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Game of Thrones season 7: what Sansa’s continued survival means for the future of Westeros

While everyone else squabbles over crowns, Sansa is feeding refugees.

HBO

As every Game of Thrones fan knows, Sansa Stark has come a long way since her unimpressive beginnings — but that might not last. Alan Taylor, the director of Sunday’s upcoming season seven finale, recently suggested to the Huffington Post that the dark fight between Arya and Sansa in the previous episode, “Beyond the Wall” — in which Arya appears to make a direct threat to her sister’s life — could result in only one Stark sister left standing.

There’s good reason to be skeptical of this teaser, especially since the sisters’ fight may not have been what it seemed. But it does give us an opportunity to look more closely at the show’s narrative direction — which tells us that it’s ultimately Sansa, not Arya, whose survival matters more to the show’s overall arc.

That’s because Game of Thrones has been steadily attempting to carve a new path forward, to “break the wheel” of violence and political one-upmanship that has characterized Westeros for far too long. To do it, the show has strategically placed its heroes — Jon, Daenerys, and Tyrion — in position to work together to unite the kingdom. Understanding how Sansa fits into that alliance means understanding how her arc has prepared her for this moment.

Sansa has relied on strategic passivity for survival

Over seven seasons, GoT fans have seen Sansa outlast characters with more strength, more power, and more weaponry, again and again. Sansa’s survival is particularly unusual among the characters because throughout the show, she’s chosen to utilize a kind of strategic passivity rather than taking an active role in the power grabs and machinations around her.

This hasn’t always been her choice; in fact, her character has become a recurring example of the effects the show’s titular political game have on innocent bystanders and those who are unwittingly drawn into it. But even when she’s had ample opportunity and reason to do so, Sansa has never used her position to manipulate other characters, seek power over other characters, or enact revenge simply for revenge’s sake — or, when she does seek revenge, against Ramsay Bolton, she’s motivated by more than mere vengeance. (More on Ramsay in a moment.)

What Sansa does instead involves a consistent set of traits: She accepts help when it’s offered, she allows events to play out without taking an active role in them, and she keeps her allegiances close to her chest while doing her best to make alliances rather than enemies. She does all of this while considering the potential repercussion of events far into the future.

A key trait of Sansa’s passivity is that it doesn’t extend to a policy of nonviolence — she’s perfectly willing to let other people fight for her, if they’re willing to do so. But she herself is never directly violent. Arguably, her one true moment of revenge comes after Ramsay’s capture, when she serves him the experience of being eaten by his own hungry dogs — man eaters he’s trained and spent years sending after his own powerless victims. In the language of the show’s violence, this is poetic justice for Ramsay, and Sansa frames it that way, noting that it was Ramsay’s choice to starve his dogs for days, in anticipation of having them eat someone else, that led him here. Even her most direct act of revenge is still indirect.

In fact, Sansa almost never takes direct action of any kind unless she has to. In season six, she urges Jon not to fight House Bolton in the Battle of the Bastards before he’s drummed up a bigger army. She also urges him not to leave Winterfell to seek Daenerys’s help at the beginning of season seven. In the first instance, she takes matters into her own hands only as a last, desperate resort; in the second instance, when Jon leaves her to rule Winterfell in his absence, she accepts his decision and takes over.

Perhaps most remarkably, Sansa manages to survive and work to regain her family’s power without weaponizing her femininity. Though Littlefinger has made it clear that he’s willing to do anything and everything he can to help Sansa — as long as it serves his own interests — Sansa has never used his attraction to her to manipulate him. When she asks for his help in the Battle of the Bastards, she invokes his long-ago promise, recalled in “The Door,” to protect her — a promise he broke when he delivered her into the hands of the Boltons. She promises him nothing in exchange for his help.

It’s this strategic lack of strategy that’s allowed Sansa to keep Littlefinger in her sights and in check for most of Game of Thrones’ seventh season. Sansa uses traditionally feminine traits of passive acceptance, appeasement, and tactics of mediation in order to stall her enemies, delay action, and divert attention from herself. In the game of thrones, Sansa plays by refusing to play, again and again.

Sansa plays the game by choosing not to play

We see this tendency in miniature in the scene from “Beyond the Wall” where Arya threatens Sansa. Arya asks Sansa to play “the game of faces” with her. Sansa, however, refuses to play, ignoring the game’s stated rules and refusing to engage with her sister’s accusations and questions. The episode makes clear just how far apart the two sisters’ narrative journeys have taken them — though Arya can’t see the ways Sansa’s journey has changed her, because Sansa’s changes have been almost entirely internal.

Arya’s changes are overtly external; she’s grown into a formidable swordswoman and literal assassin whose gifts rest on her recently gained ability to essentially shape-shift by adopting the guise of other people. She often bluntly confesses to the people around her what her next move will be — not that they ever believe her. Her strengths and plans, like her loyalties, are on display for the world to see.

Sansa, on the other hand, has grown more covert, secretive, and internalized over time. It’s very rare for her to be fully honest about her thoughts and plans with anyone, even her closest allies and siblings. That internalization has gained her plenty of critics among Game of Thrones fans who consider her a weak character; in fact, the accusations Arya levels at her — that she essentially aligned with the Lannisters while her father fought for his life — have been hurled at Sansa for years by fans who believe her sense of self-preservation is inherently selfish.

But Sansa’s mode of self-protection has given her a unique perceptiveness that Arya has struggled with in the past. Sansa’s passivity has allowed her to learn from her enemies, including Cersei and Littlefinger — the two people whose manipulation she expertly sidesteps in “Beyond the Wall”: When Littlefinger urges her to use Brienne as a weapon against Arya, she appears to listen to his advice, then promptly sends Brienne away from Winterfell. Where? To meet with Cersei as Sansa’s emissary, because she has no intention of walking into one of Cersei’s traps. And, crucially, she deliberately leaves herself open to whatever attack or confrontation Arya might be planning.

That sisterly confrontation is important both because of what it reveals about Arya’s deep-seated Stark loyalties and because Sansa’s faith in Arya is, at least for now, proven justified: Instead of attacking her, Arya passes the dagger Bran gave her into Sansa’s hands. In the literal sense, this is Arya giving up an extremely powerful weapon (of Valyrian steel, no less) to a sister she ostensibly declares she can’t trust. Symbolically, Arya is handing Sansa the chance to take direct action for once — presumably either to protect herself against Arya or to take revenge against Littlefinger.

But will she?

Sansa’s long game isn’t about thrones — it’s about sustainability

Much has been written of the trials and suffering Sansa has endured so far, and the strength she’s gained as a result. In the third book in George R.R. Martin’s series, A Storm of Swords, Martin writes from Sansa’s point of view shortly after the death of her ex-fiancé, the brutal King Joffrey, who abused her physically and emotionally: “My skin has turned to porcelain, to ivory, to steel.”

It’s only now, in the penultimate season of the show, that we’re finally seeing Sansa in her element — at home and restored to power in Winterfell, able to direct her own path instead of having to carefully pursue her survival at the hands of people with power over her. And it’s only now that she can truly make her own choices that we’re getting a real glimpse of Sansa’s “steel” nature.

“I do not need to be watched over, or minded, or cared for,” Sansa tells Brienne in “Beyond the Wall.” Again, this is Sansa refusing to play the game of thrones by refusing to allow others to dictate whom and what she should fear.

Instead, Sansa is preparing for a much more palpable threat: starvation. In this season’s third episode, “The Queen’s Justice,” we see her taking over Jon’s reign as the Lady of Winterfell. And the first thing on her agenda is to prepare for an incoming refugee crisis. Questioning the Winterfell maesters about their stores of food, Sansa realizes that the villages of the Northern kingdom need to begin pooling resources immediately in order to prepare for possible invasion from any direction.

“If the entire North has to flee to Winterfell, they won’t have time to bring wagonloads of grain with them,” she remarks. In other words, Sansa is strategizing, once again, for long-term survival — not just for her, but for the whole region. Left to her own devices, Sansa’s priority isn’t mounting an army or shoring up Winterfell’s defenses against invaders — it’s to make sure Winterfell will be able to serve as a safe haven in uncertain times to come.

This combination of empathy and farsightedness makes Sansa the Stark sister whose long game fits within the goals of the new unified Westeros that Jon, Tyrion, and Dany are working toward. Each of these characters has arguably, in their various ways, striven for unification, peace, and social progress rather than conquest for its own sake, and Sansa’s actions fit within the pattern outlined by the actions of the series’ other heroes. Each of them prefers nonviolent solutions and an emphasis on diplomacy and alliance building over violence and power grabs. And while all of them have benefited from having others fight and sacrifice for them, all of them have visions of a better, peaceful world.

But Arya, reactive and focused on revenge, can only perpetuate the series’ existing cycles of violence — and indeed, with her famous kill list and by visiting her wrath upon the Freys, she already has. It’s Sansa who’s been able to absorb the many seasons of gratuitous violence and emotional torture to which she’s been subjected without turning to violence herself. It’s Sansa who’s been able to turn her ensuing strength and self-preservation instincts toward protecting all who are under Winterfell’s domain. And if the narrative ever forces a life-or-death choice between Sansa and Arya, it’s Sansa’s long-term planning, careful decision-making, and empathy that will likely ensure her survival in the end.