Queen in the North: The Case for Sophie Turner as 'Game of Thrones' MVP
By Meredith B. Kile
Sansa Stark ended up as Queen in the North on Sunday's Game of Thrones series finale, and honestly, nothing has ever felt so right.
The eldest surviving Stark saw her brother, Bran, crowned ruler of the six kingdoms, won freedom for the North and saved Queenslayer Jon Snow from execution at the hands of Daenerys' remaining loyalists -- and that was all before she took her throne at Winterfell in front of a room full of cheering bannermen.
It was perhaps the most satisfying endpoint for any character on the show, completing Sansa's evolution from a dreamy, sheltered girl who fantasized about being a queen to a poised, storm-forged woman who understands what it means to rule.
The character's dynamic and compelling arc came thanks in no small part to a powerhouse performance by Sophie Turner, who has played Sansa since she was 14 years old, evolving as an actress alongside her character, who became a fan favorite as she fought to return to her home and reunite her family through Game of Thrones' eight seasons. Ahead of the episode, Turner shared a tribute to her character, thanking Sansa for "teaching me resilience, bravery and what true strength really is."
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"Thank you for teaching me to be kind and patient and to lead with love," the actress added. "I grew up with you. I fell in love with you at 13 and now 10 years on.. at 23 I leave you behind, but I will never leave behind what you’ve taught me."
However, just as Sansa's behind-the-scenes maneuvering has flown under the radar throughout Game of Thrones' final seasons (never forget who actually won the Battle of the Bastards), so too has Turner's performance been underappreciated -- if not critically or by fans, then by the Television Academy. As it stands now, the actress is the only one of the show's four main female leads who has yet to secure an Emmy nomination in the supporting actress category -- Lena Headey has earned four for her portrayal of Cersei Lannister, Emilia Clarke has netted three, and Maisie Williams was nominated in 2016 for Arya Stark's compelling solo arc in Braavos -- an oversight that is definitely time to remedy.
Able to command a room -- or, as in Sunday's series finale, a council of Westeros' most prominent lords and ladies -- with little more than a look, Turner has brought a graceful and commanding presence to every scene, even ones where she is a supporting player. Throughout the drama of the final season -- the Battle of Winterfell, the reveal of Jon's true parentage, the evolution of Mad Queen Daenerys -- it was Sansa going toe-to-toe with the last of the Targaryens, raising the counterpoints, staking out her claim and defending the North until the show's very last moments, when she took her throne with a crown of direwolves -- the Queen in the North, whose name is Stark.
A moment like that doesn't land unless the audience loves the character on the throne, and the fact that Sansa's coronation -- intercut with her fellow Stark siblings embarking on their own adventures -- was one of the most compelling and emotional scenes of the epic finale speaks volumes to Turner's performance.
"I loved it," Turner told the New York Times of Sansa's final scene. "It’s the only place that she really, truly feels safe. It’s the place that she’s the most capable of ruling. She would be a fair and loving ruler, and it’s what she’s been striving for this whole series: to go back home, to protect her home. And finally she has that."
It's hard to say how Emmy nominations might shake out for GoT's final season, which has weathered its share of controversy. (And there will certainly be a lot of tiresome coffee cup jokes if the production design team earns another much-deserved honor.) No performer on the show has ever been nominated in the lead actor categories, though there's certainly a case to be made for Clarke and Kit Harington submitting as leads this season. (For her part, Clarke is certainly deserving of the honor for her season eight arc, tracking Daenerys' controversial downswing to madness, destruction and isolation, and pulling off some of her best performances in the show's penultimate episode while flying solo against a green screen.)
But Turner, too, deserves the recognition she has yet to receive for her powerful, yet understated performance. It’s difficult to understand how the Littlefinger trial alone didn’t land her a supporting nod for season seven (“Do you deny it?”), but in Game of Thrones' final season, Sansa -- and Turner, in turn -- got another chance to shine as the Lady of Winterfell, despite the fact that her character was sometimes overlooked and underestimated in favor of the show’s more ambitious and active women. So much of Sansa's arc has been defined by fear and pain and worry, but by season eight, she was finally unwavering in her strength and confident in her position of power -- evolved, as the books describe her, from porcelain to ivory to steel. With lessons learned at the hands of horrible men, she was ready to rule with love, as she promised Cersei she would all those years ago.
When casting Game of Thrones a decade ago, it would have been impossible to know what kind of performers the show's youngest actors would turn out to be all these years later. But Turner and Williams, in particular, grew into their roles with such strength and poise, it makes one wonder if Nina Gold and Robert Sterne didn't have some sort of time machine at hand when they chose the pair to play the sisters Stark.
"Their grace under pressure was evident from their first days on set -- which were their first days on any set, ever," Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss recalled of the young actresses when they spoke with Rolling Stone ahead of the final season. "But even those amazing early days couldn’t have prepared us for the layers upon layers of depth and subtlety they would both bring to their work, or the extent to which they would develop their craft on the job. They may have been born talented, but talented didn’t get them to where they are -- hard work did. They may not always act serious, but they are serious actors."
In the end, Sansa deservedly ended up on her throne, and with any small amount of justice, Turner's name will make a few short lists come awards season.