Varys has always been one Game of Thrones’ most mysterious characters. He’s never been further than an arm’s length from power since the show began, but we’ve also never learned much about him. No matter who he’s competing against or working with, Varys has always seemed three steps ahead of everyone else, thanks to his network of spies and information. One of the few concrete facts we have about the man nicknamed The Spider was that, since the beginning, he’s worked to reinstate Targaryen rule to the Seven Kingdoms.
But succeeding at that has consequences, as we learned in episode 5, “The Bells.”
[Ed. note: this post contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5]
The news that Jon Snow is really Aegon Targaryen changed the way everyone thought about succession in Westeros. In the case of Varys, it changed the entire mission he had been on since the first season of the show: return the Targaryens to power. Coincidentally, the news of Jon’s Targaryen heritage came to Varys at the exact time he was most worried about Daenerys’s mental well being. So he moved against Dany in an attempt to put Jon on the throne, which proved to be one move too clever for even the Spider.
Ever since Dany threatened to burn Varys if he ever betrayed her back in season 7, his fate seemed sealed. And when he started working against her in this season’s fourth episode, this certainly an end he knew was possible. What he might not have expected was for Tyrion to go straight to Dany when he saw Varys asking Jon to take the throne. And when she found out, she was true to her word.
“I think Varys knew it was unlikely that he would survive the attempt to overthrow Dany in favor of Jon,” showrunner D.B. Weiss said in post-episode discussion. “He also knew ethically, in his mind, that he had to try to do that anyway.”
Varys was, in many ways, the last stand out of the oldest version of Game of Thrones. The one where the royals were controlled most by the people in their ears and controlling the information in the Seven Kingdoms was almost as good as controlling the kingdoms themselves.
Unlike everyone else, more or less, in King’s Landing, however, Varys was always ready to explain his actions. He wasn’t working toward power for himself or his own personal gain. He was working for the good of the realm. But his work was still done in the shadows and through artful betrayal nonetheless. By putting him to death, even before their battle against Cersei, Dany made a clear statement about how the new world is to work.
It won’t involve the same political intrigue and intricate backstabbing that was prominent in Robert’s court, or among the rulers that we’ve seen since. In it’s own way Varys’ execution was the dawning of a new more honest age, for better or worse.