Hamlet and Laertes. Heathcliff and Linton. Daenerys and Sansa.
These are all examples of literary foils, individuals who play off each others’ strengths and weaknesses to demonstrate striking, and important, differences. While Hamlet cannot decide how to avenge his father, Laertes takes immediate action. Where Linton is a coiffed and quaffed gentleman, Heathcliff is the equivalent of a savage. When Daenerys falls apart without love, Sansa has learned to live without it.
Daenerys and Sansa’s characters follow very similar story arcs. Daenerys is an exile who only wants to go home; Sansa expresses the same wish when held captive in King’s Landing.
Both Daenerys and Sansa experience brutality at the hands of people they care for; Daenerys is hurt by Viserys, who should be a loving brother, while Sansa is harmed by Joffrey, once her starry-eyed love. Both are married against their will — Daenerys to Khal Drogo and Sansa to Tyrion. Both women are married for the purpose of allying with forces that can return them to their home; Daenerys is given to Khal Drogo while Sansa is given to Ramsay Bolton. Both women are raped by the men they hope will offer succor. Both women are willing to commit or suffer violence to achieve their ends — Sansa gives Ramsay to his hounds, who eat him alive, while Daenerys allows her dragons to burn people alive.
The most important difference between the two characters lay in their response to the traumas they undergo. Where Sansa wears her courtesy like armor, her skin changing from porcelain to ivory to steel, Daenerys chooses to focus on divine right and destiny, belief in her birthright undergirding her every move. Sansa’s ability to rule is based on the tutelage of Cersei and Littlefinger, people who were underestimated and dismissed but who found ways to change the game to suit their needs. Her approach is cunning, ruthless and intelligent.
In contrast, Daenerys prefers spectacle; making grand statements, burning dissidents and demanding that others bend the knee. Spectacle often works for Dany — there’s a reason her freeing of the slaves is so powerful, her burning of Lannister forces so iconic — and her choices, while at times ruthless, made good political sense. Until this past episode, Game of Thrones 8×05, “The Bells.”
So what happened? What has so changed the Daenerys of former seasons to this woman who has unleashed pain, death and horror upon all and sundry, including thousands of innocents? While some may argue for her becoming a Mad Queen, I think the answer is much simpler — and offered to us within the episode itself. Daenerys has lost everyone she loves, and for her, this is a recipe for disaster.
Terrible though he was, Viserys was Daenerys’ only surviving brother. He is dead. Ser Jorah Mormont was her loyal advisor and a man who loved her, literally giving his life to protect her from the White Walkers. Daenerys is distraught. Rhaegal, her child, has been shot down by Euron Greyjoy. Daenerys’ advisors have betrayed her; what love they may have had for her cannot be relied upon. Missandei has been murdered.
And then there is Jon, a man whom Daenerys could respect — a warrior, the only other human who can ride one of her dragons, and someone who purports to love her. But he reveals to her that he is her rival for the throne, betrays her by telling Sansa this information (choosing family over her) and refuses to act on his feelings for her, choosing to be her vassal rather than her lover. It is after all this that a devastated Daenerys makes the fateful decision to burn King’s Landing — channeling her emotions into mass devastation.
In contrast, Sansa learned to survive without love. Her father was executed before her eyes. Her sister was gone, likely dead. Joffrey behaved sadistically towards her. Her brother Robb and mother Catelyn are murdered at the Red Wedding. Her Aunt Lysa attempted to kill her due to her desire for Petyr Littlefinger. Despite all this, Sansa as a character continues on, focused on survival. Granted, she does not have the power of dragons at her disposal, so the analogy is imperfect. Despite this, it is only after Sansa has learned to survive without love that she is reunited with her family. To her surprise, she is fortunate enough to have Jon, Arya and Bran at her side — the last of the Starks. While she is glad to have them, her identity is not dependent on them.
What distinguishes Sansa from Daenerys is best expressed by comparing each of their relationships with Jon Snow. Sansa recognizes that Jon is dangerously honorable, the very trait that got their father killed. She warns him to be smarter than both Ned and Robb and offers him advice when his is suspect. She backs him when he is crowned King in the North even though she could have chosen not to, insisting that she was a Stark while he was only a bastard Snow. Sansa will always tell Jon what she believes is true, no matter that it hurts him. Their relationship is founded on mutual respect — even when she thinks he is making the wrong choice, she respects him enough to tell him so. That said, Sansa cares more about her people’s welfare than Jon’s love; she is willing to betray him and reveal his secret parentage even if he hates her for it. Her choices are motivated by what is good for the North, not whether or not she can retain her family’s love.
In contrast, Daenerys is so focused on her birthright and what she believes she is owed that she cannot treat Jon the way she ought. She wants his love and adulation, wants everything to go back to “the way it was before” and cannot handle the fact that he does not hope for a sexual relationship or political marriage with her. Originally, she admired the man who was willing to stand up to her and insist that defending life and the survival of the world against The Night King was more important than who would sit on the Iron Throne.
Later, however, she sees him as a rival and he is forced to bend the knee and obey her in every single command in order to prove his loyalty. There is no mutual respect — he respects her, but she suspects him. No love can flourish under those circumstances. When Jon withdraws from her, she sees his choice as lack of love, and not having learned how to navigate life without it, her worst self appears. In her grief and despair, she authorizes utter destruction: rape, pillage and murder of thousands of innocents.
One of the themes in Game of Thrones has always been, “The things we do for love.” We have also heard Aemon Targaryen’s important statement, “Love is the bane of honor, the death of duty.” In the latest episode, we see the flip-side of that — what happens when people with tremendous power lack love, and what they will do because of it.
Cersei’s downfall can originally be traced to loving Jaime too much, so much that she was only willing to bear his children, not Robert Baratheon’s. In the wake of the king’s death, this choice caused the entire illegitimacy scandal and fighting for the throne. Daenerys’ downfall comes because she wants to be loved and cannot function in a world where this is not the case. In her words, if she cannot have love, she will choose fear — she will choose to watch the world burn. Unlike both of these powerful women, Sansa has learned not to depend on love and not to let love — even love of family — rule her. It is why she has survived thus far, and why she will be the last one standing.