The conflict between Sansa and Arya Stark reached potentially stabby proportions during this week’s Game of Thrones. Yes, the two sisters have been in each other’s orbit for exactly three episodes, and already the threat of murder is on the table. This is very much in keeping with the unofficial theme of season seven, which is: “Well, that escalated quickly.”
As I said in this piece, it makes sense that Sansa and Arya haven’t been all “Let’s get mani-pedis together while trading stories about the respective atrocities we endured during our years-long separation.” These women have always been very different from each other, and their relationship naturally clicked back into the place they last left it. But since that one almost-pleasant conversation they had while looking at their father’s statue, it has shifted from its default setting to “Holy shit, is Arya going to carve off Sansa’s face??” Which is in keeping with the other unofficial theme of season seven:
For plot reasons, it’s clearly important to establish a rupture in this relationship and establish it quickly — Arya’s discovery of Sansa’s alleged betrayal of their father has helped facilitate this. But in this conflict, whose side should we be take? Is it: (a) Arya; (b) Sansa; (c) both; (d) neither; or (e) the side of that poor crumpled-up note Sansa wrote, which did not ask to be part of this narrative?
Historically, the answer has been Arya. The younger of the Stark sisters has always been the capable, underestimated underdog, the steely warrior hiding inside the body of a young girl. From the very beginning, we were encouraged to see her as stronger and more empowered than Sansa who, especially back in her season one, crushing-on-Joffrey days, fit neatly into the mode of fragile, self-involved, teenage girl. As Hillary Kelly wrote in this essay, “Arya is the only major female character who has slid down the spectrum of good toward evil, but whom we still think of as champion and not a villain.”
Arya still sees Sansa as that vapid, privileged teenager, as the words she hurled at her about her fancy clothes and her “beloved Joffrey” in last night’s episode indicate. But because we have witnessed Sansa’s evolution over the past six seasons, we know that’s a pretty thin view of who Sansa is now. The fact that Arya continues to reduce her sister to this cliché and not consider how events might have molded her into someone different makes it clear that Arya, in her way, is as self-involved as she accuses Sansa of being.
There’s another reason why it’s challenging to be on Arya’s side at the moment, and that is this: She’s lost her damn vengeance-seeking mind. Obviously her training in Braavos had a serious, understandable affect on her personality. But she’s skidded so hard into sociopathic behavior that she’s become a homicidal robot, which has prompted some to wonder whether the Arya we’re seeing right now is actually Arya.
If Arya ripped off her face and revealed herself to be the Waif — who, to be clear, Arya killed last season (or certainly seemed to) — or Jaqen H’ghar, it would be utterly preposterous, even for a show on which a lot of preposterous things happen. I am against this as a possible narrative development. But at least it would better explain why all sense of logic and empathy has been leached so radically from Arya’s soul.
My other big issue with Arya right now is that I don’t understand what her long game is, and that’s probably because she doesn’t have one. She wants to bump off everyone on her kill list and then …? What comes after “and then”? If she kills Cersei, does Arya plan to stage a coup and try to assume the Iron Throne? That’s possible, but the series has not made that clear. Right now, it seems that Arya is motivated even more than usual by revenge and pure impulse, and isn’t thinking much farther past that. Which makes me more eager for her to get on some good meds than to succeed with her plans.
Oh, okay. So you’re Team Sansa then. Well … I was almost Team Sansa, but every time I try to fully go there, something stops me.
The elder Stark sister has matured significantly over the past several seasons, and, based on her conversations with Jon, I do believe she’s trying to act strategically for the greater good of the North and her family’s legacy. But then she goes and does things that are just plain stupid, like telling Littlefinger about the note and her rift with Arya. Sansa is smart enough to know that Littlefinger can’t be fully trusted, and she later says as much to Brienne. But somehow, some subsection of her brain is still telling her to act as though he’s a true mentor with her best interests at heart. (Or maybe narrative convenience is telling her that?)
Littlefinger planted that note where Arya would find it, anticipating the effect it would have. He also mentioned Brienne to Sansa in a way that suggests he somehow knew it would prompt her to do stupid thing No. 2 in this week’s episode: send Brienne to King’s Landing on her behalf. I am not convinced that invitation Sansa received is authentic — you just know Littlefinger calligraphed up that sucker, taking the requisite breaks to rub his hands together in a dastardly, scheming manner — which means that Sansa has sent her personal bodyguard away for no reason, right at the moment when Arya seems primed to eliminate her. The fact that all of this is happening because of suddenly discovered secret letters from long ago and invitations that show up out of nowhere is too Downton Abbey for words. (Littlefinger : Game of Thrones :: Thomas : Downton Abbey. Discuss!)
So while I have some empathy and admiration for Sansa, she’s not thinking straight enough to make me feel like I can fully advocate for her either.
This is what’s challenging about Game of Thrones right now. As much as I support the way it’s pumped up its pacing from slow trot to 100-mile-an-hour gallop this season, that has happened at the expense of character consistency and believability. While I am curious to see how this Sansa/Arya thing plays out, I don’t feel as emotionally invested in it as I thought I would because both of them are doing things that feel more motivated by contrivance than human nature. Which is a bummer.
So, in conclusion, the answer to the question, “Whose side am I on in this Arya versus Sansa conflict?” is: (d) neither. And also, (e) the side of the note, because that piece of paper never did anything to hurt anyone until the Lannisters pressured Sansa to put certain words on it and Littlefinger got his Machiavellian hands on it.