This week, fans were treated to the long-awaited return of their favorite characters on Game of Thrones with season 7’s premiere, “Dragonstone.” One of the biggest moments came when Jon Snow’s authority was challenged by his own blood.
When Jon forgave Houses Umber and Karstark for past betrayals, Sansa didn’t waste a moment before undermining his decision, calling him out in front of everyone:
Both characters make completely valid points. And each’s position makes sense from their perspective.
First, there’s Jon. Brought up by Ned Stark, Jon was taught to rule with mercy. But having grown up a bastard, Jon also understands the injustice of being punished solely because of the sins of his alleged father.
At Castle Black, the priority above all else was defending the realm of men from the dangers north of The Wall. And no matter who you were or what you’d done before you took the black, all your past sins were forgiven once you swore the oath and became a brother in the Knight’s Watch. The Watch also did not concern itself with the petty squabbles south of The Wall, so everyone was equal and singularly focused on protecting the realm.
This explains why Jon forgives the Umbers and Karstarks, calling for a fresh start once they’ve bent the knee to House Stark. Speaking as though he’s still Lord Commander of the Knight’s Watch, Jon declares, “Yesterday’s wars don’t matter anymore.”
Jon recognizes he needs to recruit every able-bodied ally he can find if they’re to have any hope of defeating the massive army of the dead that awaits them on the other side of The Wall. But Jon’s greater motivation is that Ned Umber and Alice Karstark never personally wronged the Starks and are not to blame for Robb’s ultimate defeat or Rickon’s death. So the thought of penalizing both families for the crimes of a few fundamentally violates his sense of justice.
Sansa, however, argues the betrayals of the Umbers and Karstarks should be punished by having their castles given over to loyal families who fought against the Boltons. As she sees it, Jon’s act of mercy sends the message, “There’s no punishment for treason and no reward for loyalty.”
It’s an excellent point. Sansa witnessed her father’s execution firsthand, a consequence of Ned prioritizing his sense of honor and mercy. Ned lost his head because he refused the path of political pragmatism.
Sansa also heard all the gruesome details of Robb’s fate because, like his father, Robb made sloppy tactical mistakes for the sake of his nobility. The Karstarks only betrayed Robb in the first place after Rickard Karstark took his revenge on innocent Lannister hostages without Robb’s permission. Rather than dishonorably lie by covering up the savage crime and denying his force’s role in it, Robb executed Rickard Karstark and his accomplices despite warnings this action would alienate allies and cost him a sizable chunk of his army. In one stroke of his sword, Robb lost the Karstarks and the Boltons to his enemies. That mistake destroyed him.
So, as risky as it is to punish two powerful northern families at a time when they need every soldier they can get, Sansa understands that Jon also takes a big risk if his bannermen don’t respect his authority, neither fearing reprisal for disobedience nor expecting to benefit for remaining loyal. The quality of Jon’s army could very well prove more valuable in the end than the quantity of troops under his command.
It’s difficult to say how Jon’s decision will play out in the end. On the one hand, the last time he pulled a move like this — when he invited the wildlings south of The Wall and forgave their past trespasses — it led to the mutiny that killed him.
Then again, at the very least, the Umbers and Karstarks will likely fight that much harder for Jon because of the mercy he showed them. And, to be fair, Jon gave a pretty good inspirational speech that may be seen by the rest of the northern lords as further evidence Jon is every bit the honorable man as Ned, a man they all respected. And the scene does indeed end with the northern lords collectively banging on the tables, their version of a massive round of applause. So that’s hopefully a good sign.
But then there’s also the issue of Sansa’s timing. Jon made an instant decision on the spot without asking Sansa, Davos, nor Tormund for their council. So perhaps that’s Jon’s mistake. But it’s hard to imagine that Sansa contradicting him in front of everyone didn’t undermine his authority at least a little bit. And, if nothing else, the last person you’d want to show weakness in front of, Littlefinger, saw the whole thing and immediately exploited the rift.
In the past few years, the closest thing Sansa had to parental role models were Cersei and Littlefinger, both cunning and relentless when it comes to winning. A writer for The Huffington Post even observed Sansa is now sporting one of Cersei’s earlier hair styles:
So, when Jon makes the potentially even more critical mistake of underestimating Cersei as a threat because the Lannister queen has few allies and resides hundreds of miles to the south, Sansa offers her best advice: “You’re the military man, but I know her. If you’re her enemy, she’ll never stop until she’s destroyed you. Everyone who’s ever crossed her she’s found a way to murder.”
In that, Sansa is certainly correct. As weak as Cersei’s position is at the moment, it was no less weak when she defeated every single one of her enemies residing in King’s Landing in one fell swoop in the opening minutes of last season’s “The Winds of winter.” Jon ignores Cersei’s threat at his own peril.
Ultimately, Sansa used terrible judgment regarding when to speak up but her tactical insight is valuable. Somehow, Jon and Sansa managed to totally disagree on strategy and still both be right.