Chapter 76 (Samwell)
Samwell attends a meeting between King Stannis and several men in the Night’s Watch. Stannis chastises Janos Slynt and makes it clear he doesn’t like the man, nor does he support him for Lord Commander. He goes on to say he wants the Gift, a piece of land just south of the Wall, and the men of the Watch are reluctant to give it over. Melisandre says they’re fighting a battle against darkness and tells them that Stannis is the messianic Azor Ahai come again. Stannis dismisses the men but asks Samwell and Maester Aemon to stay. He asks about Samwell killing the Other with the obsidian dagger and wants Samwell to show him the Black Gate. Afterward, Samwell and Maester Aemon talk about the upcoming election of the new Lord Commander, Samwell wonders what he can do. He then visits the two contenders for commander, Ser Pyke and Ser Denys, and tells each separately that Stannis will pick the other if the votes are inconclusive. He knows neither wants the other to be the new commander, and asks each whether they might support Jon Snow.
Chapter 77 (Jon)
Jon is knocked out during sword practice, and while unconscious he remembers an incident from his childhood in Winterfell. After, he feels tormented as he thinks of Stannis’s offer. Suddenly Ghost, his direwolf, appears. Jon feels relieved, and thinking back on how he and the Starks found all the direwolves, he suddenly knows how he will answer Stannis. When he goes to supper, Jon is astonished to learn that he’s been proposed as the new Lord Commander. Janos Slynt is in a rage, and the men argue. When the voting is done, Jon has been overwhelmingly elected the new leader of the Night’s Watch. The men vow their support, and Jon accepts the office, realizing that Samwell was the one responsible.
Chapter 78 (Sansa)
At the castle in the Eyrie, Marillion continues to pester Sansa, but Lysa will not listen to her complaints. Sansa feels alone and homesick. One day, Sansa goes into the snow and builds a castle, modeling it after Winterfell. After watching her for a time, Petyr helps her sculpt the snow, then steals a kiss, to Sansa’s shock. Young Robert interrupts them and smashes the castle. Sansa admits to tearing Robert’s doll in two, so the destruction is an act of revenge. Later, Marillion takes Sansa to her aunt Lysa. Lysa accuses Sansa of enticing Petyr into kissing her. Sansa denies this, but Lysa flies into a rage and tries to push Sansa out the Moon Door, which opens to an immense drop. Petyr enters and implores Lysa to calm herself. Lysa madly expresses jealousy of her sister, Catelyn, who she believes had a secret relationship with Petyr. Petyr calmly listens to her, convinces her to release Sansa, and then pushes Lysa out the Moon Door, killing her. He frames Marillion for the crime.
Samwell shows how clever he can be and demonstrates his growing courage when he influences the election of the Watch’s new Lord Commander. Terrified by the prospect of Janos Slynt becoming the new leader of the Night’s Watch, not least because it could mean Jon being hanged as a turncloak, Samwell hopes someone else will step in and prevent it from happening. But when it becomes clear nobody else will, Samwell resolves to try himself. It’s a big step for him, as he’s previously been too timid to assert himself, and the change seems to stem from his recent experiences north of the Wall and his vow to Gilly. Notably, he thinks to himself that Gilly made him braver. Knowing that Stannis won’t support Janos for the post, Samwell realizes that leaves two main contenders, neither of which wants the other to lead the Watch. But neither has any incentive to back Jon Snow, so Samwell creates an incentive. In another surprisingly bold move, he lies to them, telling each that Stannis will choose the other in the result of an inconclusive vote. Neither wants that outcome, and each would prefer to see Jon in the post of Lord Commander rather than the other. Samwell thus creates backing for Jon where there was none, and Jon is elected as a result.
Jon in this section faces the height of his internal conflict between his desire to rule Winterfell and his desire to remain in the Night’s Watch. The brief dream Jon has while he’s unconscious centers on an incident in which Robb innocently pointed out that Jon, because he’s a bastard, could never be Lord of Winterfell. That Jon focuses on the incident suggests it was a turning point for Jon, perhaps the first time he felt himself truly an outsider in the Stark family. That sense of being an outsider has stayed with him, but what Stannis has offered, beyond a castle, lands, and a lordship, is the chance to wipe that feeling away. Jon suddenly recognizes that he’s always wanted to be Lord of Winterfell, and now it’s within reach. But Jon has also found a home in the Night’s Watch, and he made a vow to the Watch, which honor demands he keep. It’s the return of Ghost, Jon’s direwolf, that prompts him to make a decision. Of the direwolves the Stark children had, Jon’s was different. It was found separately, and it was the only one with white fur and red eyes. What’s implied is that Jon, like his direwolf, was never like the others, and nothing will change that. As Jon walks toward the dinner hall, he sees Val, the wildling woman Stannis proposed Jon make his queen at Winterfell, and he thinks that he won’t be the one to save her, suggesting he intends to turn Stannis down and remain with the Watch. Shortly after, Jon is elected the new Lord Commander.
Sansa faces new perils in her final chapter that suggest a new set of conflicts in her future. Throughout the series, Sansa has held a naïve and romantic perspective of the world that’s been repeatedly battered by reality. She learned to hold that part of herself in check while she was a captive of the Lannisters, but here it appears again when she builds the snow castle. Notably, the castle she recreates is Winterfell, a symbol of her childhood and her past. While she plays, Petyr kisses her, which makes her extremely uncomfortable, and then Robert, who is supposed to be her future husband, promptly destroys her castle. The scene suggests that there will be no returning to Winterfell, that Sansa’s past is gone permanently, and that her future will be rife with the complications represented by Petyr and Robert. Not long after, Petyr pushes Lysa out the Moon Door. Aside from Petyr, Lysa was the only person who knew Sansa’s real identity, and her death is one more step toward Sansa losing her connection to who she was. In fact, in a very real way there is no longer a Sansa Stark, just Alayne.