It is not a secret the upcoming eighth season of Game of Thrones there will begin calling back to the initial grand political moment seen in the show’s first episode, when King Robert Baratheon’s entourage descended on the home of the Starks and unpredictably upended their fortunes. This season the royal procession will include the freshman King in the North returning as a king who knelt – to Daenerys Targaryen. Daenerys is arriving with foreign troops and winged monsters in the hopes of keeping Winterfell secure, which hopefully will cause less havoc than did Robert’s job offer to Lord Eddard Stark.
For the second time in the series, Winterfell is playing host to representatives from each of the four families who have largely framed the political dynamics of the show: Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, and a Baratheon bastard will be behind the same ancient walls. (Previously, it had been Starks, a Baratheon, Lannisters, and at least one secret Targaryen.) But this time the royal party includes a newcomer to the North with some issues with fairly important (and potentially vindictive) Starks.
This person is Varys, the Master of Whisperers. A Spider with some explaining to do.
VARYS THE COLLABORATOR
Soon after Cersei Lannister executed her coup against rightful regent Ned Stark to secure her son Joffrey’s position as king, the Lannister queen ordered the frightened and helpless Sansa Stark brought before her and steamrolled the child into sending dictated terms of surrender to her mother and brother. Essentially a “come to King’s Landing and capitulate [or else…]” letter.
Assisting Cersei in her manipulation was a supporting cast of theatrical cronies, including good cop Baelish, bad cop Pycelle, and bald cop Varys. Together they reinforced Cersei’s subtle and insidious bullying to compel Sansa’s compliance.
“A child born of traitor’s seed will find that betrayal comes naturally to her,” said Grand Maester Pycelle. “She is a sweet thing now, but in ten years, who can say what treasons she may hatch?”
“No,” Sansa said, horrified. “I’m not, I’d never … I wouldn’t betray Joffrey, I love him, I swear it, I do.”
“Oh, so poignant,” said Varys. “And yet, it is truly said that blood runs truer than oaths.”
— A Game of Thrones, Sansa IV
Seeing Varys in Winterfell might remind Sansa of the role he played in her gaslighting, an unwelcome reminder of the beginnings of her abusive experience.
The timing could not be worse for Varys, arriving in Winterfell so soon after his colleague and co-manipulator Petyr Baelish’s execution.
Varys: Colleague? I hardly knew the man. Aside from seasons of monologuing at each other in front of the throne. And harmlessly scheming to pass the time.
To be fair to Varys, he’s been in tighter spots and talked his way out of them – like he did when Daenerys confronted the wily eunuch about his part in the Baratheon reign’s efforts to assassinate her.
The Spider might be able to hand wave away any concerns Sansa brings up by insisting that he was as powerless as she was to act contrary to Cersei’s wishes at court. Varys talks a good game, that’s a given. But Sansa is not the only daughter of Ned Stark likely to regard Varys with suspicion.
VARYS THE CONSPIRATOR
“The gods alone know,” the first voice said. Arya could see a wisp of grey smoke drifting up off the torch, writhing like a snake as it rose. “The fools tried to kill his son, and what’s worse, they made a mummer’s farce of it. He’s not a man to put that aside. I warn you, the wolf and lion will soon be at each other’s throats, whether we will it or no.”
“Too soon, too soon,” the voice with the accent complained. “What good is war now? We are not ready. Delay.”
“As well bid me stop time. Do you take me for a wizard?”
The other chuckled. “No less.” Flames licked at the cold air. The tall shadows were almost on top of her. An instant later the man holding the torch climbed into her sight, his companion beside him. Arya crept back away from the well, dropped to her stomach, and flattened herself against the wall. She held her breath as the men reached the top of the steps.
“What would you have me do?” asked the torchbearer, a stout man in a leather half cape. Even in heavy boots, his feet seemed to glide soundlessly over the ground. A round scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his steel cap, and he wore mail over boiled leather, and a dirk and shortsword at his belt. It seemed to Arya there was something oddly familiar about him.
“If one Hand can die, why not a second?” replied the man with the accent and the forked yellow beard.
— A Game of Thrones, Arya III
Arya Stark was just a child and lost in the dark corridors under the Red Keep when she overheard two people plotting and mentioning attempted murder, war, and dead Hands. At the time, she didn’t recognize the one vaguely familiar conspirator as Varys, but she is not the same Arya now. Trained by the Faceless Men to discern truths that are shrouded in lies, Varys might find his presence in Winterfell’s court jogging old memories in the small assassin. Varys can talk a good game, but if Arya lures him into the game of faces, whatever secrets he is holding onto might be exposed.
(To clarify, the game of faces is not Arya cutting off Varys’s face – but rather asking questions and knowing which answers are true or false. Then, depending on what secrets Arya can divine, face cutting might happen.)
Unfortunately for Varys, his usual trade in secrecy and spycraft is overshadowed by other factors in the North.
VARYS THE FISH OUT OF WATER
When Catelyn Stark arrived in King’s Landing to warn Ned of the attack on Bran, she was surprised that Lord Varys already seemed to know the details – that Bran had been attacked and that her hands had been injured in fending off the dagger-wielding skulker. At the time, Varys humble-bragged that he had spies pretty much everywhere.
But his intelligence network in Winterfell probably fell into disarray when Ramsay Snow slaughtered all the residents of the castle when freeing it from Theon’s disloyal ironborn, before setting the ancient structure on fire. When Bolton forces moved in to rebuild Winterfell, Varys was a fugitive on the run to Meereen, escaping with Tyrion Lannister.
Varys is most likely entering Winterfell without any intelligence apparatus in place – although he might be savvy enough to pick up on the network that Baelish had been developing before his sudden reversal of fortunes. This is a troubling situation for Varys, since his intelligence operations were really what gave him value to whatever monarch he was serving, as well as giving him an edge on his competition, whomever that may be. (For years, that competition was Baelish.) Without a network to leverage, he’s just a rather unctuous guy who had better get a furry hat or else lose his ears to frostbite.
Varys: This seems like another reference to my fashionably smooth head.
But Varys might want consider a different way to become useful, since trying to get into the local Winterfell intel game will bring him up against a competitor that vastly outclasses Varys’s reputedly wizardly abilities.
As the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran Stark has a tremendous advantage in this domain. The limits of Bran’s extra-sensory power aren’t defined, but he can warg (or skinchange, if you’re a book reader) into animals, but he can also send his consciousness into the past. Is he omniscient and knows everything? No, probably not. Bran hasn’t made that claim – although he’s said that he remembers everything. But he does seem to be able to consistently pull up information about his family, the Starks: He’s viewed his father’s generation as children in Winterfell; he’s seen his father as a young man during Robert’s Rebellion; and his aunt Lyanna’s marriage ceremony to Rhaegar Targaryen.
If Bran has any interest in Varys, it’s fair to assume he’ll be able to see Varys’s interactions with Ned when he was Hand… and when he was in the Black Cells.
Ned studied the eunuch’s face, searching for truth beneath the mummer’s scars and false stubble. He tried some more wine. This time it went down easier. “Can you free me from this pit?”
“I could … but will I? No. Questions would be asked, and the answers would lead back to me.”
— A Game of Thrones, Eddard XV
Eavesdropping on these past conversations between Varys and Ned, Bran would not only witness the Spider’s unwillingness to assist Lord Eddard, but also the ultimately empty assurances in exchange for Ned’s agreement to falsely confess to treason.
“I want you to serve the realm,” Varys said. “Tell the queen that you will confess your vile treason, command your son to lay down his sword, and proclaim Joffrey as the true heir. Offer to denounce Stannis and Renly as faithless usurpers. Our green-eyed lioness knows you are a man of honor. If you will give her the peace she needs and the time to deal with Stannis, and pledge to carry her secret to your grave, I believe she will allow you to take the black and live out the rest of your days on the Wall, with your brother and that baseborn son of yours.”
— A Game of Thrones, Eddard XV
None of this should play well with Bran or with his sisters should he share that info with them. (With the Three-Eyed Raven, it isn’t easy to peg his motivations or future actions.)
All in all, it would serve Varys best to keep his mouth shut, his shiny head down, and try not to be noticed. To maintain such a low profile, there are more people than the Stark children that he would have to avoid. Tyrion Lannister has relied on Varys in the past, and since Tyrion is doing some longer-term thinking, he’d want to discuss ideas and make plans with his former confidant. This would serve to raise Varys’s exposure since Tyrion himself has a complicated relationship with the lady of Winterfell.
Ser Jorah Mormont might naturally sidle up to Varys just to have someone to talk to. Having been exiled from the North for selling poachers into slavery, Jorah might be feeling uncomfortable among his countrymen. With disapproving eyes following Jorah, the more he spends time with his former handler, the more of this attention will also be focused on Varys. Unless the Spider can keep scuttling away from Jorah’s company.
Jaime Lannister, arriving at Winterfell with his own dark history, could easily try to use Varys to deflect attention away from himself.
Jaime: I’m just saying, if you aren’t throwing creepy, skeevy Varys into a cell, no one should be saying “boo” to me.
Varys: I’m not entirely sure what you’re implying.
Tyrion: I’m entirely sure that you’re entirely sure what he’s implying.
Varys: This conversation sounds familiar.
It would certainly serve Jaime’s interests and survivability to not to be the most untrusted individual within the castle.
But would it serve the story for Varys to be a source of friction and conflict with a horde of wights on the horizon? No. And Yes.
Any kind of conflict going on might be considered a distraction – because the stakes are so high for humanity that distrust and suspicions among the living seem to be so low on the priority list that they shouldn’t even surface. But hand waving away the human interactions flattens things down into simply a conflict of good versus evil, the living versus the dead. There is some discussion about that in the show – the undead Lord Beric said as much to the undead King in the North. That this was a war of the dead versus the living. (Ironic considering the two characters involved in the discussion.)
But that’s a bit too simple.
VARYS AND VALUE
It’s clear that Cersei Lannister has different priorities that don’t include supporting the Stark/Targaryen alliance against supernatural evil. Her choosing herself rather than endorsing full support for Team Still Breathing is an interesting wrinkle for the final season. The viewers have had very little insight into the motivations of the White Walkers, and have to accept at the moment that the northern monsters are operating under some straightforward “kill, reanimate, kill some more” programming.
Since the White Walkers are a straightforward, uncomplicated foe, the narrative richness of the final season will have to come from those sheltered at Winterfell. Caught between the White Walkers in the North and the self-centered lioness in the South.
The show has been praised for the character drama and complex personal conflict, with some aspersions cast on the occasional spectacle of battle or similar grand cinematic scene, but with the final season on the horizon, it seems as if there should be more opportunities for spectacle and less for character drama. However, the best of the spectacles on Game of Thrones are always rooted in character drama. To ignore that element of the show is to make the spectacle hollow.
Varys isn’t a fighter. He’s not going to be useful on the battle (the recent trailer shows him sheltered with the non-combatants in the crypts.) It’s extremely unlikely that he has any knowledge or insight on the political situation happening among the White Walkers.
Varys: I wager they’re operating under some kind of “kill, reanimate, kill some more” directive.
Bran: Thanks for catching up to the rest of us.
So Varys’s value as a character can be summed up as follows:
- To the Starks and Targaryens, Varys might still have viable operatives in King’s Landing that he could leverage, when the time comes to look to overthrowing Cersei. After the White Walkers are dealt with.
- To the story, Varys provides drama with characters who have reasonable grounds to distrust having such an opportunistic and inscrutable character around. This is not overly manufactured drama (unlike, say, the Arya-Sansa conflict last season.)
And Varys provides another point of value. He can validate Ned Stark’s philosophy.
THE MADNESS OF MERCY
“What strange fit of madness led you to tell the queen that you had learned the truth of Joffrey’s birth?”
“The madness of mercy,” Ned admitted.
“Ah,” said Varys. “To be sure. You are an honest and honorable man, Lord Eddard. Ofttimes I forget that. I have met so few of them in my life.” He glanced around the cell. “When I see what honesty and honor have won you, I understand why.”
— A Game of Thrones, Eddard XV
When Ned Stark realized that Cersei’s children were not Robert’s, he was in a position of strength. He was Hand of the King and when the king returned hale and whole from his most recent hunt, Ned could reveal the information to Robert without giving warning to Cersei. Instead, Ned gave Cersei the opportunity to flee, because of mercy for Cersei’s children, since Ned reasonably feared for their lives in the face of Robert’s wrath.
Varys took the opportunity, with Lord Eddard in chains in the black cells, to chide him for this act of mercy. Varys suggested that Ned’s warning to the queen somehow doomed the king on his hunt (which is a statement that might not withstand close examination.) It might be more fair to say that Ned’s mercy doomed Ned.
But now Varys is at Winterfell, where the rulers have reason to treat him as they did Littlefinger. What might save Varys would be the recognition from Arya, Sansa, and Bran that they have larger concerns than dealing with Varys.
When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths. So if you must hate, Arya, hate those who would truly do us harm.
— A Game of Thrones, Arya II
Winter has come, and any political machinations that Varys were involved with were summertime squabbles. Varys might have his own mysterious agenda, but it is the White Walkers that mean Winterfell harm.
But it’s important for these squabbles to be considered and addressed on the show. Important for Varys to be in jeopardy, and for Arya, Sansa, and Bran to choose to set the squabbles aside. And exercise mercy, the madness of mercy. In this way, they can honor their father who tried to save the children of his enemy.
Varys should be grateful that Ned could set such an example. And after the White Walkers are dealt with, to repay the Starks against his former employer, Cersei.
Varys getting to this position, facing and acknowledging his own web of misdeeds and schemings, rather than just having his support taken for granted, would be much more satisfying than just rushing along in the last season of Game of Thrones.
Varys: When you play the game of thrones –
Melisandre: You die. I’ve already told you that.