Climbing Without Rope: Littlefinger’s Dangerous Game
By Tyler Davis
The Iron Throne is but one of countless fictional sources of power that now populate our cultural landscape; the popularity of Game of Thrones means that you’re not unlikely to find a famous athlete or celebrity sitting on a throne replica when you’re channel surfing or browsing the net. Many of us are fascinated by the idea of ultimate rule. Perhaps our iron thrones are top floor CEO suites or head seats of government, but the idea of the king of the hill – the undisputed leader – is a fixture in our collective imagining. The complexity of the modern world means that absolute power never collects in one place; competing interests, checks and balances, shifting opinion, the democratic voice, limitations of scale–these and more conspire to dilute or make temporary any concentration of strength. Maybe there’s a quieter understanding most of us share which holds that such power is, in its own way, undesirable–that smaller connections constitute the bulk of what we value–but the idea remains thrilling.
Westeros strips away many of the protections from tyranny we enjoy in our daily lives, and the rules of the Westerosi game facilitate meteoric rises and falls. This, in part, helps explain the allure of this fantastic world. Despite the comparatively torturous standards of living (and dying) in Martin’s Seven Kingdoms, escapism abounds. In Westeros, the truest and most uncommonly acknowledged restrictions on might are the uncontrollable variables which threaten to encroach on the game from without: winters that just won’t end, or White Walkers descending from the north. Everything else is fair play, which means that men like Varys and Littlefinger can raise their station one rung at a time, while poor players are thrown to untimely ends. It also means that the philosophies which direct men in their pursuit of power can be more plainly delineated.
Beyond the figurative significance of the throne itself, it’s clear that Westerosi power isn’t located in any physical apparatus. Power is relative, and if it requires deference, deference is a choice. So season two’s lesson that “power resides where men believe it resides” remains perpetually relevant, informing us that the perception of power is often more important than the capacity to express it. Jaime Lannister’s corollary example shows that even a king can fall to those sworn to protect him; all it takes is a rejection of the terms of power, sufficient motivation, and choice. Setting aside the sweeping, supernatural changes which threaten to undermine the game entirely, it’s in this other, important sense that Westerosi power remains fragile and relative even while its potential impact remains fantastically large.
“The Climb” offers a new lesson in explicit terms: chaos is a ladder–an opportunity. Littlefinger’s monologue in the throne room – precipitating from his ruminations on the iron throne itself – is the show’s clearest attempt at exposing his philosophy. When Varys explains (in a rare moment of tightly-bottled anger) that his decision to turn Ros against Littlefinger was made “for the good of the realm,” Littlefinger retorts that the realm is nothing more than an illusion, a story, a pastiche of lies crammed together in a doomed attempt at bringing order out of chaos. Varys, having already established that power is a shadow on the wall, may well agree. But chaos, Littlefinger teaches, is the fundamental force which allows one to elevate their position. Whether it’s engendered through a naturally occurring power vacuum or the destabilizing effects of war, chaos – deeply frightening to the majority of men and women who “cling to the realm, or the gods, or love” – is a chance for men like Littlefinger to make themselves essential, and eventually rise to prominence.
Be forewarned: Littlefinger is, I admit, a central concern of mine this week. Reaching back to the first season, much ado has been made in comment threads and forum posts about show-Littlefinger’s characterization. Many of you will remember the aptly-titled “whoregate” debacle from season one, episode seven “You Win or You Die” in which Littlefinger instructs the newly-acquired Ros (and a fellow prostitute) how to better sell their sexual performances. The scene was criticized by detractors for many reasons, including but not limited to its supposed gratuitousness, and what was considered an out of character Littlefinger “revealing too much” where he might otherwise be secretive. I found that scene wonderfully effective, and I enjoyed Littlefinger’s monologue here. It’s worth considering why Aidan Gillen’s Littlefinger works for me.
My appreciation for what Benioff and Weiss have done with Littlefinger has everything to do with what’s gained and lost in the process of adaptation. The Littlefinger of the novels is enigmatic not because he’s a morally ambivalent person, but because Martin’s POV structure prevents Petyr from being observed through any perspectives other than those of the very people he’s manipulating. As such, book-Littlefinger is always colored by someone’s lens. This has an effect on the first-time reader, and many are left with only a vague distrust of Littlefinger before later events solidify their feelings. As compared with their iterations in Thrones, the events of the novels are less telegraphed by explicit revelations about Petyr’s character, and are thus less easily anticipated.
But if we sacrifice suspended ambiguity over Baelish’s motives when transitioning from the novels to the show, the show’s adoption of a more cleanly objective point of view means that we gain a more thorough understanding of who Littlefinger is. As with Varys, the exchange nets a more psychologically rounded, substantial character; Petyr Baelish of Thrones may be less inscrutable than his ASoIaF counterpart, but he’s more clearly motivated.
Consider the broad options available to the showrunners when defining Littlefinger’s role. Petyr is one player among many, so we can immediately acknowledge that there are very real limitations on the amount of time he can be on screen. From this starting point, he could have been kept incredibly enigmatic and shown only rarely, or perhaps talked about by others; this would leave audience members like Bill Simmons scratching their heads about who Peytr is and why he matters, especially whenever he does show up to influence the story. Alternatively, Littlefinger could be kept relatively present, interacting with other characters without ever revealing his hand, and all this without tangling up the actual threads he’s integral to. But this would leave audience members wondering why Littlefinger is always around without appearing to do anything of importance, and greater invention would be necessary to give him something to do outside of what Martin has accounted for.
Instead, Littlefinger is given flesh and blood. This means exposing his darkness, and it means clarifying his philosophy–something primarily accomplished in conversations which unfold in privileged spaces: areas where these characters can reveal something of themselves which would otherwise remain undisclosed. The controversial scene in season one – tucked safely in the confines of Littlefinger’s brothel – is a perfect example of this exposure taking place. And what do we learn of Petyr Baelish, self-made man, in this moment? That his life has orbited one central, lost love – a blistering obsession that has burst into a venomous disdain for the ruling elite. His cunning has only ever been turned to the advancement of his station so as to secure, once and for all, a perfect defense against ever again being as humiliated as he was by Brandon Stark. Littlefinger explains as much when he says he’ll “-never win. Not that way. That’s their game, their rules.” And what is it he hopes to gain when playing by his own rules? “Everything there is.” This sentiment is later echoed in season three when Littlefinger speaks to Sansa of always wanting more, more, more, rewarding audience members who’ve been paying attention.
When we ask ourselves if Littlefinger is “out of character” in these scenes, what we’re really concerned about is whether Littlefinger is having a familiar effect on the audience. If our sole concern is strict fidelity to the novels, the answer is “perhaps not,” but my contention is that more is gained than lost in the adaptation. What Petyr reveals is not just that he is the kind of man capable of marshalling his intellect toward the satisfaction of long term objectives with utter patience, but that his reasons for doing so come from a deeply personal and hauntingly vibrant place. Taking the brothel scene as an example, no game changing secrets were revealed–just a bald admission of how he sees the world. And like the montage we were given in “The Climb,” the scene was underscored by a clever metaphor that enhanced the message: note how the women were compelled to authenticity as the silver-tongued mockingbird sung his song, puppeteering with words alone? We learn that Littlefinger takes a relish in his playacting, and that he expects nothing less from his whores. So we sacrifice crypticism for an enriching exchange that works on multiple levels (yes: including the titillating one). I was sold then, and I’m sold now.
(As a brief aside, another visual moment that I found effective was the sequence of nested shots set in the brothel in season two. The prostitute and her client writhe, the voyeur watches on, and Littlefinger watches the watcher. It was all a quick, punchy, and humorous representation of Petyr’s favored role if ever there was one.)
Every major encounter between Littlefinger and Varys is an example of a privileged space being uniquely entered by the show’s cameras; neither character has a single POV chapter in the novels, so what better way to illustrate their cunning and respective motivations than to pit them against one another? As the preeminent spymasters of King’s Landing, each is uniquely suited to understanding exactly how dangerous the other is. But this episode’s verbal duel is remarkable because it’s so thematically integral to the episode, and because it shows Littlefinger at his most coldly direct. Some see this performance as nothing more than a mustache-twirling villain’s hyperbolic machinations tumbling out needlessly, but I see it as a frightening look at a dedicated man’s soul. If there was any doubt about the Spider’s accuracy when he warned Olenna that Littlefinger “would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes,” Littlefinger’s monologue confirmed the worst.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Petyr’s speech is his dismissal of common, institutional survival strategies – the appeal to human connection, the appeal to law, the appeal to religion, and all attendant moral codes thereof – as mere illusions. Yet we know from his fascination with the Iron Throne – and from his own weakness for Catelyn Stark – that Littlefinger isn’t insusceptible to the draw of the very things he deems unreal. How self-aware is he? It might not matter, as what he posits as most important is the climb itself–the literal process of acquiring power however and wherever he can. Littlefinger is supremely adaptable, capable of seeing the opportunity in any situation, and this makes him especially dangerous for “bad investments” like Ros who, having crossed him, become nothing more than profit waiting to be reclaimed. No moral framework or personal sentiment will impede the deal; for Littlefinger, “all desires are valid to a man with a full purse.”
Few see the world as Littlefinger does. The episode hinges on scenarios where other characters attempt to negotiate their way to advantageous positions, usually through legal union, by relying on the standard “illusory” traditions of Westeros. Robb must depend upon his Uncle Edmure’s acquiescence to Walder Frey’s marriage proposal if he is to have a hope of acquiring the forces necessary to attack Casterly Rock. Tywin and Olenna spar to protect their respective interests, each deftly maneuvering in order to thwart the other. Roose Bolton considers his options before striking a deal with Jaime. Melisandre purchases Robert’s bastard, Gendry, in the name of her religious mission. The price? Gold. In some instances these negotiations reveal the compelling allure of battle that only exists at the height of political gamesmanship, and in others they expose the clumsy gracelessness of perfunctory political haggling. In each case, however, characters work within scope of the realm’s precedents in order to advance themselves, the very constraints of the rules providing them with opportunities to devise more or less creative solutions to their predicaments.
But if these attempts at shoring up a bulwark against the deleterious effects of age, betrayal, war, and more represent the attempt to impose order onto the unbidden by employing the traditional mechanisms of Westerosi culture, the unnamed Boy’s sadistic torture of Theon represents a willful inversion of these rules without regard to external dictates. Cloistered away and kept from the most basic understanding of his own physical location in the world, Theon learns that there will be no happy ending, that every truth is a lie, and that the pain exists merely to pleasure the person inflicting it. There is no sense that Theon’s captor hopes to benefit from this imprisonment–it hardly seems politically motivated. What Theon faces is the supreme mockery of negotiation–a false game where his only option is to lose. He is no longer a player–like Ros, he is a piece on someone else’s board, and the game being played is very, very private.
For Littlefinger, “only the ladder is real – the climb is all there is,” and this, I think, is in deep accordance with everything his character does. There is no time to waste on fallen climbers. As for Ros, Littlefinger merely sold her off, blithely unconcerned with her fate, and perfectly content with the warning he gave her long ago. And in this there’s a striking parallel to be made between Theon and Ros – lovers, after a fashion, once upon a time in Winterfell. It seems so long ago, but we can remember Theon asking Ros where she was going, with her reply of “King’s Landing!” sounding out from the back of a shaky turnip cart. From such inauspicious beginnings they both tried to climb, and they both chose wrong, each falling prey to the two most sadistic characters we’ve yet encountered.
Little of this is hopeful, but beyond its observations of the strategies men use to eliminate or create order in the world, “The Climb” suggests that some wish not to ascend but to find firm ground. When Ygritte lets Jon know that she understands he’s not the sort of man to cast aside his loyalties so easily, she doesn’t do so to alarm him. Instead, she hopes to center his attention on something other than the promises he’s plagued by. She’s a mere soldier in Mance’s army, and Jon is just one more crow who spoke unfair vows in the name of an unappreciated task, but together? Together they have something tangible. “It’s you and me who matters to me and you,” she says, asking that he never betray her. Their quite literal climb up the face of the Wall is fraught with difficulty, but the rope connecting them saves them both, proving a far stabler unifying force than the alliances being brokered elsewhere. They can be severed from others through caprice or malice, and the affiliations they swear allegiance to offer no true security, but the bond between them is something they both have control over.
When they reach the top of their ascent, the moment they share is underscored by a note of sadness, as if to suggest that any moment so perfect can only be understood as something besieged on all sides by forces which seek to undermine or exploit it. Fitting, then, that the camera lingers in a moment of balance–balance between worlds that keep them apart, balance after a journey that threatened to end them. The moment felt earned. From this vantage atop the world, what choices will they have to make next? If nothing else, Thrones is certain to let us know that they will have choices–everyone does. Even Ned chose to follow his friend south when honor called, much to Catelyn’s dismay. Will Jon’s abstract loyalty to his vows supplant his personal loyalty to his woman?
We know that Littlefinger loved, too, and that he now nurses the memory of his love not because he believes it can be realized, but because the terms of its failure fuel his ambition. Self-driven men seemingly free from obligations to others, Varys and Littlefinger both acknowledge that the institutions structuring Westeros are shadows and illusions, but they respond to this truth in mutually exclusive ways. Where Varys seeks to defend the realm from itself, Littlefinger seeks to destroy the equilibrium which binds the realm together so that he might mercilessly climb to greater heights of power in the ensuing bedlam. Rejected so long ago by a woman of nobler birth, bested by the heir of a nobler house, Littlefinger’s only loyalty is to himself. It’s a mistake to see Littlefinger’s fascination with the throne as a simple representation of his desire to be seated upon it; Littlefinger wishes to subvert the very system which empowers the throne in the first place, and this begins by understanding its lie.
But in segueing from Littlefinger’s speech to the closing moments atop the Wall, the showrunners offer a third alternative to the options presented in the throne room: outside of the realm itself, outside of general affiliation, outside of the illusory terms of honor, outside of the dictates of vows, people in this world can still choose one another, save one another. Petyr may decry love as a meaningless distraction from his ceaseless ascent, but then he’s forgotten what it’s like to have anyone to keep him from falling.