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07/21/2017 02:56 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2017

Bow Down: Sansa Stark Is Finally A Player In The Game Of Thrones

From lady-in-training to ruthless avenger, she's lived the series' best coming-of-age story.
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If we were playing “Game of Thrones” on an 8-bit console, a kindly little bubble would have recently informed us all that Sansa Stark has entered the game. 

She’d been waiting and watching, taking notes as others took the controls, for five long seasons until last spring’s Season 6 allowed her to try her hand, which she did, literally, by writing to her uncle for help in winning back a castle. As her one-time husband tells another major player, “You’re in the great game now, and the great game is terrifying” ― pearls of wisdom that apply to all.

Sansa (Sophie Turner) already knows how terrifying it is. All of the sweet summer Stark children were forced to tap into whatever nascent maturity they possessed beginning all the way back in Season 1, when the Lannister-Baratheon envoy crashed their peaceful homestead, but none traveled a loss-of-innocence story arc as tall and wide as Sansa’s. More than Dany Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who was always familiar with her brother’s dark side, and more than Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), who always had a bit of a dark side herself, Sansa has grown from “little bird” to something more like “big, bad wolf,” the sigil of her family’s house.

Turner has stated that Season 7 is all about trust and loyalty” for her character, but the same could likely be said for Sansa’s run through the series thus far. Picture her in Season 1: a lady-in-training earnestly lapping up verses to epic songs about honorable lords and ladies, knights and damsels. She’s brought down to King’s Landing with her father, sister and glorified Home-Ec teacher because the greatest thing she could hope for ― becoming a queen as graceful as Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) ― was coming true. Sansa begins the series with no reason to distrust anyone. 

But in King’s Landing, she discovers almost immediately that life in Westeros is full of deception. At a joust, Sansa watches actual knights in shining armor attempt to neatly bump one another off their horses, discovering the gruesome reality of the sport when one such emblem of chivalry bleeds out in front of her, lanced between a crack in his armor. 

It’s only the first in a series of rude awakenings: She sees her father, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), decapitated and, later, his head on a spike. From there, her suffering continues as King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) subjects her to a brand of cruelty both emotional and physical, once ordering his guard to strip and beat her at court. Her mother and brother die while she’s held captive by the family that orchestrated it. But with as much grit and composure as she possibly can, Sansa falls back on her genteel lessons, maintaining a facade of loyalty so perfect as to be irritating. 

Like many young women, even today, Sansa Stark did all the things she was told nice little girls should do in order to grow into nice little ladies. She did them well. Then, like many young women, even today, she is punished for it ― finding herself suddenly too ignorant and too soft to thrive in the world which does not actually take her or her values all that seriously, demanding pleasantries but maintaining the freedom to laugh at them. So she keeps her head down. The lone Stark at the Westerosi capital finds herself constantly used by others, soldiering on through Joffrey’s torment and a marriage ceremony to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) intended to publicly humiliate her. Even the plot to assassinate Joffrey includes Sansa as an unwitting participant thanks to her only friends, or sort-of-friends, the women of House Tyrell.

In the first episode of Season 7, she admits to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) the extent that Ned Stark shielded his daughters, never so much as cursing in front of them. As much as he had a say in the matter, Sansa and Arya learned about the beauty in the world, and his sons, the brutality. From Cersei at King’s Landing, Sansa learned a different way to be. When she finds herself accused by Jon of “admiring” the Lannister queen who had already done so much harm to the Stark family, and seemed poised for more, Sansa doesn’t argue. “I’ve learned a lot from her,” she says. (The two have more in common than either would care to admit ― both discovered their upbringings as proper ladies had ill prepared them for adulthood.) 

Eventually ― seriously, finally ― Sansa becomes a manipulator, not the manipulated. After escaping King’s Landing only to find that she can’t actually trust some members of her own family in the Vale, Sansa seems to have enough. She testifies against her aunt Lysa, who had cruelly accused her of a relationship with Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) ― by then her uncle by marriage ― and does not reveal that Littlefinger had pushed Lysa to her death, sparing him a similar fate. She seems to realize Littlefinger can still be useful to her.

Still, Sansa hasn’t quite leveled up into the “great game.” Placing too much trust in Littlefinger, she submits to a marriage he arranged with Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), who subjects her to the worst abuse she’s been made to endure thus far. At her family’s ancestral home of Winterfell, Sansa is raped, beaten and forced to look at the flayed body of a friend. Much later, in one of her best scenes of the series, she furiously tears into her uncle for handing her over to the Boltons. “I can still feel it. I don’t mean ‘in my tender heart, it pains me so,’” she fumes, “I can still feel what he did in my body standing here right now.”

We’re still watching Sansa learn how much to trust, who to love and how to exist in the world as both a “proper lady” and a great continental power. Yet, she still appears to be keeping one bit of advice from Cersei close to heart: the more people you love, the weaker you are.

Having watched and waited long enough, Sansa demonstrates her aptitude for the titular “game” by overcoming her loathing for Littlefinger long enough to make an alliance with him, requesting a last-minute assist from the knights of the Vale ― tellingly, without letting Jon know. Because this is still television, they arrive just as the clock is running out, and the Boltons suffer a surprise defeat. Jon is named King in the North, and Sansa sits by his side as the Lady of Winterfell, trying her best to keep faith in him.

What she does next we can only guess. 

Although she’s been traumatized, we know she’s is not a monster ― she managed to forgive Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) for grave offenses: a botched attempt at taking Winterfell and declaring her brothers (falsely) dead. Still, it’s impossible to imagine Season 1 Sansa walking away with a smirk as a pack of hounds devour her husband alive, as she does at the end of Season 6. With Sophie Turner seemingly a bigger presence than ever in promotional efforts leading up to the “Game of Thrones” Season 7 premiere, we worry it smacks of “one last time” ― Sansa’s newfound ruthless side certainly means she’s also wearing a bigger target.

At least Season 7 Sansa is finally a force to be reckoned with. We can only sit back and admire her journey.

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