Game of Thrones: Sansa Stark’s Subversive Rise to Power

She didn’t become The Lady of Winterfell overnight. Sansa Stark is more than just a survivor.
Sansa Stark
By  · Published on April 9th, 2019

When you think of those who wield power on Game of Thrones, Sansa Stark might not immediately come to mind. Against all odds, however, Sansa has come a long way since her introduction, her evolution sparking tremendous growth, political power, and leadership. Sansa’s emotional strength, political intelligence, and journey from a pawn of war to helping lead one have made her into a formidable woman. Her experiences and unassuming nature have led her toward becoming a great leader, all without having to lift a sword, and her evolution and newfound leadership subvert expectations of what power looks like on Game of Thrones.

Sansa, portrayed with incredible grace by Sophie Turner, began the HBO series as a 13-year-old well aware of her place in life. As the eldest Stark daughter, Sansa came from a noble and loyal family. Her father, Ned, had fought alongside Robert Baratheon, who had usurped the Iron Throne to rule over Westeros. With marriage on the table for political gain, Sansa initially was excited at the idea of marrying Prince Joffrey. As a young woman, she was already aware of her beauty, what it meant for her marital prospects, and maintained a sense of elitism simply for being a Stark.

Her naive behavior, however, aligned with her age and, unlike her sister Arya, she was more deeply invested in others’ opinions of her and her family. Even at such a young age, Sansa knew that societal opinion and maintaining a status quo was important. Gossip and the tainting of a noble name, after all, could be just as destructive as anything else in Game of Thrones. It was evident in the way Sansa tried to stay out of the way or allowed the powerful to tower over her. After Ned was murdered, she became far more fearful. If she spoke or said something out of turn, Joffrey, Cersei, and eventually her husband, Ramsay Bolton, would punish her for it. Her survival instincts played out differently from others–she did as she was told instead of acting out–and she swallowed her sense of pride. Due to her surroundings and company, Sansa had a quieter sense of self-preservation and only spoke up when she felt it was safe for her to do so.

Often, and unfairly, disparaged by fans, many didn’t take her character seriously until Season 6 or 7 when she fully came into her own and began acting independently. But Sansa had been accumulating influence, knowledge, and power for years. Looking back, Sansa proved herself a force to be reckoned with. With tact, she learned from those around her in ways that might not have been apparent at first. Cersei and Lord Baelish, though inadvertently, taught Sansa how to gather information and use it against someone when deemed beneficial. While the other Lannisters mistreated Sansa and led her to become distrustful, Margaery Tyrell, Lady Olenna, and, to a degree, Tyrion Lannister paved the way for her to trust again. Sansa learned that some people did remain true to their words. Having come from a deeply loyal family, these experiences shaped Sansa and allowed her to better choose who and what to rely on.

She inevitably became an involuntary pawn, caught between houses, in-fighting, and political trade-offs that suited whoever held power in that particular instance. She’s been verbally abused, raped, and made to sit through her father’s execution. For a long time, Sansa was the Stark sibling who was lost amid the fray of political scheming, manipulation, power struggles, and betrayal. With most of her family dead or presumed dead, and her home in Winterfell seized by the sadistic Ramsay, Sansa didn’t have much to cling to. Despite these devastating circumstances, she persevered.

What largely kept her going was her never-ending emotional strength and resilience. Women are often only called “badasses” or powerful when they’re shown wielding some kind of weapon or if they can physically best someone in a fight. Sansa has never been that woman, but that doesn’t make her weak in the slightest; quite the opposite, she’s a remarkably impenetrable figure, especially considering everything she’s been through. Slowly, but surely, she became the political player no one saw coming.

By Season 6, she was using her influence and intelligence to make major political decisions, aligning herself with Lord Baelish and the Knights of the Vale to assist in the Battle of the Bastards to take back Winterfell. Another big move involved the surprise trial (for him anyway) of Lord Baelish in the Season 7 episode, “The Dragon and the Wolf.” Having been exploited by him, Sansa took measures into her own hands. After Baelish attempted to drive a wedge between her and Arya, Sansa outed Baelish in front of everyone at Winterfell and, without blinking an eye, had him executed for treason and murder.

Season 6 of Game of Thrones was only the beginning of Sansa’s leadership. After having been silent for so long, she was finally letting her voice be heard in every way possible. She commanded, persuaded, and posited her opinions regarding several political matters. Sansa took revenge on those who had hurt her and put herself in a primary position ahead of the coming war. In Jon Snow’s absence, she ruled over the North, offering advice and wisely assessing the political climate.

Of course, part of what makes Game of Thrones so enthralling are the sword fights, battles, and ever-changing allegiances. While some characters live and die by the sword, using it as a means of influence or show of power and strength, Sansa has never needed to wield one, nor has she ever fought anyone. Instead, she has quietly and discreetly ascended to her place as Lady of Winterfell, changing the ideas surrounding power, influence, and how they can be attained. Sansa’s experiences, traumatic as they may be, have built her up to be a political game-changer and Season 8 will further prove that she is a force to be reckoned with.

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Mae is a film/TV critic, editor, and podcast co-host. Lover of entertainment, wine, and guacamole.