A dumb but effective meme circulated the day after the Red Wedding aired: a Brady Bunch–like grid of each Stark family member overlaid with the Taylor Swift song lyric, “We are never, ever, ever getting back together.” Even after poor, stupid Ned Stark got his head chopped off in Game of Thrones’ first season, so many of us still held onto a romantic notion that his forlorn, inherently good family members would somehow reconvene at Winterfell to frolic in the snow with their (very alive!!) direwolves. But after “The Rains of Castamere,” it was clear that was an unrealistic fantasy. And as the series continued, the remaining Starks became increasingly far-flung and occupied with their individual quests.
Sunday night we finally got that long-awaited family reunion (sans Jon Snow), but it was more a depressing reminder of how hardships have changed the Stark family than it was a triumphant celebration. Sansa, Arya, and Bran may have all been born at Winterfell, but each of them was raised under entirely different, grueling circumstances. And, judging from their first encounters in “The Spoils of War,” it appears that their strikingly disparate personalities have the potential to be a future source of conflict within their clan.
To review: Their parents and two siblings are dead. Sansa’s life has been a horrifying and humiliating series of abusive political betrothals, the third of which ended as she watched her husband’s hounds devour him. These days she favors a removed caution and stability. Arya has been kidnapped, beaten, and dragged across Westeros, witnessing the depths of man while becoming a passionate and vengeful assassin who has nothing to live for but her kill list. And Bran? Hoo boy. Bran has seen it all, man. The Night King, the future, the past. Like, literally everything.
With that set of experiences behind them, communication is quite strained. The first time Bran and Sansa have a conversation, he makes no effort to explain his magical powers, but manages to bring up that time she was raped in her own home. Arya doesn’t run to embrace Sansa when she initially sees her down the hall in the crypt. Instead, she stands at a distance and asks: “Do I have to call you Lady Stark now?” Eventually there are hugs all around, but cautious ones. And it becomes painfully clear that, for now, the only safe topics of conversation between the two sisters are Joffrey’s death and light criticism of their father’s crypt design. Once they meet up with Bran, the reunion feels even more awkward. He doesn’t even try and act surprised that Arya came home and immediately reveals he knows everything about her kill list.
In a way the reappearance of the Valyrian steel dagger, courtesy of the ever-meddling Littlefinger, is the perfect first test within their newly reformed family circle. Anyone with siblings knows that the moment one child gets a gift, his brothers and sisters will immediately long for it. Bran, the know-it-all brother who’s taken one too many tabs of acid, decides to opt out of weapons entirely. But when he gives Arya the knife, there appears to be a pang of jealousy in Sansa’s expression. That expression carries to a later scene, as she watches Arya show off her fighting skills in a training session with Brienne. Could it be that Sansa—who has spent her whole life helpless to the whims of men—envies the automatic agency her sister can wield with a weapon? Is that feeling so intense that she feels threatened in her position of power? Or is she simply disturbed by the fact that her sweet little sister is now a cold-blooded murderer?
It's also worth noting that when the origins of that dagger—and Littlefinger’s plan to kill Bran—are discovered, Arya and Sansa may have different opinions as to how to punish him. Will Sansa have the instinct to protect her creepy surrogate dad, the man partially responsible for saving the Starks’ cause during the Battle of the Bastards? Or maybe Arya will get so skilled with that knife that Sansa won't even have a chance to decide.
We’ll also have to see how this newfound dynamic plays out come wartime, when Bran will surely offer warg intelligence via his “visions,” Arya will insist on doing something bold and dangerous, and Sansa’s newfound leadership position will be inevitably challenged. If they can get past their demons, the combination of their disparate skill sets could prove quite handy against the White Walkers, but it’s going to take some work to get there. (Do maesters do group therapy?) The Starks are finally, finally back together, but—at the risk of sounding too much like a Taylor Swift lyric—they’ll never be the same again.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.