Season 7 of Game of Thrones has been met with more openly negative complaints than any season I remember. Most of this has to do with throwing travel logistics out the window. Trips that used to take weeks now seem like they take a few days (if not hours). Some of it has to do with the decision making of Jon Snow and the others involved in his plot arc. And a lot of it has to do with what’s going on in Winterfell between Arya, Sansa, and Little Finger.
The major issue being, I believe, that Thrones didn’t pick a clear tone with the Winterfell arc. Up until the finale, no one could be sure if we were watching a political thriller, a tragedy, a domestic drama, a spy showdown, or a grift. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’d say, generally, in a narrative, you want this kind of dynamic breadth as it’s a way towards depth.
For example, in a political thriller you get more of the macro sociology of the state. With a tragedy, we get the tension of knowing something is going to go wrong. In a domestic drama, we get the micro interactions between family members or romantic partners. A spy showdown gives us action and espionage and a chess-like series of movements heading toward a checkmate. While a grift (think Ocean’s Eleven or any heist movie) typically sets up cool machinations and tension of not just “can they pull it off?” but “how will they pull it off?!?!”
Really, a political thriller, tragedy, domestic drama, spy showdown, grift is exactly what happens in the Bond movie Skyfall. Skyfall happens to be considered one of the best Bond movies of all time, if not the best. Skyfall‘s dynamic breadth yields a depth to the Bond character that no other Bond movie had ever had, raising the stakes from simple “political thriller, spy showdown” stuff to something that felt large and important and emotional.
So it wasn’t so much a problem that the Winterfell arc had this stuff going on. The problem was how little time the show spent with each aspect that we could never really be sure WHAT was happening and WHY it was happening, even after the plot concluded in the finale. This is why people have been trying to figure out if everything that happened between Arya and Sansa leading up to the finale was part of some elaborate grift to set-up Little Finger’s doom. Or if they didn’t have a grift and were that close to hurting one another, to tragedy.
If you want the short answer: there was no elaborate set-up. Arya and Sansa were untrusting of one another. But they figured it out.
Keep reading for the longer explanation.
Not a grift
Let me recap the specifics of the confusion. You probably remember the exact moment in the finale when you went, “Wait…but…”.
Sansa has called everyone to the main chamber. Her and Bran sit behind a table. They bring Arya in front of everyone. Sansa gives this speech about betrayal and seeking political victory over Winterfell. We think that she’s talking to Arya and is about to call for Arya’s execution. Then suddenly Sansa says, “Lord Baelish,” and looks at Little Finger. OH SHIT, HOW THE TABLES HAVE TURNED! Sansa and Arya tricked him! Little Finger thought he had won! Biiiiiiiitch, you lost!
But right then you start to wonder…wait, does that mean Arya and Sansa were working together the whole time? Or no? Were all their arguments just to throw Little Finger off and make him feel secure?
No. That wouldn’t make any sense. There’s been no establishment of Little Finger having spies in Winterfell or even any friends. So there’s no reason for Arya and Sansa to “fight” in private as there’s no one to trick. In episode 6, Arya plays the lying game with Sansa, the “game of faces”. It’s intense and seems semi-murderous, to the point where Sansa appears frightened. If this were all an act to confuse Little Finger…it’s a pointless one as Little Finger is clearly not watching and doesn’t have any spies who are watching. Soooooooo….
We also know that Arya and Sansa always had tension as kids. In fact, they downright and outright didn’t like each other. This is the first time they’ve seen each other for years. It makes sense that the tension they had as children would escalate into adulthood. It’s unresolved tension that needs addressed and to reach a moment of catharsis. It would be out of character and make no narrative sense for them to automatically have been on the same page and plotting this whole thing against Little Finger.
These are two huge flaws in the “elaborate set-up” theory that I think disprove it as the intended or correct way to read what happened in Winterfell.
We can use the reversal of the last two points to make more sense of why Arya and Sansa actually were distrustful of one another and all the tension between them was real.
First, it wouldn’t make sense for them to be fake fighting in total privacy how they did. Meaning the reverse would be true: they were actually fighting.
Second, because Arya and Sansa had unresolved tension from their childhood it wouldn’t make sense for them to suddenly be buddy-buddy with no tension whatsoever. Meaning the reverse is true: they actually had tension.
Assuming those two things true, we would then guess that the plot would show us the sisters actively fighting and not trusting one another completely. That’s exactly what we get. Next, we would expect the plot to either lead the characters to disaster or catharsis. That’s exactly what we get—a sense of disaster that ultimately results in catharsis.
Catharsis, in this case, means Arya forgives and trusts Sansa, and Sansa forgives and trusts Arya. That would either happen with one moment that unites them, or two separate moments where each one has a realization. We can clearly identify two separate moments that fit the bill.
For Arya, it’s the game of faces she plays with Sansa in the second to last episode.
Arya explains the purpose of the game is to identify when the other person is lying. This was part of her Faceless Man training. Someone tells you who they are and where they’re from and you have to pinpoint the moments they’re lying—or vice-versa, where you have to mix lies into the story of who you are and where you’re from and try to avoid those lies being detected. Arya then goes on to say all this shit to Sansa. Intense shit. About killing Sansa. About becoming the Lady of Winterfell. The whole time, Sansa looks scared and overwhelmed by what’s going on. Arya even has a dagger in hand. COULD THIS BE THE MOMENT ARYA KILLS SANSA?!?! Nah. At the end of it, Arya gives Sansa the dagger and walks away.
What did Arya gain from this? She realized that Sansa had no idea if Arya was telling the truth or lying. If Sansa couldn’t tell whether or not her own sister was lying then of course she’d have no idea if Little Finger was being honest or not. Which signified to Arya that Sansa could be trusted, that she wasn’t working with Little Finger but was being haunted by the man, used by him. That’s why Arya felt comfortable giving Sansa the dagger.
This was, for Arya, the catharsis she needed to realize that Sansa was the Sansa she had always known rather than some conniving politicians.
Sister sister, redux
So we had Arya’s catharsis. We would then need Sansa to have a cathartic moment towards Arya. That happens mid-way through the finale.
Sansa’s in her room with Little Finger who is doing that thing where he talks and it’s aggravating. He’s saying that he likes to play a game when he’s trying to figure out someone’s motivations. He says he “assumes the worst,” then he sees if that explains what someone is saying or doing. He acts Sansa what’s the worst thing Arya wants. He then walks Sansa through this narrative where Arya came to Winterfell to kill Sansa for “betraying” the family. Little Finger eventually asks what Arya would become after she killed Sansa. The conclusion, “The Lady of Winterfell.” We then have this long hold on Sansa’s face as she thinks through this.
The next scene we see is the false judgment of Arya that ends up being the execution of Little Finger. And it’s like…how did we go from Sansa considering Arya was going to kill her to the two of them working together?
The big thing to note is that Aryra played a game with Sansa. Then Little Finger played a game. Through a game is how Arya came to a positive conclusion about Sansa, and through a game is how Sansa arrived at a positive conclusion about Arya. Arya has never, would never, and will never want to be the Lady of Winterfell. Which meant, according to the rules of Little Finger’s game, that Arya wanting to kill Sansa does not explain what Arya’s saying and doing. At that point, Sansa realized she had been misjudging Arya.
I think the overall concept was a great one. Two games. Two moments of understanding that resulted in love. So why did this end up so confusing rather than being powerful and emotional?
Game of Thrones purposefully built up the ambiguity of what was happening between Arya and Sansa. They did this entirely for that moment where Arya stands alone, in the middle of the Northern lords, in front of Sansa, ready to be judged. All so we have this momentary terror that Sansa is about to execute her sister, only for the twist that Little Finger’s number is up.
To maintain that surprise, the show runners refused to give us the inevitable moment where Arya and Sansa met up, apologized to one another, and hatched their plan to payback Little Finger. We also missed out on seeing Bran tell them that Little Finger was responsible for all these horrible things. These are scenes that are logical to the story that’s been built up. These are scenes that make emotional sense to the characters, that have been earned by the trials and tribulations the characters have gone through. They are scenes we have earned by sticking with this show for nearly 100 hours. And instead of giving them to us and the characters…the show runners withheld them.
And the result is a lot of confusion about what exactly happened and why it happened. If we had been given the appropriate scenes, then Little Finger’s death may not have been this WHOA moment…but, honestly, was it that surprising anyway? Most of us were expecting Little Finger to get got. While Little Finger’s death would have been a little less surprising, the emotional honesty of the Winterfell arc would have been stronger. We would have finally had that moment where the three remaining Stark children were, for the first time, all working together and all appreciating and loving each other for who they are. Well, maybe not Bran, since he’s now a raven man. But Arya and Sansa. We could have taken pleasure in knowing they were engineering Little Finger’s downfall. We could have worried whether or not Little Finger would catch on. We could have enjoyed seeing him be a smug idiot and not realizing what was about to happen to him when we did know what was about to happen. We’d also be wondering the entire time if he had something up his sleeve. If something could go wrong.
Anyway. I hope this clarified things!
Let me know if you have any other plot moments in Game of Thrones, or any movie or show.