Editor’s note: This is part of a series of essays revisiting our favorite scenes in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Read the previous installments here.
“There aren’t a thousand blades,” says Petyr Baelish, gazing lustfully at the Iron Throne and dismissing the legend of its forging. “There aren’t even two hundred. I’ve counted.”
“Oh, I’m sure you have,” says Varys, hands hidden in his sleeves. “Ugly old thing.”
“Yet it has a certain… appeal.”
“The Lysa Arryn of chairs,” Varys replies.
Oh, the banter between Aiden Gillen’s Littlefinger and the Conleth Hill’s Varys, Master of Whisperers—it can be sublime. And in this sequence, it just escalates and escalates. As in, rises. Climbs. They’re generally an evenly matched pair, but not today. At first it seems like Varys has the upper hand, but Baelish knocks him down, not only confirming that he has thwarted Varys and Olenna’s marriage plan for Sansa and Loras Tyrell, but making it clear Ros has paid the ultimate price for giving Varys information behind Littlefinger’s back. “She was a bad investment,” he remarks, and we cringe, remembering his sinister warning to Ros about what he does with bad female investments. He doesn’t explicitly mention who has taken Ros off his ledger for a daring new experience, but it becomes obvious quick enough, and the look on Varys’ face is a slow building horror he’s trying to keep Baelish from seeing.
“I did what I did for the good of the realm,” Varys says.
“The realm,” Littlefinger sneers. “Do you know what the realm is? It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies. A story we tell ourselves over and over until we forget it’s a lie.”
“But what do we have when we abandon the lie? Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us.”
Petyr Baelish has probably seldom felt this powerful in his life. The look on his face is subtly and exquisitely smug as he looks at Varys and says: “Chaos isn’t a pit.”
And the music starts to swell, and he smiles just a little. “Chaos is a ladder.”
We cut away, but still hear him in voiceover. “Some don’t survive the climb. The fall breaks them.” Joffrey Baratheon rises from his chair, holding that crossbow, and walks out of his room, leaving us with a painful close-up of Ros, who’s been tied to the bedposts and repeatedly shot. Her head hangs limp, and blood trickles from around the bolts in her thigh and groin and breast and head and arms (we’re left to presume the killing blow to the head was the last one; it’s Joffrey). “Others… cling to the realm, or the gods, or love… Illusions. Only the ladder is real.” We see the ship with the mockingbird painted on the sails, anchored in the bay, and Sansa Stark, in desperate, hopeless tears, staring at it, and Shae next to her looking about how you’d imagine she would look after watching Tyrion explain to Sansa that she will be marrying him instead of Loras Tyrell. “The climb is all there is.” At which we cut to the top of the Wall and Jon Snow’s ice-axe biting into it for the last time, his hand reaching the top.
What a gorgeous little montage. The color, flickering candlelight yellow and gold in Joffrey’s room, shafts of peachy light on the diaphanous fabric of Ros’ dress; then calm bright blue, the water, and Sansa’s blue eyes echoing it; then charcoal on stark white as Jon and the Wildlings breach the Wall. The pulse of the music, the plucked strings, the unrelenting three-count rhythm. Baelish’s voice, slow, measured, gravelly, controlled, with an edge that’s decidedly voluptuous; this guy really, really relishes the idea of power. And for this moment, for the brief minutes of the monologue, he has it. He has Varys cornered, he has outmaneuvered the spymaster and the Tyrells and Sansa and Ros and he has counted every blade of the Iron Throne. In just a couple of cuts, this passage illuminates one of the most artistically lovely and satisfying elements of Game of Thrones at its best: symmetry. All over this imaginary continent, characters are moving in parallel, their fortunes sometimes clearly intertwined and sometimes in ways too subtle for them to see. But even showing just three little scenelets lights up so much about the ripple effect of every choice, how every piece on the board is affected by the movements of every other. A few shots, a few sentences, and you see how Baelish has changed the game for Varys, Ros, Joffrey, Sansa, Shae and, by extension, Tyrion. And how Jon’s more literal climb isn’t directly influenced by the machinations in Kings Landing, but it’s moving in an inexorable tandem, another iteration of the same principle.
There’s also a subtle but perhaps important nod here to what might have been the last really substantial Petyr Baelish monologue, back in Season One, when Ros and Armeca are getting test-driven at the brothel as Baelish delivers a little sexposition on his childhood, being overpowered by Brandon Stark and then by Ned, and what he learned from it. “I’m not going to fight them,” he said. “I’m going to fuck them. That’s what I know. That’s what I am. And only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.” Of course the game of snakes and ladders will continue, and the climber Petyr Baelish won’t always be on top. But he’s definitely fucked them for the moment.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.