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HBO’s Game of Thrones has been gradually edging away from its source material. Yet Sunday’s episode introduced what is perhaps the boldest departure yet from George R.R. Martin’s novels: Sansa Stark is now engaged to marry… the psychotic Ramsay Snow Bolton!
In what could be another cruel twist for Sansa (Sophie Turner), her guardian, Littlefinger, arranged for the long-suffering teen to wed the ex-bastard of Bolton, whose family controls her former home of Winterfell. (Littlefinger, it seems, is not aware of Ramsay’s cruelty.) Sansa agrees because she’s trying to take charge of her own fate, and potentially wants to get within striking distance of the family who killed her mother and brother during season 3’s infamous Red Wedding.
But in Martin’s books, Sansa is still at the Eyrie when her storyline ends in A Feast for Crows, while Ramsay marries a minor character who hasn’t appeared in the TV version.
“Sansa is a character we care about almost more than any other, and the Stark sisters have from the very beginning been two characters who have fascinated us the most,” said showrunner David Benioff. “We got very lucky in casting because it’s so hard to cast good kids. Even if they come in and do a great audition, it’s so hard to know if they’re going to quite literally grow into the parts. With Sansa and Arya in particular, their storylines have become quite dark. It was such a gamble and the fact that they’ve both become such great wonderful actresses is a bit of a miracle.”
And it’s because of Turner’s strength, Benioff continued, that it made sense to give Sansa a dramatic storyline this season and to use Ramsay’s engagement for that very purpose. In fact, the showrunners first thought about putting Sansa and Ramsay together back when they were writing season 2. “We really wanted Sansa to play a major part this season,” Benioff said. “If we were going to stay absolutely faithful to the book, it was going to be very hard to do that. There was as subplot we loved from the books, but it used a character that’s not in the show.”
Writer-producer Bryan Cogman had some insight, as well. “The seeds were planted early on in our minds,” Cogman said. “In the books, Sansa has very few chapters in the Vale once she’s up there. That was not going to be an option for one of our lead characters. While this is a very bold departure, [we liked] the power of bringing a Stark back to Winterfell and having her reunite with Theon under these circumstances.”
Besides, Cogman pointed out: “You have this storyline with Ramsay. Do you have one of your leading ladies—who is an incredibly talented actor who we’ve followed for five years and viewers love and adore—do it? Or do you bring in a new character to do it? To me, the question answers itself: You use the character the audience is invested in.”
That said, just because the writers are mining another character’s storylline for Sansa, it doesn’t mean what happens next on HBO’s series will be the same as it was for that other character in the books. So while Martin’s fans might think they now know where Sansa’s story is headed, the showrunners could have more twists planned.
Benioff also provided some thoughts on why Sansa chose to go along with Littelfinger’s scheme. “Sansa started as such a naive innocent,” he said. “She’s been traumatized by what she’s seen and she spent almost a couple years in shell shock. At a certain point she’s either going to die or survive and become stronger. She’s chosen the latter option and she’s learned from an incredibly devious teacher in Littlefinger. The interesting thing about Littlefinger is he seems to have no almost no weaknesses aside from his affection for Sansa. He’s been obsessed with her since that early episode at the joust.”
When I noted that it’s surprising LIttlefinger would give up Sansa to another man, Benioff replied, “That’s the thing about Littlefinger—as much as he might care for Sansa, he cares for nothing more than power. And now he sees an opportunity to gain more power for himself.”
The recent events also bring the Thrones story back to Winterfell, a location the producers have kept in the show’s ever-evolving opening credits map even though the castle has been off-stage for years (though it now includes a flayed-man icon since falling under Bolton control)..
“It was great to get back to where so much of the story started,” Benioff said. “This year we’ve got the biggest Winterfell set we’ve had. The art department created massive, spectacular set to move around in. It gives the director so much freedom. It’s great for us because there’s probably no location that has more emotional resonance for viewers than Winterfell and with Sansa coming back there it’s amazing—you walk into that courtyard, and even though it’s in a different place than it was from the pilot and for season two, it still feels like you’re walking back into Winterfell. Like, that’s where Bran was shooting at a target in a first episode, that’s where Tyrion slapped Joffrey… there’s so many memories.”
Benioff dryly added: “Hopefully some day we can open it as a theme park.”
Read more: My deep-dive recap covering the Sansa twist, Cersei vs. Margaery sniping and more, and our interview with Kit Harington on that beheading scene.