'Game of Thrones' and the Debate Surrounding Sansa Stark and the Knights of Vale
This week was as great as last week was frustrating. We didn’t see many stories, focusing on Meereen and Winterfell, but the attention to character development and the cinematography was incredible. It was an incredibly tense, scary, and savagely satisfying hour of TV. Spoilers below.
Meereen is still under attack, but no one is feeling the heat quite like Tyrion under Dany’s stern gaze. Despite his clear discomfort, he manages to gather his wits and talk her out of burning all of Slaver’s Bay to well done. There’s been a lot of talk about how Dany is her father’s daughter, but the very fact that she’s willing to listen to the counsel of others shows that she’s drastically different in a fundamental way. The fact that she even has trusted advisers at all shows how different she is, since Aerys systematically removed all his competent advisers and assistants and replaced them with boot lickers. Daenerys has been consistently willing to ask, willing to listen, and willing to change her mind. She values the members of her council, and isn’t in the habit of insulting them or pitting them against each other for her affection. The Targaryen temper, controlled, can be a powerful weapon. Uncontrolled, it can be even more powerful, but in a way that frequently turns self-destructive. Hopefully she manages to keep her temper controlled. Using the dragons, her Khalasar, and Greyworm’s murdering skills strategically wins her the battle. Interesting note that when Greyworm gets to slashing throats, Missandei watches but Tyrion looks away.
Outside of Winterfell a parlay is held. Ramsay tries to talk Jon into surrendering, Jon tries to talk Ramsay into single combat. Mostly they’re sizing each other up, probing for weaknesses. The person with no weaknesses? Lyanna Mormont. But second place goes to Sansa, who confidently states “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.” I’m certain this is the moment Sansa made up her mind to save herself. She knows he has Rickon, and she knows how he treats his guests. When Jon has his war council, she tries to communicate the truth of Ramsay’s personality to Jon, but her lack of vocabulary with battle strategies gets in her way. She’s right that they’ll never get Rickon back. She’s right that Ramsay will set a trap for Jon. She’s right that there’s not anything for Jon to do differently, based on the plan he and Davos come up with. She is right that Jon can’t protect her, because Jon has no idea what the threat he’s facing is. Some have criticized Sansa for not talking about the Knights of the Vale but if Sansa had told him that there was a slim chance that a habitual liar and craven opportunist MAY bring an army, but she didn’t know when, would he have held the battle? “WE FIGHT WITH THE ARMY WE HAVE! We have to march on Winterfell NOW.”
Davos and Tormund bond a bit over their pre-battle rituals which involve fermented goat’s milk and unhappy stomachs, but not for the same person. Jon visits Mel to have his particular long dark night of the soul, but she’s feeling significantly less evangelical about her beliefs. Though she does convince him that he is but a plaything for the Lord of Light. Inspiring! Meanwhile, Davos finds Shireen’s pyre, and the full understanding of what happened when he left Stannis’s camp comes upon him. Unfortunately, it comes upon him just as he has to suit up for battle.
First, though, we have to see that Theon and Yara have reached Daenerys and are having a pleasant chat about the future of the Iron Islands. Points to them for outlining the political situation with enough room for a very tasteful, yet unambiguous come on from Yara, who knows that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. After extracting a promise that the Iron Islands will not torment the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, Daenerys has strengthened her fleet and her first true Westerosi allies. And a girlfriend? It’s a long ride back to Westeros, anything can happen.
We come back to the fields outside of Winterfell for the battle, which will be impossible to properly recap. It’s a masterwork of choreography and scripting. Even knowing that our heroes would likely survive, there were moments I was genuinely on the edge of my seat. The crush scene in particular was horrifying. But we know how the battle went. Let’s talk about why it happened that way.
Let’s address Jon first; he has someone in his camp who has lived with Ramsay and has extensive insight into how he treats valuable hostages and his joy in tormenting his foes. He does not mine this source for all the information she can give him. He is a seasoned commander of an armed force, and it is explicitly stated in his war council that they need to hold the line back to use the trenches they’ve dug to avoid a pincer maneuver. He ends up charging into no man’s land, leading his soldiers into a pincer maneuver. He is told that Rickon is as good as dead, and Ramsay will try to bait him but he must resist. When Ramsay baits him with Rickon, he immediately discards the carefully thought out battle plan to do exactly what Ramsay wants him to do. Jon had the foresight to know exactly how carefully he had to manage his troops to win the battle, and he threw all caution to the wind and nearly got his entire fighting force killed. Would knowing that the Knights of the Vale were coming have kept Jon from taking Ramsay’s bait? Absolutely not. That’s why it was such an effective trap.
I am wondering how Ramsay convinced the other Northern lords to let him slaughter their men in order to create a literal wall of corpses. Ramsay’s archers are firing on their men, the calvary specifically. Those war horses do not come cheap, and the knights riding them are well-trained. I suspect that Ramsay’s strategy had two goals: defeating Jon’s force and depleting the reserves of men held by the other Northmen. The best way to quash future rebellions is to make sure they can’t be mounted. Ramsay may be a psychopath, but he’s also the son of Roose Bolton, and that level of intelligence and forethought does shine through occasionally. If Ramsay had won the battle, he would have held the only standing armed force remaining in the North. He would have been unstoppable.
Some people have thrown a lot of criticism at Sansa for not telling Jon about the Knights of the Vale. But let’s consider what Sansa knows about Littlefinger: She knows that he did not help her while Joffrey was having her beaten regularly. She knows that in the process of helping her escape King’s Landing, he framed her for Joffrey’s murder. She knows he killed her aunt. She knows that he intended to keep her entirely dependent on him for protection by not revealing her identity to the Lords of the Vale. She knows he sold her to the Boltons. I think that not trusting that he would bring the Knights of the Vale, or not trusting that the Knights of the Vale would fight FOR her, shows that she’s paying attention. The Starks have historically been far too trusting and open with their plans and intentions, and it’s gotten several of them killed. Playing her cards close to her chest, understanding that she can’t save everyone, and leaving herself a way to escape Ramsay’s clutches even if things go bad may seem cold, but it’s also the most logical thing to do. I think she wanted the Knights of the Vale to arrive before the battle. I also think Littlefinger used scouts to make sure that wouldn’t happen. A last minute save leaves her and Jon more indebted to him than a carefully and calmly planned joint attack strategy. They were her last resort, she didn’t call on them until they couldn’t raise the North because she knew she needed to look out for herself. She was not wrong.
Rohirrim Knights of the Vale ride through and rip Ramsay’s force to shreds, Ramsay retreats to Winterfell, which we know is impossible to take. Except for that time Theon did it a few seasons ago, and just now when we find out that the gate is not giant-proof. Good thing to learn before The Wall comes down. Wun Wun nobly sacrifices himself for Jon’s cause, and the death of the giant and Ramsay’s continued taunting wear down the last of his humanity. He has had A DAY, but he’s able to end it on a high note by nearly killing Ramsay Bolton with his bare hands. But he leaves the actual job for Sansa.
Sansa Stark started this series as a girl raised to be the perfect Lady by two people who held honor and duty above all else. Her father was honest to a fault. Her mother was self-sacrificing. Her goal in life, the goal they raised her for, was to marry well, have many children, and be the Lady of a great house. There is no shame in that. Her childhood was destroyed in season one when her father was beheaded in front of her. Her innocence was destroyed in season two when she was nearly raped in the bread riots in King’s Landing. Her trust, hope, and body have been beaten and abused in the ensuing years by almost everyone who has said that they would protect her or keep her safe. Even Ramsay assured her that he would never harm her, before he turned her home into a place of horror. But this moment, in the bowels of Winterfell, she starts to recover. It may be ugly and unspeakable, but she has won a victory for herself and no one else. She passed the sentence and swung the metaphorical sword. I have been sure that Sansa would be the Stark sibling to retake Winterfell since she built the castle in the snow of the Eyrie. I am sorry that she had to lose so much to do it.
There will be fall out from this. While our loyalties lie with Sansa and Jon, it’s worthwhile to examine what this would look like from the outside: Jon Snow is a bastard and a deserter of the Night’s Watch, Sansa has been married to a Lannister and a Bolton, is accused of killing the King and personally led an army against her husband and murdered him in cold blood. They took Winterfell with an army full of Wildlings, the enemies of the North, and broke the gates with a giant. While I’d guess that most of the Umber and Karstark casualties are on Ramsay and his fusillade of arrows, it’s unlikely the remnants of those houses will see things that way. Uniting the North will be a long and difficult process. But they have retaken Winterfell, and they do not need to fear the coming of winter at least.
Next week: The season finale and the Sept of Baelor is absolutely going down down down in a burning ring of fire.