We’ve long seen Varys as a schemer, willing to do anything and betray anyone to secure power for himself. But, as we saw in the latest episode of Game of Thrones, Varys might be the only one doing something right.
In “The Last of the Starks,” Lord Varys and Tyrion Lannister wax poetic in Dragonstone’s throne room about committing treason against Daenerys Targaryen. Now that Varys and Tyrion know Jon Snow is actually Aegon Targaryen—and Daenerys is about to butcher all of King’s Landing—Varys thinks it’s time to “Queenslay” the Mother of...well, I guess there’s only one dragon now.
Tyrion insists that Dany is still the right choice to be the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. This speaks to his fear of being proven wrong about the only person he’s ever truly believed in, given how he’s spent his life being told he’s a failure who trusts the wrong people. But, unlike Tyrion, Varys doesn’t hesitate over the notion of turning against Dany. If Daenerys isn’t right for the job, he’ll find someone who is.
This might seem shocking, another example of Varys being untrustworthy. But Varys isn’t a schemer, only using chaos as a ladder. He genuinely believes in the work he’s doing. In his time at court, Varys has seen the rise and fall of many rulers, like the Mad King, Robert Baratheon, Joffrey, and Tommen. And now, Daenerys Targaryen. And in that time, Varys has never shied away from turning against those rulers, once he thought their interests weren’t serving his own.
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So, what are his interests, exactly? He clearly has no loyalty toward any one man or woman. What we’ve heard him say over and over again is that he’s looking out for “The Realm.” However, that phrase means different things to different people. Varys himself has debated this several times now: This was actually the fourth time (at least) that we’ve seen Varys debating someone else in a throne room about the nature of authority, destiny, and leadership. He verbally sparred with Petyr Baelish and Oberyn Martell in front of the Iron Throne, and has discussed Daenerys’ shortcomings with Tyrion at Dragonstone...twice.
For folks like Oberyn and Tyrion, as well as Daenerys, the Realm is an archaic power structure where nobility is assured. It’s what they were born into, believing they were more worthy than others for nothing more than their family name. However, self-starters like Littlefinger and Ser Bronn—who commented on this very issue during his chat with Jaime and Tyrion—the Realm is total bullshit. It’s a series of fables created by conquerors to try and erase the awful deeds they’ve done.
However, this is not what Varys believes. For him, the Realm is not a fairy tale, nor is it a caste system where legacy breeds legacy. The Realm is his life’s purpose, the one thing he truly believes in. A world where the people have a leader they can trust, someone who’s earned their place on the throne.
In the season three episode “And Now His Watch Has Ended,” Varys told Tyrion his origin story. As far as we know, he was telling the truth, though sometimes it’s hard to tell with him (some still believe he’s secretly a merman).
Varys grew up as a slave in Lys. He started as an actor before being sold to a sorcerer, who brutally and painfully castrated him for a spell, and left him to die in the slums. However, thanks to his willingness to do anything to survive, Varys made it out (when many others did not) and grew to a position of great power. Varys is Westeros’ ultimate self-made man: He even makes a point of telling Oberyn he’s not actually a lord, people just call him that out of politeness.
Since then, Varys has dedicated his life, and his secrets, to helping “the people.” Wanting to make sure no one has to suffer at the hands of selfish rulers like he did. He employs children as his “little birds,” which might seem a little harsh, but they would otherwise be starving in the streets. He’s tried to protect women like Ros and Shae from situations where they’d be abused (even though in both situations he failed). He even safeguarded the children after the wights emerged from their crypts during the Battle of Winterfell. He cares about those in need. It’s one of the reasons why he was drawn to Daenerys. She was the Breaker of Chains. She believed in freedom, and he believed in her for it.
Sadly, every ruler he’s served under has eventually failed to live up to his standards. Robert was a terrible king. Joffrey was sadistic and cruel. Tommen was easy prey to those who yearned for power. And Daenerys is falling into bad habits, repeating her father’s mistakes. For comparison, during the events before Robert’s Rebellion, Varys tried to get the Mad King to pardon Ned Stark’s brother, Brandon, who had raised concerns after Rhaegar had “kidnapped” Lyanna. However, the Mad King instead killed him...later burning Brandon and his father in wildfire. Samwell Tarly might sympathize with that situation.
This could mean that Varys’ standards are unrealistic, or selfish, and that he’ll always find a reason to move on to his next target. But, I think he honestly believes he’ll one day find the right ruler for Westeros, one who will be there for “the people,” like him. Unfortunately, I don’t think that ruler exists. Not even Jon Snow, who was so “beloved” his own men murdered him. As long as Westeros is ruled by one fallible, imperfect human, Varys’ dream is impossible to achieve. I’m just waiting for the day Varys realises that democratic rule is a valid option, and the whole Iron Throne comes crashing down. But until then, Varys will keep trying. For the good of the Realm.
In the game of thrones, you die...or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. When that day comes, you can bet Varys will be there, once again, ready to replace you.