Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
April 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the premiere of Game of Thrones, a show that helped change television as we know it today. Suddenly, high fantasy was reimagined as prestige drama, spawning the sort of dedicated obsessiveness that has since launched a rumored half dozen spinoffs and an untold number of media explainers and personality quizzes. (House Stark for life, y’all.) Every viewer suddenly became an expert on dragons and direwolves, and every network started trying to copy the show’s formula, greenlighting series that ranged from Westworld to The Witcher in the hunt for the next genre hit.
There are, of course, plenty of things to be annoyed with Game of Thrones about despite its game-changing role in television history. There’s its often uncomfortable if not downright toxic male gaze, its penchant for embracing violence against female characters as a means to drive its narratives, the wildly uneven pacing that plagued its last two seasons, and its utter abandonment of the fantasy lore that sits at the heart of George R.R. Martin’s original novels.
And, then, of course, there’s the ending, which essentially spits in the face of every fan who spent the better part of a decade watching Thrones, breathlessly speculating about who would ultimately sit on the Iron Throne when the series finally concluded. That the story broke one of its best characters on the altar of shock value—driving Daenerys Targaryen mad with little build-up or follow-through surrounding her decision to burn King’s Landing—is bad enough, but the fact that the ultimate resolution to the story was that Bran Stark of all people should ultimately rule Westeros is the icing on the cake of failure. Especially when the best choice was already right there: His sister, Sansa.
Granted, Sansa Stark is named Queen in the North by Game of Thrones’ conclusion and one does get the feeling it’s the role she would have chosen for herself all along: a daughter of the North come into her own at last. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell after all, and there’s no doubt she’ll do right by her people (particularly as she was smart enough to guarantee their independence from the rest of her brother’s new kingdom). But, truly, the rest of Westeros got robbed.
She was truly the only choice that ever made sense. Which is why I’m still fully angry—two entire years later—about the fact that she didn’t end the series as queen of all she surveys. Sansa deserved to win the eponymous Game of Thrones, and it’s forever infuriating that she was once again forced to take a backseat to someone demonstrably less worthy—and less proven as a leader—than she was.
Thousands of words could be (and likely have been) written about why Bran Stark is one of the absolute worst characters the show could have chosen to frame its grand ending around. And you know what, I get it: this is most likely also the ending that would have taken place in Martin’s novels, and since we’ll probably never see these stories concluded on the page—sorry, y’all, you know he’s never finishing them—there’s some value in seeing that original story play out here. But the other thing is: As an ending, the idea of Bran as king is just straight up bad.
Your mileage may vary on whether or not you think Martin’s novels will somehow be able to justify this ridiculous twist, but the show Game of Thrones absolutely did not. The HBO series was never very into the magical lore that forms the bulk of Bran’s storyline in the books, and after Hodor’s death it essentially stopped caring about him as a character. To put it bluntly: The future King of Westeros didn’t even appear onscreen for an entire season, that’s how little he mattered to the story the show was telling.
So, the idea that Bran Stark somehow deserved the throne because he had, according to Tyrion Lannister, “the best story” of all possible candidates is laughable on its face. He barely had a story at all. Tyrion’s speech is all the more galling when the character who did have the best story was sitting right next to Bran the whole time. (Editor’s Note: Even Tyrion himself had a better story than Bran!)
No other character on the series’ canvas had come further than Sansa Stark, who started this story as a petulant teen who just wanted to marry a handsome prince, and ended it as a confident ruler dedicated to putting the needs of her people first. That, as the kids say, is growth. Sansa’s journey from shallow girl to capable leader in her own right was a long and, sadly, often violent one. (In the books, she describes her transformation as one from porcelain to ivory to steel, and she’s not wrong.)
She’s certainly suffered the most of any Game of Thrones character, experiencing abuse and rape at the hands of two of Westeros’ most monstrous men, being forced to watch her father die, and even held prisoner in her own home. That she survives long enough to reclaim her birthright is a testament to her quiet strength and inner fortitude. That she does so by relying on the same traits that many (both within the story and outside of it within its fandom) insisted made her weak or useless is downright remarkable.
Sansa isn’t a warrior. She leads by using the sort of soft skills traditionally seen as women’s work—things like communication, compromise and the basic act of listening to others. And she isn’t interested in power for its own sake. Unlike virtually every other major player in Westeros, Sansa is the only person who seems to view leadership as a service, rather than a right. She’s certainly the only one who cares whether the people in her keep have enough grain to survive the winter, and one of the few who even considers that the actions of Targaryens and Starks and Lannisters will have real world ramifications for people they’ll most likely never meet.
It’s true that these aren’t exactly traits that inspire epic poetry or special nicknames. Sansa the Resourceful hardly sounds like the stuff of legend. But it’s the stuff of peace, of building a future of prosperity for everyone, and that’s the kind of leader Westeros needed at the end of this story. A ruler who refused to be defined by the worst thing that happened to her—looking at you, Bran the Broken—and who has chosen to embrace kindness and justice instead.
All hail the Queen in the North. The rest of Westeros will never know what it’s missing.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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