The Evolution of Sansa Stark

Winter is here, and so is the new Lady in Winterfell. Time to revisit Sansa’s evolution from political pawn to powerful player

By AT&T Digital Media Productions editorial team 

Sansa-stark; game-of-thrones

Catelyn and Eddard Stark’s eldest daughter thought her story would go the way many medieval fantasies do: Get married, become a princess, and live happily ever after. Ah, Sansa, you sweet summer child. Didn’t you know Game of Thrones is no typical fantasy? Sansa Stark has suffered through one of the show’s darkest character arcs. Being a teenager is tumultuous enough, never mind suffering torture, abuse, and constant manipulation. But Sansa has borne it all in surprisingly stoic fashion, and with her new status as the top Stark in Winterfell, she’s completed her transition from little dove to political powerhouse.


Winterfell Part I

When we first meet Sansa, she’s a typical young highborn girl who places great value in courtly behavior, and constantly squabbles with her rebellious, tomboy sister Arya.

When the crown prince Joffrey arrives at Winterfell, Sansa is immediately smitten. When their fathers suggest a betrothal, she’s over the moon. Well, Sansa, time to head to King's Landing to live out all of your dreams…


King's Landing

Sansa doesn’t even make it halfway to the capital before the facade begins to crack. Her first lesson comes when King Robert executes Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, for a crime she didn’t commit. In a bit of on-the-nose foreshadowing, her direwolf’s death strikes a blow against Sansa’s dream of ladyhood. But she pushes this loss inward, still confident that she will get her happy ending.

After arriving at King’s Landing, Cersei manipulates Sansa into declaring her father a traitor. Taken with the glamour of court, Sansa clings to the hope that the decision will ensure her the life she was promised.

Her real transition from princess-in-training to prisoner comes when Joffrey promises mercy for Ned’s alleged treason, only to have him executed in front of her. Later, Joffrey forces her to look at her father’s decapitated head, among other petty cruelties. Joffrey has Sansa beaten and humiliated, but out of self-preservation she continues to feign loyalty to the Lannisters.

Once Joffrey renounces his intent to marry her, Sansa realizes that she’s to remain a prisoner at King’s Landing for the rest of her life. She develops a peculiar relationship with Joffrey’s newly betrothed, Margaery Tyrell, and it’s her understanding of the world that makes her an important mentor to Sansa. Margaery shows her how to manipulate others with brains and beauty, not a Lannisters’ cruelty.


Margaery offers to help Sansa escape King’s Landing by suggesting she marry her brother, Loras Tryell. While Sansa has become jaded with the idea of wedded bliss, she sees this generous offer for what it is: a light at the end of the tunnel.

Just in time for Sansa to believe she is truly free from the lions’ den, Tywin Lannister marries her off to his youngest son Tyrion in an attempt to force the North’s loyalty. While she comes to appreciate Tyrion’s inherent goodness, the humiliating forced marriage reaffirms her status as a political pawn.

Just when she becomes resigned to her loveless marriage, the chaos surrounding Joffrey’s shocking murder offers her a way out. Sansa’s mysterious benefactor is the master manipulator, Petyr Baelish. Though relieved to be (somewhat) free, Sansa quickly learns that she played an unwitting role in the assassination. In other words, she’s still a player in someone else’s game.


The Eyrie

Littlefinger whisks Sansa away to the Eyrie in the Vale under the pretense that she is his niece, Alayne Stone. While at the mountain castle, Sansa witnesses Littlefinger puppeteering his new wife, her aunt Lysa. After a couple Auntie Dearest bonding moments, Sansa realizes that Lysa is mentally unstable, and she’ll have to watch her back even among family.

Frankly, Lysa is the least of her worries. When Sansa questions why he really had Joffrey killed, Littlefinger claims that he did it for Catelyn, the only woman he ever loved. He then plants an extremely creepy kiss on Sansa in full view of her aunt, driving Lysa into a jealous rage. After calming the situation, Littlefinger shoves Lysa through the Moon Door, reminding her that he’s only ever had eyes for Cat.

In this shocking moment that Sansa becomes aware of two things: Littlefinger is fetishizing her as Catelyn Lite, and he’s willing to betray anyone to get what he wants.

As the lords of the Vale seek the truth of Lysa’s death, Sansa surprises everyone by corroborating Littlefinger’s lie and revealing her true identity as a Stark. No one would believe some bastard niece of a minor lord, but the eldest daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark? To paraphrase Sansa’s (tor)mentor Cersei: when you have the right last name, your truth becomes the truth.

By the time she leaves the Eyrie, even Sansa’s appearance reflects her new position in the world. With raven hair and a glorious black feathered dress, Sansa descends the steps of the Eyrie with a newly earned fierceness.


Return to Winterfell

Lest we forget, this is Game of Thrones, and that means Sansa’s time on top is short-lived. Littlefinger delivers her to Ramsay and Roose Bolton, another family who has betrayed the Starks, and Sansa’s troubles begin anew.

Though she’s apprehensive of the marriage—and who can blame her at this point?—Littlefinger convinces Sansa that she can win Ramsay over and spin the situation to her advantage. After all, she’s learned from the best, right? Sansa tries to project strength in her ancestral home, but even she is no match for Ramsay, who reveals himself to be the sadistic monster we all knew he was. Beginning on their wedding night, she becomes a prisoner in her own home, subjected to psychological, physical, and sexual assault.

Despite all she has endured, Sansa remains—to borrow the words of another great house—unbowed, unbent, unbroken. She makes a daring escape from Winterfell with the help of Theon Greyjoy, taking a literal leap of faith from the castle walls into the snowbanks below.


Castle Black

On the run from Ramsay’s posse, Sansa finally gets a break when Brienne of Tarth swoops in to save the day. Previously, while on the road to Winterfell with Baelish, Sansa rejected Brienne’s aid. But since then, she has learned from her mistakes, and this time Sansa wisely welcomes Brienne into her service.

At Castle Black, Sansa sees a welcome and familiar face, her half-brother Jon Snow. Intent on reclaiming their home from the monster that’s taken it over, Sansa convinces a reluctant Jon to rally the remaining Stark loyalists and retake Winterfell.

Instead of sitting on the sidelines and doing as she is told, Sansa is quick to interject in military matters. She proves herself smart and strategic, predicting Ramsay’s traps and even going behind Jon’s back to enlist the Knights of the Vale, a move that proves critical to Jon’s success. She even stands up to her old pal Littlefinger, rejecting his romantic advances and making it clear she owes him nothing for his aid in raising the Vale army.


Winterfell Part III

With the conquest of Winterfell complete, Sansa finally gets her revenge, feeding her former captor Ramsay to his own hounds. Viewers may have stood up and cheered, but Sansa only gives the faintest of smiles. Anything else would be unbecoming of the Lady of Winterfell.

In the Season 7 premiere, Sansa asserts herself in front of the assembled Northern lords, suggesting that houses who betrayed the Starks pay for their treason with their lands. While she’s ultimately overruled by Jon, the very act of public disagreement reflects Sansa’s growing confidence.

As the newly crowned King in the North prepares for the White Walkers, Jon receives a raven from the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Once again, Sansa’s insight reveals her to be savvier in many ways than her bastard brother. While Jon was freezing at the Wall, Sansa survived in just as harsh a climate. Given some time to reflect, Sansa realizes she learned a great deal from her time at King’s Landing and firsthand dealings with Cersei.  

While Jon is visibly horrified to hear this, Sansa stands convincingly self-assured. Their sibling dynamic has shifted from protector and princess to much more of a partnership of equals. With Jon at Dragonstone mining dragonglass after his shaky first meeting Daenerys Targaryen, Sansa now wields sole power of the North, showing off her knowledge of grain stores and building armor. With winter having finally arrived, so has she achieved her final form.


2019 Game of Thrones, exclusively on HBO.