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Cheap Trick: The Predictable Demise of Littlefinger

Westeros’s greatest schemer entangled himself in a web of lies and paid for it—so why does his death feel hollow?

Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish from ‘Game of Thrones’ HBO/Ringer illustration

Before stepping onto the grounds of Winterfell, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish had an excellent track record of surreptitiously ruining people’s lives. At the Vale, he’d managed to wring out a lordship for himself by seducing crazy, old Lysa Arryn, convincing her to kill her husband, then later unceremoniously pushing her out of the Moon Door. At King’s Landing, he betrayed Ned Stark and set him up for an execution. And in the North, he married away Sansa Stark to Ramsay Bolton, helped her defeat him in battle, and then quickly denied ever knowing that he was a monster. For every house he’s meddled with, Littlefinger has played the role of a toxic mold that grows slowly and quietly in a dark, neglected corner.

And that is exactly why it was so satisfying to see him publicly sussed out in the season finale of Game of Thrones, plucked from the sidelines of the Winterfell throne room so unexpectedly that he devolved from the blinking white guy meme, to fierce denier, to weepy groveler faster than he has ever modified his accent. “Sometimes, when I try to understand a person’s motives, I play a little game,” Sansa teased, quoting the advice he’d recently offered in an attempt to turn her against Arya, as he pleaded for mercy. “I assume the worst.” The implication here is that Littlefinger had schooled his pupil so well that she’d finally learned enough to use it against him. It was wonderful to watch.

But, as satisfying (and, uh, incredibly gross) as it was to see Littlefinger’s throat slit by the very Valyrian dagger he’d used to drive a wedge between the Starks and Lannisters so many years ago, there was a hollowness to his death. Baelish was by no means a likable character, but over the course of the past seven seasons, he demonstrated a respectable savviness for upward mobility—one of the only characters who ascended in status without using a weapon. Back in King’s Landing, he cut his teeth as Master of Coin, all while conducting incredibly profitable brothel-fueled reconnaissance. He was at the center of Joffrey’s untimely death and Sansa’s quick escape. And at the Vale, he played the role of seducteur to both Lysa and Sansa disturbingly well. Despite coming from nothing and having a completely invented, unintimidating house sigil, he was the cause of serious upheaval in the realm.

All that history would lead you to expect that Littlefinger’s cause of death would be the result of a scheme so wildly clever that even he, the master of schemes, couldn’t have seen it coming. Instead, it turned out to be something much more lackluster: The Stark kids finally had a very necessary conversation offscreen and figured out he needed to go.

Even without Bran’s all-knowing input, Littlefinger had already racked up a list of known offenses against the family—the most unwise of which was his decision to trade Sansa to the Boltons. It was in that moment that Littlefinger sealed his own fate. Enduring a torturous marriage to Ramsay hardened Sansa to the kind of passionate declarations that Littlefinger had previously used to convince her of his good intention. That he would so thoughtlessly hand her over to a house that conspired in the Red Wedding and proudly flayed human bodies made him an enemy in her eyes forever. And even if Sansa was willing to feign a truce with Littlefinger to ensure a victory at the Battle of the Bastards, she was never going to forgive him. That he continued to lurk around Winterfell long after he served her purpose—rather than bolt back to the Eyrie and wait out the winter with his stepson Robin—was foolish and desperate. He was wholly disposable at that point, and the only logical conclusion was for him to die.

That’s why the supposed twist in this season finale—that Sansa was calling a trial for Littlefinger, and not her sister Arya—felt as silly as it was satisfying. Even as a handful of mini dramas between Sansa and Arya was paraded in front of us in the name of misdirection, we’d spent way too much time watching the Stark sisters evolve into cunning strategists to be so easily tricked. Under Sansa’s rule, Littlefinger was never going to have the upper hand in Winterfell. His demise was a surprise to no one but him.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.