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Analysis

The Afterthought Starks

Another episode, another heartwarming Stark sibling reunion. Well, I say heartwarming. It warmed half my heart as Sansa embraced her brother, and her brother said, “Hello, Sansa,” with all the heartfelt relief of a cardboard box.

It was a challenge for the writers and no mistake, as two characters they’ve never much cared about had to sustain meaningful character interaction over whole minutes of screentime.

Sansa’s Brain

We returned to Winterfell late in the episode to see Sansa getting stuff done. She’s looking after the food situation. She’s looking after the armour situation (research fail aside—putting leather over breastplates is not a thing). She is, in short, doing her job, just like I’ve been wanting her to do for quite a while now.

So what’s my problem?

It’s pandering again, and it’s lazy.

What Sansa is doing here is, to be honest, the bare minimum. Arranging for food was something that needed to be done last season. It’s a matter of course, a day-to-day necessity, the sort of thing literally every other leader in the country either does, should have been doing, or delegated. It’s the sort of thing that she would have grown up watching her parents do. This sort of household management is so basic that in the books, eight-year-old Arya was getting started on lessons how to do this.

This happened in season five as well, as we got a scene proving how politically savvy Sansa was for…pointing out that Ramsay was bastard-born, and that this affects his claim to the North. What amazing insight she has!

The issue in this is that we’re expected to accept this sort of thing as proof of savvy. The writers have lowered the bar (dramatically, as we see with poor Jon Snow), and Sansa reaching a bare standard of competence is now exceptional. Their way to make Sansa look good is to make everyone else look bad. It doesn’t work, and it’s insulting to everyone in-universe and out. The logical reaction to Sansa arranging for food shouldn’t be “how brilliant!” as her entourage in the show were treating it this episode, but “…why is she the only one thinking about this?”

Not to mention the fact that this is a discrete scene meant to prove Sansa’s intelligence and suitability for command. That says something about the writing—that the writers have not previously thought how to integrate Sansa’s talents into the plot, and now have to tack it on artificially.

Did we ever need a scene expressly demonstrating Tyrion’s intelligence like this? Margaery’s? Varys’s? No. Because the writers continued on with the plot and let the characters demonstrate their mental chops as a natural part of the story. What I wanted was a Sansa who knew how she could be contributing and did so as a matter of course. Not for the plot to stop while people ooh and aah at her ability to work out that people may need to eat and stay warm.

Bran’s Heart

The thing about writing about show!Bran is that there isn’t much to write about, except Bran’s non-presence as a character in his own story since season three. Season six showed glimmers of improvement, as Bran reacted to some of the things he learned in his flashbacks. He asked to stay longer to watch his father as a child. He sought out additional information. He interacted with Bloodraven and his uncle (though the non-reaction to Hodor’s death was as offensive under the circumstances as it was baffling) like he was an actual person with actual relationships. A lot of that was Isaac Hempstead-Wright giving his all to bring some life to a character whose plot was watching flashbacks.

It’s all the more devastating to see that this season, he’s literally devoid of everything that made him Bran Stark.

This is a character boiled down to pure functionality. He’s empty of everything except exposition and cryptic dialogue. There’s no sense of sacrifice. No sense of struggle. No sense of motivation or desire. Bran touched a tree last season, and the reveal of Jon’s parentage knocked all the character out of him.

I honestly don’t have the words to describe how upsetting I find this. Bran’s storyline has been treated as an inconvenient obligation for a long time, and now it’s culminating with the convenient obliteration of Bran as a character, without much sense that this was a choice Bran made, or that this loss of personhood is a temporary thing that will fade as Bran gains expertise with his powers. The Three-Eyed Raven sure wasn’t as emotionless and disconnected from reality as Bran is right now.

Perhaps worst of all, this decision is anti-empathy. If Bran doesn’t care about anything, not even being reunited with a sister who hasn’t seen him for years and believed him dead for a good part of that time, what’s there to care about in Bran’s character?

Let’s Talk Exposition

Then there was the other bit of ugliness in Bran and Sansa’s reunion. I am, of course, referring to how the writers continue to exploit and justify their decision to write Sansa’s rape. Not out of any desire to address the topic as seriously as it deserve to be dealt with, mind you, but rather for shock value.

This was not Sansa bringing up her experience of rape on her own terms for the betterment of her own mental health. It was not Sansa commiserating with her brother over the various traumatic things they had both experienced since they last saw each other. It was a third party bringing up Sansa’s rape to hurt her all over again, to the point where Sansa fled the brother she’d just embraced.

And finally, there’s this one little grammar issue. The words “had to.”

“I’m sorry for all that’s happened to you. I’m sorry it had to happen here, in our home.”

Bran, the voice of exposition on the show, told us this episode that Sansa “had to” be raped. The character who is so overwhelmed with his nigh-omniscience that he cannot manage to be a character, just informed the audience that Sansa “had to” be raped. A character like this, with these abilities, cannot use the words “had to” lightly, as they have a broader, more complete perspective on events than any other. This is as close to the writers speaking through the characters as we’re likely to get, and they are persisting with the disingenuous tripe that they had no choice but to write in a rape-revenge plot.

This was an entirely optional bit of phrasing, too. Bran could have said he was sorry for what happened to Sansa, no comment on her destiny of rape and its necessity for whatever narrative purposes the writers have decided on. Or he could have brought up the fact he was sorry Sansa had to see their father beheaded. Definitely no creepy comments on how beautiful she was that night, complete with a reminder of her white wedding dress, was needed at any point. Instead the writers put the words into Bran’s mouth—Sansa had to be raped.

I don’t buy it.

In Sum

There were characters. They interacted for a few minutes. And the showrunners will only ever do the bare minimum to show the good points of either. But enough of that nonsense, two more major castles have to fall before the end of the episode!


Images courtesy of HBO

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