Game of Thrones is making terrible choices with Arya and Sansa’s burgeoning battle. Here’s why.
It’s that time of year.
Kids are trudging back to school, Starbucks is trying to sell you pumpkin-spice everything, and Game of Thrones is gearing up for the season 7 finale. So much has changed since we began just seven episodes ago. Jon and Dany have skipped towards romance, Cersei is pregnant, Viserion has been killed and reanimated — really, the entire production has been moving swiftly forward.
Oh, except for one thing. After spending seven seasons apart and enduring countless trials, nothing appears to have changed between the Stark sisters.
Instead, Game of Thrones season 7 has left Arya and Sansa with nothing but stale resentments from their childhood. With that strife now bafflingly rehashed to spark an outsized conflict between them, Arya and Sansa are being puppeted into playing out their old grievances — this time on a deadly scale.
It’s maddening to watch.
On even a superficial level, this is baffling choice of writing. The youthful tensions of two mismatched sisters, however strongly felt at the time, cannot be translated into the type of strife Game of Thrones now struggles to manufacture. Both Arya and Sansa have long since grown past the tripwires of their girlhood — for Sansa, helplessness and naiveté, for Arya wanderlust and trust in authority.
They are women now, with the problems and capacities of women, and yet Game of Thrones persists in treating them like little girls.
There was reason to hope when Arya returned to Winterfell, and the sisters enjoyed a touching reunion. While muted, their meeting was an appropriate response to the profound changes wrought in each by time and trauma. (If the myriad whores of Westeros have taught us anything, it’s that effusiveness is no guarantee of genuine feeling.)
But almost without warning, this sense of sorority unraveled into a swamp of suspicion and intimidation. Episode 5 saw Arya leaping to drastic conclusions about both her sister and the entire political structure of the North, any maturity gleaned from her experiences funneled away into outsized resentments.
Sansa struggled with a double shot of two creepy and magical siblings into her heretofore exclusively political plotline, while Littlefinger continued breathing down her neck like a toothless Dracula.
Sunday night’s episode, “Beyond the Wall,” pushed the throttle on both the tension and the utter nonsensicality of this sisterly devolution. Arya confronted Sansa with the letter she had been forced to write years ago on the Lannister’s behalf, but instead of catharsis, Arya evinced only terrifying judgment. Left scrambling for a defensive position, Sansa inexplicably turned to Littlefinger and sent Brienne — essentially her lone protector — away from Winterfell.
In other words, Game of Thrones has sent the sisters back in time. And not in the cool, tree-vision kind of way.
Arya is petulant and certain, reverting back to fluency in only violence. Sansa has retained most of her hard-won maturity (and it’s painful to watch her speak sense in the face of her sister’s unyielding judgment) but in extremis, the story forces her to repeat her earliest crime: Trusting someone she really should not.
This devolution is not only jarringly out of step with just about every experience Sansa and Arya have had through the series, it is an appalling disservice to everything their characters represent. Each young woman has struggled through seven seasons to be recognized for her own true self and the power she wields. Each won her identity back through trials that left her scarred and bloody.
The years of agonizing setbacks have finally positioned these disparate sisters not as adversaries, but as compliments to each other. Or at least, they should have.
This is not to say that the only way forward for Game of Thrones is an idyllic relationship between Arya and Sansa Stark. As many sisters are, this pair are very different people, with vastly diverse experiences and points of view that influence their values. Complicated emotions and strained communication are the building blocks of good drama — as long as that struggle represents character growth, and not regression.
But that is not currently the case on Game of Thrones, especially for Arya. Arya’s return to Winterfell has not been a painful struggle upward, but an astonishingly rapid slide backward into the resentments of childhood — now significantly more dangerous than food tossed at a feast.
For a few bright scenes, it seemed as though Arya had begun to learn a language beyond that of brutality and violence, but it has become clear that David Benioff and Dan Weiss are not interested in expanding her vocabulary. Judging everyone and everything against a black-and-white grid of loyalty and treason, Arya’s opinions are unyielding, her interpretations damning and bleak.
The primary subject of her ire, for no apparent reason, is Sansa. Arya villainizes everything about Sansa that she cannot understand — and that seems to be most things.
Sansa’s cautious words to the Northern Lords are insufficiently dedicated to Jon. She sleeps in the wrong room. The long-expired mistakes of her youth are evidence of continued malice and cowardice. Even her clothing, her “pretty dresses,” draw Arya’s condemnation and scorn.
Perhaps most tellingly, Arya also mocks the idea that Sansa could have been compelled to write Cersei’s letter by any means other than physical torture. It’s a shockingly one-dimensional worldview for a character whose violent past had finally begun to thaw. But even at Winterfell, even among those she should love, there is no room in Arya’s philosophy for different interpretations of fear, intimidation, coercion, and even pain.
This is childish petulance writ dangerously large, not the objections of a near-adult readjusting to life with her family. This is neither insight nor growth, neither challenging nor particularly interesting.
Arya back in Winterfell reeks of a series that has not hired a female writer in five years, attempting to breathe stale air into an expired dynamic it once understood.
Meanwhile, Sansa seems to have been forced back into the role in which Benioff and Weiss like her best. Fearful of the people closest to her, scared of the shadows in her own home, Sansa is once again the helpless maiden. Outsmarted by Littlefinger and physically intimidated by Arya, Sansa may still have more resources at her disposal than the years she spent as a Lannister and Bolton prisoner… but not many.
The sisters’ final scene in “Beyond the Wall,” in which Sansa discovers Arya’s satchel full of faces, is instructive here. Arya is ice-cold and unrepentant, Sansa is scared and demands answers. But even the objectively reasonable question of “Hey sis, why do you have a bag full of skin?” merits only derision and warnings from Arya.
Tellingly, the young assassin looks in the same direction as the showrunners — backwards.
“We both wanted to be other people when we were younger,” Arya says. “You wanted to be a queen, to sit next to a handsome young king on the Iron Throne. And I wanted to be a knight, to pick up a sword like Father and go off to battle.”
“Neither of us got to be that other person, did we?” she observes. “The world doesn’t just let girls decide what they’re going to be.”
Arya proclaims that her new powers have transcended this limitation — she can be anyone, for one simple payment of murder — but it is becoming clear that transcendence is profoundly limited. Arya may be able to change her body and face, but her mind is stuck in the past. The unyielding grid of righteousness and evil that she relies upon has trapped her within its uncompromising confines.
Arya also fails to realize that the developments she scorns in Sansa — her politicking, her diplomacy, her new mantle of Lady Stark — represents another kind of transcendence. Sansa has taken the weapons used against her and forged them into armor, but unfortunately Game of Thrones seems to value these victories as minimally as Arya does.
Women on Game of Thrones are largely defined by their relationship to violence, and Sansa has been overwhelming on the receiving end. In a very ugly way, it makes sense that the series and Arya therefore find Sansa’s power suspect.
And so, as we head into the Game of Thrones season 7 finale, we are left with two sisters speeding toward a disastrous collision. Each young woman is driving in reverse, playing old shadows of themselves.
Perhaps the supersized finale, titled “The Dragon and the Wolf,” will find a way to reverse course and allow Arya and Sansa to reach a detante. Perhaps this ugly foray down memory lane will ultimately strengthen the pair for a future they must face together.
But given that this is Game of Throness, that feels like wishful thinking. Seven years after the Stark sisters set out on their transformative journeys, all that seems to matter is who they used to be. The plucky badass hardened into thoughtless vengeance; the delicate princess shrunken into a parody of the evil queen.
It’s clear that Game of Thrones is nostalgic for its own glory days, but the show should know better than this. Sansa and Arya’s greatest moments should be ahead of them; let’s hope that these two revolutionary young women have not been consigned meekly to the past.