Most fans will remember “Book of the Stranger” for its finale. Daenerys Targaryen’s fiery coup over the Dothraki leadership certainly marks a turning point for the story. For me, this was the episode when I realized the potential of Sansa Stark.
I admit that I hadn’t been a fan of Sansa Stark. During the first season, she came across as a petulant brat who was willfully blind to Joffrey Lannister’s flaws. During the second and third seasons, I sympathized with her suffering, but didn’t find her to be a particularly interesting character. She had become a passive victim, little more than the object of Joffrey’s abuse. She seemed resigned to her fate. The contrast with Margaery is telling. Rather than put up with Joffrey’s abuse, Margaery learned how to manipulate him (something Sansa never did).
Sansa started to acquire more agency after her escape from King’s Landing near the beginning of Season 4. She began to make decisions and engage in long-term strategic thinking. After Petyr Baelish killed Lysa Arryn in the Vale, Sansa was asked to verify Baelish’s account. She didn’t vouch for Baelish out of fear, but rather because she thought saving him would accrue to her benefit. She also chose to go to Winterfell and marry Ramsay Bolton in the hopes that she could influence him the way Margaery influenced Joffrey. She was no longer a completely passive character.
Then came the infamous rape scene in Season 5’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” Ramsay forced Sansa to engage in sex while Theon looked on helplessly. At the time, critics slammed the scene as sexist because it deprived Sansa of her agency. It’s easy to see how such a horrible experience could traumatize somebody. For a character who had so long been a victim, this was in many ways the worst possible test of her newfound agency. However, as Season 6 makes clear, the scene actually did the opposite. Sansa does not revert to being a passive victim after the rape. Instead, she makes the active decision to flee Winterfell or die trying – something she never tried to do during all her years at King’s Landing. The character literally took her life in her own hands.
“Book of the Stranger” shows how Sansa has grown from all of her experiences. Unlike Season 1’s Sansa, who complained about everything, this more mature Sansa does not complain, despite all of her hardships. In fact, when she meets Jon Snow, she asks him for forgiveness for not treating him well as a child. More importantly, it’s clear that she didn’t seek Jon out merely for protection. On the contrary, she tries to convince him to march on Winterfell. She’s taking on a leadership role that I would never have imagined back in Season 1.
Later in the episode, Sansa confronts the horrible memory of her rape directly. Jon reads a letter from Ramsay, but stops midway to protect Sansa from the contents of the letter. Sansa insists on reading it herself. The letter states Ramsay will let his guards rape Sansa while forcing Jon to watch.* Actress Sophie Turner does a brilliant job depicting how the character has become hardened emotionally. Her cold delivery distances Sansa from the horror of rape and shows that she refuses to be defined as a victim.
* Part of me wonders if Sansa somehow obtained one of the Bolton seals and forged the letter. Its arrival was extremely convenient for her.
Unlike Daenerys and Arya, who even in Season 1 were depicted as strong female characters, Sansa had some growing up to do. “Book of the Stranger” is a very clear statement that she has indeed grown up, both physically and emotionally. But unlike those other women, who engage in more traditional forms of fighting and violence, Sansa looks set to carve her own path in the world.
Dom Nardi is a Contributing Writer at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published academic articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.