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Is ‘Game of Thrones’ Setting Up Sansa and Theon?

One brief but charged look from the second episode of Season 8 was enough to raise eyebrows

HBO/Ringer illustration

As befitting a battle with unprecedented scale and stakes, Game of Thrones shook up the status quo this week. Instead of spending the first 15-odd minutes of a battle episode on people contemplating their fates—a running theme for Thrones, from “Blackwater” all the way to “Battle of the Bastards”—the show dedicated an entire hour to the hearts and minds of characters before the White Walkers arrive at Winterfell. Some characters reunited, the honorable Brienne of Tarth was properly knighted, Arya found a couple of uses for Gendry’s [clears throat] hammer, Jon revealed his Westeros-altering parentage to Dany, Tormund was peak Tormund, and Podrick added “soothing vocals” to his particular set of skills.

It was also during Pod’s maybe-prophetic rendition of “Jenny’s Song” that Thrones did a montage of its principal couples, including Grey Worm and Missandei, Sam and Gilly, and the newly minted Arya and Gendry. But among the montage’s conscious coupling was another, perhaps unexpected pairing: Theon and Sansa.

They’re eating some of Ser Davos’s dank soup and don’t exchange any words, which is hardly as sultry as what happened with Arya and Gendry, but the way the shot lingers on Sansa’s expression—one which, at the very least, evokes genuine admiration—in the midst of a couples montage hints that Thrones might be setting up some kind of romantic subplot between Ned Stark’s erstwhile ward and his eldest daughter. And that’s, like, really weird?

But before the Sansa-Theon shippers set sail on their maiden voyage, let’s consider all the outcomes of this potentially knotty situation.

For starters, we have to reflect on Theon and Sansa’s shared history. While many characters on Thrones have lived through some horrific experiences, what bonds Theon and Sansa is their considerable physical and psychological trauma at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. One of the most singularly evil people in Westeros spent the brunt of three seasons subjecting Theon to torture; the man literally went by Reek for several years. Sansa’s time with Ramsay wasn’t any better, and included the harrowing scene of their wedding night, when Ramsay forced Theon to watch while he raped Sansa in her ancestral home.

What they went through was awful, and Theon—for all his many transgressions against the Starks—did eventually rescue Sansa from Ramsay’s clutches, a small but necessary step that helped forge her path to becoming one of the savviest political players in Westeros. (Something that is entirely her doing, as she’s quietly gained the respect of the notoriously stubborn Northerners.) Sansa has a stoic, formidable resolve as the Lady of Winterfell, at times embodying the spirit of her mother, Catelyn. But when Theon shows up in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” intent on fighting for Winterfell and the family that raised him, she unspools her emotions in a rare display of vulnerability—in full view of Dany, no less.

Sansa and Theon’s shared experience—while an abhorrent cycle of torment by a serial abuser—is the key to their intimacy. There’s an unspoken bond between them that transcends concerns over who sits on the Iron Throne and the White Walkers’ imminent march to Winterfell. It’s fair to intuit that Theon loves Sansa, and that Sansa loves him back, but their intimacy doesn’t need to be explicitly sexual, nor should it necessarily be read that way.

While Arya’s reasoning behind jumping into bed with Gendry is sound—if it’s their last night in this world, might as well know what sex feels like—Sansa may simply be sharing a quiet moment with Theon because they’ve been through a lot together. Interpreted this way, her glance doesn’t necessarily imply romance; including them in a couple-heavy montage reflects just how close they are as people, not as lovers.

This is the interpretation I’m standing by, but I’d be lying to myself if I said the Theon-Sansa shippers didn’t have good evidence in their corner. Chief among the arguments to the contrary is that it would be foolish to expect Thrones to have enough nuance to pair Theon and Sansa in a couple-centric montage solely because of their strong emotional connection. If you haven’t been paying attention to Thrones lately, as the show has narrowed its scope, made fast travel conveniently easy, and rid several characters of consequences to approach an easily definable endgame, the series hasn’t been as subtle as it was in its earlier seasons.

Remember, this is a show that randomly planted the seeds for Tyrion’s possibly being in love with Dany at the end of Season 7—a situation that was doubly strange because Jon and Dany had very little onscreen chemistry, and seemed to be boning only for plot contrivances. Even Tormund’s affection for Brienne, while entertaining, is the result of some on-set improvisation that has now turned into a multiseason bit. Combined with the show’s lackadaisical storytelling approach in other key areas and the fact that there’s so little time left, it’s clear that late-era Thrones no longer concerns itself with being low-key. Just as Arya and Gendry’s night of passion seems fan service, there could very well be a misguided attempt to turn Theon and Sansa into an item, for reasons. (Even if those reasons are as lazy and ill-conceived as “What if Sansa had a boo, too?”) Uniting Sansa and Theon would technically ally House Stark and House Greyjoy, but without the ability to produce an heir—and given the contentious history between the two houses—it wouldn’t be as advantageous a political pairing as Jon and Dany, or even Jon and Yara, who could at least have children. This would be a dramatic last-minute shift should the Night King be defeated, but considering how the show put Sansa and Theon’s affections on display, perhaps it wouldn’t be all that surprising.

The good news, if you’re against the idea of Sansa and Theon actually becoming a couple, is that any romantic entanglements should be cut short by the arrival of the White Walkers. Theon is on a path toward redemption and has volunteered himself and the other Ironborn to protect Bran, who’s going to use himself as bait to lure the Night King into a vulnerable position. That sounds about as safe as last season’s plan to grab a wight beyond the Wall and present it to Cersei, which is to say this gambit should rack up a serious body count. If Theon sacrifices himself to save Bran—not just the person he initially took Winterfell from in the second season, but a physical manifestation of the realm’s history—his redemptive arc would come full circle in Winterfell. (And would remove any notion of Sansa and Theon becoming a thing.)

Theon and Sansa have been through a lot together, and relaying their nonsexual intimacy would be a warm, humane footnote to one of the show’s most disturbing and frequently contentious plotlines. If Sansa legitimately has feelings for Theon, that’s certainly her prerogative, but the show hasn’t earned that in the same way that Arya and Gendry’s history and early-season flirting signaled a future hookup. With so little time remaining on Thrones, and with so many characters in imminent danger next week—including Theon—their soup-enabled exchange shouldn’t move beyond piquing the curiosity of viewers anxiously waiting for the Battle of Winterfell. The dead may never die, but we can probably (hopefully?) put this idea to rest.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.