Editor’s note: This is part of a series of essays revisiting our favorite scenes in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Read the previous installments here.
Sometimes, character development is slow, steady, normal, reasonable. Sometimes, usually in reaction to an overwhelming trauma or incalculably massive shift in circumstances, it’s explosive. For Sansa Stark, the traumatic detonator is almost certainly in Season One’s “Baelor,” at the moment when Joffrey Baratheon reneges on his promise and no one stops Illyn Payne from beheading her father with his own Valyrian steel greatsword. But we don’t see the sea-change immediately. For several seasons she roams the grounds of the Red Keep, buffeted by circumstances, without volition, a leaf in the wind. Joffrey tortures her. Cersei manipulates the crap out of her. She’s almost raped in the streets. She’s almost beaten on a whim by the repulsive Meryn Trant. She almost becomes a victim of Stannis Baratheon’s sack of King’s Landing. She’s supplanted (thankfully-don’t you love that funny little smile as she walks out of the throne room?) by Margaery Tyrell. Varys and the Tyrells plot to sham-marry her to Loras Tyrell (which she innocently sees as a great plan) only for Littlefinger and the Lannisters to force her into a union Tyrion, for once and to his credit, refuses to consummate. She’s even unwittingly wearing the poison that will kill Joffrey at his wedding. In this game of chess, no one is more of a pawn than Sansa.
Once Littlefinger—Petyr Baelish—gets her to the Eyrie, one could forgive her for imagining things are finally going to be all right, as much as they can be. But that’d be incorrect, too. Lysa Arryn, her aunt, is a total psychopath. She blithely informs Sansa that Sansa will marry her son, a super-creep 10-year-old who’s still breastfeeding. She shrieks at Sansa in a jealous rage, questioning her relationship with Petyr. And all of this before she chances to witness Baelish kissing Sansa in the courtyard. Which ends in Lysa’s “suicide” by Moon Door. It’s a long way down from the top of that mountain. Now, there is an inquest. And everything hinges on Sansa.
In chess, a “gambit” is an opening move in which some players are knowingly sacrificed for a longer-range strategic advantage.
We start with a close-up of the mockingbird pin at Baelish’s collar… well, his fifth chakra: center of communication, judgment and, ostensibly, mercy. The emblem is at odds with the falcon motifs flown by the Knights of the Vale: raptor versus passerine, hunter versus mimic, establishment versus upstart-and that’s before you even get Sansa in the frame. Littlefinger is relatively nimble against the likes of Bronze Yohn Royce and the rest of the Vale’s elders. But once they insist on seeing his witless niece “Alayne” without any prepping from him, he’s understandably nervous.
In walks Sansa. The girl who’s been everyone’s pawn in this game so far. Eyes downcast, voice a mousy little mutter. She only finds her voice at the moment she seems to shed the admonition to maintain her secret identity. “I’m sorry, Lord Baelish,” she says. “I have to tell the truth.” Oh, it is devastating. The tension. The best-laid plans. All of that. She reveals her identity, and we see Baelish’s face crumple. This is it. Royce and the others at the inquest are outraged—outraged—at Baelish’s lies. “Lord Baelish has lied to many people,” Sansa confirms.
“All to protect me.”
Aiden Gillen’s masterful use of his smug, weird half-smile comes into full flower here, as the girl he didn’t see coming spins her 80% true version of the events that landed her at this moment. “He saved me,” she goes on, plaintive, weeping. Baelish is captured in an oblique angle, looking down, modestly, now that he knows what she’s doing. Sansa seamlessly leverages the inquisitors’ natural and earned squeamishness about Lysa. They are primed to believe something much more sensational and strange than Sansa’s real, actual, 80% story. They sympathize. Empathize. They are good, righteous, well-meaning people of honor and they feel badly for their unwarranted suspicions. Perhaps even yucky upstart whoremongering Petyr Baelish is nobler and more righteous than they ever understood—after all, Ned Stark’s daughter is telling them so. Assuring them of his bravery, his avuncular motives. And then, describing Lysa’s unfortunate suicide, she dissolves in tears; oh, it’s all so understandable, so… unavoidable. “Shhh,” says Lady Anya, jumping up to embrace the tearful Sansa. “It’s not your fault, sweet girl.”
And the camera rotates. On the words “it’s not your fault” the lens finds Littlefinger, face carefully composed, staring at Sansa’s bowed head. Over Lady Anya’s shoulder, she looks up at Baelish. Tears spill from her eyes, but the expression is icy as any White Walker’s.
In this moment, Sansa knows she will never be a pawn again. Now, she’s a player.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.