Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 6, "Beyond the Wall," below
Something stinks in Winterfell during Game of Thrones Season 7, and it's not just Arya's gross bag of crusty dead faces. Although the show's sixth season hinted that Jon and Sansa's power struggle could become the main conflict in the North, the real sibling rivalry has turned out to be between Sansa and Arya.
Littlefinger appears to be playing them against one another, once again proving himself a masterful player in the game of thrones. And Bran has been worse than useless, sitting alone by a pond doing nothing for nobody. Things are looking dire for the Starks. But in true Game of Thrones tradition, there's likely more to this situation than meets the eye.
We can hope so, at least.
On the surface, the Stark-on-Stark conflict makes sense. Neither Arya nor Sansa is aware of what the other has been through over the years since they last met, and their strengths look like weaknesses to one another. Sansa's political savvy seems simpering to Arya, and the younger Stark girl's bloodlust is crass and dangerous from Sansa's point of view. Arya never liked her older sister, even if Sansa's demeanor during their dad's execution in Season 1 wasn't quite as cooperative as Arya remembers. Arya and Jon were close, though--remember that her sword, Needle, was a gift from him--and she'd take any perceived threat to him seriously.
Bran, meanwhile, is the Three-Eyed Raven now. Whatever else that means, his brain is apparently overloaded with all the knowledge of eons of history, and he's clearly finding it difficult to parse.
That's how the Starks found themselves in their current situation. In the microcosm of Season 7, it's all pretty believable. But taken in the context of the entire series, these narratives crash and burn like a dragon with an ice spear lodged deep in its gullet.
Most crucially, having Littlefinger completely own the Stark family for the umpteenth time does absolutely nothing for the story. From a pure character perspective, the three remaining Stark kids have survived so much, and they've each brought a unique set of skills and their own new perspectives to this reunion. For Petyr Baelish to still have the upper hand over them isn't just narratively dissatisfying--it's nonsensical.
If the Starks gained nothing from their seasons of strife, then what was the point? Game of Thrones has taught us that those who survive--not the Neds and Robbs of the world, in other words--don't do so by chance. The Starks have made it this far. They should be able to outsmart and defeat one dude.
That goes triple for Sansa, whose entire arc for the last several seasons has been about learning to play this grand game and how to outmaneuver Littlefinger.
So what's really going on in Winterfell this season? Who's playing who, and what will happen in next week's episode, the Game of Thrones Season 7 finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf?”
Unsurprisingly, there are some theories.
The sound of ravens
Poking around on Reddit and Twitter (and doing my best to avoid actual leaks, because where's the fun in that?), the prevailing theory among Game of Thrones fans seems to be that Arya will wind up wearing Littlefinger's face and impersonating him, in order for her and Sansa to cement the Starks' leadership over Petyr's forces in the Vale. There is, of course, disagreement on how that will come about.
One of the potentially sharpest observations I've seen comes from user O5-12 on Reddit: There appear to be ravens cawing noisily in the background of Littlefinger's scenes throughout Season 7. With Bran's affinity for watching the world through birds' eyes, this could be a subtle hint that the Stark boy is seeing Baelish in all his machinations.
After all, Bran's hardly done anything since returning to Winterfell, besides sending letters to the Citadel, creeping everyone out, and making tactless comments to Sansa about her traumatic second wedding. What's he been doing all this time, and what purpose will he ultimately serve? It's possible that he's been secretly informing Sansa and Arya of Littlefinger's plots, helping them play the player by pretending to fall right into his traps.
The Stark kids banding together and using their hard-earned powers, skills, and knowledge to outsmart and defeat Littlefinger would be incredibly satisfying, narratively speaking. Of all the Starks' enemies, Baelish has the most responsibility for the family's downfall. He persuaded Lysa Arryn, Catelyn's sister, to poison her husband, Jon Arryn, and write to Cat. That sparked the events that eventually got Ned beheaded and started the War of the Five Kings. He stabbed the Starks in the back at every opportunity. For them to be his downfall is too good for the show to pass up at this point.
If Game of Thrones hasn't done the best job setting that up, well, that's the show's fault. Can Arya and Sansa really be putting on a show for Littlefinger, when they're doing it in places like Arya's chambers--where Baelish is unlikely to be able to eavesdrop? Has there really been any indication that the sisters are secretly on the same page, besides fans' desperate hope that they're not getting played yet again? That's up for debate.
It's also possible that they haven't been plotting a reversal all along, but that their fight has been genuine. Bran could still remember his name and intervene in the finale, uniting them at last. Even if Bran's not interested in avenging the Starks, he could simply be motivated by a desire to unite the forces of the humanity against the coming threat. Either way, getting rid of Littlefinger--a literal agent of chaos, as Bran reminded us upon their meeting this season--serves his purpose.
Finally, this explanation makes sense of the scene in episode 6, "Beyond the Wall," in which Arya delivered Sansa some thinly veiled threats and then handed her that dagger. It's not like she gave her a sly wink at the end, but she did explain her face-wearing powers in pretty good detail. Sansa may have been meant to intuit that Arya wants them to work together--maybe.
Whatever happens with the Stark siblings and their tormentor, we'll find out next week in the Game of Thrones Season 7 finale, "The Dragon and the Wolf." Let's hope there are still some Starks left in Winterfell when it's over.