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We Need to Discuss Game of Thrones' Treatment of Arya and Sansa

This is not who the Stark sisters are anymore

Kaitlin Thomas

Of all plotlines in Game of Thrones' seventh season, the acrimonious relationship that instantly sprung up between Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) upon their reunion is the most bewildering and upsetting. Over the six or so seasons the sisters have been separated, they've grown, changed and become more than the petulant spatting siblings we met in Season 1. So why are their actions this year completely out of character for the women they've become?

For example, in Sunday's "Beyond the Wall," the mistrust that began to take shape in the previous hour as Arya questioned Sansa's rule of Winterfell in Jon's (Kit Harington) absence continued to build. Bickering about the past and what they did or did not do the day their father (Sean Bean) died eventually culminated in an out of character Arya seemingly threatening to cut off Sansa's face, in order to become her (which is a thing Arya can do now that she's one of the "Faceless Men").

That in itself is enough of a reason to be concerned about the show's handling of the Stark women, but Arya's perceptions of Sansa's actions the day Ned died were also just factually incorrect. She accused Sansa of standing idly by as Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) killed their father, and while it's true she was complacent when she thought Ned would merely be stripped of his titles and sent to the Night's Watch, Sansa was actually screaming for someone to stop Joffrey from the moment his true intentions became clear. What's more, Arya witnessed at least part of Sansa's reaction before leaving her place next to Baelor's statue.


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Now, memories -- especially memories of traumatic events like this one -- can easily be twisted over time, so it's not unrealistic that Arya would misremember the events of that day. And it's not unexpected that some of the contentious issues from the Starks' childhood would linger and resurface upon reuniting -- sibling relationships can be complicated things -- but it is surprising and concerning just how quickly Arya has appeared to turn on her older sister, and without good reason. Not even the scroll Cersei (Lena Headey) forced Sansa to write, that Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) planted for Arya to find, is enough to support her suddenly and viciously turning her back on Sansa. The younger Stark is intelligent enough to know and understand the duress Sansa was likely under when she wrote it.

When you consider how we got to this point, things look even worse. Unlike when Jon and Sansa reunited in Season 6, there was no scene in which Arya and Sansa commiserated over their respective traumas. Knowing this it becomes clear that all this tension could be eliminated if the two Starks simply communicated, instead of wildly accusing or blaming one another for things they could not control.

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The idea that Game of Thrones would employ non-communication for the sake of narrative tension at this stage is hardly surprising though: the issues Sansa and Arya have run into are the result of more of the same sloppy writing that has occurred elsewhere this season. With the show's writers focusing on the larger, flashier moments of the season, the shorter episode order and accelerated pace have not left much room for conversation and introspection the way previous seasons did.

Still, that's not an acceptable reason to put Arya and Sansa into what amounts to narrative stasis and leaving them to either regress or make out of character choices as a result. Right now, Arya appears to be nothing more than a sociopath with a bag of rubber masks, and Sansa's being shamed for merely wanting to rule Winterfell on her own and not just in Jon's absence. This is particularly egregious because Sansa has done nothing since Jon left to undermine him as the King in the North. She has publicly supported him at every turn, and if she has wanted the title of queen for herself, she's wanted it only privately. That's hardly a crime, especially in the wake of another one of Jon's plans going south (even while he headed North).


Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones


What this says is that the show's writers are at a loss for what to do with these young women while Jon and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) are preparing for war against the White Walkers (and the prospect of boning). In order to give them something to do they've stripped the two Stark sisters down to their most basic personality traits and ignored most everything else about them to bide time: Arya was quick to anger and argue, while Sansa attempted to solve problems diplomatically. But all of this discounts the resourceful and powerful characters both Arya and Sansa have become over the course of the series.

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Arya was held captive by multiple parties across several seasons until she escaped to Braavos, where she trained with the Faceless Men to become an assassin. Along the way she learned how to survive in dangerous situations by reading people and picking up on various clues. Although she has been known to be driven by vengeance, she isn't completely without a conscience. Meanwhile, Sansa spent years as Cersei's captive in King's Landing, where she was first engaged to Joffrey and then married off to Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). She eventually escaped with Littlefinger only to be sold to Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). It was there at Winterfell, in her former home, that Sansa suffered unthinkable torment as she was repeatedly raped and emotionally traumatized by Ramsay before escaping and reuniting with Jon at the Wall.

During this time Sansa took what she learned from the men and women around her and used those lessons to become a strategic politician and one of the few people in Westeros who can be described as a competent leader. She's wise to Littlefinger's constant manipulations, so why is she blind to the fact Littlefinger has manipulated her and Arya into their current positions? It's entirely possible that the viewers are being played and the Stark women are putting on an act to set up Littlefinger's demise, but why not let the audience in on the deception? What does Game of Thrones have to gain by treating these two women this way?

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A possible explanation for this disservice could be that the show's writers all appear to be men and have been for seasons now. Of course, this isn't to say men are incapable of writing multidimensional women, and it's not to say women can't also be guilty of wronging female characters. But a little insight to the female mind might have led to a more nuanced depiction of the relationship between the sisters.

As it stands, Game of Thrones is continuing to sell the idea that women must always be in competition with one another, even when they're sisters who've been separated by the horrors of war. If Arya and Sansa sat down and shared their respective horrors -- which would have been the most natural thing for them to do -- we likely wouldn't be in this contrived mess. If we'd spent even a little bit more time with them and allowed them to have real conversations, we wouldn't be left wondering what the hell the show is doing to these two competent women. For a series featuring a number of women who seem to hold a great deal of power, it's harmful and downright embarrassing to see the Stark women written this way.

You can do better, Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.