The sins of Sansa Stark

Finally, we begin to understand what Sansa wants — and how she plans to get it

"Beyond the Wall" proved that Sansa has an Arya problem, and worse, that she intends to solve it.

While dragons and wights duked it out on a frozen lake, Sansa and Arya were playing out what promises to be a tense Shakespearean tragedy back home. The occasion for the conflict is admittedly a little shaky — Arya's rage over Sansa's message home from King's Landing seems disproportionate, especially since her training as a human lie detector means she can presumably tell Sansa is telling the truth. But the foundation for this conflict between the sisters feels true. They've never liked each other, and their dialogue here is some of the best we've seen since Game of Thrones outpaced the books. Arya's innocent recollection of Ned Stark watching her learn to shoot in defiance of the rules sharpens beautifully into an ugly accusation: Sansa betrayed her family.

Here's what's surprising about this: Arya's right. And this episode goes a long way toward proving it.

This scene between the sisters is grim, it's great, and it calls Sansa out on a lot of fuzzy reasoning. Although Arya's wrong about the details, she's right about the essentials: Sansa does want to rule. She wants to be good, too, but she wants to be thought good even more. As for what she's actually done? Well, the pattern of behavior Arya sketches out may be incredibly unfair, but it isn't exactly untrue. "You were just a scared little girl all alone with the wicked Lannisters," Arya sarcastically says — pointing out that while this line might work on Jon, Lyanna Mormont, young as she is, would never buy it. Nor would she ever have done what Sansa did.

More interesting than Arya's venomous accusation, however, is Sansa's cool account of how Winterfell came to be back in Stark hands. "We're standing in Winterfell because of me," she tells Arya. It wasn't Jon, she emphasizes. It was her. The Knights of the Vale fought for her. She is the reason they're home.

This is the first time we've heard Sansa claim such explicit credit for her participation in those events, so when she sent Brienne away, I got déjà vu. This was, of course, exactly what happened with "The Battle of the Bastards": Sansa sent Brienne away to the Blackfish on a trumped-up quest so she could do something shady.

If this is actually turning into the pattern of behavior it looks like, it's time to revisit Game of Thrones' Sansa problem, because it might have just been solved. I wrote over a year ago about how "The Battle of the Bastards" effectively split Sansa's character into two possible arcs: Cunning Sansa and Dim Sansa:

In the Dim Sansa timeline, it's pure luck that Littlefinger showed up when he did. Sansa gets to keep her virtue and recovers her good judgment long enough to dispatch Ramsay to everyone's satisfaction.

The story for Cunning Sansa was a lot uglier, and a lot more interesting:

Her arrival on the battlefield is not, in the Cunning Sansa timeline, a Proud Feminist moment. It indicates, rather, that Sansa is willing to sacrifice most of an army and both her surviving brothers in order to achieve her aims. Jon could have died 100 times before Littlefinger arrived, and Sansa would have been crazy to expect any other outcome. No, if this was a plan, then for Sansa, the death of two of her brothers was the price she was willing to pay. If this is what's happening, then this isn't even the beginning of Sansa's descent into villainy; she's been headed this way for some time and we missed it.

We've spent so many months without any developments on this front that I was ready to chalk Sansa's erratic behavior in "Battle of the Bastards" up to bad writing. After all, we've mostly seen her defend Jon's right to rule (except when Bran came home, and she tried to make him King). And while it's true that Sansa's explanation to Jon after the battle made little sense, no one seemed to notice or mind. Her demeanor since then has toggled between gracelessly abrasive (in ways that scan as essentially honest and supportive), or oddly blank.

But this bears repeating: Before the Battle of the Bastards, Sansa also strategically sent Brienne away:

Cunning Sansa knows Brienne will object to her methods, so she sends her on a trumped-up quest. Remember when Brienne asks Sansa why she needs to go to Riverrun in person? "We can send the Blackfish a raven," Brienne offers. "We can't risk Ramsey intercepting it. It has to be you," says Sansa, who proceeds to send Littlefinger a raven. Cunning Sansa wants Brienne out of the way because Brienne might object to Sansa setting her brother and his army up to be slaughtered.

In "Beyond the Wall," almost exactly the same thing happens. Littlefinger murmurs in a comforting way that Brienne "might help" with Sansa's Arya problem. "If one of you were planning to harm the other in any way, wouldn't she be honor-bound to intercede?" Here's Sansa's face as she processes this:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"201797","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"310","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]] (Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

And then she does precisely what Littlefinger likely hoped she'd do: She sends Brienne away to "represent" her to Cersei, thereby getting rid of Arya's one ally at Winterfell. I wondered about that invitation from King's Landing. Was it genuine? (If so, what in the world is Cersei doing?) Sansa appeared to burn it shortly thereafter.

You can handwave one plot point that has Sansa dispatching Brienne on a snipe hunt — but two? That seems like a lot of evidence pointing toward Cunning Sansa. If this is indeed the case, then Sansa — who has now claimed credit for Ramsay's defeat — has already proven herself willing to use two of her brothers as bait. (If the Knights of the Vale's last-minute arrival wasn't part of the plan, then she deserves no credit.) She did betray her family. Arya's right. And she seems poised to do so again.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"201798","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"333","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)


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