Last night's episode of Game of Thrones featured one of the most anticipated homecomings perhaps in television history. Arya Stark has returned to Winterfell on Game of Thrones, and her reunion with Sansa provided fans with the kind of joyous moment that has been rare in the lives of the surviving Stark family members. Though this joy was somewhat marred by the horrific experiences that both Stark women had to endure on their journeys back to Winterfell, Arya and Sansa proved that they will not be defined by their trauma.
The lives of Sansa and Arya thus far have been anything but easy. Sansa has been traded around as a political pawn, abused first by Joffrey, and then by her maniacally sadistic second husband, Ramsay Bolton. Arya has been a prisoner, a fugitive, blind, and has bared witness to the murders of her father, mother, and brother. So when the sisters finally reunite in "The Spoils of War," it makes sense that, in some ways, they barely recognize each other. Sansa acknowledges their shared trauma when she notes that the story of how she got back to Winterfell is "not a very pleasant one." "Mine neither," Arya responds, communicating in very few words that both girls have gone through more hardship than anyone their age should have to endure.
And yet, what's important is that the conversation doesn't end on this dreary note. "But, our stories aren't over yet," Arya tells Sansa, and she readily agrees. "No," she affirms. "They're not." This moment is poignant for the way that it demonstrates the resilience of the Stark women. Rather than be defined by the abuse, violence, and death that they have endured and encountered on their respective journeys home, Sansa and Arya are moving forward.
This fits within a broader trend of Game of Thrones women rising above their trauma. In particular, Season 7 has gone to great lengths to address this resilience. In Episode 3, "The Queen's Justice", Danaerys shares her experiences with Jon Snow. "I have been sold like a brood mare. I've been chained, and betrayed. Raped and defiled," Dany begins her impassioned speech, before ending with the fact that what kept her going through years of pain and struggle was faith in herself. In one swoop, Khaleesi both acknowledges her trauma, and rises above it. Now, Arya and Sansa are setting themselves down the same path.
Yet, depicting women rising above trauma does not necessarily excuse putting these characters through those hardships in the first place. In particular, Game of Thrones has come under fire in the past for depicting gratuitous scenes of sexual assault, the most egregious example being the rape of Sansa by Ramsay. It is important that the show address the realities of a medieval-like society, in which women are often viewed as pawns and not players. But depicting rape and abuse on screen consistently just to provide characters with an arc of triumph and revenge can be problematic.
So, I'm certainly not excusing what the writers have done to Arya and Sansa in the past. But, operating in the framework fans have been given, I am glad to see that the Stark women won't let their trials permanently set them back. Perhaps the reunion between Sansa and Arya hints at a brighter future for the women of Game of Thrones, and the Stark women in particular. After all, they are reunited with their remaining siblings, and established back in their ancestral home, a better outcome than any of them could have imagined only a few years ago. The scene in which Arya and Brienne engage in an epic sparring match, while Sansa looks on as Lady of Winterfell, reveals that far from being helpless victims, these women have taken back control of their own destiny.
In this way, Game of Thrones works to both address the traumatic realities of being a woman in the highly patriarchal society that exists in Westeros, and convey that these women have incredible strength, and faith in their ability to move beyond their past and take charge of their own stories. Like Arya said, the tale of the women of Westeros is far from over. And I have a feeling that after seasons upon seasons of trauma, it will ultimately be these women who end up on top.