In the game of thrones, you compromise or you die. However, that doesn’t seem to be happening with Sansa Stark and Daenerys Targaryen in the season eight premiere of Game of Thrones. The two are clearly on opposite sides of a big ideological divide, and it might be hard for them to find common ground. Is this clever character work, or bad writing? io9's Beth Elderkin and James Whitbrook chat about the biggest battle in the season eight premiere, “Winterfell,” and how to resolve it.
Beth Elderkin: Welcome to Battle of Thrones, or whatever we’re calling it. Every week, we’re going to be chatting about the biggest battle from each episode of Game of Thrones. Now, of course we’re all looking toward that upcoming Battle of Winterfell—the zombiepocalypse awaits. But there are plenty of other battles on the show. Mental, emotional, even moral. And with all the reunions and “looks” we saw this episode, lots of wars were brewing. This week, it’s me and James. Hey James!
James Whitbrook: Hello!
Beth: This week the one that really stood out to me was the battle between Sansa Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. Not just because it’s clear these two are on opposite sides, and it’s going to be a big deal down the road, but also because it came with a bit of controversy.
In the first episode, “Winterfell,” Daenerys has arrived at Winterfell with her army, her boyfriend, and her dragons. In her mind, she’s the Queen of Westeros, but she hasn’t really bothered checking if the North is cool with that. She kind of doesn’t care. She’s greeted rather coldly by Sansa, who makes it clear she sees practical flaws in Daenerys and Jon Snow’s plan, and doesn’t seem to respect her rule. I wanted to start by asking you about your first impressions. Who’s in the right here, if anyone?
James: Well, I think it’s not really a matter of who’s necessarily right between Sansa and Daenerys, although the latter’s general attitude to the discontent is not entirely a favorable thing. They have different priorities that have been born from the respective roads both Sansa and Dany have gone down across the past seven seasons, roads that have forged them into very different people.
Daenerys just expects to show up with titles and dragons, fight, and get her kingdom as she’s wanted from the beginning. Sansa’s quest for survival is...more practical. She has spent her life having around enough people to give anyone trust issues, but at the same time, as Lady of Winterfell, she already has a taste of the practicality of rule—how to feed people, how to marshal forces, the day-to-day management of running a kingdom. Maybe not to the scale Daenerys did in her travails across Essos, but Dany had advisors and legions to deal with that. Sansa has learned these skills from the ground up herself.
Beth: My personal opinion is that Daenerys isn’t handling herself well here. Granted, she’s brought a bunch of soldiers with her to fight for the North, but her arrogance is catching up with her. Sansa sees right through Daenerys’ claims and games and has well grown past being tolerant. For example, there was that moment the two of them first met, where Daenerys commented on how pretty Sansa is. Reminds you of another queen, yes?
James: There are so many parallels to that first episode here, but absolutely—and it’s a great thematic connection, given we got to see Daenerys and Cersei dance around each other last season. Daenerys is just baffled by the idea of someone not immediately accepting her grandeur in a way that is both obviously very dangerous—and something Sansa can see through—but at the same time...she did bring dragons. Like, are there issues brewing here that Sansa is right to be skeptical about? Yes, and as we get to see her allege later on to Tyrion, we know she’s going to be proved right about that practical skepticism. But dragons! That’s gotta count for something, right?
Beth: Two hungry creepy staring dragons.
James: What I find most fascinating about this conflict, within the confines of this episode, is how...indirect it is. It’s very much two powerful women scoping each other out, but not yet actually confronting each other about their division yet. It’s revealed in glances here and there, in conversations with the people around them in each other’s circles.
Beth: Exactly. There are a couple of scenes where this conflict is most apparent, but most of them are with different people. They go beyond the side-eye Sansa gives Daenerys during both of their group encounters (they look to be having at least one scene together next episode). One of them is during her conversation with Tyrion, where she points out how he’s an idiot for trusting Cersei after all she’s done. Was it just me, or did that come with an undertone of, “You’ve become weak by putting all your trust in this person”—and by person, I mean Daenerys. Tyrion thrived when he didn’t trust anybody. Putting all his faith in Daenerys has blinded him to other people’s flaws, including his own sister’s.
James: The conversation between Jon and Sansa when she asks if he did it for love for the North is incredibly telling about who Sansa has become in being forged by her experiences over the show. That vibe of not just practical reality of the dire situation, but at the same time, an almost cold veneer—like you said, she’s needling Jon for compromising himself instead of negotiating a better deal with Dany.
Beth: She knows better than anybody by this point how love can fail you.
James: And, frankly, it actually drew me back to another conflict from last season—the drama between Sansa and Arya. But it drew me back as a reminder that there, that conflict didn’t feel earned in the way the discontent between Sansa and Daenerys does here.
Beth: I remember when the whole Arya and Sansa thing was happening, there was some justifiable criticism about how it seemed to be turning two sisters against each other from no reason other than creating drama. I’ve seen some people claiming that here, that the showrunners continue to craft “cat fights” because they don’t know how to make women work together. But in this case, I find I disagree. What about you?
James: I think this conflict is very different to Arya and Sansa’s—and one that makes a lot more sense. Both Sansa and Arya have gone through hell in this show—different hells, but hell nonetheless—and it taking a lot longer than the two of them should to realize what they’d both learned from their experiences made for such a clumsily handled piece of drama, that, like you said, felt manufactured. Here, where you get to actually see two characters who have been on hard, but incredibly contrasted journeys come together and realize, almost immediately, how different their paths are.
Beth: I think it’s unfair to assume that women being on opposite sides is the result of sexist writing (although it is something that can and does happen). Women don’t always get along. They can argue, they can fight, they can hate everything the other one stands for. It’s called the human experience. What is sexist is not understanding your characters and their motivations, and assuming that women having different opinions is the same as a cat fight.
James: Agreed. There’s still plenty of time to see how this particular conflict pans out, but for now I don’t see it as particularly “cat fight-y”—although I’ll note it was very interesting to see that this was a conflict Dany and Sansa both discussed with the men in their lives, more so than the women, so far. Like, I’d be very intrigued to see the conversation Sansa would have with Arya about what she thinks of Daenerys right now, and Daenerys with Missandei.
Beth: That’s a really interesting point, especially because those women have been their confidants for so long.
James: As long as it doesn’t end with a mudslinging hair-pulling fight in the Winterfell courtyard, that is! Then we know we’ve entered terrible cat-fight drama territory.
Beth: While I don’t agree with Daenerys, I worry I’m not being fair to her side. Can we see where she’s coming from, and do you think there’s a way she can come to terms with Sansa without ultimately choosing to default to her “I’m the queen do what I say” mode? Because right now I’m not seeing it.
James: I think what Daenerys needs to realize is that she has to make her case to Sansa a practical one. She can’t be hung up on just striding into Winterfell and lording herself over the people there—she has to approach Sansa as an equal, but also acknowledge that, frankly, like Bran said: Now is not the time to necessarily look a gift-dragon in the mouth.
They’ll find common ground in realizing that they need things from each other—someone as level-headed and experienced as Sansa has become matched with the might Daenerys’ lofty pull has brought with it—to make it out of this alive. Or at least, you hope they will, otherwise they’re probably ice-zombie fodder. And we know all too well what Game of Thrones is like when it comes to giving us hope, don’t we?
Beth: That makes a lot of sense. I just worry Daenerys won’t be able to do that, but somehow it’ll all work out anyway. Then again, the Jon parentage reveal will throw a major wrench in Daenerys’ rule, so that may change their dynamic altogether. Suddenly, there’s a reason for Daenerys not to assume she’s the rightful queen that everybody has to obey. She could go one of two ways: Recognize that she needs to cool down a bit and listen to Sansa, or dig in her heels and find herself at odds with everyone else.
James: And that way...madness lies, I guess is the blunt way to put that. But absolutely—this is a conflict that is less about immediate sparks flying and more how it’s a powder keg that’s been conveniently placed around other sparks for now. Could it blow up in Sansa, Dany, and everyone else’s faces? Could the sparks fly elsewhere? We’ll have to wait and see. But as the season continues, I’m very interested to see these two characters come together more directly.
Beth: We’ll have to wait and see for next week’s battle to see how it plays out. Could be victory, could be death. Valar Morghulis…except they are not men.
James: Yeah, they’re gonna have to find the feminine-pronoun version of that one in the High Valyrian dictionary by the end of this season, I think.
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