal warriors it would make sense. But I do hope that Sansa get lands and power of her own in the end, and I don’t believe that she will accept being left empty-handed.

    1. That would make a lot of sense. Or I wonder if the whole “raised from the dead” thing will play some part in him becoming a leader, which would make more sense to me than a repeat of the King in the North plotline. But now I’m hoping that you’re right about the first part, at least… we really need that Stark reunion.

  3. I think what I’m ultimately hoping for is Jon is King in the North for a little while, then Daenerys shows up with her dragons having already taken King’s Landing, she and Dragons and Jon fight off the White Walkers, hooray the long winter is averted, then they find Bran, Bran tells them that Jon is the son of Rhaegar, Jon and Daenerys get hitched as per Targaryan custom so they rule the 7 Kingdoms as King and Queen (with Tyrion as Hand of the Queen), which lets Sansa take the post of Queen in the North because she’s better at politics and working with people while Bran can be her mysterious wizard advisor who doesn’t challenge her claim because he’s busy with all his mystical 3-eyed Raven stuff.
    And Arya comes back and becomes the deadly family assassin who lurks around at Sansa’s side and eliminates anyone who would hurt their family ever again.

    1. Sounds like the most likely outcome to me! As long as they all live. Some kind of Jon and Dany partnership seems guaranteed, unless GRRM decides to take the less obvious route. I’m basically expecting Dany to take/destroy King’s Landing, the White Walkers to destroy the wall, and then the Northerners and Dany to have to team up to fight off the Real Threat in the seventh book.

  4. In regards to your post….

    – I think you’re right that Sansa’s grin at Ramsay’s death was uncharacteristic. Like, c’mon, we already have one Stark girl that takes a creepy pleasure in killing her enemies, and they’re supposed to be polar opposites. I could even see Sansa still setting the dogs on him and just walking away sadly or something instead of smirking. Heck, Brienne was able to enact her vengeance on Stannis without taking sadistic pleasure in it.

    – I wanted to bang my head so hard when Sansa sent Brienne away…dammit Sansa, don’t you know better than to split the party by now?? Don’t let the one person who’s devoted solely to you out of your sight!!

    – I feel like your right about how the show writers are treating Sansa…it feels like they THINK they’re making her into this badass character, but they’re having too much fun either making her suffer, or in making her so that she just can’t break away from Littlefinger’s influence (like she was so….very…close…to doing! God I wanted her to order Brienne to cut down LF in that scene….but then they would have lost to the Boltons if she had), and that’s supposed to be her new tragic character flaw, that she’s pulled into LF’s machinations and inevitably tied up in them.

    – The Jon-as-King thing is frustrating for me because I do think it makes sense for the world they live in…sort of. It’s a very patriarchal culture, to be sure, except the North is so patriarcal that it….lets a major house be run by a 10-year old girl?? I mean, I’m all for All Hail the Littlest Mormont 100%, but if Northerners accept that, then why wouldn’t they accept Sansa as Queen?
    But, as time and time again history has shown us, people like to place their confidence in physical strength and testosterone, and so the woman is passed over for the man even though he’s illegitimate. I wouldn’t mind this instance of it so much if it hadn’t been such a real-world historical pattern where women will be passed over for men just CAUSE. I could see the argument that they’re finishing one war and about to dive headlong into another war, so it makes sense to have a leader with a lot of fighting experience.
    I can also kind of see it as two siblings, only one of whom can take power, and unlike every other power contender on this show, they decide between the two of them (oooh…it occured to me Yara and Theon do this too…interesting) who will take the throne, so they don’t split their forces again fighting for it. They’re sticking together in the cold winter, which is definitely a Stark thing. And maybe Sansa was waiting for that to be resolved before she took the title Lady of Winterfell?
    Anyways, I’m not sure how I feel about this turn of events. I feel like there’s more justification for it than a lot of their other plot decisions, but my inner Feminist grumbles when male writes have a woman graciously decide to step aside and yield power for the sake of harmony.

    – I still don’t get why she didn’t tell Jon about the knights of the Vale, or why she’s having issues trusting Jon. If it was genuinely she didn’t want to get his hopes up because she didn’t know if they would make it, why the hell didn’t she just say that to Jon when he asked her about it? That was the implication I got, but I don’t think it was ever actually said. Granted, she’s learned the hard way not to trust people, even people who try to rescue her (but have ulterior motives, like Dontos and LF), even family (turned out Aunt Lysa was off her rocker), but she knows Jon, and can see that he’s still sane. Just….argh, their reunion scene was so beautiful, I’m just going to be really sad if the show decides to pull the rug out from under us again and go “nope! than relationship is going to crumble too! Because Sansa is totally going to be all resentful and end up wanting power too and blah blah blah…” Actually, I think I will be quite angry if the show ends up with LF “seducing” Sansa into being his queen (the show is really pushing the “LF has this influence over Sansa she just can’t shake” angle). Just let Sansa actually LEARN from what’s happened to her and let her be her own woman!

    Anywho, I look forward to your additional GOT posts! (MAAAAARGAERYYYYYYYYYY!!!! NOOOOOO!!!!!)

    1. – All Hail the Littlest Mormont 100%, but if Northerners accept that, then why wouldn’t they accept Sansa as Queen?
      —Especially that Sansa is an oldest living LEGITIMATE child of Ned. Jon is a bastard. Bastards doesn’t inherit titles and powers in Seven Kingdoms and the last time someone tried to make them equal it ended in bloody war (Blackfyre Rebellion).

    2. It really bugged me that Sansa didn’t care about being the Lady of Winterfell, to the point that she apparently didn’t even realize she COULD be until Jon pointed it out, but then once JON was put in charge, she was apparently unhappy with it. It felt like a cheap setup, rather than a real conflict, when I can’t imagine that either of them would be particularly willing to be in conflict with one another anyway after experiencing so much trauma and just retaking their home.

      If Sansa ends up genuinely teaming up with Littlefinger, or even “manipulating” him by pretending to team up with him, I’m going to cry.

  5. Just write a book about how much you hate this show. You could find even more outrages with a bigger microscope.

    1. Hey, there is nothing wrong with in-depth critical analysis. Some of us enjoy it enough that we come here regularly to read it.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Sansa’s “empowerment” this season and I’m not watching Game of Thrones anymore, but from everything I’ve heard it seems as though very little has changed. You articulated very well the reasons why, despite what it may seem, she is still constantly placed in the role of victim.

  7. I agree with Rachel above – Sansa’s execution of Ramsay through his own methods wasn’t troubling to me since I think he deserved to die feeling the pain so many of his victims did, but the satisfied smile as she was walking away and hearing his suffering…that was completely unnecessary and OOC. It just reinforces that these writers don’t actually like Sansa’s character, so they have to “fix” her and make her Arya #2.

  8. The whole Sansa is not going to be Queen in the North only makes sense because patriarchy. Logically, narratively it makes no sense at all. Sansa has been manoeuvred and married off constantly ever since Ned Stark’s head came off in season 1 for the control of the ‘power’ of the Stark name. Even more so after Robb and Catelyn died. It was the whole reason they gave for going away from the books and marrying her to Ramsay Bolton, because it would give them the Stark name to collect the North around them. And now all of a sudden, it’s fine when it’s just the bastard Stark.
    These writers want their cake and eat it too. They want constant credit for promising to ’empower’ Sansa and promising to make her a player of the game. But they never want to give up their victimising of her. If she were queen it’d be much harder for them to do, so she won’t be queen.

  9. What bothers me the most is that after everything Sansa has experienced, she still allows Littlefinger to manipulate her. The scene where she confronts him was very good, and then she went on doing exactly what he wanted her to do. He reminds her Jon is her half-brother, sowing the seed of doubt in her mind, and then she decides, for some reason, not to tell Jon about Littlefinger and the knights of the Vale. She also parts with Brienne because Littlefinger tells her about the Blackfish.

    I guess I somewhat understand why she didn’t initially tell Jon about Littlefinger. Perhaps she wanted to refuse his help and was afraid that Jon wouldn’t understand and would push her to accept it. But once she wrote the letter to ask for help, it made no sense to hide this from Jon. Withholding this information endangered their entire army. It looks like the only reason for the secret was to have a good battle scene — everything seems lost, and once there is no hope anymore, help suddenly arrives. However, Sansa’s decision to keep this a secret was completely illogical.

    And now Sansa is set up to be Jon’s opponent, but not because of any choice she made. She seemed to be accepting him and to be willing to work together, until Littlefinger started planting ideas in her head. It would have been fine if she had decided on her own that she needs to take the power she deserves, but right now she seems to be doing it because of Littlefinger’s words.

    And Sansa smiling at Ramsay’s death was so out of character — another scene that ties into the showrunners’ idea that a female character needs to be vengeful and violent in order to be strong.

    Once again, before the season started, we kept getting all these promises how this will be Sansa’s season and how she finally becomes a player. Sadly, it seems like the showrunners actually believe they’ve given us a strong Sansa.

  10. I think that Sansa changed her mind about the knights of the valley after Jon ignore what she said about Ramsay. She knew Jon would play into Ramsay’s hands. And she was right. In fact, it may well be that if she told Jon about the knights of the valley, they would have fall in the ambush too. People give too much credit to Jon, but he almost lost all his men because he decided to be emotional and run without thinking and forget about his own plan. And of course, his life is more important that winning the battle.

    Sansa saved the day. But she gets no credit at all. Now, if she were a “real” player, she would be pretending to trust LF and she would be acting at that time to fool him. But as we already Know, Sansa is suppoused to be always compliant and be happy with Jon, a bastard, taking her place and just “marriying her off” to whoever he finds right for her.

    In a way is interesting to see that the season were women supposedly are empowered (because some people stopped to see the show after so much abuse), Sansa is still denied her place and her power. I guess as to not upset all Jon’s fans.

    By the way: Dorne’s plot is still awful. It’s badly written, uninteresting and unable to show the real strength of the one kingdom were Women can inherit… The sand snakes from the show are pathetic. And I don’t think we would see improvements there. Even if the writters wanted to fix Dorne’s mess, which they probably won’t, I don’t think they have the skill to do it and make it belieable. I wish they prove me wrong, but don’t have much hope.

    1. I think we’re well past the point where Dorne will be “fixed”, sadly. I do think the writers finally realized they dropped the ball on Dorne and so they’re trying to keep Dorne to a minimum (sweeping it under the rug as much as they can, but still showing they’re involved in Daenerys returning because admittedly it would make even less sense if Dorne just dropped off the face of Westeros). I think they’ll just leave it as “Ellaria and the Sand Snakes run Dorne now cause REASONS, and…they support Daenerys, Daenerys wins, The End”.

      God, I miss Myrcella. Myrcella and the costumes were the only good thing about Dorne.

    2. I’m so confused when people say that telling Jon about the Vale army could have saved many lives. Ramsay would have still killed Rickon and Jon still would have emotionally charged at the Bolton army which drags his army into a slaughter. He would have forgotten all about waiting for the Vale army due to the intensity of his emotions. If he remembered too late during battle, he may have done something to tip Ramsay off and the Vale army could get ambushed. Sansa made the right call in keeping it a secret from Jon.

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