Sansa Done Better

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault

Major spoilers for Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire book series ahead. Familiarity with at least the TV show is assumed.

Following my post on Mad Max: Furiosa Done Better, I got thinking about other “done better” posts I could write–what other fictional characters and plotlines have I experienced that just made me cringe and go “how did that ever get made?” and then “but they had so much potential!” And of course, the first to come to mind was Game of Thrones‘s Sansa Stark.

It’s okay, Sansa, we hated your S5 plot too.

Sansa Stark has long been a controversial figure among both book and show fans. Some people see her as too passive, especially compared to her sister Arya and other characters like Margaery Tyrell; others praise her character development from an idealistic, doe-eyed girl to a young woman who is capable of both compassion and manipulation. Many people, however–book readers or not–agree that in season 5 of the show, her plot went majorly downhill.

There has been a lot of writing about why Sansa’s plot sucked in season 5. My personal favourite is this essay on the inherent sexism throughout Sansa’s TV arc, but if you’re interested in more reading, here is the piece from The Mary Sue explaining why they stopped promoting the show following the infamous rape scene in S5E6, and here is a very personal piece by a rape victim about her reactions to the same episode. I really don’t want to summarize all of the great points made by these and other writers, but here is a very quick rundown of some of the main reasons people disliked her plotline in S5:

  • It reduced Sansa to a passive agent. In the books and at the end of S4, Sansa has gained some agency–she carries power and influence over Littlefinger, one of the stronger players in the Game, and seems to have stepped up to take her place as a player in the Game instead of a pawn. This plot has been a long time coming (moreso in the books than the show), with Sansa shown as having potential for manipulation as early as Season 2. Taking away this agency and leaving Sansa with no power in the Game felt extremely cruel, and flattened her arc.
  • It didn’t amount to anything. Many people I know who watch the show held out hope after Episode 6 that Sansa’s rape would lead to some sort of vengeance arc. While the idea of Sansa running around Winterfell killing people felt a bit farfetched to me given that Sansa has no combat expertise of any kind, I hoped that at least she would be able to defect to Stannis before the end of the season and help him assault Winterfell. But no such luck–even at the end of the season, we got no payoff, or even any sense that Sansa had learned anything from the experience or grown as a character.
  • It felt contrived. Here is a great explanation as to why Sansa and Ramsay made no sense. Basically: it sets Sansa’s claim back, for the Boltons it loses them the support of the crown and the Freys, and for Littlefinger it gives away his trump card and goes against his character, who is obviously obsessed with Sansa. Viewers were left with the sense that Sansa was only brought to Winterfell to get sexually assaulted, which is creepy as fuck.
  • It weakened Sansa and removed her established character traits. When Sansa sees her father’s head on a pike at the end of S1/AGoT, her response is a cold, angry “How long to I have to look?”–she won’t scream or cry as Joffrey wants her to. It was perhaps her first truly badass moment. But in this season, when Ramsay freaks her out in the same way but with a random old lady, she breaks down. She also shows no compassion for Theon and even acts cruelly towards him, even though Sansa in the books (and earlier in the show) is shown to have compassion for other characters she should hate, like Tyrion and even Joffrey (when he dies in the books).

All this being said, many book readers have conceded that Sansa’s actions in AFFC and in her released TWOW chapter are a little boring for television: Sansa stays in the Vale and becomes accustomed to her new identity as Alayne, and while she has some moments of strength (one moment when she leads the young and frail Robert Arryn across a narrow cliffside passage in the middle of a snowstorm comes to mind) she doesn’t exactly do much. Sansa’s chapters in the books are usually very focused on her thoughts and deliberations, and this doesn’t translate well to TV. So how could we make Sansa’s S5 arc more exciting while staying true to her character development? What would an arc for Sansa that isn’t sexist, that is respectful of her agency, and that is visually exciting look like? Let’s take a look at Sansa’s arc done better.

First, some ground rules:

  • Everything from Season 4 has to remain the same. Sansa revealing her identity to the Vale lords is a game-changer, and the fact that she leaves the Eyrie means we won’t get to see most of her chapters from AFFC, but we have to work with what we’ve got, and even Sansa’s book-reading fans mostly enjoyed where she was left off at the end of S4.
  • Sansa has to go to Winterfell at some point. Many fans predict that Sansa will end up as Queen or Wardeness of the North, or that she’ll install Rickon as a puppet Warden. With the Winterfell plot going as fast as it is (a lot of fans have problems with this too) it seems like Sansa will have to be at least near Winterfell for the start of S6.

With those established, let’s get started.

  1. We open Sansa’s arc in season 5 with her, Littlefinger, Robin and their retinue descending the Eyrie for Anya Weynwood’s lands in the midst of a snowstorm. Littlefinger and Sansa discuss their next steps and he suggests that they have to treat with their new friends and that a more solid alliance than the one they currently have will be needed to get what they want. As they’re discussing the notion of what a solid and stable alliance in the Vale means, their attention is directed to Robin, who is sickly and afraid of a narrow pass they will have to cross. While Baelish tries to quiet him, it is Sansa who succeeds, and she and Robin walk out in front of the horses across the pass while he talks about how he’s going to marry her and make her his and let no one near her, etc. Once they safely across, Sansa looks back at Littlefinger on the other side, who is staring at her quizzically.
  2. They arrive at Anya’s castle and a great feast and dance is prepared for them for the following week. While the preparations look grand and exciting, Sansa is notably cynical, and acts politely but knows something is amiss when she speaks with Anya, who makes a few testy comments and weird compliments. Anya introduces her to her ward, Harry Hardyng, who is all around kind of an asshole. She is taken off-guard by his dickishness and gets flustered.
    1. This whole time, Robin is in a place of honour, but he’s obviously really sick and not doing so well.
    2. After the party, she finds Littlefinger in his room. He makes some creepy passes at her, which she tolerates before she cuts to the chase–“why does Lady Weynwood want to marry me to Harry Hardyng?” He recalls their conversation earlier about solidifying an alliance and explains that Harry is the unlikely heir of Robin. If Sansa can seduce Harry, then she can reach out and take everything she needs to claim revenge for her family. This ends off the episode, or perhaps acts as the penultimate scene: “This is my gift to you: Harry, the Eyrie, and Winterfell.”
  3. Sansa sews a badass new dress. She looks at the feathery one she made before, and puts it away in favour of one that will appeal more to Harry’s tastes. She attends the ball and charms the socks off of Harry; as they dance, she makes eye contact with Littlefinger across the room, who is staring at her like a creep.
  4. Sansa and Harry formally enter into a betrothal. Littlefinger explains that they can’t legally marry until Tyrion is confirmed dead or Cersei’s rule of King’s Landing collapses in on itself–whichever comes first. He is still creepy with her and she is obviously discomforted by it.
    1. Littlefinger makes some guarded reference to needing an able-bodied, strong leader to rule, ostensibly talking about Tommen. Sansa catches on that he’s talking about Robin but doesn’t say anything.
  5. We get another brief scene of Sansa interacting with Harry–they talk about Sansa’s home in Winterfell and her childhood–before she is distracted from him by a fit from Robin. Due to her swift intervention, he isn’t injured. In the aftermath, he gets mad and insists that Sansa marry him instead of Harry, since he is the Lord of the Vale. His loud demands to this effect are embarrassing to Sansa, Harry and everyone around.
    1. Once he is safely put to bed, Littlefinger makes another guarded reference and Sansa speaks up this time: “I know what you’re planning, and you can’t.” Baelish says that if Sansa truly wants to play the game, she cannot let her compassion for weak, stupid people lead her to make stupid decisions. Weak, stupid people get people killed. She protests that she will have no part in murder, and he points out that she already has: they are already in this together, and whether Sansa wants to pretend that she’s good or not, she’s as bad as he is. He gets creepy and kissy again.
    2. As Sansa is getting dressed, she stares herself in the mirror–she is wearing a dress she knows Harry likes (maybe it’s a colour he’s complimented before or something). She looks at her black hair and her dress and her face in the mirror and says her name: Sansa Stark of Winterfell. She goes through her closet and finds a white and grey dress in the old Winterfell style, and takes it out to put on. Before she can, though, she hears a commotion outside. She runs to the window to see Robin having another fit, but this is worse than the others. The maester is trying to wake him from it but he’s just shaking, his eyes rolling back and his skin turning purple. Her first instinct is to go and help, but she stops herself in the middle of her step. She gathers her dress in her hands, turns around and walks away.
  6. Littlefinger and Sansa discuss the death of Robin. He is extremely pleased that she let it happen, but she is icy. Sansa attends Robin’s funeral. She puts on a show of crying and Harry comes to comfort her. She says that she keeps losing family and that there is no one left to protect her, and Harry says that he’ll protect her because he’s a big oaf who would totally fall for that. He promises to give her home back to her.
  7. Littlefinger receives word that Stannis is at the Wall and possibly making for Winterfell. He brings up with the Vale lords that this may be the time to join the fight. The Vale lords are reluctant, but Harry speaks up and makes an impassioned speech about doing what’s right and helping Sansa. Later, in private, Littlefinger asks her if she’s happy that she’s getting everything she wanted–if she’s grateful. Good girls, he says–grateful girls–make sure to repay those who work so hard for them. Sansa says she is grateful, and that she’s learned so much from him, which makes him even happier. He concludes that she will stay in the Vale with him while Harry goes to take Winterfell.
    1. The Vale lords prepare to ride for Winterfell. Sansa visits Harry in his tent, and while he at first says that she should stay in the Vale, she convinces him to insist on her riding with the army by playing to the idea of home. He finally says something to the effect of “but Baelish said you should stay,” to which she responds that while Petyr Baelish is clever and good with money, the Vale and the North need a strong ruler with a good claim who can inspire love and dedication in their people–someone like Sansa Harry. BOOM callback to the first episode and Sansa’s getting out from under Littlefinger’s thumb
    2. When they get ready to ride out, Littlefinger looks pretty miffed, but Sansa assures him that she knows what she’s doing–she has learned a lot from him, after all. BOOM
  8. In the final episode, the army arrives near Winterfell, and Sansa, who is riding closer to the back, gallops to the front. She looks out at her old home with determination.

Does that seem exciting to you? It does to me. I enjoyed Sansa’s monologue at the end of S4 a lot, and I also enjoyed her sass in S2 towards Joffrey–imagine that sass directed at Littlefinger, with more of the tactical emotionality we saw at the end of S4.

If you’d like to see more interaction between Sansa and other main characters, then speed up the Harry plot a bit and have Sansa’s army meet with Stannis before the final battle, or have Stannis send Davos to treat with Sansa–in that case, Stannis’s final battle would have to be postponed until next season (and he would win, because that’s so clearly what’s happening in the books), and Sansa’s crowning moment at the end would be talking with Stannis, who insists that he won’t work with someone so obviously shady as Littlefinger, and Sansa retorts that she’s not working for him–Stannis will work with her.

But the point is, it’s possible to portray Sansa’s inner struggle with identity, her issues with being compassionate in a very non-compassionate world, and her emancipation from Littlefinger in a way that’s respectful to her character development and to the internal continuity of Planetos. The themes in this story can also be paralleled with Arya’s and Theon’s issues with identity really easily–the parallels between character arcs are something I love about both the show (pre-S4) and the books. But there are so many things other than this trajectory that would have been better than what we got. What we got was anger-inducing, internally inconsistent, and when all was said and done, kind of boring–and we could have gotten so much more.

How would you have written Sansa better?

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