In season one of Game of Thrones, back when all of your favorites were still alive and (kinda) well, Cersei Lannister uttered the now famous line, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Ned Stark, we quickly learn, should have still heeded her warning. In a world as dark and corrupt as Westeros, a rigidly principled man like Ned was never going to survive if he didn’t budge. Unfortunately for the Stark patriarch, he lost his head before he learned his lesson, and Robb followed in his footsteps to an early grave. However, at least one of his children has learned from the mistakes of her father and is learning to live in a morally perilous world.
In the classic fairy tales, the heroes were pure and the villains were evil. But Game of Thrones isn’t that kind of story. Dragons may be real, but moral flexibility is the key to survival and success. As we approach the final seasons, speculation has ramped up about who will ultimately end up on the Iron Throne. Will Danaerys reclaim her birthright, or will Jon embrace his Targaryen blood and lead Westeros against the terror north of the Wall? Cersei ended season six as a major player, blowing up her enemies in the Sept and bringing some more ill-gotten glory to the Lannister name. And then there’s Tyrion, who has consistently been one of the best players since episode one. However, a dark horse option has emerged: Sansa Stark.
Sansa started out the show as a bratty preteen who only cared about becoming a princess and marrying her beloved Joffrey, so much so that she accidentally aided in the execution of her own father. Since then, Sansa has been frequently and punishingly reminded that being a princess is nothing like she believed it would be.
She found herself betrothed to the abusive Joffrey before eventually being passed to Tyrion (who, to be fair, treated her as well as possible). She then had to navigate a tricky situation with her aunt, Lysa Erryn, and Littlefinger, only to once again be made a trophy for a wicked man: Ramsay Bolton. Raped, humiliated, and beaten down, Sansa still manages to escape and find something that almost resembles peace back at her family home in Winterfell. War may be at their doorstep, but at least she’s back in the North.
Many would have been exhausted and broken by the horror that she has endured, but Sansa has used her circumstances to learn how to play the game. In the sixth season in particular, Sansa proved herself to be a formidable leader who understands the importance of cunning, compromise, and working the system. After escaping from Ramsay and reuniting with what is left of House Stark, Sansa immediately starts working closely with Jon to accumulate allies and strategize against House Bolton. No longer is she the child desperate the leave the North for King’s Landing; she’s a leader who wants to return to her home.
While on their way to find Danaerys in season five, Varys tells Tyrion that they need a leader “stronger than Tommen and gentler than Stannis. A ruler loved by millions, with a powerful army and the right family name.” While he was referring to the Mother of Dragons at the time, the same things could be said about Sansa. The realities of her life in Westeros have made her stronger, and yet she has not let it make her hard. Despite her dealings with Joffrey, Littlefinger, and Ramsay, Sansa still considers her family and her people to be of paramount importance. By the end of season six, Sansa could not be less like the selfish girl that ratted out her own father in season one.
Despite the presence of mind that she showed during the Battle of the Bastards, it’s possible Sansa is too close to, and too easily swayed by, Littlefinger. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that she is the one playing him now. After she summons him and his army to the Bolton battlefield, Littlefinger makes it clear that he wants her by his side as they take over Westeros together. And yet, despite the security that would afford her, Sansa forcefully tells him that “it’s a pretty picture,” but that she has no intention of an alliance of that kind. Plus, if the latest trailer is any indication, Sansa is still dedicated to the Stark name, repeating her father’s words that “the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”
Jon and Danaerys remain the most likely contenders for Westeros’ ultimate rule, yet while both have their strengths of leadership, ruling hasn’t gone well for either of them. Danaerys has proven herself to be a capable conqueror, but pride and inexperience has left most of her kingdoms in shambles. It’s not enough simply to liberate people; she has to learn to set up a replacement system that allows the populace to thrive. Dany may believe that the Iron Throne is her birthright, but she’ll need more than dragons to earn it.
Jon, for his part, is a soldier, not a king. After being killed by his own men in the Night’s Watch, the resurrected Jon did settle into his role as heir apparent of the Stark family, but he has too much of Ned’s goodness to be a leader with longevity. His impulsiveness nearly cost them the Battle of the Bastards by playing into Ramsay’s hands instead of listening to Sansa’s counsel. And, even when being heralded by the vassal families, the mantle of king sits uneasily on his shoulders.
Between her ability to read her enemies, manipulate master schemers like Littlefinger, and her dedication to her family’s honor, Sansa is the best option to sit on the Iron Throne. While others keep making the same mistakes over and over again, Sansa learns and adapts. You cannot just be noble and try to rule Westeros. That will get you killed. Trusting in Littlefinger had deadly consequences for Ned, so it would be beautifully ironic if Sansa was able to manipulate Lord Baelish into restoring the glory of House Stark and expanding their reach beyond the North.
Sansa has observed and synthesized others’ approaches to become a stronger potential leader. While combining the Stark goodness with the cunning and ambition learned at the feet of Cersei Lannister, Sansa could be the one who manages to conquer and keep the Iron Throne. Stranger things have certainly happened in Westeros.