Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matthew Yglesias, and foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Zack Beauchamp: Both Todd and Matt make decent points about Littlefinger's value, as both a character and a potential ruler. But I'm more interested in Littlefinger's twin: Lord Varys, former Master of Whispers and the man who's quietly become the real hero of Game of Thrones, even if he hasn't been in an episode in weeks.
It's quite possible, in fact, that the secret story of Game of Thrones is a massive shadow war between these two men. All of our main characters and stories are sideshows: the battle between Littlefinger and Varys is really where the action's at.
I'm not the first person to come up with this theory: while researching this post, I came across a 2013 post from Charlie Jane Anders at io9 making a very similar argument. But a lot has happened since then, and most of it has only made the Littlefinger-versus-Varys theory more plausible.
Consider: Littlefinger and Varys are obvious narrative parallels. They're both lowborn men who've risen by dint of sheer cunning and intellect. They've both mainly exercised power from the shadows, backing various noble families with their seemingly significant financial assets and intelligence networks.
But while Littlefinger has attempted to sow chaos in a naked attempt to grab power, Varys has been all about the good of the realm. The leaders he's supported — Ned, Tyrion, Daenerys — are some of the best-intentioned and smartest in the show. None of these people are suitable pawns for Littlefinger, who betrayed Ned, framed Tyrion for an attempt on Bran Stark's life, and voted to have Daenerys assassinated. (Varys also voted for the assassination attempt, and in fact planned it. However, it's very plausible that he designed it to fail, as Vulture's Jennifer Vineyard suggests.)
The show is actually pretty open about this. It's easy to forget now, but Littlefinger's "chaos is a ladder" is a naked admission that he and Varys have been fighting a shadow war:
Littlefinger: [The Iron Throne] has a certain appeal.
Varys: The Lysa Arryn of chairs. Shame you had to settle for your second choice.
Littlefinger: Early days, my friend. It is flattering really, you feeling such dread at the prospect of me getting what I want.
Varys: Thwarting you has never been my primary ambition, I promise you. Although, who doesn't like to see their friends fail now and then.
Littlefinger: You're so right. For instance, when I thwarted your plan to give Sansa Stark to the Tyrells, if I'm going to be honest, I did feel an unmistakable sense of enjoyment there...
Varys: I did what I did for the good of the realm.
Littlefinger: The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It's the thousand blades of Aegon's enemies, a story we agree to tell each other over and over, until we forget that it's a lie.
Varys: But what do we have left, once we abandon the lie? Chaos? A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
Littlefinger: Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder.
If that's not enough, Varys tells Olenna that Littlefinger is "one of the most dangerous men in the realm," and that his transparent plot to marry Sansa (which seems on track despite Ramsay) must be stopped:
Varys: Littlefinger is one of the most dangerous men in Westeros. If Robb Stark falls, Sansa Stark is the key to the North.
Olenna: And if Littlefinger marries her, he'll have the key in his pocket.
Varys: Which seems such a shame. Why should a man with such a low reputation steal away such a lovely bride?
Olenna: [chuckling] You must despise him, you're working so hard to undermine him.
Varys: Actually, I rather enjoy him. But he would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes.
This stuff is especially important since we now know, courtesy of Littlefinger's speeches at the end of season four, that he's been behind almost everything that happened in Westeros, beginning with Jon Arryn's murder and up through Joffrey's death. If Varys and Littlefinger are at war over Westeros, Littlefinger is winning.
Which means that Varys's game in Meereen makes perfect sense. He's trying to use Tyrion, whom he believes to be one of the smartest and best political operators in the world, to turn Daenerys into a competent queen and get her to start thinking about turning her eyes back to Westeros. Basically, he's trying to turn Daenerys, her Unsullied, and her unstoppable dragons into his trump card in the conflict with Littlefinger.
Whom should we root for? It's obvious: Varys. Varys has all of the advantages of Littlefinger that Matt mentions — smart, upwardly mobile, more interested in a ruler's quality than her last name — with none of the drawbacks. While Littlefinger cares only about himself — going so far as to sink the kingdom into crippling debt in pursuit of his own power — Varys has always maintained, credibly, that everything he does is for "the good of the realm." And his consistent recognition of Tyrion's talents, when everyone else dismisses him for his size, indicates he's a pretty good judge of fitness to rule.
Also Varys is just super-fun to watch. His celibacy and dry humor contrasts perfectly with everyone else's sex-obsessed self-seriousness. Depressed Tyrion was kind of annoying at the beginning of this season, but his rapport with Varys made their conversations a season highlight.
In conclusion: Varys the Spider is the real hero of Game of Thrones. Littlefinger is the real villain. And everyone else, White Walkers excepted, is a pawn.
Read the recap. Come back throughout the week for more entries.