Cracking Littlefinger's Master Plan on This Season of 'Game of Thrones'
"How is this dude still alive?"
That has to be the question you ask every time Petyr Baelish, the sentient goatee played by Aidan Gillen, snivels across the screen on Game of Thrones. The artist still known as "Littlefinger" has terrorized the underground lairs, back alleys, and peephole-filled brothels of Westeros for over 60 episodes now, wielding gossip and innuendo the way other characters swing swords and axes. He's gone from the Master of Coin to the Lord Protector of the Vale, but he'll always be a royal pain-in-the-ass to the Stark family, who have somehow resisted the urge to chuck him out a moondoor. Baelish endures -- that's why he's great.
As Thrones barrels forward into Season 7, bringing back beloved pets and setting ships ablaze with glee, it's worth pausing for a minute and taking a look at where exactly Baelish fits into a number of possible endgames. While he's spent most of his screen-time smirking in the background of Jon Snow's contentious meetings, "Stormborn" gave Littlefinger a chance to do what he does best: scheme.
But what exactly are his intentions, especially in relation to Sansa? What does Jon Snow's choke-y threat imply for his eventual fate? Can he grow a full beard if he wants to? Let's listen to the whispers of our own vast spy network and attempt to draw a bead on one of the show's most inscrutable characters.
To get a sense of where Baelish stands in the the larger narrative of the show, it's worth thinking about him in contrast to his former Small Council pal, Varys. When the two were first introduced back in Season 1, they represented a key part of what was compelling about George R.R. Martin's impeccably crafted and, most importantly, morally ambiguous fantasy universe. Here were two characters who would typically exist on the margins of a conventional hero story being given an inordinate amount of depth, complexity, and political importance. They conspired against each other. They traded pithy insults. But they also shared a mutual respect.
Since then, the two have taken different paths and ended up on completely different ends of the map -- though neither can call King's Landing home anymore. They've also deviated philosophically and politically. While Varys is hardly a doe-eyed innocent or an idealist, his speech to to a fired-up Daenerys last night showed that his true loyalties remain to the people he watches over as the eyes of the realm. "I did what had to be done," he said to his new Queen, explaining that his past betrayals to former leaders were those of a pragmatist. "I know the people have no better chance than you."
Benioff and Weiss have crafted an arc for Varys that isn't that different from Tyrion Lannister's own journey: both are slippery operatives given a new sense of purpose by the leadership of Daenerys. It's a subtle but important change. Would they serve a new leader if she were to burn out quickly or be slowly gripped by the madness that undid her father? Of course. They still want to survive. But as Varys articulated last night, Daenerys shares the same values he does. His moral code has grown stronger over time.
If you were to look at Baelish's actions -- like arriving with the Knights of the Vale to help Jon Snow win the otherwise surely lost the Battle of the Bastards -- it's also possible to view him as a pragmatist. Like Varys, he's put his considerable mental energy behind supporting a brave, noble leader. He's providing counsel and mentorship to Snow's half-sister Sansa Stark. He's even brought some military might to the table. What a good guy, right?
Not exactly. Baelish's loyalty to the Starks is borne out of his creepy obsession with Catelyn Stark, which he has now channelled into an even creepier obsession with her daughter, Sansa. He doesn't have a secret bleeding heart like Varys; instead, he only has more layers of personal ambition. That's always been bubbling beneath the surface in any Littlefinger scene -- Gillen remains a master of furrowing his brow in a squirm-inducing way -- but last night he brought his lusty intentions to the surface by basically telling Jon, in a leaky crypt no less, he wanted to have sex with his sister. Not a smart move. Snow reacted the way you'd expect: grabbing Littlefinger by the throat and seething, "Touch my sister and I'll kill you myself."
Littlefinger might see himself marrying Sansa like he married Lysa Tully, his moondoor-bound ex-wife, and gaining control of the North. In his roving eyes, powerful women are objects to be coveted, tricked, and eventually discarded. He has no interest in taking orders from a female leader or even managing the nuances of a genuine partnership. Unfortunately for him, the gender-dynamics of the show appear to have shifted beneath his feet: Cersei Lannister is now ruling King's Landing, Arya Stark is killing her way across the map, and Sansa, his would-be romantic partner, has just gained control of the North. And Sansa is not like Lysa: She's more of a threat to Littlefinger than Jon Snow -- just ask the dogs who gobbled up Ramsay Bolton last season.
There are plenty of reasons to think that Littlefinger's days are numbered, but it's important to keep three things in mind: (1) Jon's threat means very little because he's about to leave Winterfell anyway to go meet up with Daenerys (2) As many internet sleuths have pointed out, the framing of the choking moment was almost exactly the same as a shot from Season 1 when Snow's father Ned Stark attacked Baelish and soon met a lethal fate (3) Littlefinger doesn't die.
With the series wrapping up soon, that last point is debatable. (Despite the cool visual echo, I'm less worried about Jon Snow dying -- we've been there and done that already.) Could Sansa -- or perhaps Arya -- fall into his trap? It's hard to imagine Benioff and Weiss not wanting to keep Littlefinger around for the moment when the music stops and the game of musical thrones comes to a close. Like Varys and Tyrion, he's too essential to show's cynical vision of how power operates. More than anything, that's what keeps him alive.