One of this season’s most-hyped subplots—introduced, as a matter of fact, in the premiere—has been the maturation and corruption of Arya Stark. Under the influence of the Hound, Arya’s previously latent killer instincts are set free, and we’ve watched her slowly absorb Sandor’s even more cavalier attitude towards other human beings’ right to live. She’s even received the treatment that’s made this Era of the Antihero so infamous: Game of Thrones invites us to cheer on a preteen as she acquires a taste for blood, then ask ourselves what that enthusiasm says about us as an audience. Fantastic as Arya’s development this season has been, though, is it possible we’ve been focusing on the wrong Stark sister?
Because as we know, Arya’s not the only Stark girl presumed dead, nor the only one to have a mentor we’d be less than enthusiastic to see our own daughters hanging around. Until now, though, the changes years of trauma have wrought to Sansa’s character have been somewhat understated, making Sophie Turner’s performance all the more remarkable. “The Mountain and the Viper” is the first time in some time Sansa’s been afforded an opportunity to act—not serve as a poison vehicle, not stand by as Littlefinger kills the king and saves her life, but to make a decision that’s literally life or death for someone else. And the choice she makes made me feel exactly the same way as when Arya was plunging a sword through Polliver’s throat all those weeks ago.
Instead of Needle, though, Sansa’s got her own weapon. When she’s asked to be the sole witness in Littlefinger’s trial, Sansa proves that her own mentor’s taught her to lie the way Arya’s has taught her to kill without regrets. Her particular style of lying happens to be the most effective: making untruth out of truth. The parallel version of reality she lays out also includes death and humiliation and even a kiss from Littlefinger. It just happens that the kiss from Littlefinger is now on the cheek, not the lips. And Lysa leapt out that Moon Door all on her own.
Picking Littlefinger over the nobles of the Vale, a dichotomy that’s nicely set up as the Westerosi equivalent of nouveau riche vs. WASP, isn’t a moral one for Sansa. It’s Machiavellian, her first move as an honest-to-gods player in the game. I love the Sansa who strolls out at the end of the episode in a feathered gown that puts even Dany’s recent getups to shame. She’s a person who’s learned to choose her allies out of strategy, not trust. Not to mention a giant middle finger to anyone who bought into the femininity-bad-tomboy-good trap that defined Arya and Sansa’s relationship back in season one. Both sisters are all grown up now, each in her own way.
Learning to embrace moral ambiguity gets Sansa leveled up this week. On the other end of the spectrum, sticking to his guns gets Oberyn killed—and, holy shit, is that a way to get killed! Given that it was preceded by a four-minute meditation on the senselessness of violence and death (plus three and a half seasons of anyone who’s anyone biting the dust), Oberyn’s loss to the Mountain shouldn’t come as a surprise. Just how he loses deserves a few words.
Oberyn’s almost beaten Gregor Clegane when the tables turn. The Mountain is on his back, where his massive size doesn’t matter, begging for a final spear jab to the eye socket. Yet that sudden reversal does more than pull a “gotcha!” on viewers and allow the SFX people to pull off a head explosion you know has been on someone’s bucket list for years. It’s the prince of Dorne’s insistence that he hear a confession that does him in, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Given that Elia Martell’s been in the ground two decades, it’s a gesture with a significance that’s all symbolic and no practicality. And Westeros is not kind to those who aren’t practical.
Now let’s go to Moat Cailin, the new opening-credits location that’s Westerosi slang for “there’s Theon scenes coming up, prepare to hit ‘fast forward’ like you’ve never hit it before!” Alfie Allen does a bang-up job of acting like a character who’s acting like his former character. This episode is also, however, the first time I can recall Ramsay getting a substantive scene without Reek around. (No, having sex while Yara storms his castle doesn’t count.) Roose officially makes Ramsay his kid now, making him heir to the entire North…you know, the same position dearly departed Robb Stark was in at the start of the series. Between Arya and the Hound’s ill-timed arrival and Ramsay the psychopath’s childlike joy at the news, that’s this week’s black comedy quota. Even the humor in this episode is dark!
To wrap up, we have Meereen, which remains as disconnected from the rest of the show as ever. Maybe it’s because, as a book reader, I know it’s a completely fabricated pairing, but Missandei and Grey Worm—I’m just gonna go right ahead and pronounce them un-portmanteau-able—didn’t do it for me. Was this an excuse to show Dany braiding her servant’s hair and dishing out some girl talk, thereby proving her Relatable? Because the extra screen time doesn’t tell us much more about either the Unsullied commander or the interpreter than we knew before, other than that Missandei is like every other woman on this show in that she has boobs. At least now I know what the world’s worst penis metaphor is!
Jorah’s dismissal, on the other hand, actually plays into the justice-or-mercy dilemma that’s informed Dany’s arc of late. In the books, Jorah gets canned before his queen settles into Meereen, so the thematic resonance of his punishment is new to the show. But I like how Dany’s decision to immediately exile her closest friend and most trusted adviser, not long after she went out of her way to make him feel valued, demonstrates where she draws the line when it comes to clemency. Governing subjects she doesn’t have any particular attachment to, moral opposition to slavery aside, is one thing. But a betrayal that led to a direct attempt on her life, not to mention her unborn child’s? That’s when mercy stops meaning forgiveness and starts meaning “leave in 24 hours and maybe my dragons won’t eat you.” Turns out Harsh Dany isn’t gone for good; she’s just learned to show her face at the right time.