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Sansa Stark will forever be Game of Thrones’ undersung ruler

Remembering everywhere she’s been, and what the series finale wrought

sansa in the game of thrones finale HBO

“I’m a slow learner, it’s true. But I learn.” —Sansa Stark

All hail the new leader of the Six Kingdoms: not Jon, Dany, Sansa, or Tyrion … but King Bran Stark. The words are strange to read or say aloud. While it’s a twist that few expected, the idea of a dispassionate, not-quite-human ruler is perhaps the most fitting thematic conclusion for a saga about human fallibility preventing the possibility of just rule.

There’s logic to crowning the Three-Eyed Raven, the history of Westeros encapsulated in one mind, as the final throne ruler: Bran won’t let human bias affect his decision-making. But settling on the omniscient, reluctant seeing eye meant doing a disservice to one of the show’s most compelling themes: the systemic injustices of its women characters, who, no matter how highborn, were regularly used as objects.

Perhaps her personal experience and memory still make her fallible, but while she may not have made for a perfect ruler, or broken the wheel, Bran’s oldest sister, Sansa Stark, held the most potential in the final act of the series. For a show that set up two Targaryens on opposite ends of Westeros as the potential future leaders of the land — Jon Snow and Daenerys — Sansa learned the most from her mistakes and remained kind in a merciless world. By certain standards, she “won.”

Game of Thrones S08E04 Tyrion and Sansa HBO

At the beginning of Game of Thrones, the writers depicted Sansa as a naive princess stereotype and Arya, in contrast, as her tomboy sister who was already wise to the hypocrisy of royal power. In this ruthless fictional world, Arya was seen as the rightly more feminist character of the two, while Sansa’s girly entitlement was written so on the nose that no one took her character seriously. After several years of cruel, manipulative, and psychotic treatment from the Lannisters, the Boltons, the Arryns, and Petyr Baelish, Sansa learned the unfair ways of the world, especially for women. She went from being the most gullible, helpless, high-status woman on the show to the only one who didn’t let trauma harden her into something awful: a revenge-seeking anarchist (ahem, Arya), a power-hungry conqueror operating under supposedly woke ideals (Dany), or a vengeful queen who would do anything for her children (Cersei).

Daenerys was initially treated like a pawn, but she was far quicker to realize she could gain the trust of people by demonstrating and fighting for her self-worth, never settling for anything less, including her excellent counsel. But Dany bought into her own PR and never questioned the possibility that someone else could make a better ruler, would be better accepted in the role, or deserved it as much as she did (ahem, Aegon Targaryen). Over time, and with the right victories, the invincible power of her dragons corrupted her sense of what was right and wrong.

Jon Snow also accomplished many things, coming back to life to unite many different folks to fight off the biggest threat of them all, the Night King. But his feelings kept getting in the darn way, even as he also developed a loyal following in the North. He didn’t learn from his mistakes in getting involved with Ygritte and repeated them with Dany, weakly bowing to his queen after she destroyed an entire city.

Everyone made mistakes, Sansa probably most of all. She owned up to her tardiness in her surprise trial for Baelish. But despite her relative lack of ruling qualifications compared to Jon and Dany, Sansa was groomed by the very best. Or the very worst, depending on your perspective.

For a long time, Sansa’s royal romantic fantasy had her believing she could become queen if she simply played nice with the powerful. She started learning this was futile when she wrongly sided with Joffrey after he bullied a peasant boy, and the brat prince executed her direwolf. Sansa took an arduously long time from that first-season mistake to understand the power of manipulation. Once she lost her older, wiser guardians to senseless death and missions that took them far away, Sansa no longer benefited from wise counsel and people who actually cared about her well-being. Instead, she became a lion’s den prisoner, her counsel being, well, Cersei, who only half-pretended to play nurturer.

sansa in season 1 game of thrones Helen Sloan/HBO

Sansa’s subsequent mistakes in trusting the conniving Lannister mama led to further abuse: She fell prey to Cersei’s manipulation, and betrayed her father in reporting him as a traitor. She watched the Lannister troops behead her father in public, and endured Joffrey’s command to look at Ned Stark’s head on a spike. For a single nanosecond, hope appeared in the form of an alternate marriage to Loras Tyrell that was proposed by the Tyrells, though Sansa did not realize she was being used again by another family to further their agenda and hide his homosexuality.

Sansa continued pawn-crawling, suddenly whisked off to wed Tyrion to secure his family’s bind with the North, then rescued by Petyr Baelish, a man who supposedly loved her mother, only to find out he was also using her in his own political game as an unwitting accomplice in Joffrey’s murder. Baelish continued his campaign by murdering her aunt, Lysa Arryn, to take over the Vale. By then, Sansa had learned to play ball and assisted him in the deceit. But when Baelish sold her off to the Boltons and she suffered at the hands of the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, Sansa finally learned who to trust based on what people did instead of what they said. That meant giving up on Baelish, and sticking to her family and people (like Brienne of Tarth) who stayed loyal to the Starks.

Sansa understood cruel people, but instead of repeating their abusive, Machiavellian tactics, she stayed two moves ahead of her foes. In season 6, she stood up to her older brother’s military strategy in taking down Ramsay. “I lived with him. I know how his mind works,” she told Jon. “I know how he likes to hurt people. Did it ever once occur to you that I might have some insight?”

Later, Sansa pulled Baelish’s strings to secure his forces and defeat the Boltons, only to later refute his romantic advances, and later still, entrap him with the help of her siblings and finally convict him of all the manipulative bullshit he put her through. The student had become the master.

With the right counsel, among them Tyrion, Bran, and yes, even Jon, Sansa could have used her personal experience with oppression and her loyalty to her people to be as just a ruler as Westeros could have ever seen. Her loyalty to the North could have also made her a somewhat lopsided monarch, which would have been the case for any Westerosi ruler. It’s true that as a woman, Sansa would be prone to human error, unlike her nonhuman omniscient brother. But it’s also a shame that Martin, Benioff, and Weiss set up so many flagrant, graphically violent examples of oppression against women to such little effect in their desire for a thematic conclusion. The series’ countless scenes of violence and objectification of a variety of women ended up being gratuitous, as the show concluded with the single remaining powerful woman leader being passed over for her brother, then proclaiming the North to be “an independent kingdom, as it was for thousands of years.”

It’s a somewhat fitting end for Sansa, though, given her unwavering loyalty to the North. It’s also possible that her demand will make her a trend-setter among the other houses. If Martin ever writes another epic, or if HBO wants a sequel to its hit series, Sansa could have a greater legacy than being the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms: Her autonomy could inspire a sovereign nationhood model for the entirety of Westeros, and advance government models beyond oligarchy — perhaps even lead to Samwell Tarly’s derided suggestion for democracy. She certainly possesses the power and potential.

Tina Hassannia is a film critic based in Toronto. She is the author of Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema.