When Game of Thrones returns in 2019, a lot will have changed for the citizens of Westeros since it first premiered in 2011. But there's one character in particular who will be nearly unrecognizable in the premiere of the final season: Sansa Stark. The series has been a journey for all of us, but Sansa Stark's journey on Game of Thrones has been one of the most transformative of the entire series. And to fully understand Sansa's journey from Season 1 to Season 8, there are some pretty important milestones that bear checking in on.
The eldest Stark daughter began the series as a girl and will end it as a woman. At the beginning, she was simply a foil to her younger sister Arya; contained where Arya was wild, polite where Arya was brash, obsessed with marriage and boys where Arya was decidedly not. Circumstances then carried the sisters apart and kept them there for six seasons, and when they reunited, it seemed for a time like their dynamic would be the same. The elder sister attempted to dominate her younger sibling, as before, pushing Arya toward petulance, and playing right into the chaos and discord that Littlefinger had hoped to sew.
But ultimately, the Stark sisters were able to work side by side to destroy their foe, and the future their facing is much brighter as a result of their partnership. Arya deserves her own credit, of course, but it's Sansa who has changed the most throughout the show's arc. Ultimately, her journey has been about learning to hold two opposing concepts in her brain at the same time — to live in the grey area — and how that informs her ability to be an intelligent leader, a compassionate sister, and a worthy adversary.
But she didn't start out that way, so here are all the episodes that have filled in the gaps in her character arc along the way.
1. "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things" — Season 1, Episode 4
Remember back in the early days, when life was so simple that Sansa had the luxury of regular kid problems? That was her starting point — embedded in a highly-placed, intact family — with only her primness and irritation at her younger sister Arya as defining character traits.
At this point in her journey, the worst thing she can possibly imagine is being sent away from her golden prince Joffrey Baratheon, to whom she's engaged and very much in love with. (Cue ominous crashes of thunder.)
2. "Baelor" — Season 1, Episode 9
This episode marked Sansa's next step, because it was the first real hit to her naïveté. She had trusted that if Ned Stark confessed to the false charges of treason, that he would be pardoned, as promised. But with the execution of her father at the hands of her betrothed, Sansa lost not just the family's patriarch, but also her faith in the world's inherent fairness.
3. "Second Sons" — Season 3, Episode 8
Sadly, her father's execution was just the beginning of Sansa's abuse at the hands of the Lannisters, Joffrey and Cersei alike. But after two solid seasons of misery, it was her wedding to a third Lannister — Tyrion — that marked the next stage in the eldest Stark daughter's journey.
After all that time quite literally living in the lion's den, the new bride was clearly expecting a violent wedding night. But instead, Tyrion treated her with both respect and kindness, belying his reputation as a Lothario.
This is the moment when Sansa learned to hold two competing concepts in her head at the same time. The Lannisters are not entirely bad, but they're also not entirely good. She's beginning to inhabit the world in shades of gray rather than black and white, and honing her survival skills every step of the way.
4. "Breaker Of Chains" — Season 4, Episode 3
After Joffrey Lannister died at his own wedding feast, Sansa and her presumed rescuer Dontos used the distraction to flee King's Landing. (It was of course Littlefinger who was ultimately pulling the strings.) It's a step that the eldest Stark daughter had been unwilling to risk before, terrified by the wrath of the Lannisters if she was caught. But for the first time, Sansa weighed her two options and selected an unknown quantity over a known one.
Her time under Joffrey and Cersei Lannister's thumb had taught her how to survive, and she's gotten her first glimpse at the advantages offered by her beauty and charm as she sees how much Littlefinger is willing to do for her.
5. "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" — Season 5, Episode 6
Even after the abuse she experienced at the hands of the Lannisters, Sansa's virginity was always inviolate. But that changed when she was married off to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, a wedding that led to the extremely controversial GoT rape scene.
Unfortunately, this period of Sansa's life was simply meaningless punishment. She doesn't learn anything, no one can help her, and the character as a whole is relegated back to a pawn after a brief hint that she might gain some agency. It was a plateau for both Sansa and the show, and many viewers found this particular arc to be merely a means to include some gratuitous sexual violence, since Sansa and Ramsay are never linked in the books.
6. "Mother's Mercy" — Season 5, Episode 10
Once again, Sansa must rely on someone else for rescue, but this time around, she starts to employ some of the new tools in her arsenal. After one escape attempt is foiled by Theon Greyjoy, Sansa changed tactics.
After a few false starts, she was able to play on Theon's sense of pride, drawing the young man she once knew out of the shell of a human that Ramsay had turned him into. Even though she believed that Theon killed her siblings, she was able to work alongside him for her own survival. More than ever, this episode showed how Sansa has started inhabiting the gray between the blacks and whites that were so starkly defined for her — no pun intended — earlier in life.
And this time, it works. After Theon reclaimed his former identity, the pair escaped Winterfell, to be rescued by Brienne of Tarth, and Sansa wrestled back a little control over her surroundings.
7. "Battle Of The Bastards" — Season 6, Episode 9
After a full season of struggling to be taken seriously by Jon Snow and chafing under his benevolent authority after so long on her own, Sansa finally stepped out of her older sibling's shadow. When Jon refused to hear her concerns about Ramsay going into the Battle of the Bastards, or to take advice from someone who knew the enemy best, Sansa hedged her bets.
No longer content to obediently do what she's told, Sansa wrote to Littlefinger and secured the Knights of the Vale, who ride in at the crucial moment in the battle to turn the tide. After years of being rescued herself, Sansa finally got a taste of doing her own rescuing, making a name for herself as a leader by quite literally saving the day. Which leads, of course, to the ultimate revenge on Ramsay, which is feeding him to his own dogs.
8. "The Dragon and the Wolf" — Season 7, Episode 7
After months of frustrating episodes suggesting that Lord Baelish's scheming was paying off, and that he had successfully turned Sansa and Arya against each other, the sisters flipped the script.
Instead of reverting back to their original dynamic, the Stark women proved just how far they've come by collaborating. They compared notes on Littlefinger's behavior, and all his scheming finally came down around him. He was executed in full view of everyone he thought he'd manipulated, because chaos really is a ladder, and Sansa finally climbed past him.
And that's where we left our girl, and where we'll hopefully pick up with her in Season 8: equally far from queendom and pawndom, and plotting her own course through life for the very first time.