In the end, the master of the long con fell victim to his own game.
The apparent discord between the sisters Stark that ran throughout this season of Game of Thrones culminated in the surprise trial and execution of Littlefinger. The plotline generated criticism and further fueled the lazy “Game of Thrones is bad now” takes.1 Yet, once the endgame of #TeamStark’s deception was revealed, Sansa’s plan tracks logically… across multiple seasons.
Let’s take a quick look back at Sansa’s story arc. The elder Stark sister escapes King’s landing with Littlefinger’s aid in season four. Baelish then tosses her Aunt Lysa out the moon door — ostensibly to save Sansa who then lies to protect him. Sansa then spends the first couple episodes of season five hanging around the Erie before being unwittingly married off to Ramsay Bolton. It remains unclear whether Littlefinger truly underestimated Ramsay’s capacity for sadism or whether he was positioning himself as both her savior and prospective Warden of the North from the start. What is clear is that, in retrospect, it was the decision that sealed Baelish’s fate.
After enduring horrific abuse at the hands of Ramsay, Sansa escapes and makes her way to Castle Black. When Littlefinger arrives shortly thereafter to offer the Knights of the Vale, she wonders aloud why she would ever trust him. Meanwhile Jon decides to retake Winterfell, does what Ramsay wants him to do, and Sansa bails everyone out by taking Littlefinger up on his offer. Jon is named King of the North and we get the knowing glance from Baelish to Sansa to close season six.2
Sansa supports Jon, questions his logic and then takes over as Lady of Winterfell when Jon departs to treat with Daenerys.3 Arya and Bran return to Winterfell shortly thereafter, though the warm family reunion is a bit muted by Arya now being a level 10 assassin with maxed out stealth stats and Bran being just creepy as hell. Littlefinger seemingly takes advantage of the tense family dynamic and attempts to turn the sisters against each other.
The plan seemingly works, resulting in the bizarre and out of character moment where Arya threatens Sansa. When Sansa relates the incident to Littlefinger, he finally tips his hand, suggesting that Arya be punished for treason. The confirmation of Baelish’s motives is enough for Sansa, Bran, and Arya to put the final phase of their plan into action — head faking towards an Arya trial to catch Baelish off guard and charging him with his many acts of treason.
I’ve seen criticisms of the twist as both cheap and predictable, both equally invalid when fully considered. When you look back at Sansa’s arc as we just did, it becomes readily apparent why she would lose all trust in Littlefinger after marrying her off to Ramsay. It’s foolish to believe that a less than warm and fuzzy reunion with her siblings would be enough to persuade her to side against them and with the man who she knows to be completely untrustworthy and whose actions have directly resulted in immense suffering on her part. In truth Sansa has been put through more misery than perhaps any character not named Theon Greyjoy, but in the process has learned from people like Cersei and Littlefinger and become perhaps the most skilled player in the Game of Thrones.4 So no, Sansa outmaneuvering Littlefinger wasn’t cheap. It was very well earned.
Furthermore, it doesn’t particularly matter whether the creators knew that Sansa would outwit Littlefinger in this exact manner back in season five. There seems to be a flawed perception by consumers of popular fiction that every twist and turn needs to be meticulously mapped out in planned from the beginning in order to weave a truly great narrative. In reality, this is patently false. Great storytelling — at least in the context of a multivolume epic — simply needs a skilled author capable of leaving open ends and then weaving them together later to make it seem like it was planned all along. George R.R. Martin has referred to himself as a “gardener” in terms of his narrative — having a rough plot and then seeing what sprouts from that plot and further cultivating it. J.K. Rowling was perhaps the most skillful at seamlessly weaving open ends, dropping Wizarding names casually, then returning to those names when introducing major characters.5 Ultimately, as long as the narrative make sense, the time its component parts were conceived is irrelevant.
The “predictable” criticisms seem to be a case of people peering into their retrospectroscope rather than considering how they actually processed the twist in the moment. Had people theorized the Starks were conspiring against Littlefinger? Yes, plenty had, including yours truly. But in the moment, I really thought that Sansa had bought what Littlefinger was selling and was about to sentence Arya to death. The fact I considered the possibility of a conspiracy didn’t make me any less surprised by the means that conspiracy was revealed.
Part of the “predictable” criticism stems from the reality that the internet hivemind almost always is able to eventually accurately predict plot twists once enough individual half-baked theories are input and analyzed. In the past year both Mr. Robot and Westworld featured major “reveals” that were accurately predicted by Reddit and regurgitated by many media outlets in exchange for a bounty of clicks. In the case of Mr. Robot, I read the theories and thus wasn’t surprised by its big reveal. On the other hand, I got behind on Westworld early then binged the show without dipping my toes into the swirling waters of speculation and consequently was surprised by the show’s twist reveal of the Man in Black’s identity.
I’ll step off my soapbox momentarily, but I think it’s important as viewers to consider what we want out of Game of Thrones as we enter the long night before the final six episodes of the series premiere. If your enjoyment of the show mostly comes from the zeitgeisty community of speculation, theorizing, and set spoilers than by all means do those things. I’m not claiming there is a wrong way to watch the show.6 But if you are truly invested in watching a satisfying end to the tale, perhaps it’s better to spend the next 14 months avoiding reddit and clickbait articles overanalyzing set photos.
Either way, in fourteen months we’ll be settling in for the endgame. Season seven may have had its flaws, but the finale felt earned all the way around. This fantastic ride is nearing its end. But for now, we must endure the long night.
- For the record, in the end this season only truly had one very bad plotline, and was otherwise on par with the greatness we’ve come to expect from the show. ↩
- I think the analogue for this season’s finale was Tyrion’s look of discomfort — a moment foreshadowing potential treachery that won’t actually come to pass but works as great conspiracy fuel until season eight premieres ↩
- The real lesson of Season 7 is that the fastest way to a woman’s heart is aggressively pressing the issue about an impending zombie apocalypse, convincing her to let you dig for seemingly worthless rocks in her backyard, then getting her pet killed. I do love me a good old fashioned romance. ↩
- Honestly at this point Sansa feels like she’d be better at running the seven kingdoms than Daenerys. ↩
- No I don’t believe that she knew how important the name Sirius Black would become when Hagrid casually mentioned borrowing Black’s motorcycle in the beginning of Sorcerer’s Stone ↩
- And at times this column has actively speculated at plot turns itself ↩