Many people were severely disappointed in Sansa Stark’s story arc in Season 5 where many people expected Sansa to start playing the Game of Thrones and manipulate those around her. Instead, her story takes two twists from the book where she gets married off to Ramsay Bolton and worse yet relentlessly raped. So rather than seeing a player, we saw someone being played for the most part. However, in Season 6 Episode 9, her story arc returns to where many people expected her to be, which is the more manipulative, active player in the game.
While Sansa’s story from the first half of the season focused on her escape from the Boltons and her reunion with Jon Snow, the real meat doesn’t begin until she encounters Littlefinger in Mole’s Town, the infamous brothel that was ruined by the Wildling invasion from season 4. Although Sansa is far more wary of Littlefinger’s presence, he doesn’t leave without planting a last minute seed of doubt in creating a small amount of dissent between her and Jon Snow, reminding Sansa that Jon is only her half-brother. This differs from the previous episode where Sansa implores Jon for his forgiveness in treating him terribly during their childhood. Yet that earlier scene serves to hint at how she ultimately views Jon. In some way, Littlefinger acts as part of her dark consciousness.
As the season progresses towards the eventual confrontation with Ramsay Bolton, both Jon and Sansa exhibit more differences with Sansa doubting Jon’s men, advisers and his strategy. While she’s not entirely wrong, Sansa does recognize that Jon is both headstrong and a bit reckless. Even Ramsay Bolton points out the irony of Jon Snow’s pride when they finally meet in negotiating for possible terms of surrender (which seems to contradict Jon’s own advice to Mance Rayder and even Tormund in getting the wildlings to join with the southerners).
The thing is that I believe with the seeds of doubt re-planted, Sansa continues to look down upon her half-brother. He’s somewhat pained when she brings up the fact during one of the war counsels that Jon lacks the Stark name but that she does have it, even though her own negotiations with previously loyal allies brought nothing for them. You can easily begin to see the ghost of Catelyn Stark manifesting through Sansa not just in appearance but in attitude. Even the Blackfish remarks before Brienne that Sansa is exactly like her mother, a possible allusion that Sansa has partly taken over the Lady Stoneheart story line from the books in lieu of Catelyn Stark/Michelle Fairley’s highly anticipated return.
However, even with/or without Lady Stoneheart’s presence, we have to turn back even further to examine some of the roots of where we see hints of Sansa’s story arc. Perhaps, the best foreshadowing occurs when Pycelle describes Sansa’s potential direction when he states that, “Treason is a noxious weed. It should be torn out.” There is no doubt that since her capture in King’s Landing that she has plotted some form of vengeance. However, up until now, she lacked the full tools necessary to execute her plans.
In that sense, I think it’s quite evident that she’s using her half-brother for her own schemes. It’s not that she ultimately despises him at this point, but refuses to respect him for what he ought to be. She sees him as a weapon, not at all different from how Brienne had pledged her service to Sansa. But I think that she believes Jon would resent her if he realized that she was using him and endangering his life.
In some ways, she is within her right. Despite how Jon wanted to run with Sansa to a safe place prior to learning that Rickon was held captive, Sansa correctly pointed out that with the Boltons around at the very least, they would have no place to hide. So they would have to fight despite how Jon finally realizes what the horrors of war and death mean.
Still, when Sansa arrived with Littlefinger in bringing the Knights of the Vale, the eerie aspect was seeing her smile. It wasn’t a victorious smile but a vengeful smile. She even sees Jon who is surprised by the Knights of the Vale and the fact that she’s leading them. Her smile towards him, for me at least, implies that her plans came to fruition and that the pieces of the game played out exactly as she had expected.
Even though Sansa warned Jon before the fight, Jon ended up going against his plans and almost got himself killed. In fact, there wasn’t any hope at all for Jon’s forces to win and Ramsay pretty much had an assured victory up to that point. The only thing is that Sansa kept her cards very close to her heart because she knew how everyone would play out, which was that affirming smile.
Interestingly enough, before Ramsay is executed Ramsay remarks to Sansa how he’s now a part of her. Most people on the internet have speculated that Sansa is probably pregnant. But I think the implications of Ramsay’s statement is much more metaphorical in that he imparted his dark influence in corrupting Sansa. We see that vile instance when Sansa forces herself to watch Ramsay being butchered and eaten alive by his own hounds as well as her faint grin while Ramsay’s own dark music plays. This no longer is the sweet, innocent summer child princess, but someone completely broken and corrupted.
Even though Sansa won this battle through her play, we have to remember that the games she learned in Kings Landing was against the top players. Ramsay, though vicious, ambitious and calculating, was still a far lesser player and easily manipulated. This part Sansa already could play against as she demonstrated whenever she mentioned his bastard heritage. He lost because he didn’t even see Sansa’s Vale card.
But one has to wonder if Sansa really is as smart as she thinks she is or if Littlefinger can still trick her into his own games. I do believe that Sansa has grown a lot in the politics aspect but she’s also very impressionable. I feel she has this perverse symbiotic relationship with Littlefinger because he’s probably the only one who sincerely does not want any harm coming to her for the wrong reasons. Littlefinger’s interest is selfish obviously because he views her as “the key to the North.” Sansa quite possibly understands that and is smart enough to be wary of him. However, I do think she’s not self-aware in the same manner as Littlefinger, which means that he still holds some level of power over her.
The lack of self-awareness part is understanding how to control one’s emotions in difficult situations. Few people possess that level of control. Maybe Tyrion, Varys and Littlefinger. Everyone else puts too much faith in themselves to be able to step away and examine themselves from other people’s viewpoints. With Sansa she had no positive mentors to morally guide her through her adolescence. Instead, she was forced to endure abuse of every kind, which built up a great deal of pent up hostility inside of her. On top of that, she never could exhibit or relieve that hostility because it would mean death by treason (most notably in King’s Landing).
Her only actual guide was Littlefinger for the most part. Even if Littlefinger’s methods were unorthodox, for the most part he did his best to protect her but miscalculated in giving her away to the Boltons. Still with the Vale army coming to her aid when few others would, that would mean that Sansa would owe Littlefinger a great debt of gratitude. We see a hint of things to come in the preview to this season’s final episode. Knowing Littlefinger, his desire would be to secure the North and keep Sansa for himself as his major piece, playing in the shadows as he always has done.
Nonetheless, these moves will continue to poison Sansa’s mind. Littlefinger will certainly want to continue dividing Sansa and Jon apart as a unified Stark front would mean the end to his schemes. I think Littlefinger will get Sansa to admit that he wants her. Then he would reveal that he would do anything for her just to make her happy, especially in memory of her mother whom he loved. These emotions will stir Sansa into action and make her turn her eyes towards King’s Landing, where Cersei is about to unleash the city’s self destruction. It would be a seemingly easier target for Sansa now that she would have the support of the North, the Vale and possibly Riverrun (if they can oust the Freys), leading her to get that final piece of vengeance against the Lannisters.