Game of Thrones season 7 premiere: What Sansa learned from Cersei

Finally, the eldest Stark daughter embraces her cunning side

Last night's exceptional premiere for Game of Thrones' seventh season answered many of the outstanding questions left from last season. We learned a lot about Jaime's feelings toward Cersei, the role religion is likely to play going forward, how much logistics, like debt and grain, matter, and how Cersei's troops feel about her — and King's Landing.

Most importantly, though, the premiere clarified a great deal about the female Starks — both of whom suffered from some unfortunate writing last season. (More on that here.) It's invaluable to finally get a concrete sense of a) how proficient Arya is at using faces and b) what she's like when she faces technical enemies (like those soldiers) who aren't on her "list." I could have easily believed she was only with the Faceless Men to pilfer their techniques if it hadn't been for that scene where she drunk the water — which only people who believe they're no one should be able to survive. She did survive, so … does that mean she fooled Jaqen's lie detector? Or that she did believe at one point and no longer does? I don't know and at this point I don't care, but it does matter that we know what ethical system she's working under now. Her scene hanging out with Lannister-loyal troops was sweet (Ed Sheeran's cameo notwithstanding). More importantly, it was clarifying: Arya may have killed every last Frey horribly — including, one presumes, some innocent ones — but she's not yet willing to slaughter soldiers whose crime is having a bad boss.

But the biggest revelation was Sansa.

One major question last season was what Sansa's peculiar behavior preceding the "Battle of the Bastards" meant for her character. I suggested in this post that her actions at Castle Black — writing Littlefinger for help without telling Jon — created two irreconcilable possibilities. One was that we were witnessing the grand emergence of Cunning Sansa — a ruthless military tactician willing to sacrifice her brother Rickon and use her half-brother Jon as bait to lure Ramsay's forces out of Winterfell (knowing perfectly well that the Knights of the Vale were coming, but knowing, too, that Ramsay would never have ventured out — nor would Jon have attacked — if either had known).

There would be serious consequences to a Cunning Sansa reveal: If she lied to Jon knowing full well what it would cost, and did it anyway, she's a new and interesting villain. If this is the case, then Sansa is a) responsible for the military victory at the Battle of the Bastards and b) fully cognizant that the price of Littlefinger's help is her hand in marriage. And it's a price she's willing to pay.

But the second possibility was always Dim Sansa. Dim Sansa wrote to Littlefinger without telling Jon because she sensed the latter's distrust of Baelish. Since she never heard back, she didn't think to mention him to Jon. In this timeline, it's the purest coincidence that Littlefinger showed up when he did. Sansa deserves no credit for the victory, except insofar as she wrote him and he just happened to accept and show up at the crucial moment.

There's some evidence for Dim Sansa. She proved to be a startlingly ineffective diplomat when trying to rile up support for Jon's army in season 6. She complained that no one listens to her and has nothing much to say when Jon finally tells her to speak up. Finally (and most damningly) she seemed taken aback and even alarmed when Littlefinger clearly expected something in return for his last-minute intervention. This last bit is hard to swallow; having survived multiple monarchs' courts and been kidnapped, raped, and tortured, has our Sansa really not learned that there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Both possibilities are — in very different ways — upsetting.

Before getting to what we learned in "Dragonstone," I'll pause here to grumble that Sansa's journey in Game of Thrones has been more a smeary Mobius strip than anything resembling an arc. Sometimes there were hints that her "education" included the kind of moral compromise required to survive the awful people around her (cf. her lies about Littlefinger's involvement in her aunt Lysa's death). Other times cosmetic choices seemed to signal a massive character development: When she dyed her hair black and sewed herself a raven dress, it seemed like a drastic self-reinvention.

But none of these apparent transformations stick! Rather than ripen fully into a savvy operator, Sansa has flip-flopped between Machiavellian lies and virtuous misery — all leavened by a healthy dose of basic Stark incompetence.

If we're feeling charitable, we can chalk that uneven plotting up to the fact that we only saw Sansa under enormous narrative constraints: She's basically always trapped and forced to choose between two awful options. That mutes the character. Too bad, because Sophie Turner does grand things when she's allowed a little more range. Remember this amazing expression as she considered shoving Joffrey off the rampart in King's Landing?

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That Sansa, the overtly vengeful one, vanished for a long, long time.

Defenders might argue that this is exactly the point: Sansa learned to conceal her emotions! That's a crucial skill at court! True! But that doesn't explain how wildly her character has vacillated from scene to scene. Like Arya, whose season-long training montage in Braavos failed to believably build the character into the avenging conqueror she's now become, Sansa's development seems more like a series of reversals than like intentional or even believable growth.

It's typical of Game of Thrones that my favorite statement of the Sansa conundrum comes from Sansa herself. Remember how satisfying it was to see her read Littlefinger the riot act for marrying her off to Ramsay? That scene ironically referenced a narrative split that almost exactly mirrors the one that will plague her own character:

"Did you know about Ramsay?," she asks him. "If you didn't know, you're an idiot. If you did know, you're my enemy." She literally suggests that Littlefinger can be either Cunning or Dim, but not both.

Shortly after this welcome and cathartic send-up of the schemer who sent her to Ramsay, Sansa reverses course, writes to Littlefinger, and asks him for help.



Why did this happen?

I'm not suggesting that it's out of bounds for characters to form alliances with former enemies — Jon Snow's entire strategy is to do just that. But we see Jon struggle with that choice. We see him hash out the pros and cons with people. In Sansa's case, we've seen her isolated and trapped for so long that she's become opaque. Season 6 refused to answer some pretty basic questions: What is Sansa thinking when she summons Littlefinger? Has she forgiven him? Does she believe, as Jon Snow says in "Dragonstone," that "yesterday's wars don't matter anymore?" (That's hard to believe since she just fed her ex-husband to his own dogs.) But what does this expression on her face in last season's finale mean?!

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Who, exactly, is Sansa Stark?

We don't quite get an answer in "Dragonstone" — the show is definitely trying to get away with making Sansa both Cunning and Dim — but we do get an intriguing beginning to one. And it starts with this extraordinary scene in which Sansa Stark, who once stood in the court of a new king and suffered because of her family's treason, tries to inflict that exact treatment on a Northern girl whose long red hair resembles her own:

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They look like mirror images here. Alys Karstark might as well be Sansa: same quivering youth, same vulnerability, same total inability to reckon with what her relatives did. "My lord, whatever my traitor brother has done, I had no part," Sansa once cried to King Joffrey in a scene that's structurally analogous to this one.

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So we're seeing a perfect controlled experiment: How does Sansa Stark, a woman who describes her circumstances as safe, home, and surrounded by friends, treat her younger self?

The answer is: poorly. Sansa's reasoning is close to Joffrey's! His reasoning in that scene, you might recall, was that he had to send a message to her brother to punish him for his treachery. Sansa's now is similar: Jon should send a message. He must reward loyalty and punish treason.

There are three exciting parts to Jon's role in this scene. The first is obvious: He won't punish the sons for the sins of the father. He's not Joffrey.

The second is competence: Jon (whose diplomatic screw-ups include telling a roomful of angry wildlings that he killed Mance Rayder without mentioning that it was a mercy killing) has improved rhetorically. The way he refutes Sansa's suggestion is cogent and persuasive.

But the third is that Game of Thrones has apparently entered the Rosie the Riveter stage of war! Too many men have died, so the women have started doing men's work. Jon Snow asks Alys to pledge loyalty on behalf of her slaughtered family — something Sansa could never have done (and still isn't given an opportunity to do now). In this universe, that's a big deal. Just prior to this scene, Lyanna Mormont has a crowd-pleasing moment in which she agrees with Jon that the women must work and fight and mine dragonglass alongside the men.

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And Sansa? Sansa offers her advice. And starts by talking about just how much their father sucked. Sansa has long held that Ned's protective instincts did her a huge disservice. That's relevant this episode, which keeps collapsing the ways fathers try to shield their families. The only way the farmer the Hound robbed can protect his daughter is by killing her. Arya plays Walder Frey, a patriarch who (at least in that scene) did a poor job protecting his kin. Tywin's efforts to ensure the Lannister dynasty failed spectacularly. So did Jaime's efforts to protect his children.

Here's the interesting thing about Sansa's criticism of Ned: It coincides with admiration for Cersei. All this female empowerment stuff forces us (and Jon) to look harder at the Sansa-Cersei connection, and it isn't pretty.

It's relevant, too, that Cersei's father didn't exactly protect her, and that she learned a great deal as a result.

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This is where Sansa's vacillation between Dim and Cunning gets really interesting. The fact is, Sansa is probably an unsatisfying combination of both: Her advice to Jon remains disappointingly vague, but she seems to have recovered her former clear-sightedness re: Littlefinger. If her proposal to strip the Umbers and Karstarks of their castles seems cruel, her assessment of her dad and brother is dead on: "You have to be smarter than Father," she tells Jon. "You have to be smarter than Robb. I loved them, I miss them, but they made stupid mistakes."

But her admiration for Cersei, specifically, is instructive. We've spent years watching Cersei train Joffrey to think strategically and militarily. We've seen her spar with her father, offer her input at the Small Council, take over kingdoms. In "Dragonstone," we see her commission a gigantic map and coolly itemize their strategic weaknesses to Jaime. It's high time Cersei got her due — not just as the evil queen she undoubtedly is, but as the consummate schemer she's become. Cersei's up there with Littlefinger, and it's fitting that it's Sansa who officially recognizes that.

It's not clear whether Sansa is positioning herself as Jon's Hand with her efforts to advise. What is clear is that the person she's learned the most from on this show is not a father or a father figure. Sansa might be striving to be a good and virtuous sister and a noble Stark. But Cunning Sansa is alive and well, and she owes a great deal — not to Littlefinger, or to Ned, but to Cersei.

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