Sansa Stark Does Not Kneel
Aka a review of Game of Thrones: Second Sons
The most difficult part of reviewing Game of Thrones is the fact that it’s an adaptation. Every episode, every scene, every change has two sides to it: how it works as a scene in a TV show, and how it works as an interpretation of the books.
This problem has never been plainer than with Sansa’s wedding to Tyrion. From a show perspective, it was brilliantly acted and painful to watch, perfectly in character for the Sansa and Tyrion we’ve seen on screen. But from a book perspective, these changes create a very different Sansa and Tyrion, one where Tyrion is the unlikely hero, and all of Sansa’s protests and defiance are taken away.
Let’s put this bluntly. Sansa is nicer in her wedding scene in the show than she is in the books. Joffrey steals Tyrion’s steps, Tyrion can’t reach to put the Lannister cloak around her shoulders, he politely asks her to kneel, and she does. The moment is somewhat awkward, but Sansa takes Tyrion’s feelings into consideration, and she complies.
In the books, she blankly refuses to kneel. She stands with her back to him, silent and defiant, until Joffrey orders Ser Dontos to act as a footstool for Tyrion.
Of course, many other factors have changed in the show versus the books. Sansa knew about the wedding beforehand, instead of being ambushed. She’s spoken to Tyrion about it. Margaery had a long conversation with her, telling her to make the best of her situation. It makes sense that a generous-hearted girl like Sansa would see that Tyrion doesn’t want this marriage either, but decide to make the best of it, and kneel. People have commented that it would be out of character for Sansa not to kneel at this point, that it would just seem cruel for her to stand there and would make people side against her.
But all this has me wondering… why does she have to be nice? Why should she not be defiant and bold, fighting back in whatever small way she can Sansa’s character, her entire story arc, is about small rebellions. She cannot fight overtly, or she will end up dead, so she fights back in tiny, almost insignificant ways that allow her to keep some of her dignity and sense of self. She suffers small humiliations every day, and larger ones on a regular basis, and she can do very little to protect herself. Throughout most of the wedding day, in the book and in the show, she is forced to be submissive. A lady does her duty and remembers her courtesies, so Sansa will tell Tyrion that he looks handsome, and she will call him Tyrion when he requests it, and she will drink wine and undress even as her hands shake, because that is what she must do, and she will at least do it bravely, with her head held high. Although neither she nor Tyrion have much choice in their circumstances, Tyrion is the one who gets to say stop, who gets to be kind and magnanimous and refuse to sleep with her. All Sansa can do is act with dignity.
But she has one moment of defiance, one moment where she gets to stand up for herself, in an almost insignificant way, and say, “I do not consent to this. I will not be part of this.” She cannot stop the wedding, but she can refuse to make it easier for anybody. She can be dignified and detached and refuse to participate. And that strength and non-consent was taken away from her. To make her nicer. To make her kinder to Tyrion, and to smooth things over so that we see them both as victims, in this together, with Tyrion’s kindness there to save her.
To be fair, Tyrion is bold when he defies his father. It’s not something that the Lannister siblings do often. It shows decency, both in more-messed-up book Tyrion, and in the nobler, kinder show Tyrion. But why should Sansa need to care about his kindness or his decency? They are both being told to do something that they would rather not do, but Sansa is truly the one in a horrible situation. She is being forced to marry into the family of her enemies. The Lannisters murdered her father, her septa, and everyone from the North in Kings Landing. They have kept her prisoner, away from her family, and threatened her. They are actively trying to kill the little family she has left, and now they are forcing her to become one of them. She may have dreamed of escape, but now she can never escape, because she has become a Lannister. They have completely taken over her identity.
And Tyrion may seem kind and promise not to hurt her, but she’s heard those words from Lannisters before. She heard them from Cersei, and she heard them from Joffrey, and she learned the hard way that Lannisters lie. Their apparent kindness cannot be trusted. And even if she could trust that Tyrion is genuinely kind (which she cannot), that doesn’t change the fact that her marriage is a new kind of prison, and a permanent one at that. It is something that she does not consent to, and she never has to consent to it, no matter how kind Tyrion might be.
Her only way to express that, her only moment of clear strength in this story arc, was her refusal to kneel. And in the show, she knelt. She was strong in other ways, in her politeness and her courage and her quiet, terrified dignity, but her one way to fight back was taken away and blurred into niceness.
Yet Sansa is also kind in this scene in the books. She feels guilty after humiliating Tyrion, and she tries to make amends by being courteous. The scene emphasizes that she’s both a likeable person who cares about others and someone who is bold and stubborn and defiant and will fight however she can. The existence of one trait does not contradict the other. She can stand up for herself and be a caring person. She can refuse to silently to do everything everyone expects from her without losing her “nice person” credentials. She can be a wonderful, caring individual, and yet not want to marry one of her enemies, no matter how courteous he seems. But not in the show. In the show, “niceness” is a bland, all-or-nothing kind of trait. Sansa is nice, and so she kneels. If she refused, she would be being cruel to Tyrion, our truly sympathetic character, and so she would be instantly transformed into a bitch.
Yes, the scenes were wonderfully acted, absolutely heartbreaking, and seemed emotionally genuine. The changes made sense in the context of the show. But everything about that context was a conscious decision on the part of the writers. They have adapted the books for screen, simplifying things while also keeping everything that is important. The message, then, is that Sansa’s defiance is unimportant. Her lack of consent is unimportant.
It’s much better for her to be nice.The way the girls are in songs.