I honestly did not plan to come back to this series; I figured that I capped it off by jumping from Westeros to an Avenger. But damn if Game of Thrones didn’t imagine Sansa with the sovereign powers of Winterfell this year, at least briefly before Jon Snow was declared King in the North. And so, it’s time again to look at another member of House Stark take on the affairs of law and justice.
Unlike her predecessors, Sansa has no experience in statecraft; her parents spent their entire adult lives in powerful positions, and Tony’s been around for the entire Cinematic Universe. Not only does she lack experience, but she was not educated to become a ruler. Instead, she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the fairy tales of her people, and five grueling seasons of torture at the hands of, well, everyone.
She acts harshly, and many writers have seen this as evidence that she has given into the latter, and that the gentle Northern girl has been corrupted. But Sansa is still living out a fairy tale, and her severity comes from those tales as much as her naivete once did.
Since we’re talking Game of Thrones, beware of spoilers (through Season 6) and triggers (torture and sexual violence) below the line.
To the horror of all, Sansa spent most of Season 5 in the clutches of Ramsay Bolton, a brute who existed solely for the writers to get out their most sadistic urges—his murder spree thins the cast list by taking out Osha, Rickon Stark, Roose Bolton, Walda Frey, and many more. We are forced to witness the sexual violence he commits against Sansa, Theon, and countless women. He is finally defeated, as Winterfell is liberated by a joint force of wildlings, Vale Knights, and Northern loyalists.
Jon Snow beats Ramsay senseless when he takes the castle back, but yields and spares Ramsay’s life after making eye contact with Sansa. Ramsay is bound and thrown in the dungeon, where Sansa confronts him, recites his crimes, and then feeds him to his own dogs—dogs which he had been starving in order to ensure their ferocity if he took prisoners in the Battle of Winterfell. Walking away, Sansa smiles.
The brutality of Ramsay’s end is striking, and Sansa’s look of satisfaction puzzled many viewers: she has previously been depicted as a gentle soul who legitimately abhorred the violence of her world. However dreadful her suffering, she seemed to never lose her yearning for the world of songs and stories she learned as a child. Now in a position of power as the presumptive Lady of Winterfell, there’s a moment of doubt when she acts harshly. Has the sweetest of summer children been corrupted? Ramsay himself taunts her, taking credit for her darker side before his death.
While initially compelling, this view puts Sansa in the wrong context. She believes in the moral clarity and idealism of fairy tales as much as she ever has, but she’s not reading the same stories we know. Her stories haven’t been animated and sanitized by Walt Disney. She’s working from the original, gruesome legends.
Cinderella’s stepfamily gets their comeuppance in the Disney versions, but it’s limited to the shame at watching their victim marry Prince Charming. The Brothers Grimm are more direct: the stepsisters are blinded when their eyes are pecked out by birds, having already mutilated themselves to fit the glass slipper. Snow White’s evil queen is forced to dance in shoes of red-hot iron, until she drops dead. The Big Bad Wolf is butchered. Hansel and Gretel burn the witch alive.
These are stories of bravery and nobility and happily ever after, to be sure, but they have a second element: the wicked will suffer. Punishment is integral to these tales, and the reader’s satisfaction comes not only from the heroes’ joy, but from the villains’ pain and torment.
Thus does Sansa stand over the defeated Ramsay Bolton. She is the Damsel Triumphant, glaring at the loathsome ogre. To modern viewers, justice means due process, a fair trial, and a dispassionate punishment. But Sansa is not a child of the Enlightenment, and the Lady of Winterfell has no obligations to the Fifth Amendment. Instead, she’s acting out the end of her story: the lovely maiden has been saved, and her tormentor will get what’s coming to him. Ramsay’s end, therefore, is appropriately ironic; he is killed by the dogs he weaponized.
This isn’t to say that Sansa hasn’t changed or hardened because of her trials. She no longer expects good things to happen to her by default, and her intrinsic goodness is no guarantee of justice. Rather, she has learned that she must affirmatively act to make the world fit her ideals. As such, she becomes her own Prince Charming, to gather the forces needed to take down Ramsay Bolton. And she must complete the final act as well, since the gods do not send birds to peck out her enemies’ eyes. But learning that these are her duties does not affect her belief in their inherent righteousness.
And so, with her task done, Sansa smiles.
Although the viewer may not: Benioff and Weiss are not telling us a fairy tale, and even though Sansa’s actions logically stem from her character, it doesn’t mark them as wise or moral. Sansa executes—or murders—Ramsay in a moment of political ambiguity, where Sansa is the presumptive heir to Winterfell, but Jon’s position has yet to be resolved. The cause and method of Ramsay’s death is private, and does not appear to be generally known among the gathered lords and knights, who ultimately proclaim Jon King of the North.
The moment remains ambiguous—does Sansa’s capacity for brutality improve or weaken her political influence? Does it show her to be a true power player, or show her to still be the little girl acting out her nursemaid’s stories? Are the gathered lords looking for a Queen who would calmly brutalize a monstrous man, or do they want something more measured?
The ultimate question may be this: is Sansa fully her father’s daughter? Ned governed according to a personal code of justice, of right and wrong. It was a code that led him to execute a deserter from the Night’s Watch, whose only crime was fear. But it compelled him to show mercy as Hand, seeking peace at great personal cost. This is the temperament that earned Ned the devoted loyalty of the Northmen. Can Sansa match it?