Lord Varys keeps his Game of Thrones schemes ambiguous. Season 8, episode 4, “The Last of the Starks,” showcased a startling return to form on The Spider’s part, as well as a welcome reemergence of George R.R. Martin’s trademark brand of political intrigue. Although the obfuscation of his moral alignment has often made Varys a suspect and seemingly untrustworthy character, there’s something to be said for his brutal honesty, iron will, and unflinching loyalty to the Realm. How it will all play out for him and Tyrion ... well, it looks grim.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season 8 through episode 4, “The Last of the Starks.”]
Varys has long been a Targaryen loyalist, prompting him to devise devious schemes ever since he found out about Daenerys’ presence in Essos. Up until now, it has seemed as if Dany had been afforded Varys’ full faith and commitment, but in “The Last of the Starks,” Varys confides a secret of his in Tyrion: He no longer believes in his Queen the way he used to. The entire conversation is frank and shocking.
Between sitting on Joffrey’s Small Council in the early days of the series and now, Varys and Tyrion have built an unbreakable and mutual trust. Perhaps the most prominent aspect of their fellowship is seen when Varys, with the help of Jaime, orchestrates Tyrion’s escape from death row and arranges for him to meet Daenerys Targaryen in Essos — who, according to the Master of Whispers in season 5, could be the Queen the Realm has been waiting for:
“The Seven Kingdoms need someone stronger than Tommen, but gentler than Stannis. A monarch who could intimidate the High Lords and inspire the people. A ruler loved by millions, with a powerful army, and the right family name… Who said anything about ‘him’?”
However, Varys questions his previous judgement in “The Last of the Starks.” As he and Tyrion travel south to King’s Landing, with the Dragon Queen flying overhead and out of earshot, they share their doubts with one another. The Spider confesses that he fears for their Queen’s mental state.
“How many kings and queens have you served?” Tyrion asks him. “Five? Six? I’ve lost count.” Varys has been serving Westerosi monarchs ever since the Mad King’s reign of terror, which means that his loyalties have shifted on more than one occasion — usually out of necessity, but not always. Tyrion worries that as far as Varys is concerned, a new and better prospect will always, eventually, emerge. Sometimes it’s better to commit to a person you believe in than to constantly be on the lookout for a better option.
Varys’ experience is why he believes he can recognize when a person is ill-fit for rule. “I have served tyrants most of my life,” he tells Tyrion. “They all talk about destiny … And there’s the problem of Jon Snow — perhaps it’s actually a solution.” Despite Tyrion’s protests, Varys makes the case for an honorable man who never wanted to rule, but is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Varys explains that a king born to a Targaryen father and Stark mother could miraculously manage to maintain the North’s allegiance to the Seven Kingdoms, which is the best possible outcome for the Realm at large if war is to be averted in future. “You know where my loyalty stands,” Varys tells Tyrion. “You know I will never betray the Realm.”
Tyrion also has faith in Jon, but is reluctant to act on his impulses. When Varys asks him who he thinks would make a better ruler, Tyrion answers the question indirectly, simply stating that “he doesn’t want to rule.” After Varys shuts down Tyrion’s proposal that they marry Dany and Jon for a second time — an idea Davos Seaworth was also on board with — Tyrion relents, admitting that he can see the logic in Varys’ argument. “We’re discussing treason,” he tells him. “Of course I’ve thought about it. Thoughts aren’t treason.”
Unfortunately, Varys’ conviction to place Jon Snow on the Iron Throne could demand the most expensive price of all. As Tyrion implores Varys to see reason — despite the fact that Tyrion himself agrees with The Spider’s rationale — Varys tells Tyrion the same thing he’s been saying ever since the eponymous game of thrones was set in motion: “I will act in their [the Realm’s] interest no matter the personal cost.”
“Please,” Tyrion begs, “don’t.”
As a last-ditch effort, or perhaps just to slyly prove his point to Tyrion after their discussion, Varys openly disagrees with Daenerys during their strategy meeting. “I promised you I would look you in the eye and speak directly if I ever thought you were making a mistake,” he tells her. “This is a mistake.”
As Daenerys plots to rain fire on King’s Landing, Varys points out that doing so is giving Cersei exactly what she wants: a means of demonizing Dany. The reason she pulls all the civilians into the Red Keep isn’t to protect them, but to herd them. Here, she can feign a false sense of security that Dany can exploit, burning thousands of innocents alive and fulfilling her father’s late legacy of converting King’s Landing into a pile of ash. “These are the people you came here to protect,” Varys adds. “I beg you, Your Grace — do not destroy the city you came to save. Do not become what you have always struggled to defeat.”
Although decrying Daenerys’ atrocious plan is both a brave and honorable move, it’s important to remember that, back in season 7, Daenerys threatened to burn Varys alive if he ever betrayed her.. After losing Viserion, Jorah, Rhaegal, and Missandei, Daenerys’ inner circle is shrinking, giving her more cause than ever to weed out advisors she deems to be potential traitors. This, compared with Varys’ assertion that he would do whatever is necessary for the good of the Realm, “no matter the personal cost,” goes hand in hand with Melisandre’s prophecy from last season, which stated that Varys would “die in this strange land,” referring to Westeros. In the same conversation, she confessed that she too was destined to expire on the continent. After the Battle of Winterfell, we know she was right.
Daenerys turning on Varys in a vicious manner could convince Tyrion that his Queen is not fit to rule the Seven Kingdoms, no matter how much her advisors try to temper her with counsel. After all, when discussing Joffrey’s reign as king, Tyrion is the person who tells Cersei that “it’s hard to put a leash on a dog once you’ve put a crown on its head.” And as Varys explains as he looks down on Jon and Daenerys alongside Tyrion and Davos in Winterfell, “Jon and Daenerys don’t want to listen to lonely old men.” In his eyes, no amount of counsel can deter Daenerys from her path of destruction, which is why he implies to Tyrion that he will go to extraordinary measures to take Dany out of the picture if her madness continues to fester.
Although early signs pointed to Varys dying at the hands of Cersei — or perhaps even surviving until the very end — it’s becoming increasingly likely that the eunuch’s days are numbered. “I’ve spoken as honestly as I can,” Varys tells Tyrion as their conversation on the matter of Daenerys concludes. “Each of us has a choice to make; I pray we choose wisely.”
Interestingly, this recalls something Catelyn Stark told Rodrik Cassel in Martin’s first book, A Game of Thrones. “He was always clever, even as a boy,” she tells him, speaking about Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. “But it is one thing to be clever and another to be wise.” Unbeknownst to her at the time, Catelyn’s distinction is largely what separates the selfish pursuits of Littlefinger from Varys’ benevolent attempts at making the world a better place, and subsequently what isolates Varys as a singularly intelligent player in the game of thrones. Perhaps even if Daenerys turns on him, Varys’ unparalleled wisdom will prevail, and The Spider’s plans will come to fruition.