Last night’s episode of Game Of Thrones contained a lot of narrative whiplash. “Beyond The Wall” oscillated between action sequences on par with any blockbuster film and deeply out of character plot points. But while fast travel is silly, there’s nothing funny about what the show is doing to Arya and Sansa Stark. Somehow this season has not only halted the forward momentum of their character arcs, but seems to be actively regressing their progress. The end result is a frustrating Winterfell plot that feels contrived and unnatural.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES BEYOND THIS POINT.
Before analyzing why every scene between Arya and Sansa has been out of character this season, let’s review exactly where each woman is in her life. Arya Stark has just spent the last few years learning to become a Faceless Man, part of a league of elite assassins. Arya’s training involved learning a lot of fighting skills, but it was also heavy on things like picking up cues and body language and then interpreting them. When you live with people who can change their face at any time, reading the room is a crucial survival skill. After a lot of soul searching, Arya then abandoned Braavos to return home, intent on killing Queen Cersei and all the others who made her family suffer. But in the end, the allure of reuniting with her family (whom she thought were dead or scattered to the winds) is too strong, and Arya Stark goes home.
Meanwhile, Sansa Stark has spent the better part of the last few years being abused both physically and emotionally by those around her. Used as a pawn in the great game, she nevertheless persisted. Sansa learned hard lessons about politics and has pivoted that into becoming the most competent ruler currently serving in the Seven Kingdoms. She understands the fickle loyalty of her lords, she knows Littlefinger is plotting to his own advantage, and she’s still holding the North together. This despite not having a single person to honestly confide in or wholly trust.
So what happens when two sisters who thought they’d never see each other again (Sansa thought Arya was dead) are reunited in the wake of years of personal trauma? The answer shouldn’t “petty bickering that devolves into death threats.” Arya’s training should let her see Littlefinger pulling strings, especially after it becomes clear Sansa is aware the Northern Lords would turn on her if the scroll Cersei forced her to write got out. Not only was Littlefinger trying to manipulate the Stark sisters by driving a wedge between them, but he could also use that scroll in an attempt to reassert control over Sansa. As for Sansa? She’s stuck in character arc hell, a Sisyphus forever pushing the boulder of growth up the hill only to have the writers knock her back to the bottom. She should be smarter than this by now.
How did this happen? A quick look at the Game of Thrones IMDb page sheds a little light on this strange interpretation of the Stark sisters’ relationship. There hasn’t been an episode credited to a woman since the Vanessa Taylor-penned “Dark Wings, Dark Words” back in season 3. When half your cast is now women in power, one would imagine you’d want at least one woman to have a hand on the steering wheel. Otherwise, things like the Stark women happen. Are there petty sisters out there? Definitely. If Cersei Lannister had a sister, one can easily imagine the toxic Lannister dynamic causing them to behave this way. But despite their differences, Arya and Sansa were raised in a happy home, one where love, family, and duty took precedence.
That’s why it feels wrong to have Arya wonder aloud what it would be like to “wear pretty dresses” if she took Sansa’s face. While their personal life experiences may have made them wary and slow to trust, it’s hard to imagine the sisters not having a similar scene to the one Sansa shared with Jon when they first reunited. Having them drink, catch up, and share their painful stories would make far more sense than Arya blaming Sansa for not stopping the executioner from beheading their father. It also wouldn’t dissipate the smoldering sibling rivalry between them, but put it into larger context. Such as how Sansa and Jon aren’t completely on the same page but understand a united front is necessary to survive.
To add insult to injury, this whole mess is laid at the feet of Littlefinger, a man who has been shown to be losing his grasp on the great game. Sansa is wise to his manipulations. After all, he sold her to the Boltons, knowing full well what they were. His loyalty to Sansa hinges entirely on how much he wants to marry her. She should be able to see his fingers in this “Arya is agitated” pie from a thousand leagues away. As for Arya, after spending so much time around the Waif and the worst of the worst in Westeros, she should be able to spot a snake like Littlefinger. It’s infuriating that the show seems to think otherwise.
Is the Stark family dysfunctional? Absolutely. All families are. But the House Stark words are “Winter Is Coming” and the Tully motto is “Family, Duty, Honor.” These are women who grew up believing in loyalty to family and putting aside petty differences to survive the oncoming storm. It’s completely out of left field to have them at each other’s throats when a simple conversation would alleviate this contrived distrust. Last night it felt as if they were almost going to take that route with Sansa pointing out that Arya was at the execution and also didn’t stop it from happening. Instead, Arya doubled-down on her hatred, literally threatening to kill Sansa and take her place. That’s a terribly shallow reading of Arya’s complicated relationship with her more traditional sister.
Is it possible Arya is playing Littlefinger? Sure. But why not let Sansa in on it? Or, if Sansa is in on it, why not let the audience know? I guarantee knowing the Stark sisters are plotting the downfall of a manipulator like Littlefinger would be a delight for viewers. Instead, the narrative options are either the Stark sisters have suffered personality malfunctions, or the show is committing character assassination in service of a reveal that would be just as satisfying if the viewer was in on the plan.