Game of Thrones: The sacrifice of Sansa Stark

(Note: The following observations are based solely on the TV portrayal of Sansa Stark, not her character in the books. As a result, there may be discrepancies. Also, massive spoilers follow.)

Last night’s episode culminated with Sansa Stark’s second wedding night, and Ramsay Bolton’s less than gentle marital ministrations. Theon Greyjoy, who’s known Sansa since she was a girl, watched while Bolton had his way with her, reluctant to risk severe punishment for looking away. It was an incredibly uncomfortable scene to watch - repulsive, even - despite the fact that the act itself wasn’t on screen. It was also a vital piece of Sansa’s journey from wide-eyed romantic to powerful pragmatist.

Sansa’s journey can be defined by her three intended marriages. After all, marriage was pretty much all she was interested in, as “wife” was her appointed role in life. And she studied very hard at the things she thought would help her be a Very Good Wife. She learned to be pretty and pleasant, to do needlepoint and make music. To be an attractive keepsake that would make babies (hopefully several boys!) and turn her keep into a warm and inviting home. It’s a role that she was eager to accept, because she still believed in fairy tales and love stories and the kind of claptrap that bards sing about. When she wass betrothed to Joffrey, heir to the Iron Throne, she was over the moon, because he represented everything she'd been working toward. By the time she realized Joffrey’s true nature, of course, it was far too late. Her father’s head was on a spike, put there by the monster she's meant to marry, the rest of her family on the run. Sansa was a prisoner of King’s Landing, confused, abused, alone and frightened. This is a girl who’d spent her entire life doing what was asked of her, and now had no guidance whatsoever. Everything Sansa believed to be the foundation of the world turned out to be lies, and with no blueprint to follow, Sansa realized that she didn't have the first idea of what to do or even what she could do. She was as trapped by her own misconceptions as she was by the Lannisters.

Fortunately for Sansa, Joffrey found a more appealing sparring partner in Margaery Tyrell and decided to marry her instead. This was a bit of a mixed blessing for Sansa: on the one hand, she was safe from his sick pleasures, but on the other who was she if she wasn’t going to be his wife? She was just….Sansa…and what value was that? She had her life (for now) but no purpose, and her fear of being erased wasn’t just political in nature. Her marriage to Tyrion Lannister was more cruel joke than power play, but it did at least give her somewhat solid footing. Here was more misery to be sure, but at least it was misery she could understand. A marriage to a man from a noble house was a landmark that Sansa could recognize, and therefore as distasteful as it was, it was at least familiar. Tyrion, to his credit, didn’t take advantage of the situation, keeping his promise to Sansa that he would never hurt her or take her to bed, but this created an entirely new confusion. If she’s married, but not really being a wife, well…what is she? It’s probably fair to say that Sansa was probably more interested in basic survival day to day than really exploring her own identity in the world, but I think it’s also fair to say that she’d yet to determine a place for herself in this ugly new world she’d been forced to discover. What good was knowing needlepoint or how to curtsy when dealing with those in power?

Suspected of being complicit in Joffrey’s murder (and, really, who could blame her?) Sansa escapes King’s Landing with the help of Lord Baelish, whose motivations are decidedly murky. It is with Petyr that Sansa finally begins to see how the gears of the world turn, and how they might be made to turn for her. Without the need to fear for her life on a daily basis, Sansa has time to take stock and consider all that’s happened to her and her family and rather than fall down and cry about it, she gains inner strength and poise that she’s previously lacked.

Making maneuvers of his own, Baelish promises Sansa to Ramsay Bolton, currently ensconced in her family home of Winterfell, and off Sansa goes to meet her third would-be husband. Unlike her other two fiances, Sansa has the option to not marry the son of the man who slew most of her family. There’s a moment on the road where she considers not doing this immensely horrible thing that Baelish suggests she do. For the first time, Sansa thinks about say no to the man prodding her to do something. And then she reconsiders and chooses to do it anyway because what other choice does she really have?

Sansa is no longer a naive young girl hoping for romance and songs in the moonlight. She understands that her power lies in her family name and her claim to the north. If she ever wants to actually exert that power, she has to use it the only way she can - by marrying into a noble family. The Boltons are despicable, but they are also currently the Wardens of the North. If Sansa can survive the impending attack from King Stannis - not to mention Ramsay himself - she has a chance of restoring the Starks at Winterfell and becoming Wardeness of the North. She can reclaim a small piece of what was taken from her. And that is why she doesn’t apologize to Myranda for stealing Ramsay away. She doesn’t flinch or cower before her obvious attempts at intimidation. She doesn’t show mercy towards Theon, and she walks to the Godswood with her head high and voice clear.

What we saw last night was a young girl sacrificing her last trace of innocence. Sansa is no fool. She is no weakling. She knows exactly what she wants to do and exactly what it is likely to cost her. She is doing battle using the weapons she has. She is learning to play the game of thrones. Her wedding night was difficult to watch, a humiliating and painful affair, but one she was ready to accept. She knows what must be done to restore Winterfell.

Sansa Stark is home, and you do not frighten her.

Susan Arendt

Susan was once Managing Editor US at GamesRadar, but has since gone on to become a skilled freelance journalist, editor, producer, and content manager. She is now 1/3 of @Continuepod, 1/2 of @BeastiesLl, co-founder of @TakeThisOrg, and Apex Editor, Fluid Group.