After witnessing the tense, heated conversation between Stark sisters Sansa and Arya on last night’s episode of Game of Thrones (“Beyond the Wall”), I had only one thought:
That was the best scene in the entire show.
Don’t worry, I’ve softened my opinion after a night’s sleep. After all, there are too many contenders to count for that title – Daenerys burning down the patriarchy in Vaes Dothrak, Brienne and Arya’s scrimmage swordfight, Cersei’s Walk of Shame, Tommen’s tragic and silent death, Jon Snow punching Ramsay Bolton in the face again, and again, and again… and many more. The standout scenes on this show are memorable for a variety of reasons: some are shocking, some are satisfying, some are tender – and some are all three. There have been blips, of course (what even is the pacing in this season? Is time an illusion in Westeros?), but the show has always represented a paradigm of masterful storytelling. Not for nothing has Game of Thrones shattered Emmy Awards records and become a worldwide phenomenon over the past few years.
Scene-stealing dragons are great, but Game of Thrones has always thrived because of its character studies. Here is a patriarchal, medieval world of monarchies and magic, common folk and religion. How far would a woman go to secure for herself the power that her male family members and husband are awarded at birth? With whom would a calculating eunuch be willing to align in order to ensure that the next ruler of this world does the most possible good? What would it take for a spurned son to betray his entire family while following his conscience? And is it true that the good guy always
gets beheaded finishes last?
For all of its accolades, Game of Thrones has also gotten a lot of flak for its depiction of female characters. With the exception of Sansa’s rape providing character development for a male character, I am honestly baffled by most of the criticism. Yes, the world of Westeros is far from a feminist utopia, and the cultural and socio-political attitudes actually reflect back on our real world much more than we’d like to admit. But that is exactly what makes the characters so engaging; that’s what makes their struggles so potent. After all, the tension between the ideal and the real is what gives our lives and actions meaning.
Until the end of last season, Cersei cared about nothing but power and her children. (Now: just power?) The fact that Cersei is cruel and psychotic and wants to rule the world – a villainous personality usually reserved for men – but is also maternal and wants only the best for her children – a typically female personality – makes her a radically feminist character. Brienne and Arya are similar characters separated by a generation, but both have to contend with the way their dreams of becoming knights clash with society’s expectations of their roles as noblewomen. They, too, are feminist characters.
Women contain multitudes, and Game of Thrones does a fabulous job exploring these multitudes. And in my opinion, there is no more fascinating and complicated female character than that of Sansa Stark.
In brief, because this is an essay for another time (one that I hope to get paid for… any editors reading this?), Sansa was always a great character specifically because she was so unlikable. This assessment is partially a personal preference in that she was not the type of girl I would ever want to be, or even be friends with. Growing up in Winterfell, Sansa was vain, selfish, whiny, and privileged. She was content with the status quo, ready to live her life in comfort and ease, more than willing to conform to patriarchal plans for her future. For many of these reasons, Sansa is an objectively unlikable character as well; from a narrative standpoint, she served as a foil to rebellious Arya, the cool underdog that fans loved and rooted for. Arya is resourceful, athletic, determined, fierce, clever. Sansa is… pretty. Of course, this does not make Sansa any less worthy of life. And people like her certainly exist in our world. But to 21st century humans with progressive attitudes towards gender, her attitude is understandably antiquated, and therefore less relatable.
Arya and Sansa’s shared last name – and their shared gender – does not necessitate that their characters would ever see eye-to-eye or suddenly share the same values.
In their years apart, Arya and Sansa endure an immense amount of suffering. Both witnessed the murders of their family, and both thought, for a long time, that each was the last remaining Stark. Arya responded by training to become an assassin, fulfilling her dream of becoming a warrior. Sansa lived through physical abuse at the hands of Joffrey, emotional abuse from Cersei, unspeakable torment from Ramsay (including the infamous and controversial rape), and through an extended series of circumstances, she is now closer than ever to the dream future she imagined, as the Lady of Winterfell.
Arya and Sansa have always been very, very different – complete opposites, even – so their reunion at Winterfell this season was unsurprisingly awkward. Naturally, each was happy to see the other alive. But their shared last name – and their shared gender – does not, in any way, necessitate that their characters would ever see eye-to-eye or suddenly share the same values and dreams of the future. In fact, it would be poor writing, and reflect a poor understanding of the human psyche, if they did.
So, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about that scene in “Beyond the Wall.”
We learned in the previous episode, “Eastwatch,” that Littlefinger (*shakes fist*) is trying to play the Stark sisters against each other, so he ensured that Arya would find the letter to Robb that Sansa was coerced into writing back when she was a Lannister hostage. The letter contains Sansa’s entreaty for Robb to come to King’s Landing and swear fealty to King Joffrey, while also denouncing Stark patriarch Ned as a traitor. Naturally, Arya was none-too-pleased to learn that Sansa had, in Arya’s eyes, so willingly “betrayed” her family. Sansa tried to explain that she was just “a child” – terrified and naive – and that although she didn’t have a “knife at her throat,” as Arya blithely suggests, she was threatened all the same. Her explanation falls on deaf ears.
The way I understand it, viewers of Game of Thrones are angry because of Arya’s utter lack of empathy for her sister’s situation. But people seem to be conflating Arya’s lack of empathy for the male showrunners’ lack of empathy. If you think every character represents their creators, I have news for you: this is fiction. So, yes, I very much doubt that Dan Weiss and David Benioff are toasting cups of Dornish wine, crowing: “Ha ha! Sansa sucks because she got raped and also she is a weak, boring woman!”
In the context of the show, though, Arya’s coldness makes total narrative sense. Are we not supposed to understand, given the way Arya slaughtered pretty much the entirety of House Frey, that she is now utterly unhinged? That Arya, driven to this point by grief and anger and the freedom she’s always desired, has become a vengeful and rage-fueled monster? Though she made that pivotal choice to set off for Winterfell rather than continuing her single-minded murder crusade, she is still a very, very angry young woman. Indeed, Sansa picks up on this (gee, what gave it away?) and tries to rationalize Arya’s harsh judgement of her by telling Arya: “Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things.” After taunting Sansa for being afraid, Arya shoots right back at Sansa’s achilles heel: “Sometimes fear makes people do unfortunate things.”
The tension in this scene is so palpable because of what is said: Arya’s spiteful barbs demonstrate that she still views Sansa as a shallow airhead. Sansa’s responses, though delivered with startling calmness, show that she still views Arya as a little girl. But it is also brilliantly crafted to make us think of all that is not said. Sansa alludes to, but does not explicitly delineate, all of the horrific abuses she suffered at the hands of her various male counterparts (and, of course, Cersei). Even if Arya knew, though, I doubt she would be any more sympathetic. Arya’s rage – against everyone who specifically wronged her family, and against a society, represented by Sansa, that told her she couldn’t be the one thing she wanted to be – has fueled her for years. She is unmoved by fear and disgusted by weakness.
Sansa, meanwhile, is conventionally pretty, and she has always wanted conventional things. Arya believes that Sansa is “weak” because she doesn’t want to – as they say often on this show – “break the wheel,” and because she gave in to Lannister pressure when, let’s be honest, most of us would have done the same. But – and this is why I find her character so enlightening – her experience still matters. Her trauma still matters. It’s horrible, but Arya clearly thinks that Sansa doesn’t deserve to live because she’s not “strong” or “courageous” enough. Arya views weakness as a moral failing.We know better.
There is a saying that’s been going around Tumblr for a while: “Are you brave? the devil asked. No, she answered, but I am alive. And sometimes those two things are the same.” This, I believe, represents Sansa to a tee – and it’s something I can relate to, as well. Sansa is no warrior. She is not particularly strong or cunning. She is not even particularly kind. But she is alive, she has suffered, and she is deserving of respect.
When Arya declares that “the rules were wrong,” she is effectively calling out the patriarchy: societal rules say that Arya cannot be a fighter because she is a girl. Arya stands here now, proof that the rules are wrong. From a culturally progressive perspective, Arya is right – the rules are wrong. But Arya own feminism is short-sighted – she believes that Sansa is worthy of scorn and derision simply because what Sansa wanted for her own life happened to align with what the patriarchal society wants for her. Arya’s resentment bleeds through into every word of their conversation, most notably when she describes seeing Sansa stand next to the Lannisters – “I remember the pretty dress you were wearing, I remember the fancy way you did your hair.”
And you know what? I used to resent Sansa for all that, too. But Sansa, who is not a mite-sized killing machine or a Three-Eyed Raven, has earned my grudging respect.
I’m seeing a lot of commentary on Twitter to the effect of: “THIS IS NOT HOW SISTERS WOULD ACT! MEN FAIL AT WRITING WOMEN!” And to be clear, I think it’s a huge problem that Game of Thrones has not employed a female writer or director since season four. In certain areas, the storytelling may have faltered because of that. (Plus, I obviously support any and all diversity initiatives regardless.) But this scene – this heartbreaking, gut-wrenching confrontation between Arya and Sansa, a focal point for discussions about gender, feminism, tragedy, and trauma – is absolutely one of Game of Thrones’ strengths.