Another Game of Thrones season has come and gone … and boy, this was a rough one. Fraught with controversy and roller coaster ratings, season 5 came to a close with a finale that was itself … imperfect, offering little resolution to most characters’ stories and topped off with a death scene so devastating it has some fans going, “Enough, I’m done. This is too much.” However, one plotline was, to my mind, superbly concluded: Winterfell’s … or at least Sansa and Theon’s. Yes, the plot that garnered the most controversy ended with the most satisfying cliffhanger/resolution, as Sansa and Theon leapt from the ramparts of Winterfell, hand in hand.
Perhaps what makes it such a satisfying conclusion is that Sansa and Theon’s plot was an exceptionally tricky one to get right in the first place. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss chose to consolidate Sansa Stark and Jeyne Poole’s storylines, omitting the latter entirely and marrying Sansa to Ramsay in her place. Controversial as it was, I do think it was the right call, as Sansa’s plot in the Eyrie has been duller than tar and Jeyne was less a character than a plot device for Theon’s redemption. The caveat, however, was that consolidating the two plots effectively pit two character arcs against each other. Theon needed to rescue a Stark to begin rectifying his betrayal. Sansa needed to engineer her own escape to grow as a character. In other words, they both needed to save Sansa.
This underlying thematic clash was brought out in much of the criticism against Sansa’s marital rape by Ramsay. Many argued that the assault stripped Sansa of her agency and gave it to Theon, since the scene cuts to black on a close up of his face, not hers. Was this plot development intended to motivate Theon to “snap out of it” (a phrase that betrays an infuriating ignorance of fear conditioning)? Had Sansa been demoted from empowered heroine to damsel in distress? Was Theon’s arc taking precedence over Sansa’s? All inevitable and valid concerns that spawned from switching out a human plot device like Jeyne for a well-developed character like Sansa.
And in truth, much as I hate to admit it, Game of Thrones did end up favoring Theon’s arc over Sansa’s. Sure, she extricates herself from her room using the stolen corkscrew (which I’d hoped would find a bloodier usage lodged in Ramsay’s eye socket, but … there’s always next season), but he kills Myranda. He grabs Sansa’s arm and guides her up the ramparts. It’s his idea to jump.
And … look, I’m not going to defend that. I’d have preferred Theon go into shock after pushing Myranda over the rail (which would have been more consistent with his mental state, anyway), leaving it to Sansa to guide him up the wall and make the decision to jump, thus allowing both characters the opportunity to “be the hero.” But that’s not what happened and, accepting that reality, I am satisfied with what did.
Because Sansa does play a proactive part in their escape, just one that leads to a different thematic conclusion than I’d expected. She takes on Bran’s role from the books as the Stark child who gives Theon back his identity. In A Dance With Dragons, Theon hears Bran say his name through Winterfell’s weirwood and believes it to be a sign of recognition from the old gods. This later gives him the strength to resist slipping back into his Reek persona. In a series as unsentimental as A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s a remarkable moment of grace. In “Mother’s Mercy,” Sansa defies Myranda and states, quite pointedly at Theon, “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” This, compounded with Myranda’s promise to mutilate Sansa as Ramsay mutilated him, is what snaps Theon into action.
Yet, if I took this season’s Winterfell plot to be How Theon Got His Groove Back, I’d consider it a poorly paced quagmire of storytelling (which, in some respects, I still do *cough* Brienne *cough*). The reason I find that Sansa and Theon’s story works is because, ultimately, it’s not about Theon’s renewed heroism … not really. Theon’s break from Ramsay’s control is a huge turning point for both him and Sansa, to be sure, but the pivotal moment in their final scene, the moment that’s lingered upon and accompanied by a meaningful music cue, isn’t Theon killing Myranda or leading Sansa up the wall. It’s Sansa and Theon joining hands before they jump.
Theon doesn’t grab a cowering Sansa about the waist, as he does Jeyne, and leap from the ramparts. He and Sansa jump together. She takes his hand, as she refused to before wedding Ramsay, and, in that moment, they make peace with one another, two victims of the same man’s brutality, united in a desperate bid to escape.
Yes, in “Mother’s Mercy” Theon finally starts making good decisions and, yes, Sansa has more agency fleeing Winterfell than she ever had at King’s Landing or the Eyrie. But Theon’s still far from “okay,” physically, mentally or morally and Sansa still requires intervention from a third party.
In the end, their story isn’t about redemption or empowerment. It’s not about saving Sansa. It’s about reconciliation. And on a show as unrelenting and unforgiving as Game of Thrones, that’s a story worth holding on to.