Sansa Stark's transformation into a cool-headed, strategic political player has been one of the most satisfying aspects of Game of Thrones Season 6. One of the biggest questions opened up by the season finale, "The Winds of Winter," was where Sansa is headed next — and for an answer to that question, it may be worth casting your mind back to "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken," the sixth episode of Season 5.
In that episode, Littlefinger returns from his travels up North, where he left Sansa in the care (if you can call it that) of Roose Bolton, and immediately uses his knowledge of the Stark girl's whereabouts as leverage in negotiation with Cersei Lannister. Asking Cersei to name him Warden of the North, Baelish counsels the queen regent:
"Let the enemies of the throne slaughter each other, and when they're done seize Winterfell from whichever thief survives ... strike soon, while the victor still licks his wounds."
Remind yourself of the scene in question below (and mourn for the days when Cersei was still in possession of her beautiful Rapunzel hair).
The negotiation comes to an abrupt halt with Littlefinger vowing not to rest "until the lion flies over Winterfell." Cersei's final response is crucial: "I'll know you're a man of your word when I see Sansa Stark's head on a spike."
A lot has changed between then and now. Cersei has removed each and every one of her enemies in King's Landing and taken the Iron Throne for herself, while Lord Baelish has promised to declare for the House Stark.
Will he deliver on that promise, or do Cersei's words still echo in his ears? It's true that the enemies of the throne have slaughtered each other, the Boltons taken out completely while the Stark army is greatly reduced. Was that part of the plan? Is the title of Warden of the North really enough for a man who by his own admission desires absolute power in the Seven Kingdoms?
When confessing his endgame to Sansa, Littlefinger painted the "pretty picture" that drives his every action and dictates his every decision.
The question, then, is this: Which element of that vision does Lord Baelish desire the most, and would he be content to rule without Catelyn Stark's flesh and blood beside him? As things stand right now, it looks unlikely that he can achieve both of those goals, but Littlefinger is too ambitious to scale back his dream.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter this week, Sophie Turner spoke of how Sansa might come to view Littlefinger in a new light:
"She looks at Littlefinger knowing that he would have put her as Queen in the North, and given her the credit she deserves. I don't think she's gunning for the Iron Throne anytime soon, but she realizes that Littlefinger might be a better ally than she thought, a more trustworthy ally than she thought."
That contradicts Sansa's own words in conversation with Jon on the ramparts this week; by her own admission, "only a fool would trust Littlefinger." I also think it unlikely that Sansa would allow her increasingly dominant talent for strategy to come unraveled by jealousy, but emotions can get the better of anyone.
Speaking to Huff Post after "The Winds of Winter" aired, Aiden Gillan acknowledged that Sansa has a tendency to make an impulsive man out of Littlefinger.
"There was a first kiss between these two in the scene in the castle courtyard in Season 4 [that] took her and maybe even him by surprise ... I mean, he was only ever chancing it on that front anyway and [that] impulsivity, rare in him, is one thing that could bring him down. [The rejection is] a little slap on the cheek for him but not too much more. It’s not like she’s driving him out of his mind or anything."
It could be that Littlefinger's next move hinges entirely on Sansa. In her letter to him back in Episode 7, she promised a reward if the Knights of the Vale fought for the House Stark. Baelish is owed that reward. The only thing Sansa has right now that Littlefinger really wants is her hand in marriage — and if Jon's Targaryen bloodline was to be revealed, Sansa would become Queen in the North.
For Littlefinger, marriage to the holder of that title would be a far more valuable reward than Warden of the North. Cersei, however, is in need of men for the imminent arrival in Westeros of Daenerys, the Imp and their army of Unsullied. Baelish has men, and Jon's men would become Sansa's men if Jon were removed from the picture. If Sansa is truly unwilling to marry Littlefinger, his most promising power play could be to deliver Sansa's head to the Queen of the Andals.
I'm not saying it's likely; I believe Littlefinger truly loves Sansa in a twisted, snake-ish sort of way. He also has the intellect to see that Cersei — post-descent into total insanity — is no longer the woman to forge an allegiance with. Her fate is set in stone. Littlefinger's destiny is now in the hands of somebody much closer to home.
The uncomfortable, exciting truth is that neither Lord Baelish nor Sansa holds all the cards in this uneasy alliance. Will fortune favor mentor or student when Game of Thrones returns for Season 7?