As the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones approaches, we all want to know who – if anyone – will end up sitting on the Iron Throne by the time the show ends. There are plenty of flashy options, including a woman who has pet dragons, a man who’s actually a secret prince, and a megalomaniacal queen who would rather burn the world down than let someone else have power. But the best contender to help rebuild Westeros is a quieter, less dramatic choice: Sansa Stark, the girl who has literally grown up in front of us into the exact sort of deliberate, caring leader her country needs. And whether her ultimate fate sees her as Lady of Winterfell, Wardeness of the North, or the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms in her own right, Sansa has a distinctly necessary perspective that is essential for Westeros’s future.
Part of that is due to the fact that Sansa has suffered the most of any Game of Thrones character, experiencing a ridiculous amount of personal hardships that have shaped both her life and her general outlook in a variety of ways. She’s been emotionally and physically abused by the show’s two most monstrous men, raped, forced to watch her father die, held prisoner in a variety of horrifying locations, and repeatedly threatened with death. If we’ve come to know anything at all about her character thus far it’s that Sansa Stark is a survivor with an inner core of steel.
Given all this, it feels as though she certainly deserves something like a happy ending. Or, at the very least, to simply make it through the final season of Game of Thrones alive. But if there is any justice left in Westeros, the eldest surviving Stark child deserves something more: A chance to be a real leader in her own right, and use her skills to make something better out of the world that’s treated her so poorly.
Much like the best weapons are forged in fire, Sansa’s character has been molded by the many lessons she’s learned during her seven-season journey. No other character on the show – save perhaps Bran Stark who has literally become some kind of prophetic tree god – has undergone a more significant and meaningful transformation. There are doubtless those – both within the world of Game of Thrones and without – who continue to underestimate Sansa’s abilities and skill. Still, the show has gone out of its way to remind us, again and again, that few characters have proven themselves as capable as she has, or demonstrated such ability for growth.
When we first meet Sansa in Season 1, she’s a naïve, petulant teen who dreams of marrying a prince and can’t wait to leave her unsophisticated Northern family behind for the more glamorous realms to the south. She sees the world in extremely simplistic terms – good knights always win, evil is always vanquished, and there’s no problem that a platter of lemon cakes can’t solve. By the time she returns to reclaim her family’s home six seasons later, Sansa has lost almost everything – including that innocent idealism – but come into her own as a woman. She arrives at Winterfell a determined leader who is now capable of making hard choices, and who understands that the real world is much more complicated than any fairy story.
That hard-won wisdom will someday be key to returning peace to the realm, as will the woman who possesses it. True, Sansa may not have much direct political experience in her own right just yet, but she’s learning quickly. Sansa always pays attention to those around her, whether she’s sitting at dinner or working on her embroidery. She’s applied herself to both the business of politics and the business of people with singular determination. She listens, is constantly polite, and tackles her problems with a strategic patience that no other character can match. She understands the need for diplomacy and for building bridges with people you might not necessarily like in order to reach a goal.
Raised as the eldest daughter of House Stark, Sansa already knows all the customs, traditions and families of those in Westeros. We’ve seen her engage in the traditional woman’s work of communication and compromise, thoughtfully considering alliances and which groups might be most likely to work with or otherwise support her cause. And she’s finally learned to embrace her Stark heritage, taking her father’s adage of “the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives” to heart in every possible way.
Sansa did not grow up with anything close to a personal political philosophy, but she’s certainly built a pretty solid one over the years. She’s observed the best traits of those around her and put them all together into something almost entirely new. Sansa now combines the compassion of Catelyn Stark with the political acumen of Tyrion Lannister, the patience of Petyr Baelish, the kindness of Margaery Tyrell, and, yes, the ruthlessness of Cersei Lannister, when necessary. She knows that the most appealing faces can hide monsters, and the truest form of strength doesn’t come from a sword. Her own experiences have taught her the value of both mercy and justice, as well as knowing the appropriate time to choose one over the other.
And unlike other major players in the battle for the Iron Throne, Sansa is as concerned about whether her people have grain for the winter as she is about her own position. She truly cares about others – not just her family or friends, but the everyday people making a living on her lands – in a way we’ve seen almost no one else do. (Looking at you, Cersei, and that whole blowing-up-half-your-capital thing.) Over the course of Game of Thrones’ seven seasons, Sansa has embraced her most feminine characteristics, turning them strengths instead of weaknesses. She’s the sort of leader we should all be rooting for, who would choose kindness when she can, and justice when she cannot. One who would care about Westeros more than herself.
Jon and Arya may be better fighters than Sansa is. Daenerys may have dragons. Tyrion may have the political chops that she lacks. But Sansa has the compassionate heart that marks the best sorts of leader, who will put the good of others before her own. And after years of mad kings, brutal wars, and an invasion by the literal walking dead, it’s hard to imagine someone better suited to forge a new kind of future.
Game of Thrones‘ final season starts Sunday, April 14th on HBO.