Even if you don’t watch it, you’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard that Game of Thrones is back for its final season. After seven seasons of dragons and battles and all your favourite characters being killed off horribly, we’re going back to Westeros one last time to find out if there’s any way the Night King and his army of White Walkers can be stopped.
We’ve all got our favourite characters by this point, right? Maybe you’re a fan of Tyrion Lannister’s wit; maybe you love badass faceless assassin Arya Stark; maybe you’re rooting for the underdog, someone like Samwell Tarly or Podrick Payne; maybe you really want to see Daenerys finally do what she’s been promising to do all these years and take back her father’s throne. There are so many fantastic characters in this show, so many people to root for, but in my opinion there’s one character who’s better than them all. One character who’s had the most significant character development, overcome hardship, and become almost unrecognisable from their season one self. I’m talking, of course, about the Lady of Winterfell herself: Sansa Stark.
I’m anticipating one of two reactions: either you’re completely on board with what I’m saying, or you think I’m mad. To those of you thinking the latter, give me a chance to prove my point. It wasn’t until I had this exact discussion with a friend recently that I realised just how much Sansa’s character has grown, and knowing that there’s never any guarantee your favourite Thrones character will survive the episode, never mind the duration of the season, I want to take this chance to look back at exactly why Sansa Stark deserves more appreciation than she gets.
Let’s cast our minds all the way back to season one. Sansa Stark, at this point, is a stereotypical thirteen year old girl: she likes pretty things, fights with her little sister, and has a crush on the prince. If Westeros had teen magazines, Sansa would probably have every picture of Joffrey stuck to her bedroom walls. Whenever I talk to anyone who isn’t a Sansa fan, this is one of the reasons they give for disliking her. She’s too naive! All she wants to do is marry the prince! But given how girls are raised in Westeros, what they’re meant to aspire to, how can we scorn her for that? When Arya confesses to Ned halfway through the season that she wants to be a knight, he tells her that she’ll marry a lord one day and her sons will be knights; how can we blame Sansa for being excited to grow up and do what her family have told her all her life she’s meant to do?
That Sansa, the little girl who dreams of marrying Joffrey, has her perception of everything she knows destroyed when her father is arrested for treason. This is when we see the first hints of who Sansa really is: she’s loyal to her family, protective of them, and she’s willing to do whatever she has to do to keep them safe. The Lannisters tell her to write to her brother to swear fealty to Joffrey and he won’t be harmed? She does it. The Lannisters promise her father’s life will be spared if he confesses to treason? Of course. What reason would she have to doubt them? As far as she’s concerned, everything will be alright. And then Joffrey has her father executed.
For the next two seasons, Sansa Stark is alone in King’s Landing. Joffrey forces her to look at Ned Stark’s head on a spike; she’s beaten and tormented at the hand of the Lannisters; she’s forced to marry Tyrion, and while he never hurts her, it ties her to the family who killed her father, and who shortly after kill her mother and brother. For two seasons she’s subjected to this, and while some may dismiss her as weak, this is when we see how strong she is. Over and over again the Lannisters try to break her, and over and over again Sansa refuses to give in. “I’m loyal to Joffrey”, she insists, because she knows that admitting to anything else would get her killed.
Season four. Three seasons after arriving at King’s Landing, and with help from Olenna Tyrell and Petyr Baelish (AKA Littlefinger), Sansa escapes as Joffrey dies at his own wedding. Finally! She’s safe at last! But of course she’s not, because this is Game of Thrones and nothing is ever that happy. Littlefinger takes Sansa to her aunt Lysa in the Vale, which isn’t really the family reunion we all wanted to see, but it was better than nothing, right? Until Lord Baelish kissed Sansa, told his new wife Lisa he only ever loved her sister Catelyn, and pushed Lysa out the moon door to her death.
The person Sansa thought was her saviour ended up being disturbingly infatuated with her. She could easily have turned Littlefinger over to the council investigating her aunt’s death, and season one Sansa probably would have. But by this point, Sansa knows better. She’s learnt from the Lannisters and from Littlefinger how to be cunning, how to look at the whole picture. The scene where Sansa lies to cover up for what Littlefinger has done is one of the defining points of her character arc: there’s nobody else there to keep her safe, so she has to do whatever she can to ensure her own survival. After all, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
There’s nothing positive for Sansa in season five. Littlefinger sells her to the Boltons to be married to Ramsay, and from then she endures horrific abuse at her new husband’s hands until she and Reek manage to escape at the end of the season. But still, even after everything Ramsay does, Sansa doesn’t break.
As we get into the later seasons, Sansa truly begins to assert herself as one of the show’s strongest and smartest characters. Reunited with Jon at the wall, It’s Sansa who convinces Jon that they should take back their home. It’s also Sansa who ultimately wins them the battle of the bastards when Jon launches his attack with too few men. Despite her mistrust, Sansa knows Littlefinger would do anything for her, and it’s only because she wrote to Littlefinger asking him to send the men of the vale as reinforcements that Jon’s army was able to defeat Ramsay’s. Sansa says a line to Jon the night before the battle that summarises her whole character development in one sentence. When Jon promises that he will never let Ramsay touch her again, Sansa tells him, “no-one can protect me. No-one can protect anyone.” Sansa knows by season six that in the game of thrones it’s everyone for themselves, and she seems to be one of the only characters wise enough to remember that.
By season seven Sansa has taken her place as Lady of Winterfell and is committed to defending the North. Although Jon is the one declared King, Sansa is the one ensuring that Winterfell has enough supplies to last the coming winter and to protect anyone seeking refuge there. Despite Arya’s comments later in the season, she has no desire to overthrow her brother in his absence and become Queen while he bargains for dragonstone from Daenerys; she only wants to protect those left under her care, and make certain that the North survives.
The end of season seven is, in my opinion, the greatest Sansa moment of them all. Set up by Littlefinger to believe Arya wants to kill her, Sansa gathers everyone in the hall and delivers that line: “you stand accused of murder. You stand accused of treason. How do you answer these charges… Lord Baelish?”
Tell me you didn’t get chills watching that scene.
Petyr Baelish, Game of Thrones’ greatest manipulator for seven seasons, is finally made to answer for what he’s done by none other than Sansa Stark. It’s an excellent bit of justice for House Stark, and it’s even better that, after all she’s faced, Sansa should be the one who gets to deliver it.
This is how we arrive at season eight. Jon returns to Winterfell with Daenerys and her army, and it isn’t just the weather making the North frosty. Everything Sansa does in the first episode of season eight, her less-than-warm welcome to Daenerys included, is about protecting the North. It’s all very well for two dragons and an entire army to show up, but how will they have enough food to feed their people? Daenerys proclaims herself Queen and Jon bends the knee, but why should the North bow to this stranger? And what about Cersei’s promise that her own army will march north to help defeat the White Walkers? Sansa seems to have been the only one paying attention: if anyone knows anything about self-preservation it’s Cersei, and Sansa knows there’s no army of Lannister men coming to help them.
When Arya reunites with Jon in season eight she tells him that Sansa is the smartest person she knows, and a lot of people have taken issue with this. It’s true that Sansa doesn’t broadcast her intelligence as loudly as some of the other characters do; it’s rare that she offers wry comments the way Tyrion or Varys might, but that doesn’t mean she should be discounted. Sansa has come a long way from season one: she’s learnt to be cunning; she’s learnt how to see the whole picture; and, most importantly, she’s learnt how to keep herself alive. In the words of Tyrion Lannister himself, “many underestimated you. Most of them are dead now.”