In a show with so much horror, viewers have been treated in Game of Thrones Season 6 to two awesome reunions, both of which starred Sophie Turner‘s Sansa Stark. It’s no accident that this is the case, either, as Sansa has long been a character where something bad happens before something worse comes after it, so there’s definitely a desire for her to triumph. Since Season 1, Sansa has been repeatedly punished for her optimism and naivety about the world, living — as young girls often do — in a fantasy of her own making. And while she has been routinely, and wrongly, maligned for that fact, she’s a survivor whose personal journey through Game of Thrones most closely, curiously, parallels viewers’.
Sansa has mostly been a character who things happen to, not one who has agency or the ability to get herself out of problems. Again, she’s been unjustly criticized for this, especially given that for almost the entire series she’s been away from her home, with her family all murdered or scattered to the wind, while being held captive by strangers. Even if she had someone escaped from King’s Landing once she realized Joffrey was a monster, where would she go, and what would she do? It’s not just her circumstances though, but her very personality. She wasn’t a tomboy like Arya, she couldn’t easily slip into a cruel, patriarchal world playacting like a man and survive.
Because of that, she’s been repeatedly punished, and was — until “Book of the Stranger” — the occasional victim of shameful writing. Sansa does go through hell in the Song of Ice and Fire books, but she was swapped with a book character on the show when it came to Ramsay and the relationship with Reek/Theon. And while it does make narrative sense to use Sansa instead (as a character we know and who is important), it also meant exposing her to even more incidents of rape and torture.
Game of Thrones, both show and book series, lays its foundation on the upending of fantasy tropes. So Sansa, who wants to marry a king and be a princess, is increasingly mocked for this desire. King Joffrey abuses her repeatedly (and kills her father in front of her), then she’s nearly raped before she’s married off to Tyrion who doesn’t abuse her, but they’re both mortified by everything happening. Littlefinger then appears and whisks her away (to marry her off to another horror, her cousin Robyn), but there was that moment at the end of Season 4 when Sansa — now under Littlefinger’s wing — walks down the stairs after Lysa’s death with darker hair and a black dress with a plunging neckline. It’s the most confident we had seen Sansa since Season 1, and it led to cheers for “Dark Sansa” taking power and her revenge.
Season 5, then, was a dark period for Sansa, but not in the way we had hoped. Instead of becoming Baelish’s disciple and his partner in machinations, Baelish takes her to Winterfell (after he convinces her to turn down Brienne’s help as her sworn shield) and unveils his new plan to marry her off to the worst character yet, Ramsay Bolton. Now, Sansa is beaten, beaten down, raped (in one of those show’s most controversial moments), and lives in constant fear of further torture, even missing out on Brienne avenging her when her only friend (besides a reluctant Theon) is murdered and flayed. What’s also notable, of course — as was written about extensively at the time — was that Sansa’s rape happened from Theon’s point of view, taking even that away from her.
And yet, in Season 6, things have finally taken a turn. Sansa and Theon escaped and were rescued by Brienne and Pod (the first great reunion of the series in a long time), and then miracle of miracles, the group (minus Theon who went back to Pyke) made their way to Winterfell, before Jon had left. The moment of Sansa and Jon’s reunion is one of the best and longest-awaited of the series. Though they were the most antagonistic of the siblings*, none of that matters now, as they both comment on and acknowledge. (*”Siblings” as far as they are currently aware).
Of course, the best is potentially yet to come. The desires many viewers had to see Sansa enact her revenge in “dark” mode may finally happen, as she galvanizes Jon into marching against the Boltons with, potentially, a Wildling army. Though he’s hesitant, a taunting letter from Ramsay about keeping their brother Rickon in his dungeon seems to seal the plan. And here, finally, we might see the beginning of the Stark’s rise, with (unexpectedly) Sansa at the helm.
As I wrote about last week detailing the importance of the direwolves and the Starks, though Game of Thrones does set out to subvert tropes, we’re in unexplored territory now. The TV series is starting to wrap up (there are two more planned, though shortened, seasons after this one), and the book series is a question mark. Whether it is or was George R. R. Martin’s plan to have the Starks come back together and to give Sansa this drive and agency — whatever her eventual fate may be — is unknown. But for now, it’s incredible satisfying and long overdue.
In many ways, Sansa’s trials throughout Game of Thrones can act as a kind of parallel for viewers. We started the series naive, and that innocence about this story was lost alongside Sansa when we all watched Ned be executed. Through Sansa we saw who Joffrey really was, and through Sansa we have seen glimpses of Petyr Baelish’s master plan and the hints about Jon’s parentage. It is Sansa who showed us how unstable Cersei is, how unforgiving Lysa Arryn was, and how kind Tyrion can truly be, growing our appreciation of the show’s depth of character But, through her we also experienced Ramsay’s monstrosity, and series’ limitations and mistakes. Ultimately, she’s been a part of two incredible reunions that make us hopeful again, alongside her once more. We’ve seen terrible things, and Sansa has experienced them, but none of us are backing down. If anyone deserves to triumph, it’s Sansa Stark. Maybe she’ll actually get it.