Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Next up this week is culture writer Alex Abad-Santos.
Alex Abad-Santos: Beneath the scrim of war, Dany issuing dragon-backed threats in Meereen, and Ramsay Bolton’s demise at Winterfell, "Battle of the Bastards" contained a pivotal moment for Sansa Stark — one that clarified her place, her alignment, and her mindset in the fight for the Iron Throne: She’s no longer a Stark.
Sansa and Jon Snow are discussing the upcoming battle between Jon and Ramsay. He’s going on and on about being an underdog. She tells him he has to be smarter than Ramsay, to not let Ramsay play games with him, because Ramsay is a cunning sociopath. Jon clings to his envisioned martyrdom and refuses to back down when Sansa reminds him they don’t have enough men to fight.
"It’s not enough, but it’s all we have," he insists, like the kid who talked a big game about spearheading your group project but now all you have is a shitty baking soda and vinegar volcano. Jon believes he’s going to die a hero. That he can save Rickon, a trash child who doesn’t even value his own life enough to run in a zigzag pattern. That he can somehow be a meaningful leader for his fellow soldiers.
He does give Sansa the chance to save himself from his own insufferability, though. "Tell me, what should we do?" he asks, since Sansa keeps hinting that his approach to war will end in disaster.
And right then, in that very moment, she shrugs off her Starkness. She tells Jon the difficult truth that Rickon is as good as dead, and that it isn’t worth losing men to try to save him. However, she keeps her ace — that she has petitioned Littlefinger, who’s on his way to help with the Knights of the Vale — up her sleeve.
If Sansa had been upfront about her secret army, Jon and Ramsay’s battle could have unfolded a bit differently. But given that Jon is pretty worthless as a general, the outcome of the fight would have been largely the same. He would still have played right into Ramsay’s hand and run into battle to save his garbage brother, and the Knights of the Vale would’ve been stuck bailing him out (and possibly becoming arrow fodder).
By letting the battle play out the way it does (perhaps because Sansa knows her hardheaded brother is too stubborn to listen to her?) Sansa ensures victory and delivers the death blow to Ramsay’s army at just the right time. She knows both men. She knows how they’re each gonna play this thing. And she’s going to use that to her advantage.
It’s a Littlefinger-esque, Ramsay-ish move. But how much it telegraphs about whether Sansa is laying the groundwork for a future power move isn’t totally clear, and depends on what you think of Sansa.
I see a woman who has had it with the Stark tradition of valuing honor and loyalty above all else, and knows that virtue only gets you so far in this world. She’s learned how to play the game after being a pawn in it for too long; observing Littlefinger and Ramsay has taught her how to get even, how to get further in this world. That burning smirk when she feeds Ramsay to his own hounds at the end of the episode all but confirms it.