Of all the characters currently peppered across Westeros, Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of House Stark, has unquestionably reached her most interesting point during this season. The first four episodes of season five have shown an unprecedented display of agency from Sansa, a character who previously spent most of her time as a package whose safety depended on the whims of other people’s kindness or cruelty, mostly the latter. In season five, Sansa’s stock has sharply risen and her sights are now set on the position of Wardeness Of The North, the first non-queenly position of political power hinted at being achievable for a woman in Westeros.
Sansa’s potential for such a role constitutes a drastic departure from her current position in the books. Even if this scenario is another play by Petyr Baelish (a.k.a. Littlefinger) to overwhelm Sansa into complacency, he’s taught her some powerful lessons in subterfuge. It’s a lesson some might observe comes years too late—but considering that her father never learned how to play the game of thrones, Sansa’s recent development is a sizable step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, this tutelage comes at the expense of Sansa finding herself in the worst position imaginable: alone in her former home of Winterfell and betrothed to Ramsay Say-Snow-At-Your-Own-Risk Bolton. Show watchers and book readers alike know that even by Westeros standards, such a development is a bummer. You might as well have a sad-face emoticon rising from Winterfell during the opening credits.
Five years in, Sansa remains one of my favorite characters. Of all the facets of agency explored through the show’s female characters—moralistic conqueror Daenerys Targaryen, knightly Brienne, the court schemers of King’s Landing, etc.—hers is perhaps the most interesting in how passively it has been enacted. Sansa’s greatest skill has been her ability to sit and stare, sharing feast after feast with monsters while presumably finding small solace in midnight lemon cakes.
Despite their differences, if the Stark sisters share one thing in common, it is an unparalleled survival instinct. Much like her younger sister, Sansa will do whatever she can to live. One might even argue that stab-happy Arya would not have survived an extended stay in King’s Landing; it’s hard to imagine her politely sharing Joffrey’s dinner table after witnessing the beheading of her father. Retribution and punishment would have been fairly swift in that scenario.
Sansa, however, is different. When faced with living with the man responsible for driving a dagger into her brother’s chest, she curtsied politely with a demure smile. If courtesy is a lady’s armor in King’s Landing, Sansa armored up early, never safe enough to concern herself with the game in which she, the eldest heiress of Winterfell, was such a valuable pawn. Marrying Tyrion was not her choice; leaving King’s Landing was not her choice; leaving the safety of the Eyrie was not her choice. Her first choice in quite a while came earlier this season with her refusal of Brienne’s sword in favor of staying with Littlefinger and his non-consensual displays of affection. It was the first time Sansa did not throw herself into the arms of a knightly person offering her safety. After years of soaking up the wisdom of those eager to monologue around her, she has taken Littlefinger’s wisdom to heart, accepting that she is surrounded by liars at all times.
She has likewise taken a page from Cersei’s playbook, accepting “that tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon,” as she fully admits to knowing what Littlefinger ultimately wants from her and believing this to be enough to keep her safe. Yet, relying on Littlefinger might have also proven to be a terrible mistake. While it does stem from a major miscalculation, Littlefinger himself does not realize that he has taken her from the Lannister’s boiling cauldron into the bucket of discarded flayed skin that is Ramsay’s world.
But unlike others (like Daenerys) who revel in their implacable natures, Sansa is a character in constant education. She has had to shed the illusions that she would marry Joffrey and be queen; that she would marry Loras Tyrell and be happy; that she could trust Tyrion, Littlefinger, or anyone else to ensure her safety. Alone for the first time, Sansa is finally in a position to make her own decisions. The stakes have never been higher. Being a head on a spike in King’s Landing might be a kind end, considering Ramsay’s history of keeping assets alive, if not whole.
Still, I trust in Sansa to again exit the season stronger than she entered it. If strife forges character, she is headed for Valyrian steel territory. When the smoke clears from Winterfell for a second time, I want to believe that a new power player will be left standing (and hopefully whole). It’s a brand new day for the potential Wardeness Of The North, and a vacant stare at the dinner table is not going to be enough to keep her safe as she enters marriage with Ramsay. Neither will Reek’s wet and alarmed eyes on the sidelines. Your move, Sansa.