Last week, patron saint of procrastinators George R.R. Martin got all of geekdom to stop breathing down his neck by releasing a new chapter from The Winds of Winter, the sixth installment of the A Song of Ice and Fire saga. It’s not quite a release date, but since we won’t have new Game of Thrones for another five days or a full book until God knows when, it’s time for the next best thing: a gratuitous overanalysis of the new chapter and what it means for its heroine, the artist formerly known as Sansa Stark! Spoilers for the first five books of A Song of Ice and Fire, and thus the entirety of Game of Thrones, follow.
First, a summary: like some other characters in the series — most notably, Theon and her own sister — “Sansa” no longer goes by her given name; in fact, she’s settled so completely into her guise as Littlefinger’s (nonexistent) bastard daughter Alayne Stone that both the chapter title and her own internal monologue refer to her exclusively as “Alayne.” The fluidity of identity in an age before social security numbers or even photographs is one of Martin’s favorite facts of life to play with in Westeros, a continent the size of South America. Back in Winterfell, the Boltons are able to pass off a steward’s daughter as Arya Stark on dark hair and youth alone; thousands of miles away, especially a place as isolated as the Vale, no one has a clue what Sansa looks like.
Which leaves Littlefinger free to craft Sansa into whatever he needs her to be. For now, that’s Alayne, daughter of the Vale’s Lord Protector — read: de facto ruler, now that Lysa’s dead and the actual ruler is a ten-year-old kid who, as readers learned in one of the books’ grosser scenes, breastfed about six years too long — and fiancé of the only other man in the Vale with a legitimate claim to the Eyrie. That would be Harrold Hardyng, better known as Harry the Heir, the nephew of Jon Arryn. (Remember him? He’s the guy whose death started this whole mess. Remember when Lysa told us who killed him, right before Littlefinger took her on a mile-long vertical walk? Petyr Baelish ain’t nothing to fuck with.)
This sounds kind of boring, until one remembers that once Alayne marries Harry, that poor ten-year-old becomes expendable. She’s aware of this on some level, but doesn’t much care. She’s developed into Littlefinger’s full-on co-conspirator, a reclamation of agency that leaves her feeling like more of a person than a pawn for the first time in years: “Alayne loved it here. She felt alive again, for the first since her father… since Lord Eddard Stark had died.”
The sample chapter’s action is fairly mundane; Littlefinger’s organized a tournament that’s basically an excuse to get Harry in a room with Alayne, where she can then work her magic. Harry is initially loathsome, calling Alayne a bastard in mixed company — a label that, as we know from Jon Snow, would cut deep were it actually true. But Alayne, ever the charmer, wins him over, and by the end of the night Harry asks for her favor in the tournament. On Littlefinger’s advice, she plays hard to get: “‘It is promised to… another.’ She was not sure who as yet, but she knew she would find someone.”
Nowhere near as exciting as a certain assassin-in-training’s seduction and murder of a soldier from the last sample chapter, but it’s just as revealing of the character’s evolution. Sansa and Arya have always made for useful foils, in fact, and a comparison of where they stand as of right now yields some fascinating overlap. Both have abandoned their identity as Starks; both have started to recognize and master their sexuality as a means of controlling and influencing others.
Sansa, on the other hand, is significantly further along in that process. Where Arya crudely talks a soldier into being alone with her so she can resort to the physical, and masculine, violence that’s her preferred means of self-actualizing, Sansa has embraced her femininity to a much greater extent. And where Arya’s efforts to become a Faceless Man are ultimately doomed because she holds onto her identity and the grudges that come with it, Sansa is all too happy to leave behind the pain and abuse that came with being a Stark.
Thanks to Lysa, Sansa’s now well aware that Littlefinger is indirectly responsible for her family’s demise. But that doesn’t matter to her nearly as much as the opportunity he affords her to be active rather than passive, to be part of a plot rather than its unwitting victim. Sansa’s form of violence may be subtler and longer in the making than Arya’s. The control it buys her, however, is the same.