‘Game of Thrones’ Has a Stark Sister Problem

After courtesy controversy for years for their treatment of Sansa Stark, the ‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners are finding new ways to muck up her storylines.
By  · Published on August 22nd, 2017

After courting controversy for years for their treatment of Sansa Stark, the ‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners are finding new ways to muck up her storylines.

It was the moment Game of Thrones fans have all been waiting for: Arya and Sansa, finally reunited after years apart, meet at Winterfell so that they can put their differences behind them and create a better kingdom for their people. Wait, did I say put their differences behind them? Sorry about that, I meant to say that the two should instead threaten each other and easily recount how easy it would be to kill each other dead. And if this bizarro plot development seemed a bit out of place to you, you’re not the only one. Game of Thrones has a Stark sister problem, and the problem is that they still aren’t sure how to make either character seem like a fully realized human being.

This will sound overly harsh to some, but here’s a painful truth: one of the biggest problems of Season 7 has been deciphering which storylines are intentionally obtuse and which storylines are just poorly written. Spun free from the confines of George R.R. Martin’s novels, the Game of Thrones writers are attempting to move into the series’s endgame as quickly as possible. This often means shortchanging characters and locations the producers aren’t inclined to develop any further – sorry, Dorne – and counting on major story reveals to carry the show’s weight. So when Arya and Sansa immediately become enemies upon their reunion, it’s not easy to tell if this is Game of Thrones once again showing the creative limits of its bosses or Benioff and Weiss simply racing through a half-baked storyline.

In other words, is it vaguely misogynistic or just poorly written? Even ignoring the basic plot points – how intentionally obtuse Arya must be to blame her sister for treason, how surprisingly clumsy Petry Baelish’s treachery actually is when you think about it – the Game of Thrones producers have had six-plus seasons to prepare for this moment, and literally the best they could come up with is more infighting? At best, it’s a terrible bit of writing that assumes all major Game of Thrones characters but the Starks are allowed to evolve over the course of six seasons; at worst, it’s a continuation of the type of low-key misogyny that fans have long accused Benioff and Weiss of exhibiting. As multiple critics wrote shortly thereafter, it reeks of men trying to write the sister dynamic and coming up way, way short. And that’s a bad look for a show that’s already had its eye blackened by representation issues.

This whole sequence is especially unimpressive given the recent reunion between Tyrion and Jamie Lannister, two brothers who could not have more reason to oppose each other. Tyrion, of course, killed Tywin Lannister, the man who Jamie never got another chance to impress after the loss of his hand; Jamie continues to work alongside Cersei Lannister despite her opposition to Tyrion’s faction and her desire to see Tyrion killed. That scene’s brevity stands in stark (heh) contrast to the conflict between Arya and Sansa. Are those two characters so unchanged through their own trials and tribulations that they’d immediately decide to believe the worst in each other? Are we supposed to chalk Tyrion and Jamie’s alliance up to some kind of brotherly bonds while the Stark sisters fight? Or is it possible that the showrunners haven’t learned their lesson with regards to the treatment of the Starks?

For years now, the Game of Thrones producers have been getting crucified – and deservedly so – for the treatment of their female characters on the show. With this in mind, it’s hard to see two major female characters immediately turning on each other as anything other than a big step backward for the show. Ah, but shouldn’t Game of Thrones be allowed to develop its characters without having to respond to audience criticism? Any argument that Game of Thrones exists outside of its audience was nullified by this very episode, where Benioff and Weiss played up Tormund Giantsbane’s possible death just to watch their audience squirm. Tormund spent more time talking in this episode than he did in the rest of Season 7 combined; the show also makes a big show of his impending death scene as he’s dragged into the water, only to have him pulled back to safety by The Hound at the last possible moment. What is that if not the producers directly responding directly to the preferences of their audience? I didn’t see Jorah Mormont getting a will-they/won’t-they death scene in this episode.

Now, if you read Neil’s article from yesterday, you might be thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute! What if it turns out that Arya and Sansa are simply playing Petyr Baelish for a fool?” This is where it gets even trickier. It’s entirely possible – and hell, given the lack of imagination on display in Season 7 of the show, almost certain – that Arya and Sansa are going through the motions of discord to lull Baelish into a false sense of security. That still doesn’t excuse the show’s process. Benioff and Weiss could just as easily have shown us a behind-the-scenes version of this storyline, where Arya and Sansa fine-tune their performances to ensure that Baelish finds them believable, but that’s not the route they chose to take. The showrunners assumed that audiences would find more enjoyment in watching the Stark sister divided than united, a gross miscalculation that’s entirely keeping with their track record.

The bottom line is this: after six seasons of developments, it’s disheartening to see how little thought Benioff and Weiss have put into the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of the Arya and Sansa dynamic. When all is revealed to be a trick concocted by Arya and Sansa – and it will be, of that there can be no doubt – it’s worth wondering why Game of Thrones felt it necessary to show audiences two sisters divided to milk extra drama out of the episode. Does this suggest that the Game of Thrones misogyny issues remain uncontested? Or are Benioff and Weiss just incapable of hitting the deadlines they’ve created for themselves? Either way, it’s a glaring problem for the show when it should be hitting the home stretch.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)