In keeping with season seven’s trend of wasting no time to get to major moments, Sunday’s Game of Thrones delivered perhaps the most long-awaited reunion in the show’s history: the reunion of Sansa and Arya Stark. In keeping with other recent long-awaited reunions, the moment sparked joy in viewers who have been hoping since the end of season one that the sisters would find their way back to each other. But it played out by largely avoiding sentimentality, an appropriate reflection of the nature of the relationship between the two sisters, and another testament to the fractures in what’s left of the Stark family unit.
When Sansa and Arya reconnected, there was certainly some warmth there. Hugs were exchanged, and some level of solidarity was expressed. “Our stories aren’t over yet,” says Arya, to which Sansa responds, “No, they’re not.” That alone was enough to inspire some teary tweets on social media.
But there was still quite a bit of tentativeness between the sisters, which felt completely right, not only because it’s been so long since they’ve seen each other, but also because their relationship has always been steeped in resentment and conflict. You don’t just shake all of that off just because you haven’t seen each other in a few seasons of television during which one of you fed your horrible husband to some dogs while the other donned various people’s face skins.
The first thing Arya says to Sansa — “So I have to call you Lady Stark now?” — speaks to her lingering discomfort with playing the role of the younger, overshadowed sister. When Arya later insists on training with Brienne, reminding her that she’s been charged with serving both of the Stark sisters, it is an undeniable declaration that Arya won’t be ignored, and will assert her authority using skills that Sansa, as much as her confidence has grown over the years, simply does not possess. The look on Sansa’s face as she observes all this indicates she’s a little threatened by Arya as well. The sisters may be back together, ready to move their stories forward, but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily do it together, on shared terms. Given their past history, it wouldn’t make sense if they did.
Last night’s episode also enabled Arya to reunite with another of her remaining siblings, Bran, which was an even less sentimental encounter than the one with Sansa, largely because Bran has become that brother who returns from Burning Man kind of out of it, not making much sense and convinced he’s way more enlightened than everyone else in the family. “You’ve come home,” he says to Arya, stating the obvious while she embraces him with an ardency she didn’t quite show Sansa in their first hug. As unemotional as Bran may be, his understanding of the universe does allow him to fully see Arya for who and what she is. Unlike Sansa, he knows that her kill list is real. When he passes along the dagger that Littlefinger gave to him, it’s as though he’s proclaiming that Arya, the younger sister, is the only one who’s really earned the right to it and has the wherewithal to use it. In other words, this sibling reunion, too, foreshadows what already seems like an an inevitable conflict between Sansa and Arya, while also emphasizing that literally no one can talk to Bran anymore.
While the divisions within the Stark clan were evident in the first season of Game of Thrones, the beginning of the series certainly established them as the heroes, and the family we should be rooting for. The death of Ned Stark put the members of that family onto diverging paths, but because of that first season, we were always still rooting for them, and rooting for them to come back together at Winterfell.
The thing is, Game of Thrones is, above all else (including dragons), a series about how quickly loyalties shift. The delivery of what we thought we always wanted to see — the Stark kids, all back together — acts as a test of our loyalties and makes us question whether we should really be on their sides the way we were so immediately in season one.
Should we now want what Sansa wants, when she seems to be at odds with Jon Snow and, most likely, will have huge issues with the bonds he’s solidifying with Daenerys? Should we be cheering on Arya when she’s basically turned into a walking and talking film by Quentin Tarantino? Should we even like Bran at this point when he has all the charm of … well, of a guy who stares into space and keeps insisting he’s a three-eyed raven?
It was fitting that when Sansa and Arya reunited, they did so in front of an inaccurately sculpted statue of their father, the heroic adhesive that once kept this family together. Arya notes that the statue doesn’t really look like her dad, and that it should have been carved by someone who actually knew his face. “Everyone who knew his face is dead,” Sansa responds. The subtext: Ned Stark’s family, as it once was in the beginning, is dead, too, and has morphed into something else: a group with fewer members who still have love for each other, but individual motivations that may supercede that love.
It’s also worth noting, as Sansa did, that of all the “Stark kid” reunions so far, the one between Jon and Sansa was the most joyful, even though Jon and Sansa didn’t necessarily share a very close relationship. “I remember how happy he was to see me,” Sansa tells Arya in this week’s episode. “When he sees you, his heart will probably stop.”
That gives us another reunion to look forward to (hopefully) witnessing. It also says something about the fragility of the bonds within the Stark family: The sibling most likely to express the genuine happiness when he sees his brothers and sisters again is the one who isn’t even, technically, a brother. He’s really a cousin, a member of the family, to be sure, and one who acts as a fine representative of it. But also one who stands slightly outside of the circle created by Ned and Catelyn Stark, which may be where a person needs to stand at this point to truly emerge as a hero of integrity.