The biggest revelation yet in Game of Thrones’ final season came in Episode 4, when we learned that Varys still has bars!
Up until this week, everyone’s favorite eunuch had largely spent Season 8 on the bench, and with somewhat good reason. The Master of Whisperers doesn’t have any ties to the past that could have helped against the army of the dead; he never looked into the Night King’s eyes, as Jon Snow has (and has explained in detail many times); and his skills as a fighter are … virtually nonexistent. But in “The Last of the Starks,” Varys was back in his element. Specifically, plotting against maniacal rulers.
There is no one in the Seven Kingdoms—and likely Thrones’s entire universe—that has more experience with kings and queens than Varys. He served on the Small Councils of the Mad King Aerys Targaryen (Daenerys’s father), Robert Baratheon, Joffrey, Tommen, and now Dany. He watched Aerys try to “burn them all,” saw Robert run the crown into debt and drink himself into a stupor, survived Joffrey’s torturous ways, and tried to steer Tommen down the right path—and through it all he remained loyal. Just not to the monarchs he served.
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Varys’s whole shtick is that he’s a man of the people. He was born a slave in Essos; traveled with an acting troupe as a child; was eventually sold to a sorcerer and castrated. He fought and clawed his way to Westeros, collecting people’s secrets as currency along the way, and once he got into a seat of power, he looked out for the powerless, those beholden to the whims of their rulers. Varys has been one of the show’s few characters who understands that, despite the show’s title, this isn’t just a game. And in Season 7’s second episode, he gave a speech reminiscent of the message that Jorah shared with Dany in the book A Game of Thrones: “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.”
After Dany and Co. arrived at Dragonstone early last season and started plotting her takeover of King’s Landing, Varys and the dragon queen faced off in front of her war table. Daenerys quizzed Varys on the kings he served before her. She questioned him about his betrayal of her father, his conspiring against Robert Baratheon, and even his attempts at assassinating her while she was still in Essos. Dany asks him, “What kind of servant is that?”
Varys’s response is both iconic, and a decided departure from how we’ve come to expect almost everyone in the show to answer. He replies, “The kind the realm needs. Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty. As long as I have my eyes, I’ll use them. I wasn’t born into a great house. I came from nothing. I was sold as a slave, and carved up as an offering. When I was a child I lived in alleys, gutters, abandoned houses. You wish to know where my true loyalties lie? Not with any king or queen, but with the people. The people who suffer under despots, and prosper under just rule. The people whose hearts you aim to win.”
He goes on to promise his loyalty to Daenerys, saying that he believes she is the realm’s best chance at peace and prosperity. But he also swears that if he ever senses she might fail the people, he won’t conspire against her—he’ll tell her to her face that she is wrong. And he did just that on Sunday night.
All throughout this episode, there were questions about Dany’s judgment, and her claim to the throne. She openly recoiled when Tormund praised Jon at their victory feast and called him a “king.” She later begged Jon not to tell Arya and Sansa about his true parentage—he being the true-born son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and having the strongest bloodline claim to the Iron Throne. She pushed the Northern troops to travel south into battle before their forces were fully recovered from the Battle of Winterfell. And at Dragonstone, where she had sworn a season earlier not to be queen of the ashes, she seemed ready to rethink that angle in her attempts to take King’s Landing.
Varys watched all this happen and spoke up. He explained that her battle plan—which basically boiled down to storming the city and using Drogon to burn down the Red Keep—would spell death for tens of thousands of innocent people. He implored her: “Do not become what you have always struggled to defeat.” Dany’s answer, that she will take the Iron Throne no matter the cost, doesn’t sit well with him.
In the next scene, Varys raises the idea with Tyrion that perhaps Jon would make for a better ruler. While Tyrion is more concerned with their conversation being treasonous and sticking it out with Dany, Varys once again acts as the voice of reason.
Varys: You know where my loyalty stands. You know I will never betray the realm.
Tyrion: What is the realm? A vast continent home to millions of people, most of whom don’t care who sits on the Iron Throne.
Varys: Millions of people, many of whom will die if the wrong person sits on that throne. We don’t know their names, but they’re just as real as you and I. They deserve to live. They deserve food for their children. I will act in their interest no matter the personal cost.
I have been clamoring for more Varys scenes all season, mostly because he is undoubtedly the smartest character on the show and often has the greatest facial expressions and one-liners. But Sunday night’s episode shows his wider importance. He may not possess the same powers as Bran, or the influence that comes with a strong familial lineage, or the widespread support of various groups of people, but he’s seen all this shit before. While Tyrion consoles himself with wine and resigns himself to his fate as the hand of a potentially mad queen, Varys proverbially jumps ship. He’s given pledge after pledge in his lifetime, promised to support this king and that queen and to do their bidding no matter what, but his true loyalty has never faltered. And it doesn’t seem like it will in the end, either.
Rewatching that scene with Tyrion, the two hint at what may come. Tyrion asks Varys, “So what happens to [Daenerys],” in a world where Varys supports Jon. Varys gives him a long stare, and his face changes.
“Please,” Tyrion begs. “Don’t.”
“I’ve spoken as honestly as I can,” Varys replies. “Each of us has a choice to make. I pray we choose wisely.”
I’ve long thought that Varys’s final act in Game of Thrones would be plotting against a queen. I just never expected that queen to be Daenerys. Though, as Varys said back in Season 5, “I don’t believe in saviors. I believe men of talent have a part to play in the war to come.” If that doesn’t sound like someone choosing sides in the Dany vs. Jon conflict, then I don’t know what does.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.