I have been reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and therefore immersed in the story that would later become Game of Thrones, since I was 13 years old. I say this not to exert proprietorship over the world of Westeros and its inhabitants; one of the great joys of Thrones becoming an omnipresent phenomenon is sharing this previously niche artifact with nearly everyone I know. I’m simply saying that I encountered Martin’s epic at a particularly critical and impressionable time in my life. As a reader, I was steeped in formulaic fantasy novels that operated under the tropes Martin was commenting on, though I wouldn’t recognize the genre’s ironclad rules as such until Martin broke them. And as a human being, I was a teenage girl.
Maybe that’s why I latched onto one relationship in particular out of Song’s thousands of romances, rivalries, and filial bonds. The middle child of her great northern house, Arya Stark was instantly recognizable and deeply relatable. Tomboyish, bluntly outspoken, and palpably uncomfortable with the norms and expectations already being forced on her, Arya wasn’t simply familiar as someone who was still squarely in the target demographic for Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness. She was also the perfect in-text surrogate for, say, an awkward middle-schooler spending her spare time with ultraviolent sword-and-sorcery tomes rather than her friends at the mall.
Sansa Stark, meanwhile, loved all the things Arya (and I) didn’t understand, and therefore became the object of our mutual resentment and suspicion. She enjoyed poetry and needlework, which was dumb; she was also rewarded for these superficial preferences, which was infuriating. And for its first couple volumes, A Song of Ice and Fire seemed to outright encourage that reaction: Sansa’s naïveté kept her infatuated with the monstrous Joffrey Baratheon until it was far too late, and her guilelessness played an indirect role in her own father’s untimely demise. At first, the subsequent calamities she suffered — de facto imprisonment at King’s Landing, forced marriage — seemed almost like punishment for her ignorance. Only over time has it become clear, both on the page and on the screen, that the dichotomy between the Aryas and Sansas of the world is yet another easy set-up that Game of Thrones is persistently complicating. Both the books and the series have continually challenged our assumptions about each sister’s perspective, and by extension, the radically different attitude toward womanhood they represent.
Which is why it’s been so disappointing for that relationship to hit such a sudden and steep roadblock in recent weeks. In addition to a nonsensically timed battle, “Beyond the Wall,” the latest episode, featured a pair of perplexing scenes that made a valid point about Arya and Sansa’s tense reunion in a shockingly inorganic, and plain confusing, fashion. The result is a self-inflicted error, one that threatens to shortchange an otherwise powerful expression of Game of Thrones’ most insightful themes: beneath every simplistic archetype is a human being you’re almost certainly judging, then dismissing, unfairly.
As the show’s writers are fond of reminding us, these two women — and they are young women now — have led radically different lives since they were last in the same space, at the site of their father’s execution, in Season 1. Arya then witnessed the immediate aftermath of her mother’s and older brother’s massacre and made her way to the foreign city of Braavos, where she spent several seasons training to be a faceless assassin, generally ignorant of the goings-on in Westeros. Sansa, meanwhile, has been forcibly schooled in the unflinching realism that, until recently, represented the series’ sole ideology. She’s graduated to political player only after spending several painful years as a pawn, married off first unhappily to Tyrion Lannister, then even more unhappily, and violently, to the disturbed Ramsay Bolton.
One might hope — I certainly did — that the sisters’ hard-won maturity would bring them closer to a mutual understanding. Sansa has been disabused of many of the misconceptions — the allure of Joffrey’s looks or Cersei’s glamor, the idea that life works like it does in “songs” — that earned her such scorn from both Arya and the audience. Arya, on the other hand, has spent time in a place where her skills in combat were valued and cultivated — as were discretion and performance, traditionally feminine talents that seemingly gave her skill set some overlap with Sansa’s. And both, of course, have learned that there are far more pressing priorities in life than personality clashes with your siblings. (Survival foremost, but also holding onto one of the few family members you have left.) The foundation for empathy was there, in case both parties wanted to build on it. Initially, they seemed to; a heart-to-heart in Winterfell’s crypts suggested their shared trauma had succeeded in bringing them closer together.
What’s happened since has been the source of controversy, if not quite as much as the bungled build-up to last Sunday’s big battle. That Arya and Sansa would once again butt heads is not surprising; they are, after all, intentional foils, with even less in common than they had before thanks to all those years of separation. But as my colleagues on Talk the Thrones have pointed out, the specific terms of the sisters’ latest conflict often border on the nonsensical. Arya refusing to believe that someone whom she personally saw scream in agony upon their father’s beheading didn’t actually mourn him beggared belief. Then there was the bizarre confrontation involving Littlefinger’s Valyrian steel dagger from Sunday’s “Beyond the Wall,” in which Arya’s mistrust of Sansa escalated from mere suspicion to full-blown murder threat in record time. Like much of the plot this season, the fighting between Arya and Sansa feels both rushed and forced, handicapping our investment because we’re still stuck at basic comprehension.
Especially frustrating is that Game of Thrones doesn’t have to manufacture artificial drama for Arya to be wary of her sister, Sansa to be exasperated by hers, and for the chasm between them to stick. As outlined by the books, earlier seasons, and even parts of Season 7, the material is already there. Push past the justified bafflement and you’ll find a well-staged meeting of the minds. Sansa was once the deluded one with an overly simplistic worldview, in keeping with the easy, clichéd way the narrative’s early stages appeared to view what Sansa stood for, which is to say traditional “girl stuff” like etiquette and nice clothes: silly, insubstantial, and inferior to more worthwhile and grounded pursuits like swordplay. Now it’s Arya who looks out of touch with the way the world works. The past few episodes have served as a reminder that Arya has spent almost the entire duration of the show shut off from the high-level politics that take up much of the action. First among the proletariat, then in a foreign country, Arya has had no opportunity to learn the rules of the all-important game of thrones. (The game of faces, her preferred arena, hasn’t proved very useful at Winterfell thus far.) So she barges into meetings with all the arrogance of a pre-torture Theon Greyjoy and the bloodlust of a Cersei Lannister — ironic, since she’s the one accusing her sister of learning too much from their sworn enemy. Sansa has to talk Arya down, patiently explaining why blunt-force intimidation isn’t the best approach to keeping their side’s unsteady coalition intact. Arya, not Sansa, has the childishly reductive view of power and how it operates. Sansa, not Arya, is clear-eyed about the nuances of their situation.
When viewers, including this one, fret about the sloppy storytelling that’s marked recent episodes, it’s Arya we’re truly concerned about, far more than dragon flight times, and what she represents overall: otherwise rich, time-intensive character arcs getting short-changed by a race to the finish line. Game of Thrones’ success lies in its ability to foster understanding for both sides of a disagreement, even when one is clearly in the wrong (see: Lannister, Cersei). When we lose that understanding, as many viewers are for an unrecognizable Arya, we lose the ability to see the Stark sisters’ disagreement as an insightful contrast — as a reversal in our sympathy that teaches us to question the underlying value systems behind common portrayals of women. At least for now, Arya isn’t a cautionary tale about the failure to recognize the value and talents of someone she’s never been able to understand. She’s just an irrationally obstinate character buying time until the inevitable reconciliation, even though she doesn’t have to be.
A Song of Ice and Fire was a productive lesson in empathy for a teenage reader. (This is a funny thing to say about a story that features approximately one grisly demise per paragraph, but life works in mysterious ways.) Westeros may have dragons and wights and decade-long winters, but just like in the real world, there’s any number of ways to approach one’s femininity and deal with structural misogyny: to excel within its parameters, like Sansa, or to internalize it and look down on those who operate within the system, like Arya. It’s in the nature of oppression to foment resentment among factions of the oppressed rather than toward the oppressors, so it’s little wonder the Stark sisters still have such difficulty seeing eye to eye. But it’s in the nature of fiction to teach us how the other half thinks and feels, which, when it’s working, makes the Arya-Sansa dynamic one of Game of Thrones’ frequent high-water marks. Now, their troubled bond ranks among the most crucial difficulties the show must work through to stick its imminent landing.