By Joe Buckley
Season 7 of Game of Thrones concluded, as so many of its past counterparts did, with a major death. Perhaps not quite so important as Tywin Lannister, or as spectacular as a blaze of wildfire, but there’s no doubt that Littlefinger’s demise was the death of the year.
Such a casualty goes far beyond representing just a human man. Petyr Baelish, if nothing else, was the very representation of deceit, backstabbing, throne-grabbing and game-playing the series is so famous for. After all, considering he was first presented to us as the master of coin, and died as the essential ruler of the Vale, Lord of Harrenhal and at least seemed to have his foot in the Winterfell door, we must bow down to the clear master.
Except there was a time, not so long ago, when Baelish did not stand alone atop a pedestal of secrets.
No, there was another.
Varys, master of whisperers, the Spider himself, still lives. But where does he fit in to a streamlined season 7, and an even shorter season 8?
Back in the earlier seasons, where a great many storylines still rose and died in King’s Landing, either Baelish or Varys (or, more often than not, both) had their hands in it. Debates have raged over which of the two competitors was the true victor in these little games, and surely any scene where the two would argue over their independent philosophies is a fan-favourite. In many ways, Littefinger and Varys were two sides of the same coin.
They share a similarity: their lack of physical power. In a world dominated by bicep, sword and beard, we have two specimens who offer nothing whatsoever in that arena. Petyr is lithe, slim and by himself, only ever killed a distraught woman. Varys, a eunuch, has never taken a step towards physical force, and in the books his femininity is much more pronounced, mainly through his titters. Both were outside the norm from the beginning, yet both had dragged themselves into positions of power, when really they had no business doing so. Varys, from the streets of the Free Cities, Petyr from the barren Fingers. They even found each other on the same Small Council, and Season 1 did a fantastic job of displaying the different choice each represented as they pulled and played and promised to Ned Stark.
As the seasons (and books) progressed, more defined lines were steadily added to these characters. Some of the mystery was removed in season 4, when we found Petyr Baelish truly was the monster he hinted at, with his killing of Joffrey and then Lysa, all while essentially kidnapping Sansa Stark. In the reverse, Varys won many fans’ hearts with his assistance with Tyrion’s escape from the Black Cells and his devotion to a better cause. In a game of thrones, the characters are far too complex to simply be labelled as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but in terms of this spymaster coin, it’s clear which of the pair was supposed to represent each camp.
Fast-forwarding to where we stand now, and that assumption still stands. Baelish, though still experiencing great personal success, only became more villainous as he ventured north. Eventually, just as the show attempted to persuade us all of his greatest victory in the splitting of the Starks, Arya and Sansa showed it was not to be so.
Where Petyr went north into the snows, Varys escaped east into the sun (and then back again). The second-half of Varys’ series-long story has been dedicated to helping Daenerys’ cause, securing her rule in Meereen or finding potential allies, which is all well and good. Unfortunately, as the series has progressed, the Varys we know and love has suffered.
In season 7, the narrative bled down to three main storylines: Winterfell, King’s Landing and Dany/Jon (plus some extras). It very closely mirrors the structure of Season 1, where we focused on Castle Black, King’s Landing and Dany (plus some extras). Varys, a lifelong ‘extra’, featured heavily in Season 1. The same cannot be said for Season 7.
In fact, Varys’ season 7 action boils down to just three conversations:
- Daenerys’ accusation about Varys’ true intentions regarding her life and that of previous kings.
- Melisandre’s daunting final words before her departure.
- Varys’ conversation with Tyrion after he returns from the field of fire, concerning Varys’ relationship with Aerys Targaryen.
Even though these conversations are not numerous, they are telling, and each do something for the character that is Varys.
Firstly, Daenerys’ accusation. While the logistics and timing of this conversation are slightly suspect, given that Varys has already delivered Tyrion, helped with the Sons of the Harpy, the Tyrells and the Sand Snakes; it did stoke enough flame in the fandom to cast Varys under suspicion. Was he a double-agent? Was this where his super-spy skills had disappeared to? Was this why Daenerys was failing at every turn? As it turns out, no, to all three. Thankfully, the question was not the true value in this conversation, but the answer.
Varys defended himself admirably, and in a few short words, completely sold his life’s work. This is a man who risked life and limb, for multiple decades, all to help out what were essentially strangers. Why? Because he cares for the realm. Much adoration is heaped at Jon’s feet because of his disdain for personal recognition or titles, and due to his efforts to help the people. Indeed, Daenerys built her success on the freeing of slaves and the love of the smallfolk.
And yet, no-one…no-one in the show is more dedicated to the people and the realm than Varys. Again, remind yourself. This is a man who knew he was despised by all whatever he did, knew the upper class and the machismo of men would view him as a lesser being, allowed himself to serve people we have to assume he despised and all with the risk that at any second he could be caught and then subjected to the most horrible of deaths. Not only did he do all this, but he was good at it. No one detected, no one suspected, and Daenerys and Viserys did survive. Tyrion did escape King’s Landing. Dany did return to Westeros with the largest possible army. He did destabilize the realm in the hopes of helping the people.
The more important factor? Even in the face of accusation, with the threat of death from the very woman he’s spent his life caring for, Varys still tells her he does not serve her. He serves the realm. If that means going against her, so be it. Jon Snow gets the credit for telling Cersei to her face he’s Team Dany. Varys tells a different queen how it is.
His refusal to swear blind loyalty to Daenerys challenges the very idea of feudalism, the rock that Westerosi society is founded on. Such a concept is responsible for a great many of the crimes in the series, and yet a character like Jon receives the credit for his truth-keeping, or Daenerys and her wheel-breaking. Varys got there first though.
Before going onto Melisandre, let’s think about the conversation between Spider and the Imp, two old friends who have been through more than their fair share. At the time, Tyrion was reflecting on Daenerys and the destructive power she wields with her dragons, having just seen it first-hand on the Field of Fire. What follows is one of the most revealing conversations about Varys that we’ve had in years.
We hear how difficult it was for a good man to take part in Aerys’ court, what it took for Varys to stand idly by while atrocities happened over and over. The lies he had to tell himself. The “I’m not the one doing it” speech is one of the finer pieces of dialogue in the entire season, in my humble opinion. For what it’s worth, it’s perhaps fitting that this conversation takes place on the steps next to the throne on Dragonstone. As Varys once told Tyrion, people like them will never rule. No doubt, these latest words will linger in the Hand’s ears too.
Which brings us to the final, and shortest conversation of them all.
Firstly, can there be a more interesting person for Varys to talk to than Melisandre? It’s another point that was nearly lost to earlier seasons, but Varys has a deep-seated hatred and distrust of everything magical (apart from the fireproof dragon lady). Luckily, the casual viewer was reminded of this in season 6 when Varys came face to face with the red priestess Kinvara. If the look of disgust on his face was anything to go by then, then the ultimate red woman makes for an even more interesting meet up. Especially since it was Melisandre Varys was specifically referring to way back in season 2 when he spoke of how Stannis would be terrible for the realm, as he was the champion of magic.
It’s another little-talked about positive about Varys, his hatred of magic. After all, he’s right, isn’t he? Almost all the examples of magic throughout the show are negative. A shadowbaby assassin, a cult that collects the faces of the dead and then wears them, the freaking white walkers. I look forward to the day when the Night King shows himself to all, and Varys can slyly mutter I told you so.
Unsurprisingly, Varys’ motivation in this conversation is to persuade Melisandre to leave. He doesn’t want her getting claws into Dany, doesn’t want her magic in the realm he’s trying to protect. Luckily, he gets his wish. Annoyingly, not permanently. Melisandre promises she will be back, because she is destined to die in this strange country, and so is Varys.
There are several points to consider in this threat or promise. Firstly, we’ve seen enough now to know Mel isn’t always right. Secondly, she’s being just vague enough that we don’t really learn anything. Varys dying in Westeros could just represent him winning everything and living until the age of 100. Most likely though, the message is pretty clear: Varys is supposed to die soon.
Which leaves us with the problem of whether we believe her or not, or more specifically, how could this occur?
What with the final season finally coming, the ending of countless different mini-games-of-thrones and the culmination of the ultimate battle for human life, it’s a safe bet to say that many of our favourite characters will be meeting their makers. Season 7 was almost too kind in its lack of kill-offs (Olenna, the Sand Snakes, the Tarlys, Thoros and Littlefinger, forgive me), but we’re all smart enough to know it is the calm before the storm. The term ‘bittersweet ending’ doesn’t conjure up images of everyone holding hands and celebrating in the final episode. Characters are going to drop like flies. Forget the human conflicts, a damn army of the dead just walked into the realm. Oh, and an ice dragon.
So the fact that Varys (and others) are likely to die isn’t a surprise, but what about the death itself? The fact Melisandre knows something about it would suggest Varys doesn’t die of hunger alone in a dark room, indeed it pushes us towards thinking Varys’ death will have some importance, or he will at least be present at a monumental event.
The possibilities become endless. Will Varys sacrifice his life to save Dany in some way? Will he meet his end via the magic he hates? Will he perhaps be forced to use this despised magic to save others? Will it be something to do with his longtime Lannister friend? One can only hope that we will at least be treated to one last display of ‘whisper mastering’ before he perishes, but perhaps holding our breath isn’t the best option. In a six-episode season, with a Long Night on the horizon, certain characters will not receive the farewell they deserve. Judging by his riding the pine in Season 7, Varys may well be one such character.
And that would be a shame. Varys represents the main theme of the series, its very namesake, the political maneuvering and side-stepping that is so intriguing. And yet, at the exact same time, he is born of the same contrasting honour, the ‘goodness’ that the show’s main family displays for us. Varys, though with morally questionable means, works within the game for the most honourable goal of all: the people. If nothing else, the books and show want to get across how war and nobility impacts the common man. We see it through Arya, Brienne and countless other characters. From the shadows, no one has done more for these people than the hated Spider.
Joe Buckley is a British writer who was a show-watcher first, and was even late to that game. Thankfully all caught-up now (and then some), Joe writes on Game of Thrones, the NBA and is trying his hand at sci-fi writing. Contrary to news reports, he is not a real knight (so far). You can find him on Twitter at @serbuckley.