It’s that time of year when the good people at HBO are getting ready to start filming a new season of Game of Thrones, and those of us who are weirdly obsessed with the noble families of Westeros get plenty of speculation fodder. I’m sure it’ll only get worse as the pre-production stage gives way to production, but for now, I’m hearing just enough to get me all excited. It doesn’t take much.
I still don’t have anything concrete here, but I’ve seen one interesting piece of news that reminds me of something else I was thinking about within the last few weeks, even though I had completely forgotten about the relevant events from S3. It’ll all become clear by the end of this post.
The topic of this post is—this will surprise no one—Brienne’s quest to find and protect Sansa. That’s what I want to talk about today.
I’ve already taken some time to gather my thoughts on what the fuck Brienne was trying to accomplish by going after Stannis, but it seems I’m still not finished with her and her lady’s daughter. Because she turned her back on the Broken Tower juuuuust before Sansa lit her candle, Brienne reached the end of yet another season without establishing herself as Sansa’s protector. That doesn’t mean she’s failed at the protection assignment. As long as Sansa’s still alive (which she totally is), and Brienne hasn’t given up on finding her, she hasn’t failed. The protection assignment is still viable. In fact, I am going to make the case for why the end of S5 makes the protection assignment more viable than ever. I can think of a few reasons why it won’t happen, and quite a lot of reasons why it very well could happen.
I seem to have made a hobby of comparing books and show, but I’m not doing that for this post. I can make a case for why Brienne and Jaime are likely to become Sansa’s protectors, for at least a little while, in the Winds of Winter, but the show has put both Brienne and Sansa in very different places from this point in the books, so it wouldn’t make much sense to say, “Well, this is what’s happening in the books!” I’m going to make the case for the viability of the protection assignment based almost entirely on events in the show. There’ll be a tiny bit of evidence gleaned from A Feast for Crows, but its relevance to my argument will be indirect. This post is about what may happen in S6.
There are a number of unresolved matters for Sansa and Theon, for Brienne and Podrick, and for all of them together, that can be stated in the form of unanswered questions. I don’t know for sure that all of these questions must be answered in S6, but I think it’s fair to say some of them will be answered. A few of them need to be answered soon. To wit:
1. What is Sansa and Theon’s situation now that they’ve escaped from Winterfell?
For this question, I will minimize complicating factors and assume they have only minor injuries, if any. When they jumped off that wall, our surviving Stark and her foster brother thought they were committing suicide. They’d finally reached the point of choosing a quick death over any more time with Ramsay. When they realize they’ve survived the jump, they will have to keep moving. They will have serious shit to figure out, and quick.
When the Boltons find out Sansa is no longer in the castle, and her body is not sitting broken and dead in the snow outside the walls, they will want to get her back. I’m sure Ramsay will start flaying whatever men were supposed to be keeping her in her chamber, but Roose will do something more sensible, like offer a fat wad of gold to anyone who brings her back to them alive. Of course he won’t be able to stop Ramsay from flaying anyone who looks at him funny, but they’ll present a carrot-and-stick approach to the surrounding villagers: if they give the pretty Stark back to the Boltons, they get a nice reward. If they keep the pretty Stark hidden from the Boltons, they’ll be killed in the most painful way imaginable.
At present, Sansa and Theon have no money on them. They probably have no weapons, and of course Sansa never learned how to use a weapon. Theon may still be too traumatized to recall his combat training. There are servants inside Winterfell who care about Sansa, but they’re still in the castle and she can’t go back in there. Those servants have seen what happens to those who do things Ramsay doesn’t like. Once the word of their escape gets out (and it won’t take long), Sansa and Theon won’t be safe near Winterfell. They don’t have a horse between them. They have nothing but the clothes on their backs, and soon they’ll be hungry.
The innkeeper may possibly feed them without charge because he’s loyal to the Starks, but he can’t keep them for long without putting himself and his family at serious risk of the Boltons’ flaying knives. He may even be generous enough to give them a horse or two! But then what happens to them if they get caught riding around the North, with no gold for provisions, and no ability to defend themselves? They go straight back to the Boltons for more torture, is what happens, and I’m sure they know it.
What I’m trying to say here is that Sansa and Theon cannot make it on their own. They need the protection of someone who is capable and brave enough to raise a middle finger to the Boltons, and not about to be tempted by a bit of gold. There aren’t many people hanging around the North who currently meet those criteria, but even having accomplished the fuck-up that was going after Stannis, Brienne fits the bill, and the innkeeper knows she’s been trying to reach Sansa.
(Meanwhile: if Sansa and/or Theon have sustained serious injuries from their suicide attempt, they’re in even more desperate need of protection.)
2. What was Podrick doing with that axe?
This one was among my list of cliffhangers. As Brienne marched off to do her bullshit revenge-killing, Podrick grabbed his axe and marched off in the same direction, but we didn’t see him for the rest of the finale. He was nowhere in sight when Brienne introduced Stannis to the business end of Oathkeeper. Where was Podrick Payne with that axe, and what was he doing? The question is not a matter of what the character was thinking, but of what the show’s writers have in mind for him. What was the purpose of Podrick grabbing the axe and seemingly following after Brienne, if that was the last we saw of him?
Remember Episode 3, when Brienne promised to teach him how to fight? We didn’t get to see their training sessions, but I’m sure the training happened. She told him she’d train him, he was there with her, he really wanted to learn from her, and Brienne may not be perfect but she is extremely dedicated to keeping her promises. Going after Stannis was a bad idea, but it was consistent with that dedication. She told Podrick she’d teach him how to fight? She fucking taught him how to fight. He grabbed that axe because by that point, he knew what to do with it. The purpose of that cliffhanger may be that Podrick is the first one to see Sansa and Theon climbing out of the snow after their escape from the castle. Maybe he even uses that axe to cut through some Bolton knights who try to recapture them.
3. Speaking of Podrick: what does his presence mean to Sansa?
In my book/show comparison for S5:E2, I noted that when Brienne approached Sansa and Littlefinger, Podrick was nowhere in sight, and if Sansa had seen him there, she may have responded differently to Brienne’s offer. Not that he would have greatly altered the outcome; Littlefinger was still in charge, and there was no way he would’ve let anyone walk off with his Little Bird. Still, Podrick is someone Sansa remembers from her time with Tyrion, and she knows he’s a good kid. All this time, Sansa has had no idea that Brienne has Podrick helping her out. If she knew about Podrick’s involvement, I’m sure Sansa would be more inclined to trust Brienne. (Yes, even after that fuck-up of going after Stannis. I haven’t forgotten about that.) It’s not too late for her to find out that her first husband’s squire is now serving her late mother’s sworn sword.
4. What was Sansa’s reason for not trusting Brienne in the first place?
For obvious reasons, Sansa wasn’t inclined to trust anyone, but Littlefinger had his hooks in her, and he called the shots in that interaction. He’s the one who made sure Sansa didn’t trust Brienne, but at the time, Sansa’s argument was that she’d seen Brienne at the wedding, bowing to the king. (She said, as if that were the most despicable thing a person could do.)Since then, Littlefinger has lost his grip on his Little Bird, and Sansa is in such desperate circumstances that basically anything that doesn’t put her back in the Boltons’ hands will be an improvement. The worst thing Brienne could do, in Sansa’s mind, is haul her back to the Red Keep and hand her over to the Lannisters, who would give her a quick death. I’m sure Sansa would welcome a clean beheading over another night with Ramsay. But since Littlefinger gave her to the Boltons, Sansa may have already asked herself: “Wait a minute, why did I turn away my mother’s sworn sword? Because I saw her bowing to the king? I refused a capable protector because of THAT? She was shaking hands with Margaery! I liked Margaery, too!”
I’m just saying that, if Sansa has a chance at another conversation with Brienne, she won’t be so quick to tell the tall armored lady to fuck off. At this point, Sansa isn’t thinking in terms of Brienne having failed to show up when Sansa lit her candle. She doesn’t know who failed to show up. Which brings us to our next question:
5. What had Sansa expected to happen?
The kindly old servant woman gave Sansa instructions to light a candle in the highest window of the Broken Tower if she needed to send a distress signal, and Sansa had to wait until the finale before she could access the Broken Tower. I don’t think Sansa was aware that the instructions came from Brienne, though. She had no idea who sent that message. She was probably expecting some grizzled, bearded Northman—NOT the young Southern woman who approached her at the inn—to come riding to her rescue. She won’t know who her rescuer was supposed to be unless she meets up with Brienne and/or Podrick, by which point she and Theon will be scrambling for ways to keep themselves alive.
6. What about Arya?
One of the major events for Sansa in S5—and one of the good things to come out of her return to Winterfell—was learning that Theon did not kill Bran and Rickon. That was a game-changer for her, but she also has a sister whom she hasn’t seen since their father was executed. She hasn’t recently heard from anyone who’s seen Arya alive. She also doesn’t know about the Hound’s death. The nearest people who can tell her that her sister was perfectly healthy last they saw her, are Brienne and Podrick. Then what happens when Sansa finds out Brienne chucked the Hound off a cliff? She can’t have any reaction at all unless someone tells her about the fight over Arya. Which means she needs to have another encounter with Brienne, or Podrick, or both. If she’s talking to Podrick, he’ll likely convince her to accept Brienne’s protection.
So far, I seem to have made a good case for why Sansa needs to have a conversation with Podrick, but not necessarily Brienne. It’s a question of bringing unresolved elements together. Having the protection assignment finally happen gives the show an elegant way to answer a lot of questions. Podrick and Brienne are very much a team by this point (they are still Team Sansa), they are not going to separate, and Sansa and Theon’s options for staying alive and away from the Boltons are extremely limited. I still have other questions, though. We’re not finished here.
7. Who told Brienne about the Broken Tower?
What is the significance of the highest window in the Broken Tower—the spot where Jaime tossed Bran Stark to what he thought was a quick death—being the rendezvous point for the protection assignment? Sure, there’s the location, but it was a choice on the part of the writers to place the inn at that position. They could have had Brienne stay somewhere overlooking a different part of Winterfell, and instruct Sansa to make her distress signal at a different spot. Brienne hasn’t been inside Winterfell, but she could have learned all sorts of things about the way people get around the castle, from her time serving Catelyn. The Broken Tower is the only spot at Winterfell that she could have just as easily heard about from Jaime.
I would like to know whether Brienne heard about the Broken Tower from Catelyn, or from Jaime. The most sensible way to answer this question is to let her connect with Sansa, for at least a little while.
8. Why does Brienne dislike Tyrion?
Let’s go back to S5:E3, again. Remember this little exchange over Tyrion?
It’s that reaction that I think is significant: She refuses to apologize for calling him the Imp. We’ve already seen her be unpleasant to Podrick, but that much is easy enough to explain: she’s not used to having a squire, he’s clueless, and she’d rather have Jaime with her. What is behind this hostility to Tyrion? It seems that Jaime neglected to introduce his new friend to his little brother while she was with him at the Red Keep, and Brienne’s assumptions about Tyrion have gone unchecked.
Brienne: How did you end up squiring for the Imp?
Podrick: He hates that nickname.
Brienne: Well, he’s not here to complain about it, is he?
I want to examine that hostility from two directions: the character angle, and the story angle. First: why does Brienne dislike Tyrion? Why does she insist on calling him the Imp, over Podrick’s objections? This is where I will resort to pulling text from the books. I’ve quoted this part before, in “Do you want me to kidnap my sister-in-law?”
Lady Catelyn had said that Sansa was a gentle soul who loved lemon cakes, silken gowns, and songs of chivalry, yet the girl had seen her father’s head lopped off and been forced to marry one of his killers afterward. If half the tales were true, the dwarf was the cruelest Lannister of all. If she did poison King Joffrey, the Imp surely forced her hand. She was alone and friendless at that court. In King’s Landing, Brienne had hunted down a certain Brella, who had been one of Sansa’s maids. The woman told her that there was little warmth between Sansa and the dwarf. Perhaps she had been fleeing him as well as Joffrey’s murder.
(A Feast for Crows, pg. 72)
The hostility is based on her idea that Tyrion is the worst of the Lannisters (which is saying something) and cruel to his child bride. Which is, of course, nonsense, but now that the idea is in her head, it won’t just go away on its own. Podrick may have convinced Brienne that Tyrion was a kind master to him, but the way he treated Sansa is a separate issue. If she had a chance to ask Sansa what Tyrion was like, I’m sure she’d be surprised at the answer.The next question here (let’s call it 8b) is: why did the writers include that exchange in Brienne and Pod’s conversation? What was their reason for letting us know Brienne thinks Tyrion is a bad guy? They could have skipped over those lines and freed up several seconds for another scene, but they made sure to remind us that Brienne thinks it’s okay to call Tyrion the Imp. Why is that?
I think the purpose of “he’s not here to complain about it” is that Brienne is going to learn she was wrong about Tyrion. Only Sansa can convince her that Tyrion was nice to her even after she declined to spread her legs. That’s another conversation that could happen in S6; Sansa will connect with Brienne long enough to convince her she’s wrong about Tyrion, and it’s not fair to call him the Imp.
While they’re at it, Brienne may possibly mount a parallel defense of Jaime: don’t call him Kingslayer. Let me tell you about the time when he made up some malarkey about sapphires, and when he jumped into the bear pit. Yeah, he shoved your little brother out of a window and left him unable to walk, and that was shitty, but then he outfitted me for this quest to keep you away from Cersei. That should mean something, yes?
That’s an unresolved element from S5, and the only way to answer the question is to have Sansa interacting closely with Brienne. (Let’s talk about the Lannister brothers being such good guys! How in Seven Hells did they grow up in the same environment as Cersei?) It’s the sort of conversation that’s easier to have after the protector relationship is already established.
9. Does Brienne know she missed the distress signal?
We know, from watching the finale, that Sansa lit up her candle mere seconds after Brienne and Podrick turned around to march after Stannis. Does Brienne know that? I’m sure she’ll soon find out her lady’s daughter escaped from the castle, but how does she find out that she missed the candle in the window? How does she even find out there was a candle in the window? If she hears that Sansa and Theon jumped off the wall at the same time that Brienne was giving Stannis a quick death, I’m sure she’ll connect the dots, and she’ll hate herself for committing that lapse in judgment.
No matter how much she hates herself, though, there’s no substitute for Sansa looking her in the face and demanding to know why it was so fucking important to go after Stannis. I don’t think she’ll really understand the consequences of her fuck-up unless and until she goes face-to-face with Sansa, demanding to know why she was forced to attempt suicide to get away from Ramsay Bolton.
10. So, how do I account for Brienne dropping the ball?
Having given so many reasons why the protection assignment is still doable, what, then, is my explanation for why Brienne chose killing Stannis over watching the window? Does she really suffer the consequences of her fuck-up if she still becomes Sansa’s protector?
Here are my thoughts on that: the writers were not yet finished making shit get worse for the characters. There’s a lot of “Oh, it can ALWAYS get worse!” happening on Game of Thrones. One might think Sansa already had enough of shit getting worse, in being Ramsay’s new bride, but, once again, her fortunes were not about to change simply because she’d already suffered enough. We could argue that she deserves to have a protector who really just wants to keep her safe and healthy, but she had to do something drastic in order to get to a place where she could accept Brienne’s protection. If she had simply lit the candle, and had Brienne come smashing through the gates to her rescue, I guess the writers thought that would be too easy. Her and Theon’s jumping off the wall was an act of defiance. It was not surrender, and it was not self-sacrifice. It was her saying to Ramsay: I would rather be dead than give you want you want. I will destroy myself, rather than let you or anyone else exploit me. And in order to send that message for real, she had to be willing to die.
On Brienne’s side, her fuck-up was a learning experience. It was a way for her to learn that she can be sabotaged by her own bad impulses. She had to do something counter-productive to learn that revenge-killing doesn’t make anything good happen, and from there, she can figure out that it’s okay to leave some promises unfulfilled, and that defending the living should always take priority over avenging the dead. How, though, do those lessons stick, if Sansa accepts her protection?
Getting together is one thing. Getting along is another matter.
Even after the protector relationship is established, they still won’t really be comfortable together. They’ll still have to struggle with Sansa’s trust issues, and Brienne’s usual grumpiness. Sansa may be cooperative with her new protector, and maybe even courteous, but they won’t bond just yet. I foresee them getting into this vicious cycle in which Sansa doesn’t trust Brienne beyond the immediate future, so Brienne gets even more depressed and pulls farther into herself, so Sansa doesn’t trust her. They’ll have to go through some ugly shit together before they become friends. (Hopefully Sansa won’t have to lose a hand, and Brienne won’t have to fight another bear with a wooden sword.) The background of Brienne having missed Sansa’s distress signal gives them a new layer of conflict to give shape to their journey. Because of course, sympathetic characters on Game of Thrones always need something to fight over. No matter what goes on between them, I’m sure that no one will be angrier at Brienne for dropping the ball than she herself. She is her own harshest critic.
11. Where do they go?
And THIS is the part where I get all excited over recent news.
I was mulling over the matter of where our remaining Stark and her peeps would go for shelter once they’ve gotten together. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, so I looked at a map or two of the North, and I noticed that Last Hearth is a good location: it’s on the way to the Wall, it’s the last castle before the Gift. It’s well away from Winterfell, it gets Sansa even farther away from King’s Landing, and the Umbers are loyal to the Starks and brave enough to defy the Boltons. That’s a possible location for Sansa to stay while she gets her shit together to retake Winterfell. Not sure it’s a probable location, but it’s an option.
That was before I remembered that the last we saw of Rickon in S3, Osha was carrying him off to shelter with the Umbers at Last Hearth. I forgot about that because in the books, they’re on Skagos, while Greatjon Umber was taken captive at the Twins during the Red Wedding. Far as I know he was just recently freed from the Twins when Jaime Lannister took his army around the Riverlands and told the Freys to hand over their prisoners. On the show, however, the Umbers are nowhere to be seen at the Red Wedding, and Osha packs up little Rickon to head up to their castle. The Boltons don’t know one of the Stark children is hanging out with the Umbers.
That brings us to casting announcements for S6, which include someone called Lord of Noble Northern House:
(Casting age anywhere between 25-50) The lord is a savage warrior, and he rules a distinguished house in the very far North, and the role is said to be an impactful one. He’s described as a massive bear of a man with a beard and temper to match, and hatred that run deep, and he can be violent. The show’s looking for someone with a powerful physique who can tower over other cast members, a Northern English Accent and specifies he has to be at least 180 cm tall. The role will be on 2 episodes.
Distinguished house in the very far North? Last Hearth. Massive bear of a man with beard and temper to match? Sounds like an Umber. The age range is young for Greatjon, but this one may be a son, younger brother or nephew. Powerful physique, towering over other cast members, Northern English accent? Consistent with the Umbers.
Hence my excitement: I think we’re going to see the Umbers in S6! Which suggests we’ll also see more of Rickon Stark, and possibly Last Hearth. And that could be a place for Sansa to go, get her shit together, and gather support for re-taking Winterfell. It would allow another convergence: two Starks together in the same place for the first time since the Red Wedding. Rickon would be so happy to see his big sister.
Once she was situated at Last Hearth, Sansa wouldn’t need Brienne’s protection anymore, and that’s fine. I don’t think Brienne necessarily needs to stay with Sansa for very long; she’s ultimately needed beyond the Wall with her Valyrian steel sword. Sansa’s best option for getting to a safe place in one piece, however, is to ask Brienne and Podrick to protect her. Last Hearth is a stop along the way to the Wall!
(I’m not speculating too hard on where Theon goes in S6; I know we’re seeing more of Yara Greyjoy, so it’s possible they’ll connect with her along the way. Maybe she’ll join up with the Team Sansa contingent and fight alongside with Brienne, or maybe she’ll take Theon somewhere else. I have no idea. Last time we saw Theon in the books, he had just jumped off the wall with Jeyne Poole, and been reunited with his sister in Stannis’s camp, where she was held captive. We’re fairly sure Yara was not taken captive by Stannis on the show.)
I realize that no particular one of these questions, in isolation, necessarily points to the protection assignment. Any of these individual questions could be answered in other ways, and some might not be answered at all. (Like: the question of who told Brienne about the tower? I don’t really know that we’ll get an answer to that.) It’s possible that I’m underestimating Sansa and Theon’s resourcefulness in keeping themselves alive following their escape. Sure, some of these questions may be answered in other ways. Taken together, there is one way to answer them all, and that is for Sansa and Theon to join up with Brienne and Podrick. The protection assignment is not dead. It’s entirely doable. And if the protection assignment finally gets real in S6, these are the loose threads that the show will be able to tie together.
Oh, and one more thing: