Innocence Lost: Petyr Baelish and Sansa Stark

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For whatever reason, I love anti-heroes. I’m drawn to them and their tragic pasts. I never condone their behavior except in jest, but do have a vested interest in their tragic tales. Part of me wants to see all of them redeemed, even though I know that is unlikely. I am an idealist and a romantic, what can I say? I find the smartest, most tragic anti-hero in every story and root for them as the underdog. Sorry, Raoul. The Phantom outstrips you in terms of brain capacity and angst, so I’m going to root for him. (As a former friend of mine used to say, why root for Raoul? He wins.)

I have a soft spot for Petyr Baelish. Lest you think I am in denial of his true nature, I assure you, I don’t see him as anything other than he is. I have vivid memories of what happened to the girls who disappointed him, Ned Stark’s downfall, and Joffrey’s death (for which he has earned my undying gratitude). But like so many characters on Game of Thrones, Petyr is not purely a villain. He has ambitions, reasons, weaknesses, and sentimentality just like everyone else. And however much I might resent the author’s penchant for destroying happily ever after tropes wherever he turns, I admire his ability to construct characters I can neither love nor hate, but that live in the gray area in-between. And even though I do not believe one human being can change another, a large part of me wants to see Petyr redeemed.

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Petyr is perhaps the most morally dubious of all the characters and certainly the most cunning; on one hand, he is a ruthless long-term strategist single-handedly responsible for setting all the events of the series in motion through one deliberate action: enticing Lysa Arryn into poisoning her husband. If not for that, the Starks would never have gone to King’s Landing, Ned would have never learned the truth about the Lannister heirs, and the wars now raging would have never begun. On the other, he is an incurable romantic who has spent the last thirty-odd years pining for a woman who never loved him in the first place. Given the fact that we never see things from his perspective, we are left wondering at his motivations: are they purely calculated for political advancement, or are they more personal in intention? Is Petyr aiming for the Iron Throne, or was this merely to grant him the misguided opportunity to win over Catelyn Stark?

Victimization is nothing unusual in the series, so it’s not surprising that Petyr too is a victim, not only of unrequited love but having been taken advantage of on several occasions by Lysa Arryn. He is, for all intensive purposes, a rape survivor, but most people overlook that due to his status as a man. It is no excuse for his behavior, and motivates none of his actions; instead, Petyr has transcended the trauma and has his eye on larger goals. And in recent seasons, these plans have come to include Sansa Stark as a co-conspirator and potentially romantic partner. The people who support this relationship are routinely abused by other fans, but all have their reasons for liking this idea. I, for one, indulge a secret hope that she will turn him into a better man, while knowing full well that will not be the case. But a girl can dream.

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I can see why so many people are up in arms with this development. He was instrumental in her father’s downfall, which subsequently led to much of her victimization at the hands of the Lannisters. (I’m not convinced either one was his aim, merely a consequence of Joffrey being a psychopath.) He is much older and has only ever adored her mother. Petyr also clearly has the upper hand in their unequal relationship, having established himself very early on as the one person Sansa can trust to protect her. She owes her survival, in some small part, to Petyr’s foresight, advice, and intervention along the way. Petyr’s motivations are unknown at this point, but I think he finds enjoyment in seeing her evolve from a terrified, intimidated child into someone capable of “playing the game.”

My appreciation of this pairing is not in denial of its more sinister aspects, nor under a delusional belief that Petyr is a good person. I see it for what it is: an attraction between two people, built of gratitude on her part and sentimentality on his; an attachment formed of similar experiences (being abused, mistreated, misunderstood, and underestimated), an attempt to reclaim lost happiness on Petyr’s behalf, and an opportunity for Sansa to come into her own as a woman. The most beneficial relationships improve those involved, and make them stronger as individuals. Devious as he might be, I have already seen positive effects on Sansa due to Petyr’s influence. Even if she has no influence over him, he is making her stronger. Whatever happens, however tragically this will end, I look forward to seeing it unfold.

3 Replies to “Innocence Lost: Petyr Baelish and Sansa Stark”

  1. Sansa Stark was treated differently from her siblings. Her parents indulged her idealism and quite frankly at the start of the novel she is 11 years old. She is also from a noble household. She only knows what she knows. She has never known poverty or struggle until her father died and she was separated from her siblings and mom, her only chance at surviving is by being a lady.

    Sansa is not a politician, she is not a sorceress, she is not a warrior like Arya. She grew up in an aristocratic bubble and I can’t really judge her for that. But yes she did annoy me in season one. I don’t trust Petyr as he was responsible for betraying her father. I think Martin has big plans for Sansa….in the novels there is a prophecy told to Cersei by an old woman, Cersei is told that one day everything she holds dear will be taken from her by a younger, beautiful queen.

    I honestly think that queen will either be Danny or Sansa. I think Martin wants us to have pity for Sansa, Arya and Jon. In a lot of fairy tales writers want us to have pity for their characters…which is why many fairy tale characters tend to be orphans or they lose a mom or dad and keep the other parent. You feel bad for them and want to see how they will deal.

    The original grimm fairy tales were also very harsh much more cruel than the stories of fairy tales we now know. Maybe Martin is inspired by them?

  2. I too, have been enjoying the recent focus on the complex relationship between these two characters. Although it is quite poignant and sad to witness Sansa’s gradual awakening to the realities of the brutal world in which she lives, it essential that she does this in order to survive. Petyr has been something of a mentor to Sansa in this regard – it is hard to see how she could have survived without his interest in her.

    Personally, I would hope that Sansa manages to hold onto some of her innate idealism and kindness as she takes this step, but it is just as likely that this storyline will show how the dangers of Westeros have a way of corrupting and distorting the most noble of souls.

    It is also a sheer delight to witness how much Sophie Turner has grown as an actress in her exquisite portrayal of Sansa. She gave an extraordinarily nuanced performance in the recent episode, where she finally decided to throw in her cards with Petyr and lied to save him from certain death.

    1. Peter’s foresight into others’ behaviors and tendencies let him warn her in advance of things she never considered — I remember very well him cautioning her to avoid thinking she was out of danger simply because the king was set to marry Margaery Tyrell instead of her. Petyr’s revelation as to what this meant for her own life (Joffrey could still torture / sleep with her if he wanted) made her much more cautious and interested in escape than she might have been otherwise.

      Sansa has been through hell, and matured a great deal — she was a selfish brat when she first left home and now she is a much wiser woman. I too hope that she can maintain some dignity and compassion. I also hope she survives… the author has a nasty habit of killing off all the nice people and allowing the evil ones to live.

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