One of the coolest things (in my humble opinion) about long-running book series or TV shows is the potential for character growth that they allow. When you’re with people over the course of several books or several seasons of television anything can happen to them and there are myriad opportunities for their characters to develop and grow and change (hopefully in good ways, but people get broken, too). The sign of a good series tends to be this kind of development; after all, nobody likes it when things start to feel stale and predictable.
An especially exciting thing for me, as a female consumer of all things Game of Thrones, has been watching the way the women of Westeros (and beyond) have moved from traditional medieval-type roles into more interesting physical and symbolic spaces over the course of the series. But before I go on, I’m going to insert the obligatory spoiler warning here, because obviously I cannot talk about development without, you know, talking about the things that have happened recently in the world of Game of Thrones.
SPOILER WARNING: If you are not caught up with at least Episode 5, Season 6 of Game of Thrones and you do not wish to be spoiled, run away. This is not the post for you.
Sansa best illustrated the turning of the tables for me, because this season Sansa made me sit back in my chair and say, “Holy crap girl, look how far you’ve come!”
I mean, we all remember Season 1/Book 1 Sansa, the one Stark it was OK to actually dislike. I mean, sure, Rickon was a little wild, but rarely present. Jon was hopelessly naive about what would happen at the Wall. Bran’s hair was terrible. Cat could be frustrating. Ned was clearly going to die because he was, like, the one all-around good person in Westeros (I guess with maybe the exception of Robb). Everyone loved Arya because, hello. But Sansa was this annoying, spoiled brat who just wanted to be queen (and only, it seemed, for the dresses and status; she never really expressed any interest in actually ruling) and was all gooey-eyed for the horrible, terrible Prince Joffrey.
It takes a while for her to worm her way into your heart because she doesn’t shake this bratty, air-headed annoyingness for a while. Even after a critical scene in Season 1, Episode 2, where Sansa discovers how weak and cruel Joffrey truly is when he encounters Arya fighting with the butcher’s boy, Sansa still lies for Joffrey and ends up losing her direwolf, Lady, because of it. While in many ways this is a turning point for her character — it pretty clearly shows her how poorly everything is going to be from here on out — she is still bratty to Arya afterwards. Sansa is so entrenched within the mindset that she will marry Joffrey and become queen, that even though you feel bad for her, you still can’t really like her.
When true tragedy strikes and Joffrey kills Ned while Sansa watches, Sansa becomes the victim, and she stays that way for a really, really long time. I’m going to talk mainly based on the show timeline from here on out because the show and the books begin to get out of sync after a certain point and since Season 6 is show-only, it’ll be easier to stick to that narrative.
Season 2 is the “hate to be Sansa Stark” season. Joffrey and Cersei are relentlessly cruel, Sansa is either scared enough or smart enough to know not to trust anyone and therefore never seeks help, even when it’s offered. At the end of the season, when The Hound peaces out of King’s Landing and offers to bring Sansa home, Sansa chooses to stay, even despite realizing the Hound means her no harm. So Sansa stays, and the torture continues even up to the point that she is finally freed from her engagement to Joffrey. What starts as a beautiful moment for Sansa is destroyed when Littlefinger reminds her that this means nothing for her physical safety: she’ll still be tortured, just without the benefit of royal protection. Poor girl. This is when Sansa finally seems to understand that she needs to actually do something so that stuff can stop being done to her. So she partners with Littlefinger. For a while.
But she is still Sansa.
When Margaery Tyrell befriends Sansa in the show’s 3rd season, and her dashing brother, Ser Loras, is paraded in front of as a potential match, Sansa essentially tells Littlefinger to leave King’s Landing without her, because she’s all set with the promise of a match to a cute boy and the promise of Highgarden. But she gets Tyrion instead, something she finds initially upsetting. But their marriage doesn’t go as poorly as it could have at first glance. Perhaps one of the most endearing “Sansa moments” up to that point in the show happens after Sansa and Tyrion’s wedding in Season 3, when they wake up to all of Westeros laughing at them, and Tyrion starts making a list of names. Sansa asks him about it, and her new husband admits that he’s not going to kill anyone on the list, but he’d still like to threaten them anyway. Sansa replies maybe it’s prank time, and gets this grin on her face talking to Tyrion about sticking sheep dung into these people’s mattresses and Tyrion is grinning too; there is just this great moment where you think, “You know, Sansa, maybe this is going to be OK.” And, if you are me, you also realize that you’re rooting for her.
And you’re not just rooting for an end to her punishment. Somehow, despite all of her past behavior, she’s managed to grow on you as a character.
Pretty early in the 4th season, the Purple Wedding happens and Sansa is spirited off to The Vale with Littlefinger, and it kind of seems like she’s resumed a “complacent pawn status.” Sure, Littlefinger isn’t planning to torture her — but don’t worry, her aunt, Lysa, will, and Lysa pretty quickly goes even further and actually attempts to kill her niece. To me, it felt so much like a return to Season 2 Sansa, where you just feel bad for the poor thing and wonder if maybe she should just be put out of her misery already. But then growth stage 3 takes place in a beautiful moment where she lies, in a very convincing and deeply conniving way, to the council at The Vale to protect Littlefinger. At the end of Season 4, Sansa has dyed her hair dark, donned a powerful gown of her own making, and seems ready to actually take her fate into her own hands.
Only she doesn’t, not quite.
While the Sansa of Season 5 is a far cry from the Sansa who left Winterfell in Season 1, she is still, in so many ways, a pawn without real agency. Littlefinger says marry Ramsay Bolton, so Sansa will marry Ramsay Bolton. She is no longer shallow and no longer weak. She shows off her new backbone in a particularly chilling scene before her wedding, when Myranda tells her some creepy Ramsay stories and Sansa asks Myranda how long she’s been in love with Ramsay before then telling her straight up that she isn’t frightened. And even though you, as the viewer, know that she should be, it’s still a powerful moment for this girl who just spent several entire seasons terrified.
Of course, then Sansa marries Ramsay and the infamous rape scene takes place, over which there was a great amount of general outcry. As this post explains quite eloquently, people were upset about the rape for any number of reasons, not the least of which being that now Margaery Tyrell seemed to be the only strong female on the show who had not been outright raped, and it’s just a sad state of affairs when you can’t have women without violating them. Perhaps more so, people were upset that the scene was actually about Theon, and about the trauma he experienced at witnessing, versus Sansa’s own trauma at the violation. These arguments have merit and I will not get into the discussion in this post, but the Ramsay situation is critical to her character development in the show so it has to be mentioned.
Because this is where you see the change in Sansa’s character really play out.
In King’s Landing, the tortured and miserable Sansa put her head down and took everything that was thrown at her. Back at Winterfell, she’s having none of it. Sansa begs Theon for help and when he doesn’t provide it, she manages to find her own means of escape. When she is confronted by Myranda and Theon finally gets his act together and throws Myranda from the wall, Sansa is ready to run. And so they run.
At the beginning of Season 6, we see Sansa find Brienne and accept her service and we see her forgive Theon, which is incredibly powerful for Sansa: when we first met her, she held grudges against her younger sister for the most small and banal things. Now, Sansa sees Theon’s suffering, knows that he has done everything in his power to save her, and she is willing not only to embrace him, but also to vouch for him if he needs it. Theon has his own journey and heads out to begin that, but this new Sansa is a herald of what will come when she does reach Castle Black.
The 4th episode of Season 6, “The Book of the Stranger,” is the first time we get to see the new Sansa that has been building across over 50 episodes become fully actualized. Reunited with Jon, she takes a moment to apologize for past mistakes, then moves quickly to action. She tells him point blank that even if he won’t go confront Ramsay to take him down, she will. And by the end of the episode she has convinced him that retaking Winterfell is what they are going to do.
In the following episode, “The Door,” she takes this even further. Sansa has become a woman of steel, wholly transformed by her long and horrific journey. When she confronts Littlefinger about marrying her off to Ramsay, she takes control of the conversation and forces him to confront what he’s done to her, forces him to understand that she is not just a pawn, that the things that happened to her are real and their trauma continues past the event itself. She makes him tell her what he thinks was done to her, makes him squirm, and makes it clear she’s done with him. She has no more use for him and she could very easily kill him, right then and there. Littlefinger is forced to leave, defeated, unable to talk his way around her. When Sansa returns to Castle Black, she is clearly the person in charge, even in a room full of male warriors, as they plan their siege of Winterfell. She speaks her mind, everyone listens. Even Jon has become a side character in her story, and it is an incredible thing to witness.
Sansa will take back the North, and by goodness I believe she can do it.
Two seasons ago I couldn’t even have imagined that this is where Sansa would be. Two seasons ago if someone had told me Sansa was going to lead the charge to take back the North I’d have scratched my head and said, “Sansa Stark? The readhaded one? Really?” But now it is so fitting, so compelling. I asked my friend the other day how Sansa became my favorite Stark, because I couldn’t help but take a moment to reflect on how utterly incredible her journey has been, and how much her character has developed.
Bravo to GRRM and to the writers of the show for taking advantage of such a great opportunity to use the length of the series to develop a character as much as they’ve developed Sansa. Yes.
What do you think readers? Do you like how far Sansa has come? What other characters do you think have been especially well developed?
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