Spoilers for S8, Ep.1 ‘Winterfell’ are coming.
You have been warned.
Game of Thrones has long been praised for its portrayal of complex, multi-faceted female characters, who are every bit as honourable or conniving as the men they scheme and fight alongside. The show, however, has not been without its critics, nor has it been spared from criticism, including of a sex scene that was seen to normalise rape during its fourth season.
When the long-awaited first episode of the eighth season aired on Monday morning (or Sunday evening, for those in the northern hemisphere), reactions to what unfolded filtered onto the internet in a near-endless stream of memes, GIFS and play-by-play social media posts. Many of these centered around the first meeting of Daenerys Targaryen (and her impressive slew of titles) and Sansa Stark. In line with the Game of Thrones tradition, it did not go well. In fact, Sansa’s side-eye had never been fiercer, and Dany’s inherent self-righteousness remained strong as ever.
‘She [Sansa] doesn’t need to be my friend,’ Dany says to Jon. ‘But I am her Queen. If she can’t respect me…’ and then Dany trails off ominously. But Sansa’s frosty reception was an issue for more than just the Mother of Dragons. Many people online are dissatisfied that the two characters, who have both survived and overcome the challenges that have faced them, particularly as women, were instantly pitted against one another.
‘This Sansa/Daenerys shit is so unimaginative and dull and so clearly the idea of men,’ said @annehelen on Twitter.
‘STOP PITTING WOMEN AGAINST EACH OTHER.’ @juliekosin agreed.
This discussion falls into the larger context of the long-standing tradition of television and movie screenplays, where two women on screen together are often engaged in conflict, or are at the very least failing the Bechdel test. With this in mind, having two well-developed female characters with their own motivations and flaws at odds with one another might be interpreted as a step back from the strides forward Game of Thrones has made.
But I have to disagree.
Though their meeting crackled with all the tension that Dany’s uncompromising will and Sansa’s hard-earned abrasiveness had to offer, I think this is a good thing. In order to stay true to their character development, having the two in conflict with one another is in line with what we know of them.
Dany, after all, was set to invade Sansa’s home, and all of the Seven Kingdoms. We witness her smirk as her dragons frighten the silent Northerners who regard her suspiciously. We are reminded in the same episode of Dany’s inflexibility with Sam’s realisation that she has killed his father and brother for being unwilling to bend the knee.
Sansa, for her part, has long since learned to keep her guard up. Winterfell, and her family, have only just become a part of her life again after so many years of being alone. And, as Sir Davos reminds us, ‘If you want their [the Northerners] loyalty, you have to earn it.’
In light of this, Game of Thrones has done a service to both Sansa and Dany’s characters by putting them in conflict with one another, rather than forcing them into an instant camaraderie just because they are both women.
There is also the further context of Dany’s positive relationship with Missandei, and Sansa’s with Arya, which is reinforced during the course of the episode.
‘Where were you before?’ Jon asks Arya after they’re reunited. ‘I could have used your help with Sansa.’
But far from siding with her favourite brother, Arya reinforces Sansa’s position of defending their family. To me, this serves as a reminder that Sansa and Dany’s actions are not born out of girl on girl hate, nor from some misguided sense of jealousy, but rather from an incompatibility of experience.
After all, two women in power need not like or even respect each other, but it becomes a problem when such a pairing is seen as the norm. In this case, I do not think that Sansa’s distrust of Dany is a continuation of an outdated mentality that sees women on screen deferring to the more complicated storylines of men. Rather, I think it is a continuation of Game of Thrones’ commitment to Sansa and Dany’s characters, whose motivations and actions are both real and flawed.
Words by Rachael Stapleton
Header image: HBO
Rachael is a fantasy writer, an arts student, and a professional procrastinator. She spends most of her time watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, teaching her cat to play fetch and thinking about writing. You can find her on instagram at @rachaelstaple