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A Tale of Two Sisters: The Conflict Between Sansa and Arya Stark in "Game of Thrones"

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of HBO

Courtesy of HBO

I know how people hate on Game of Thrones for how the final few seasons were done, but I still thought much of the dialogue between the various characters was still excellent. I want to refer to the interactions between two in particular, that of Sansa and Arya Stark in season seven.

"In the winter, we must protect ourselves, Look after each other...we can't fight a war amongst ourselves"

— - Ned Stark, Game of Thrones

Setting the Stage

When the two reunite at Winterfell after a longtime apart and many battles and tragedies later, there’s initially a feeling of gladness that is paired with a measuring up of the other. They are both now changed people after all. Sansa had escaped from the Boltons and already reunited with Jon Snow. Though that was also initially joyful, it wasn’t long before great tension had developed between the two, despite their best efforts to avoid them. Winterfell itself had recently been retaken during the Battle of the Bastards between Ramsey Bolton and Jon Snow. A battle that saw another Stark killed and was only won by Sansa’s secret summoning of reinforcements in a letter dispatched before the battle started and had failed to tell Jon about.

Enter Arya Stark, the jack of all trades throughout the series trying to survive. From watching her family slaughtered twice, to pretending to be a boy, to serving the Lannisters as a servant, to a refugee, and finally as a half-trained assassin, Arya has nearly done it all. So when the girls meet up, they recognize vestiges of each other as young girls, but also traumatic changes that have made them both colder and slower to warm up to each other.

At first, Arya plays the middle-man, calling out both her siblings on their tunnel vision for their own goals, reminding them that they are all Starks first and foremost. This radically changes, however, when she discovers the letter Sansa wrote to their brother Robb Stark back when Ned was arrested for treason in season one, urging him to submit to Geoffery to whom Sansa was betrothed to at the time.

Arya confronts Sansa about this privately, but is no less infuriated at the revelation. For her part, Sansa doesn't deny writing it. She tries to explain that she had been forced to write it by the Lannisters with the promise it would save her father. Explanations which Arya angrily brushes aside.

Sansa’s own temper boils over, finally exclaiming that her sister and everyone in Winterfell should be “bowing” to her because she was the one who won the family home back. She then accuses Arya of equally neglecting family loyalty for adventures across the world, training to become a ninja. The two continue trading barbs before it ends with Arya realizing that her sister’s true fear was her fellow lords finding out about the letter and losing faith in her.

Like a true assassin, Arya’s final twist of the knife comes when she says Sansa being a child was no excuse for betraying family, referring to Lady Lyanna Mormont. A young girl who was the last of her house after Robb’s failed war, yet maintained just as much ferocity as the elder lords and was respected by them for it. Much more respected than Sansa was despite her being of the ruling Starks. Sansa warns her sister to not act rashly out of anger and Arya rejects it, saying fear does the same and she was choosing anger.

Courtesy of HBO

Courtesy of HBO

The Child in Assassin’s Clothing

The strongest part of this dialogue is what isn’t said between the characters. They imply as much as they say verbally.

Beginning with Arya, the season had been building her up to be quite the badass and continues for the rest of the series. No surprise, she was a fan favorite for her tomboy attitude and resilience. So when she arrives as an assassin in Winterfell, she purposely comes off as cocky and honestly not hiding it very well that she knows more than she lets on. Her assassin teachers wouldn’t be happy. The argument, however, knocks her down a peg.

It wasn’t Sansa’s rant for glory, but her throwing back at Arya her own accusation of where she was when their father was killed. We see for the first time the little killer thrown off her beat, slowly responding with less anger that she was “training” as a reason for her non-involvement. A partial truth as that it was only during the latter months that she actually spent training abroad. The rest being on the run.

Though it's only for a moment, it reveals much. The letter itself represents an open wound for Arya that she’s been trying to hide and make up for ever since Ned’s death. Arya was always the more aggressive sister. She’s had people die for her and seen people killed for much less. She’s spent time around some of the most dangerous men in Westeros, at their more powerful whim. Arya not only still feels guilty for what she didn't have the power to stop, but also arguably a certain level of self-loathing.

In the moment Sansa hits back with that retort, Arya for a minute goes back to that defenseless little girl who watched her dad’s head get cut off. Everything she’s survived and trained for up to that point was driven out of the anger she feels at being powerless. Which explains her response a little later to Sansa’s warning of acting of anger: that it was better than fear.

This also explains why she’s been acting as the middle-man between her siblings up to this point. More than anything, Arya’s primary goal is to protect her family and will do anything to prevent a repeat of what happened with her parents and brother. It explains why the letter pissed her off so much, discovering that not only did her own sibling play a hand in their downfall, but that the same family was now riding the coattails of the deceased's success.

Lastly, her rage builds upon the resentment and jealousy she felt towards Sansa for being the prim and proper sister, while she was regarded as the wild one. Despite always hating the shackles of nobility, she was nonetheless pressured by it. Her time since then has shown her how corrupt it can be and Sansa’s rant about her winning the battle to retake Winterfell didn’t do much to dissuade Arya from that opinion.

The argument reveals Arya as an incomplete assassin. It is already established that she is now among the the deadliest killers in the land, having wiped out the entire House of Frey single-handedly and gruesomely. However, her outward exterior announces it rather than conceals it.

The fight with Sansa reveals that there is still a wounded, little girl underneath that is still very much a part of Arya’s personality. Had her training been completed, she would not have been rattled by Sansa’s words because that part of her would have been forsaken long ago. Nor would she had been as loud with her new-found abilities.

Courtesy of HBO

Courtesy of HBO

The Southerner of the North

Going into the fight, Sansa was already under great duress. The torture she endured under Ramsey not withstanding, she had come a long way from the pampered princess of Winterfell at the start of the series. She feels under appreciated by the great lords around her and especially her half-brother, Jon. Though she loves him and is overjoyed to see him, the two almost immediately butt heads on how to proceed when they receive a letter from Ramsey Bolton threatening to kill their newly found brother, Rickon. Sansa cruelly knows what's going on, but Jon nonetheless is not willing to leave his half-brother to die.

When trying to recruit loyal northern houses to their new war on the Bolton’s, the Starks run into immediate obstacles. Many do not want to join because of lingering anger they feel towards their brother Robb for losing the last war that cost so many of their kinsmen’s lives. Others are not willing to risk betraying the Boltons because of their penchant for extreme cruelty. Of the few that do join, one, House Mormont, directly insults Sansa because of her known history of political marriages: twisted all the more by the fact that the lord in question, Lyanna, was just a child, but just as fierce and quick to put both patronizing Starks in their place. So Sansa is being shown no respect by her peers for either being a woman or marrying into the enemy’s camp.

Their inter family conflict leads up to a blow up before the Battle of the Bastards, where she pleads with Jon not to run headlong into her ex’s trap. Jon experienced as he was in war, naively believed they still might win despite lesser numbers, but reminded his sister that there were also no more men. When he does ask Sansa for where they might get more, she withholds information about the cavalry from the Vale and does the same when her bodyguard Brienne, who knew about the soldiers, questions her as well.

According to actress Sophie Turner who played Sansa, the daughter of Ned Stark does so because she wanted the credit for winning the battle and retaking the ancestral home. Given her treatment beforehand, it's not that surprising. It’s indeed a very dark turn worthy of her teachers Little Finger and Cerci Lannister, willing to sacrifice lives for personal glory she feels she deserves.

And yet despite this, Jon indirectly steals the glory from under the full-blooded Stark, for his courage, tenacity, and honor in the battle. After being made the new King of the North and leaving on a diplomatic mission to meet Daenerys Targaryen, she’s fuming. She has lost much of her faith in Jon being a capable ruler, despite still being a good man and a soldier: characteristics Sansa remembers that got her family killed. Despite trying to reassure those around her that she means no disrespect and is not trying to undermine the king, they can tell she’s lying-if only to herself.

Enter Arya.

The fight with her sister pushed Sansa harder than anyone else because of their past animosity. In her naïve days, Sansa saw herself as better than her siblings except for her Robb and made it known. This causes a good amount of fights between her and little tomboy Arya. Now though, despite being changed people, remnants of their past selves shine through and Arya saw it in Sansa’s constant belittling of Jon and living in the same spacious room as their parents.

Most of these were elements that could be overlooked. The letter, however, was not. To Sansa, it represented when she was still weak and a toy to be manipulated and abused in King's Landing. It represented everything she hated herself for and was now trying to be anything but. Sansa was trying to leave the past behind her, telling others to stop protecting her like a child. Now that child returned with a quiet vengeance.

In trying to leave her past behind, Sansa was also trying to protect what she lost: family and the northern lands. Arya’s calls of her being a traitor finally unearth what everyone else already suspected. Her child self emerges, petulantly declaring that everyone should be thanking her: the woman who actually won the Battle of the Bastards. That she deserves more respect if for nothing else than simply being a Stark.

Furthermore, resurrected child-Sansa spitefully mocks Arya’s adventures as being just as guilty of non-action as her own during her time in King's Landing. This reveals that she had always been jealous of Arya’s driven spirit to do what she wanted to do, her toughness. Pieces of this are hinted at as she watches her sister train and spar with other warriors. Again gaining respect that she feels denied. Hence why she uses her own traumatic experiences as a card against Arya’s assassin’s training. The toughness and determination to continue on despite being surrounded on all sides by her family’s enemies.

However, Sansa loses the bout with Arya when she composed herself and sees through her rationale and reasons for fearing the letter. That the little respect she had in the north would be gone and that being a child would not save her from judgement, as Lyanna was younger than her when she lost her family and was forced to rule her house. Yet she still showed more spine and was respected for it.

Sansa’s issues revolve around a need for respect from those around her. She seemingly does all the ‘right’ things, and yet it's the people who do not who are given what she craves. In contrast, Sansa seems almost punished for it again and again.

Despite her survival at the hands of evil people, she was willing to use their methods to try and gain it. Yet while claiming understanding of the northern mentality, Sansa actually had forgotten it’s most crucial element: that it was courage in spite of the odds, even death that won northern respect. Not the behind the scenes political maneuverings and manipulations of King’s Landing that she was trying to employ, even if it resulted in defeat. Sansa’s time in King’s Landing, while a captivity, had also made her more of a southerner than northerner.

And while this gave her a more objective view of the values of her homeland, it also made her more distant and perhaps judgmental of it, seeing it through the eyes of King's Landing rather than the Lady of Winterfell. This is also why Little Finger was the one to see this, being from King’s Landing himself.

"When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives."

— - Sansa Stark, Game of Thrones

Closing the Door

There’s many ironies in this argument between the sisters. Not least of which is that despite their different personalities and experiences, that they had both come to the same conclusion to defend their family. Also, in spite of their outward contempt for the other’s lifestyle, on a deeper level, they also admired each other for it.

The death of their father was a turning point in their personal lives. A door that slammed shut forever, blocking any return to who both women were before that event. And that is the importance of Sansa’s letter.

Not its content or why she wrote it, but that it was both a time capsule and time bomb that needed to go off. Arya and Sansa had spent so long hiding from the traumas they experienced that it was arguably having a toxic effect up unto this point. And the revelation allowed for both them, unconsciously or not, to expose their darker selves that they were hiding from others. And maybe why in the end, the two came into an understanding to trust each other and rid their family of the person who nearly caused their destruction.

No matter how much any of the surviving Starks changed, the death of their father would continue to be an open wound until it was dealt with directly. And thus what the execution of Little Finger was meant to symbolize. It was the Starks finally closing the door on their traumatic past and moving into the future.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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