Game of Thrones: Is Sansa Making Huge Mistakes or Just Playing the Game? The answer could be “both.”
This headline popped up a few hours ago following last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. But it’s far from the first time I’ve heard fans question Sansa; in fact, usually they get right to it and simply say ‘Sansa’s an idiot.’ (For proof of that, just hit up the comments on latest Game of Thrones article on i09.)
On one hand I do feel like I get a lot of the earlier frustrations with Sansa’s character. In the first few seasons of the show she was grating. In retrospect, this obnoxiousness—she was acting like a real teenager, and an extremely privileged one within the world of Game of Thrones, I might add—makes absolute sense given her age, her upbringing, and the context of her life.
However following that childhood of privilege Sansa went on to endure some of the greatest horrors of Game of Thrones: First a prisoner of Joffrey (the original Bastard) in a court literally out to get her, on the run from war and death, betrayed multiple times, and then finally back in the hands of a sadist. A dismal story on repeat. Passed as chattel from man to man (whether some of them were semi-decent or not is not the point, Tyrian) all the while assuming that her best case scenario would be bare-bones survival, or at times, a better death.
Which brings us to Sansa now, in Season 6, episode 9 of Game of Thrones. She’s working with her brother Jon Snow, Aslan of the North, and why am I reading so many people saying things like this?
But is she evolving in a direction we want to cheer for? Her inexplicable decision not to tell Jon that she had petitioned Littlefinger to deliver the knights of the Vale when she was calling his strategy against Ramsay into question cost hundreds if not thousands of lives. Many Stark men—and possibly Rickon—died because Sansa couldn’t explain to Jon why she wanted him to wait.
... when Jon offers to listen to her—“all right, tell me, what should we do?”—she withholds vital intel. “It’s not enough but it’s all we have,” Jon says of their smallish force. There was your window, Sansa. It’s true that she may not have known for certain at that moment that Littlefinger would answer her call, but telling Jon that the cavalry was possibly on the way (especially when Tormund mentioned how much Ramsay’s horses put them at a disadvantage) would definitely have altered Jon’s approach.
Of course it would have altered Jon’s approach. A little. I mean, it would have in the sense that he would have probably had some flanks on his team, waiting in the wings, until he... oh, wait. Until he ran out to try, pointlessly, to save Rickin. Until all the armies, the Wildlings, the Mormont’s, all the men Jon scrounged up and the Vale were embroiled in the exact same brilliantly ruthless tactical maneuver Ramsey executed on the battlefield.
The hard truth is that Jon Snow, given those additional men from the beginning, would still probably have lost. Jon Snow is not a tactician, Game of Thrones has made this immensely clear. He is a warrior, and a great one, and he has leadership quality, without a doubt. A true commander—even when he doesn’t want to be one. But he is a shitty tactician and he would have killed the entirety of the Vale had he been given the chance.
When people go to the internet and complain of the deus ex machina, the plot contrivances that supposedly occurred to allow the Good Guys to win the Battle of the Bastards, they completely mis-interpret what occurred. Little Finger didn’t arrive at that exact moment. The forces from the Vale arrived late, to be sure, but it wasn’t that second by a long shot—there was a hill there, my friends. The Vale was there and Sansa was there. In this Vanity Fair and I agree. But nothing else, because next we have:
But it might not have come to that at all if Jon was working with all the information. The worst interpretation of events is that Sansa keep the Vale knights a secret for leverage and power. I don’t want to believe it of her, but that’s exactly what Littlefinger would have done.
Why assume those extra few thousand men (enough to make the numbers even, not more) would have altered Jon’s tactical approach enough to have changed the tide? Every evidence we have of Jon The Terrible Tactician Gets Killed By His Own Men goes against this. Sansa knowingly did what she did, yes. Not to win the game (though hell, she might) but because more urgent matters were at hand—she did it to win a key battle against an enemy whose evil she alone understood. Jon had already proved more than once that he was not deferring to her knowledge of the enemy. He’d listen to her, but it was a false inclusion. When she said, point-blank, “You need more men,” his answer was the more words version of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The entire advantage of the Vale rescue at the last minute was that it was at the last minute. Were you watching? Those were not overwhelming numbers; that army won by virtue of a battlefield spent and a smart approach. An approach that was only possible because finally Ramsey Bolton had played his hand. Only Sansa, Sansa who had been tortured and traumatized, could fully understand the depth of Ramsey’s cunning and how to maneuver around it. She knew the hard truth: that people would need to die so that, down the road, less people would need to die. She knew the Vale needed to wait, because Jon never would have allowed them to do so.
It is not because she’s growing “more like Baelish,” or something else equally stupid, and definitely not because she’s “an idiot.” Sansa didn’t forget to tell her brother anything, and she hasn’t done a thing to betray him. Remember, her smart thinking here saved him, and had it not—had Jon died in battle—she still would have been able to take back Winterfell.
Jon took Winterfell back and it was great, but he only did it with Sansa’s help. At that point in the story she would not necessarily have needed his. Had the armies fought until their ends out on the battlefield, Sansa could have attacked during Ramsey’s return to the castle with a fresh army against an exhausted, bloody one. It would have been harder than what happened, but far from improbable.
The purpose wouldn’t have been to play the game, but simply to triumph. Why when Jon wins do we assume altruism and when Sansa triumphs, something else? Based on what I’ve read so far she’s either an idiot who didn’t give her brother the tools to save her correctly, or an untrustworthy player climbing the ladder to the throne.
I disagree with both theories and give my own: Sansa has evolved into a brilliant tactician—and she has learned how to back-channel, to play the game that will keep her alive—but she’s not nefarious ... she’s smart. Incredibly, patiently intelligent.* And she is going to save her homeland, not because of some evil scheme, but because it needs saving and after all these years, she’s the best for the job.
* Before someone gets on me about her recent bouts of panic during her flee from Ramsey, please remember some of Tyrian’s stupid behavior while fleeing [insert multiple people]. We’ve all decided he’s a smarty.
ETA Just read Rob Bricken’s official next-day recap (which I always read, I normally like his hot takes) and he said this:
I saw someone posit that Sansa and Littlefinger probably planned to hold the Eyrie’s troops for the very last minute, but that’s nonsense. Sansa wouldn’t have left her half-brother in danger or Ramsay out of danger for a minute longer than necessary. Now, did Littlefinger somehow finagle his way into arriving at the very last minute, perhaps with the use of scouts, relayed messages, and very strategic marching? 100% yes.
I’m sure I’m being paranoid when I think that might be me. And if so, Rob—you’re wrong.