Why Sansa's 'Game of Thrones' storyline wasn't the triumph it should've been
There were plenty of bad calls made by characters in the final season of Game of Thrones, from Tyrion’s naive faith that Cersei would send her armies to Winterfell to Jon telling Daenerys about his true parentage before the battle against the White Walkers. Hardly any of the show's core characters were at their best this season — save for one. Amidst the tumult and confusion of dueling queens, conflicting birthrights, and back-to-back battles, Sansa Stark remained clear-eyed and focused on a single goal: to protect and fight for the people of the North. So while seeing Sansa take charge and be named Queen of the North in the finale was thrilling, her triumph somehow felt bittersweet.
Throughout Thrones' Season 8, Sansa was the only character who never had the wool pulled over her eyes; she was never conned by a sibling, dazzled by dragons, or lulled into thinking she could let her guard down. She consistently and unwaveringly acted in the interest of her people, exemplifying the very leadership qualities that Tyrion and Varys kept hoping to find in Daenerys or Jon. In a muddled season filled with myriad frustrations, rooting for Sansa was easy; she was the only character that never let us down.
It’s also a far cry from where her character began the show. The Sansa of Thrones’ Season 1 was petty, entitled, selfish, and vain, the type of frivolous mean girl you wouldn’t even want to hire as a babysitter, much less entrust with an entire kingdom. That she was barely even a teenager in the show’s earliest episodes didn’t count for much among fans; even as a child, she was so unpopular that the idea she'd someday become one of the most powerful people in all of Westeros would've seemed laughable.
But then she grew up. As Tyrion Lannister said in the Season 8 finale, “there’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story,” and while Sansa’s story wasn't a happy one, there’s no denying that it was powerful. Over the course of several Thrones seasons, she reached every milestone that traditionally marks the journey from girl to woman, but each was fraught with terror, misery, and pain. Her first boyfriend was a murderous psychopath who executed her dog, and then her father. Her first period had to be hidden, lest it be discovered that she was of childbearing age and be married off. Her first marriage was to a much older man she barely knew and was orchestrated to humiliate and control her. And her first sexual experience was a horrific violation, perpetrated on yet another wedding night that she did not choose for herself.
For years, the story of Sansa Stark was rife with suffering, an obstacle course of cruelties designed by the most evil people in Westeros for her particular pain. Yet despite this, Sansa somehow emerged whole. In Season 8's “The Last of the Starks,” after the Hound told Sansa that he could’ve saved her from all that misery if she’d just come with him all those years ago, she replied, “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life.”
As delivered, it was a deeply problematic line, implying that Sansa only became strong because she was brutalized, not that she survived her brutalization because she was strong. While it’s true that she did learn something from each of her captors — shrewdness, cunning, foresight, and the ability to see through a clever lie or a false smile in an instant — to define her based on her victimization is to discount her agency. Moreover, it contributes to the far too common idea in pop culture that women can only be strong if they have undergone some sort of trauma.
But strip away the scene's dubious language and Sansa’s point seems to underscore that her story made her who she was, and that she wouldn't let the Hound, or anyone else, take that away from her.
In an interview with the New York Times, actor Sophie Turner said that Sansa's quote was indeed not meant to give credit to her abusers. “It was that she was strong in spite of all the horrific things that she's gone through, not because of them," said Turner. "She's had resilience since the very beginning, and despite all of these awful things that happened to her, she's kept that resilience. Sansa to the core is resilient and brave and strong, and that had nothing to do with her abusers."
Despite a life where her choices were constantly stripped away, Sansa was able to reclaim her narrative in Thrones' final seasons. She transformed from the flighty, carefree girl of Season 1 into a steadfast leader with a keen wit and an iron will, a person who managed to be kind and loyal despite years of being treated horrifically. By the series' end, Sansa had earned any throne the show was willing to give her — which is why it's so frustrating that she wasn't crowned ruler of Westeros in the finale.
The coronation was a beautiful scene; watching her as she was crowned queen of the North, resplendent in a silvery dress that shone like armor and paid tribute to her Stark family members was deeply satisfying. She'd be a wonderful leader in the North, prioritizing the safety and well-being of her people. No one would ever again able to force her to marry for their political gain, and anyone who tried to hurt her would have to first get through an army of loyal Northmen. It would be the perfect way to close out to Sansa’s long, winding, and surprising tale if her becoming ruler of Westeros, not just the North, wasn't an option. But it was.
When Tyrion made that final speech about the power of stories, he argued that a good story, above all else, is what makes a good ruler — but then he offered the crown to Bran, not Sansa. Sure, Bran had an interesting tale (no Thrones character who made it to the finale hadn't struggled to get there), but in suggesting that Bran was the best leader, Tyrion prioritized the knowledge of stories over the living of them. All of Sansa’s experiences, her commitment to her people, her quiet strength, her compassion — and the traits and skills that she honed over the course of her life — counted for less than Bran’s ability to quickly Google historical events in his head. Bran might indeed turn out to be a good ruler because of the stories he'd seen, but Sansa was already a good ruler because of the story she lived.
Sansa’s reaction to Bran’s nomination suggested she was as surprised as fans were to hear her brother’s name come out of her ex-husband’s mouth. She protested that Tyrion’s suggestion didn’t make sense, but when no one backed her up, she seemed to realize it was a lost cause. And despite all that she’d done for the people of the North, it didn't occur to anyone else to nominate her for the job instead. Everyone was more than eager to hand the honor to Bran, and he was more than happy to take it.
Granted, even if Sansa had been offered the Iron Throne, she very likely wouldn’t have accepted it. She loves the North too much to leave it, and back at Winterfell, she even gave the impression to Daenerys that the North would not bend the knee to King’s Landing anytime soon. But that’s not the point. The job should have been Sansa’s to refuse before it was offered to anyone else. After years of having her agency trampled by more powerful people, Sansa deserved to definitively pick her own ending, one in which every door was open to her.
Because she wasn't given this option, her coronation as Queen of the North, while exciting, rang hollow. Under different circumstances, it would’ve seemed like an unmitigated victory, but tainted by the bitter taste of yet another choice plucked from her grasp, it was instead merely a fine ending for a character who deserved more.
Sansa was the one to convince Theon Greyjoy that he still had worth, even after he turned his back on her family. Sansa was the one to put aside her insecurities and talk to a sister that she feared may be plotting against her. Sansa, time and time again, made the most of her limited options and did so with grace and dignity. Those cheers of “Queen in the North!” that she received were well-earned, but her triumph will always be tinged with the notion that there might’ve been something more for her, if only Tyrion — and Thrones' writers — had bothered to consider her story.