What exactly is happening with Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) Stark on Game of Thrones? A fair amount of digital ink (dink?) has been spilled breaking down the theories for this surprising, confusing storyline, and it'll more than likely come to a head on this Sunday's Season 7 finale. But I want to offer a theory that hasn't been thrown around much yet: what if Arya is manipulating Sansa, in order to help her out?
First, though, the background. As my compatriot Kaitlin Thomas ably broke down earlier this week, the tension between Arya and Sansa this season -- while on the surface standard issue sibling rivalry -- doesn't make a lot of sense given the journeys the characters have gone on since being separated in the Season 1 finale. Arya was initially a brash, tomboyish kid who clashed with her decidedly more status obsessed sister. But through a long series of often terrible circumstances, they've both grown considerably: Arya is now a deadly trained assassin, aka a Faceless Man; and Sansa is a savvy negotiator, and the lady of their childhood home, Winterfell.
That's where the clash seemingly started... With Jon Snow (Kit Harington) away prepping to bone his Aunt Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), Sansa has been left in charge. While the sisters initially had a joyous reunion, in Episode 5 Arya watched as Sansa politely declined her peoples' calls for her to supplant Jon Snow as leader of the North. "You're thinking it right now," Arya prodded Sansa on the prospect of taking over. "You don't want to be. But the thought just won't go away."
Arya is right, of course, and by episode's end she's found a damning piece of evidence via the machiavellian Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen): a letter from Sansa sent in Season 1 that she was forced to write under duress. It's an artifact of the old Sansa, and one seemingly left by Littlefinger to drive a wedge between the siblings.
The very next episode, this gambit has seemingly worked. Arya tells Sansa a story about practicing archery -- something girls aren't allowed or expected to do in the world of Thrones -- while their father Ned (Sean Bean) watched. And then she tells an alarmed Sansa about the note. Later, Sansa discovers a bag full of faces, the ones Arya uses to disguise herself, while seemingly looking for the note. Arya then (again, seemingly) threatens to cut off Sansa's face in order to become her -- like some sort of medieval Nicolas Cage -- before handing over a knife and leaving the shaken Sansa alone in her room.
Most of the theories about the plotline focus on how the Stark sisters must be secretly plotting together to destroy Littlefinger, something that last scene doesn't really support (why would they think he's watching in a closed room with no one else around?), and some even suggest Littlefinger is already dead, and Arya is wearing his face.
But I want to suggest a much more straightforward, and surprising possibility: what if Arya is manipulating Sansa, but only to get her to admit the truth that she wants to be Queen?
I've watched back all the scenes with the duo to make sure I wasn't crazy here; but at no point does Arya tell Sansa that her desire to rule Winterfell is bad. Arya, the entire time, is asking questions. Prodding Sansa. Challenging her to tell the truth. This has shades of Arya's training to become a Faceless Man in Braavos, when she was constantly pushed to shove aside her own truth, that she was Arya Stark of Winterfell; and instead become "no one," a girl with no name. Ultimately, Arya accepted that she is a Stark, and headed back home. It would make a lot of sense that she wants that same honesty, that same ownership from Sansa.
Another big piece of evidence? The story she tells Sansa about Ned watching her practice with the bow and arrow. "I knew what I was doing was against the rules. But he was smiling..." Arya tells Sansa. "I knew what I was supposed to be doing, and he knew it."
That's Sansa, right? She should not be making directives for all of the North while Jon is gone, by courtesy; but in reality, everyone would be better served if she stepped up and became the leader she should be.
"You're angry," Sansa shoots back at Arya at the end of the scene. "Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things."
"Sometimes fear makes people do unfortunate things," Arya answers right back. "I'll go with anger."
Fear is what has governed Sansa for most of this series, before she finally gained ownership of her own inner power through that anger. With her brother away, and her sister back, she's falling back on bad habits; letting fear of doing the wrong thing dictate her actions, instead of anger. That's what Arya is prodding her towards.
Prodding is crucial, by the way. Sansa isn't the master manipulator folks online have credited her with becoming. She's learned from Cersei (Lena Headey), she's learned form Littlefinger, but she's still more open with her prodding, more emotional, more honest. Arya, on the other hand, is a calculating blank. We saw some of the old Arya upon returning to Winterfell, but she's someone different and new in a way that Sansa just isn't. And in the scene where Arya seemingly threatens to cut off Sansa's face, the former offers the following: "We both wanted to be other people when we were younger. You wanted to be queen... The world doesn't just let girls decide what they want to be."
They're not girls any longer, though... They're women. And women can decide what they want to be, particularly in the newer, Season 7 paradigm of Game of Thrones. Arya isn't there to kill Sansa, she's there to challenge her to be better. And slowly, Arya is revealing the woman she's become to Sansa: first, with a sword-fighting training sequence when she returned; and then with the bag of faces in this past episode. She's been honest with Sansa. She's not a little child anymore, she's a killer assassin, able to execute on the commands of a Queen. And if Sansa can be honest with Arya back, and admit that yes, she wants to be that Queen, she wants to sit on the throne and guide the North, then finally the Starks will be able to truly, fully retake Winterfell from the manipulative Littlefinger.
Or maybe this storyline is just bad? Either way, we'll find out this Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.