Game of Thrones fans were in for a lot of shocks this past week, and while it might not have been the most shocking moment, the arresting sight of Sansa Stark descending the stairs in her dead aunt’s dress certainly ranked up there. It didn't become an instant meme like one particular moment, but Sansa’s costume change may matter the most going forward. Because Game of Thrones has finally given up telling stories about girls. It’s telling one about women instead.
Half of the main cast of characters in George R.R. Martin’s books are children. Not just the Stark kids, but also Daenerys and the Lannister brood, Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen. The kids were aged up for the TV series, not just for practical reasons, but also to make an already controversial show slightly more palatable to viewers. We were spared the image of a 13-year-old Dany getting raped, a 7-year-old Bran sailing out the window, and a 15-year-old Jon killing his mentor and celebrating with steamy cave sex.
However, this made for some strange storytelling in the earlier, more faithful-to-the-books seasons. Book readers would frequently have to explain things to their frustrated show-watcher friends. “Yeah, I know Jon is a bit of a wuss, but he’s only a kid in the book, so it makes more sense. Sure, I understand Sansa is a bit insipid, but she’s only 11 when the books begin so, I swear, it makes more sense.” And it only got worse as the gap between the age of the characters in the show and those in the books widened. In an interview this March, George R.R. Martin explained the problem to Vanity Fair:
This is a serious concern. Maisie was the same age as Arya when it started, but now Maisie is a young woman and Arya is still 11. Time is passing very slowly in the books and very fast in real life.
**Maisie Williams was actually 12 years old when she was cast in Game of Thrones. Arya Stark is nine at the start of the book series.
As long as the show remained book faithful, something was going to be a little off. Game of Thrones was peddling the plots and actions of children acted out in increasingly adult bodies. This seemed only somewhat confusing with the men on the show. (Would an adult Robb Stark really have made such an ill-advised marriage? Doesn’t that seem like the impulsive action of a 15 year old?). But the incongruity had even worse implications for the female characters.
Possibly because of its penchant for gender-imbalanced nudity, Game of Thrones is often under scrutiny for being sexist or even misogynist. And so childish weakness in the female characters becomes more than just a case of a slightly wonky adaptation. Once again, you can explain to your show-watcher friends that Dany’s Season 2 tantrums about her dragons make more sense if they’re coming from a teenager, but that doesn’t mean those tantrums should have stayed in the script.
But as Game of Thrones the show departs more and more from the books, things are looking up for the younger women in the cast. The writers seem to have realized they can’t keep writing a girl’s story for a grown woman, and that it’s time for the younger cast to join the ranks of the Cerseis and Briennes. In the books, for instance, Dany spends a lot of time fretting and worrying over whether she should take Daario Naharis to bed. How refreshing, then, to see this grown woman, a powerful queen, engage in a sexual encounter with confidence and without backlash. Emilia Clarke, in full possession of her 27 years, even got to enjoy a very typically male gaze when assessing her mate.
Arya, too, has been made much darker than the book version. Which makes sense; we should be very troubled by the path she’s treading. It would be one thing to see that tiny food-flinging Arya up there kill someone, but things have to get much scarier for us to fear for the sanity of 17-year-old Maisie Williams. And though Williams herself described Arya’s laughter in this week’s episode as “this little girl giggling in the sunlight,” the context of the scene made for a disturbing tableau.
Changes aren’t just reserved for the girls; we’ve already discussed the improved Jon Snow departures this season. And while 13-year-old Prince Joffrey in the books was pretty bad (killing Ned Stark is unforgivable in any context), he didn’t murder bastard babies or skewer prostitutes with crossbows for fun. But Jack Gleeson, who is in his early 20s now, had to be a monster if he wasn’t going to be a boy tyrant. How else would we properly enjoy this scene?
But the evolution and book departures for the Aryas, Danys, and Joffreys pale in comparison to the change in Sansa Stark’s story. The show version of Sansa has never been a fan favorite. She’s largely unsympathetic in the first season, and in subsequent seasons was stuck being a helpless, manipulated pawn. We could sympathize with Sansa, but her ensnared vulnerability may have landed better if she were 11 years old, as she is at the start of the books. But in this week’s episode, Sansa’s story took a hard turn. In the books, there is a tertiary character, Marillion the Bard, who is on hand when Lyssa goes out the moon door. Baelish blames him for Lyssa’s death, and though she passively backs Littlefinger’s story, Sansa’s role in his absolution isn’t quite so integral. From her impressive courtroom testimony (not in the books). . .
. . . to her confident manipulation of Littlefinger (not in the books) . . .
. . . to, finally, that stairway entrance (you guessed it, not in the books), Sansa Stark, the woman, has finally arrived on the scene. In the growling words of Lord Baelish, “You’re not a child any longer.” Actress Sophie Turner recently spoke to Vanity Fair about this change in her character:
So my character, there’s a big evolution for her this season. Like, a big one coming up. I’m so excited. She begins to manipulate. [. . .] Because the show is kind of just an adaptation, so it will probably just drift further and further apart.
You could argue, if you were so inclined, that Sansa is still the manipulatee, rather than the manipulator. But when Baelish asked her about her testimony, she explains that her motivation was to defend herself, not her new mentor. She’s thinking like Littlefinger, three moves ahead on the chess board. Also, when book Sansa dyes her hair and starts wearing her aunt’s clothing, it’s because Littlefinger has made her. Doesn’t it feel much more like a personal, self-actualized choice for show Sansa? It’s true that in the case of both Sansa and Arya, we see the influence of their “dark” surrogate fathers, Littlefinger and the Hound, respectively. But for Sansa, it doesn’t seem to me like she’s lost any control or concept of who she is. Quite the contrary.
And while I was the first to say that Sansa’s “dark” look was a little extreme (shades of Katniss), I think it was important to establish Sansa’s look as very different from the soft, pale, girlish robes she wore at King’s Landing. Compare this shot again . . .
. . . to the last time we saw a significant Sansa-on-the-stairs moment.
It seems Sansa’s always having pivotal moments on stairs. It should be noted that Sansa’s friend in King’s Landing, Margaery Tyrell (16 in the book), never exhibited this girl-trapped-in-a-woman’s-body syndrome. Chalk that up to book Margaery being precociously canny.
All in all, great strides were made for the female characters in Game of Thrones this week. Yes, even for naked Missandei, who is 10 years old in the books. The way Nathalie Emmanuel stood up somewhat proudly before covering herself, and then later telling Grey Worm she was glad he saw her, felt strong, not weak. In fact, Grey Worm seems like the vulnerable one in this context. Missandei’s conversation with Dany may not have passed the Bechdel test, but it didn’t set either woman back in any way. By departing more and more from the books, Game of Thrones has made a better environment for women. Bring it on.