Spoilers for the Game of Thrones season finale below.
After teasing us with four episodes of bitter sisterly feuding, on last night’s Game of Thrones finale, we finally learned what Sansa and Arya’s long game was. Arya wasn’t actually planning to slice off her big sister’s face and use it as a prop in some demented “Mask Off” lip-sync contest. Sansa wasn’t planning to have Arya strung up by her ankles for infringing on her Lady of the North Status. Nope: The sisters were actually teaming up to take down Littlefinger, the architect of many of the show’s mostly dastardly deeds, and to finally make good on that ‘Lone Wolf Dies But the Pack Survives’ family motto that Ned used to screen print on their T-shirts.
That’s right: Last night, the Stark sisters were finally doin’ it for themselves.
And really, what a relief. The divide between Arya and Sansa this season took one of the show’s most poignant and plausible human conflicts — two sisters, diametrically opposed since childhood, struggling to reconnect after years of separate trauma — and ramped it up to an absurd extreme. Admittedly, it made sense that the family reunion at Winterfell wasn’t going to be all sunshine and roses (especially with that creep Bran around, ready to recall the finer points of his siblings’ sexual histories at the drop of a hat). Sansa and Arya’s lifelong divisions have only been magnified after years spent apart, and as anyone who has a contentious sisterly relationship knows, tensions don’t simply fade away; childhood squabbles are liable to find themselves relitigated over Thanksgiving dinners for many decades to come.
But still, I never quite bought that Arya and Sansa would turn against each other, especially when each has had plenty of time to learn what a real enemy looks like. While Game of Thrones has a pretty dark worldview, the Stark kids have always been the better angels of the show’s nature, so it was a major relief to find out that we don’t need to take sides: The Starks were working together all along. Both sisters have come a long way since the series began. Sansa freed herself from a bunch of male abusers, got schooled in realpolitik and became an able and sure-handed leader, disabused of the naïve courtly fantasies that used to seduce her. Arya — ever subverting gender norms — became a “faceless man,” a skilled assassin operating outside the muck of Westerosi politics. As Alison Herman writes in The Ringer, the show has worked to continuously complicate and challenge our assumptions about the “radically different attitude to womanhood” each represents. “Westeros may have dragons and wights and decade-long winters, but just like in the real world, there’s any number of ways to approach one’s femininity and deal with structural misogyny: to excel within its parameters, like Sansa, or to internalize it and look down on those who operate within the system, like Arya,” she writes. In joining forces to take down Littlefinger, both Stark women are implicitly acknowledging that there’s more than one way to be a heroine in Westeros.
Littlefinger’s execution was a remarkable feat of sibling teamwork: Sansa read the charges, Bran provided the receipts, and Arya delivered the final blow. While we don’t know what has been happening behind the scenes, it’s clear that Arya’s wily assassin skills coupled with Sansa’s advanced degree in Chaos Is a Ladder 101 combined to put this plan into place. The scene in which the sisters debrief on the balcony was one of the most moving moments of the season, proving that both of the Stark women have come to see the utility of the other’s worldview, and to realize that their differences can be used to make them stronger instead of tear them apart. Particularly, it shows that Arya — who always felt a sense of moral superiority to Sansa — has experienced real growth, and has come to recognize Sansa as more than the superficial girl in petticoats she left behind: a mature leader who has grown stronger through unimaginable trauma. “I was just the executioner, you passed the sentence. You’re the lady of Winterfell,” Arya acknowledges. “I was never going to be as good a lady as you. So I had to be something else. I never could have survived what you survived.”
While the show has served up its sexposition and its graphic sex with a side of rah rah meme-able girl power — Dany walking through flames, Brienne cutting down the Hound, Cersei going all “Look What You Made Me Do” on her enemies — what it hasn’t shown us is many of examples of real female cooperation, of women learning to overcome seemingly irreconcilable differences and work together for the greater good. In a show where alliances are fragile, where blood isn’t always as thick as it should be, where not even Jaime and Cersei can stick it out until the endgame, it’s encouraging to see Sansa and Arya take stock of what’s really important. “That’s what you’ve always done, turn family against family, sister against sister, and that’s what you tried to do to us,” snaps Sansa at Littlefinger. Not today, buddy. “I’m a slow learner. But I learn.” Another great slogan for the Stark family Christmas card, which will live to see (at least) another year.