The final season of Game of Thrones is all about conflict, and the premiere episode gave fans a long awaited meeting between Sansa Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. The two share similar backstories, both having survived the abuse, trauma, and machinations of men in order to become respected leaders in their own right. Together they’d make a formidable team, and yet when they meet it’s clear, behind feigned smiles and clipped interactions, that they can’t stand each other.
When Dany first enters Winterfell she’s met with Sansa’s stiff pleasantries, and later they exchange barbed words over the war table. Sansa expresses concern about how they’ll feed all the Dothraki, Unsullied, and two full grown dragons on top of all their own people. “What do dragons eat, anyway,” Sansa asks. “Whatever they want,” Dany responds. Later, Dany hints punishment to Jon if Sansa continues to be, as we are meant to understand, insubordinate: “She doesn’t need to be my friend, but I am her queen. If she can’t respect me…”
Many fans weren’t happy with this development, seeing the conflict as petty and unnecessary. It’s easy to understand why. Across Game of Thrones’ eight seasons, two women have written a total of only four episodes, and only one out of 19 episode directors has been a woman. The show has consistently fumbled in regards to its women characters; the writers included rape scenes not found in the books and botched the Sand Snakes storyline. Last season’s reunion between the Stark sisters focused on a completely fake conflict in order to create a surprise gotcha moment, meaning the reconciliation between the two, that fans waited seven seasons for, happened all offscreen.
The season eight premiere suffers from some of the same. The writers could have done away with both Dany’s and Sansa’s comments to Jon about each other’s appearances—each mentioning each other’s beauty, but in a way that comes across as entirely misplaced jealousy, which feels ridiculous in the context of impending doom. Also, why does asking about what dragons eat warrant such a non-answer? They’re giant, volatile creatures that no one has seen for years, and it’s not like the freezing North has an abundance of cattle. It’s a legitimate question!
Despite the delivery being flawed though, Sansa’s concerns are valid, and we shouldn’t simply brush their interactions off as bad writing because we want so desperately for these two women to be friends. We’re on the final season, which means we really need to be asking: what would it mean for Dany to sit on the Iron Throne?
Those who have called Sansa petty for worrying about food stores when the zombie horde is nearly upon them have said little about the fact that it was Dany, not Sansa, who stalled all forward momentum on prepping for the invasion until Jon promised her he’d give her his kingdom last season.
First, looking at context from Sansa’s point of view is important. Sansa clearly, originally wanted to be leader of the North last season, but ceded the position to Jon after the people’s popular vote. Before Jon left Winterfell to try and convince Dany to join them against White Walkers, Sansa and the Northerners had him promise one thing: do not give her the North. Yet when he returns that’s exactly what he did: bent the knee to a foreigner, one who has never grown up in Westeros and flirts with her own brand of authoritarianism. (Those who have called Sansa petty for worrying about food stores when the zombie horde is nearly upon them have said little about the fact that it was Dany, not Sansa, who stalled all forward momentum on prepping for the invasion until Jon promised her he’d give her his kingdom last season.)
In Sansa’s eyes, Dany wields two dragons that she could use to entirely enforce her will if she wanted, and it’s hard to forget Dany’s own father burned Sansa’s grandfather alive. Samwell asks Jon if Dany would ever give up her crown for the good of the people like he did, which, would she? As far as Sansa currently knows, how is Dany any different from Cersei, another foreigner who put desire for the throne above all else to disastrous results? The footage of Dany entering Winterfell mirrors Robert, Jamie, and Cersei arriving back in season one, something creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss confirmed was purposeful.
Whether or not you think this “catty” interaction is necessary at all seems to hinge on one major thing: if anybody survives the White Walkers, do you believe Dany would make a good ruler for Westeros? Her time spent in Essos does not exactly inspire confidence. We were shown, through uncomfortable white savior imagery, that she’s good at conquering but not so good at ruling. After burning the nobles and abolishing slavery in Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, Dany simply leaves, pushing onwards to a throne she feels is her birthright an entire continent away. Because she didn’t set up a functioning government nor stay to enforce it—other than put Daario, a sellsword with zero political experience, in charge of Meereen—we’re told later many of these places just returned to their old ways. (One hesitates to imagine what likely happened to all those formerly freed slaves once Dany left them completely unprotected.)
In terms of her dragons’ needs, they’ve gotten into trouble for destroying farmers’ entire flocks before, and one even accidentally killed a child; wouldn’t them flying above King’s Landing just be another form of constant terror for her own subjects? In terms of providing for her people, the scenes of her dragons burning all the Lannister supply carts were visually thrilling, but wasn’t that an extremely short-sighted move when she has an entire army to feed? Her method of dealing with threats via execution caused rioting in Meereen, and is now engendering conflict between Samwell and Jon; this is all expressly against her council’s wishes, who have tried and failed to warn her that how she deals with her subjects will have dire consequences.
Are we really brushing aside Dany’s downright worrying brand of leadership—of might makes right, and of nepotism and birthright, not popular vote—because we feel it’s sexist to question a woman?
If they all survive the Night King, is this the kind of leadership Westeros really needs? Are we really brushing aside Dany’s downright worrying brand of leadership—of might makes right, and of nepotism and birthright, not popular vote—because we feel it’s sexist to question a woman? Yes, Dany has a deeper sense of morality and empathy for people than Cersei ever did, but from the perspective of a poor commoner on the streets of King’s Landing, how will Dany’s actual rule be any different from what they have currently?
It’s regretful that there aren’t more women writers for the final season to properly delve into Daenerys’ psyche, particularly as, in the books, she’s a female character who has a deep-seated fear that her own mental health will fail and turn her into her father, the Mad King. (Gursimran Sandhu co-wrote the first episode, but is not listed on subsequent episodes.) But if there’s to be any after after the final battle, we’re at the point where somebody has to question her. And that might as well be Sansa.