sansa and arya plan

Game of Thrones season 7 spoilers begin immediately.

The conversation surrounding “Beyond the Wall,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones season 7, has generally revolved around that big final battle. I found Jon Snow and his ragtag band’s stand against the Night King’s forces to be as entertaining as it was frustrating. Others thought it shattered the show’s internal logic beyond repair. Since Sunday, we’ve talked about how far ravens can fly, how fast bastard blacksmiths can run, and just how long our heroes hung out on that rock before Daenerys flew to the rescue.

What we haven’t talked about as much are those scenes between Sansa Stark and Arya Stark back at Winterfell. Scenes that I’m now convinced that we all misunderstood. By design. Much like how Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish has been seemingly playing the Stark sisters, I think Game of Thrones has been playing us, hiding some crafty maneuvering in the middle of an episode otherwise focused on spectacle.

A special note before we continue: Game of Thrones season 7 has proven to be as leaky as Yara Greyjoy’s fleet and spoilers are out there. I’ve managed to avoid them and can assure you that nothing I write here was influenced by knowledge of what’s coming. However, if potential spoilers remain a concern and you just want to keep your head down until Sunday’s feature-length finale, consider this another spoiler warning – just in case this all does come to pass.

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Okay, So This Looks Bad

Before we dive into what may actually be going on, let’s run through a quick recap of what appears to be going on. Just as Littlefinger intended, Arya Stark found the years-old message from Sansa Stark, imploring then-alive Robb Stark to bend the knee to then-alive King Joffrey in the wake of then-alive Eddard Stark’s “treason.” And just as Littlefinger intended, this seemed to drive a wedge between the two sisters.

After all, they’ve been separated from one another for years and didn’t get along well when they did share a roof. Of course Arya isn’t going to immediately trust Sansa after her violent, difficult, and spirit-sapping road trip across Westeros and Essos, right? It’s entirely reasonable for her to think her pretty, pretty princess of an older sister could have betrayed her family, right? After spending time with the likes of the Hound and the Faceless Men (with one of the latter sticking a dagger in her gut), trust is probably not something Arya comes by easily.

And then there’s the sisters’ second encounter in “Beyond the Wall,” where Sansa investigates Arya’s room and finds her bag of dead men’s faces. It’s a creepy scene, made all the creepier by Arya’s threatening words and even more threatening gestures. Sure, she doesn’t actually do anything with that Valyrian steel dagger, but we know what she can do when she picks it up. The Stark sisters have gone from being wary of one another to seemingly threatening violence. Wedge effectively driven. Point for Littlefinger. Clearly.

Or maybe not. The problem with this scene as depicted is that it makes two of the smartest characters on Game of Thrones look awfully dumb. Sure, we can chalk this up to Stark characters generally making poor decisions (Jon, Ned, and Robb, for all of their bravery, were/are dummies), but Arya and Sansa have weathered the game that killed so many members of their House. Arya literally went to foreign assassin school after road tripping with a vicious killer. Sansa endured two marriages to members of enemy families and has grown a hide thick enough to stop an arrow. They’ve learned how to play the game and they’ve learned the hard way.

And that’s why I think these ladies are playing their cards close to the vest. And why Littlefinger is in trouble.

game of thrones sansa and arya 4

The Game of Faces

“Back in Braavos, before I got my first face, there was a game I used to play. The game of faces. It’s simple. I ask you a question about yourself and you try to make lies sound like the truth. If you fool me, you win. If I catch a lie, you lose. Let’s play.”

This quote from Arya may be the key to what’s really going on here. It’s practically how she greets Sansa after the discovery of the satchel full of faces, but it’s never really brought up again. It only sets the stage for the threats and accusations that follow. But what if it doesn’t just set the stage? What if it is the stage?

Let’s back up to the events of “Eastwatch,” where Arya spied on Littlefinger and noted that he has at least one Winterfell servant in his employ (and since this is Littlefinger, there are surely plenty more where that came from). Walls have ears when Petyr Baelish is around. This is something that has been long-established. The cleverest characters on Game of Thrones know where and when to speak and how to choose their words carefully. Especially when Littlefinger is in the vicinity.

So, how does one clever Stark woman let the other clever Stark woman know that they’re being watched and listened to and everything that happens to them has the potential of being sent right back to a man who would sell his own mother to advance one rung of his patented chaos ladder? Simple: you play the game of faces. Even if Sansa doesn’t quite get it yet (that may be a question for next week’s finale), Arya lets her know the rules of their conversation before it begins. They will tell lies and try to make them sound like truths. She will threaten her sister, suggest a murder and a coup…because she means quite the opposite. After all, under what other context would Arya, the tomboy-turned-assassin, talk about wanting to wear Sansa’s “pretty dresses”? Because she’s lying. And by lying, she’s communicating her actual truth.

That Valyrian steel dagger, which once almost took Bran’s life, may be another key. Anya’s flipping it around and handing it, hilt-first, to Sansa, feels like a very clear gesture if they’re playing the game of faces. I’m not going to kill you, that gesture indicates, but maybe it’s time for you to get your own hands bloody.

What’s not clear is if this is something Arya knew from the start or if it’s something Arya pieced together during her first conversation with Sansa on the platform overlooking Winterfell’s courtyard. That first conversation doesn’t quite support this line of thinking – their words are more brittle and less enigmatic, seemingly coming from actual pain instead of a clever game. However, if Arya knew that Littlefinger’s spies could be close, this would be the perfect place to test the waters. To plant the seed. To let Baelish think he was winning.

“Sometimes fear makes them do unfortunate things,” Arya says. “I’ll go with anger.” It’s time for Sansa to stop fearing what Littlefinger could do to House Stark and start getting angry with what he’s actually done.

game of thrones sansa and arya 2

Away With Brienne

This is admittedly a little wacky – when I first floated the idea to my /Film colleagues, Ben Pearson (who has been less kind to this season than me) responded with an immediate “Ugh.” However, I’m inclined to think it’s potentially a clever bit of misdirection, provided that the show sticks the landing in the finale. So often, characters on Game of Thrones talk about being clever, of talk about how clever other people are, but this would be a way for us to see actual, honest-to-R’hllor intrigue occurring under our very noses! Those sneaky Stark kids, taking a page from the Lannister playbook!

There are other moments to consider as well, but they don’t fit as cleanly into the puzzle (at least not yet). First, there’s Littlefinger taking his game a little further – he showers Sansa with compliments because she’s doing so well ruling the North in Jon’s absence before reminding her that Brienne of Tarth is obliged to “intercede” should Arya try any funny business. The message is clear: Brienne could take care of that little sister problem you’ve got. Don’t thank me. I’m just your best friend. This is just what I do.

But only a few scenes later, Sansa sends Brienne to King’s Landing to be her representative during the armistice talks with Daenerys and Cersei Lannister. Sansa’s explanation makes sense (why the hell would she want to go back to that place?), but the timing is peculiar. She’s sending away her most loyal bodyguard, against the advice of her most powerful advisor, at a time when she may be in danger? “I have work to do here,” Sansa explains…as she burns a stack of mysterious papers. She doesn’t “need to be watched over or minded or cared for.”

What if (and let’s pretend I got super-tacky and bolded, italicized and underlined that “if”) Sansa sent Brienne away because she would be watching the Stark sisters too closely to let them do what needed to be done? What if Brienne was too honorable to let them pull off a Lannister move and get their hands dirty?

Of course, the big issue here is that this scene takes place before the game of faces, so it’s not clear how much Sansa knows or if she’s even clued into Arya’s potential game of lies-as-truths thing. But we’re just spitballing for now, right?

littlefinger

What Could This Mean For Littlefinger?

Arya shares a story with Sansa during their first conversation in “Beyond the Wall.” It’s a nice story. A warm and fuzzy story. One that helps make the ensuing clash of wills sting all the more. Arya recalls finding Bran’s bow abandoned in the courtyard years ago, picking it up, and firing an arrow over and over again, knowing it was against the rules. And then she heard clapping – her father was watching from above, pleased to see her hit a bullseye. Even Eddard Stark, the most unfortunately noble and unbendable guy in the Seven Kingdoms, knew you sometimes had to go off the beaten path. Some systems, some codes, need to be broken. Arya had done wrong, but she was rewarded for it.

We’ve watched the Starks follow their code, their own set of rules, for seven seasons now. And for seven seasons, they’ve been murdered, betrayed, deceived, and brutalized. Something has to change. Someone in House Stark need to say enough is enough, pick up that bow, and fire the bullseye. Littlefinger represents everything that House Stark abhors, and to defeat him, this parasite who has made himself inseparable from those who have every reason to hate him the most, they may have to play like him. Sansa and Arya may have to lie in earshot of their spies. They may have to send away a knight so noble that she wouldn’t let them do what has to be done. They may have to murder Petyr Baelish and let Arya step into his shoes as a Faceless Man, ruling the Vale in his stead and maintaining their vital alliance.

“The world doesn’t let girls decide what they’re going to be,” Arya says, “I can become someone else.” And she may have to become Littlefinger. Plus, there’s this line, spoken from Sansa, that we heard in the trailer but haven’t heard on the show yet: “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.” That certainly sounds like the kind of thing the leader of a united house would say to the lone operator working in her midst…right before she kills him.

Of course, now I just have to sit back and wait for this Sunday’s season finale to prove me wrong.

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