There’s no justice in the world, not unless we make it. You loved your family. Avenge them.
—Petyr Baelish, to Sansa Stark
Season 5, Episode 3: “High Sparrow”
Spoiler warning: This post includes some discussion of the purported Season 7 plot leak.
In the game of thrones, you win or you die, and the death toll climbs higher every season. With only two seasons left to go, the audience can safely assume that more characters—beloved and infamous alike—will be lost. Whether they end up being heartbreaking losses, crowd-pleasing comeuppances or just casualties of war remains to be seen.
Game of Thrones doesn’t operate on a black-and-white code of ethics, so it can be difficult to determine which characters will get what’s coming to them. After all, if Westeros were a pure world, the honorable Stark family would have remained intact, and likely would have emerged victorious from the ongoing wars. But as the series goes on, George R.R. Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss continually demonstrate that the hero’s arc doesn’t have to transpire traditionally.
However, that doesn’t mean the series’ villains are exempt from justice. While the likes of Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton may have overstayed their welcome, they got their just deserts in the end. When it comes to villain deaths on Game of Thrones, the punishment tends to fit the crime. Ramsay, whose own father once compared him to a “mad dog,” is devoured by his hounds. Viserys Targaryen, who demanded his golden crown, receives it when Khal Drogo pours molten gold over his head. Tywin Lannister, forever preoccupied with his family name and image, is killed by his hated son in the most undignified manner possible. And Walder Frey, who had the Starks slaughtered at the Red Wedding, is slaughtered by a surviving Stark.
If the show continues in this vein, we can make some educated guesses about who goes next and how it’ll happen. Among those on the chopping block is Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, whose courtly skills of manipulation aren’t likely to intimidate an army of White Walkers. Ramsay, who was the resident villain in the North until his death in Season 6, had to be eradicated before the Starks could focus on the bigger threat. Such is the case with Petyr, whose political machinations had their place right up until winter finally showed up.
Throughout his six-season run—an impressive feat for any character on Thrones—Petyr has won pretty much every hand he plays. He does, after all, maintain an impeccable poker face. He’s taken his winning cards and built a house destined to bury him, because let’s face it: no one on Game of Thrones can keep coming out on top without eventually cashing out completely. Petyr’s web of lies and betrayal is too intricate to keep up forever, and he has no true friends to come to his aid.
Once upon a time, Petyr did have such a friend, and his love for her has laid heavy on his thoughts and motivated his actions. His obsession with Catelyn Stark isn’t the only thing that’s made him the man he became, but it played a significant part. When he meets Ned Stark in “Lord Snow,” the two reminisce about the late Brandon Stark, Ned’s older brother and Catelyn’s original intended. As a smitten adolescent, Petyr challenged Brandon to a duel for Cat’s hand, and lost miserably. Still, years later, his interest seems undimmed, as he names her “Catelyn Tully” and calls her “A woman worth fighting for” directly to her husband.
Petyr is always careful to refer to Catelyn by either her given name or her maiden “Tully.” He refuses to call her “Stark,” as if doing so would further his humiliation at having lost her first to Brandon, then to Ned following Brandon’s death during Robert’s Rebellion. As a man who prides himself on his intellect, Petyr is an advocate of the old “brains over brawn” song and dance, and does not respect men who rely primarily on their physical strength. Brandon may have bested him by virtue of his superior swordsmanship and Ned because his family was better connected, but Petyr’s wounded pride demands justice. Ultimately, this leads to his betrayal of Ned in Season 1.
At first blush, it’s not clear how this double-cross fits into Petyr’s grand plan, because we aren’t made aware of that grand plan at the time. But it becomes clearer when he reveals his great ambition to Sansa Stark in the Season 6 finale:
Every time I’m faced with a decision, I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider a question, I ask myself, ‘Will this action make this picture a reality?’, pull it out of my mind and into this world… And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me on the Iron Throne, and you by my side.
If we believe that these words are the truth, what does this say about Petyr’s history with the Starks? Knowing what we do, it’s reasonable to assume that his original goal was to gain the throne with Catelyn alongside him, but that plan crumbled when she refused him in Season 2’s “Garden of Bones.” He betrayed Ned, leading to the man’s death, and afterwards uses the tragedy as leverage to convince Catelyn that their love is destined to be: “I’ve loved you since I was a boy. It seems to me that fate has given us this chance […]”
While Petyr may have never accepted that his love for Catelyn would forever be unrequited, he remained a goal-oriented man. If he couldn’t have Catelyn Stark, he would set his sights on the next best thing. And so his focus shifted to her eldest daughter, Sansa, whose youth and naivete make her easier bait. Since Catelyn and Sansa are so similar in looks and temperament, it’s no great leap for Petyr to project his unrequited love for the former onto the latter. He said so himself in the Season 2 finale, “I see so much of her in you.”
Since Petyr took Sansa under his wing, she has suffered. We learn in Season 4 that he set the plot of the entire series in motion by manipulating Lysa Arryn, who loved him, into poisoning her husband Jon Arryn, and then blaming the Lannisters for the murder. These events led to the deaths of Sansa’s family, as well as her abuse at the hands of Joffrey and Ramsay alike. Recalling my point about how the punishments for Game of Thrones villains tends to fit the crime, if anyone hands Petyr his comeuppance on a silver platter, it will be Sansa.
As he implies when he tells Sansa of his ultimate ambition, everything Petyr has done for Sansa has been based on his own self-interest. He wants her to remain reliant upon him, but he is becoming more and more expendable. Now that Sansa has reclaimed her home, and with it a sense of purpose and family, she doesn’t need Petyr’s emotional support, even if she needed the Knights of the Vale to reclaim Winterfell. More importantly, any trust Sansa ever placed in Petyr was irrevocably broken when he left her to Ramsay’s psychotic whims in Season 5. At the very least, he owed her his army.
Indeed, it seems that Petyr will do anything he can to win Sansa’s favor again, and not just because he desires her. His political ambitions may depend upon it. If he wants the Seven Kingdoms, he needs allies, and what better place to find them than in the North, the largest kingdom in Westeros? Sansa Stark is Petyr’s missing piece. As far as he’s concerned, winning her hand would complete his life’s work; he would avenge his youthful humiliation by Brandon, and spit in the face of Catelyn’s rejections. For however much Petyr may have once loved Catelyn, that love spiraled into obsession when he couldn’t have her. After all, real love doesn’t tend to include going after the girl’s daughter when things don’t work out.
Regardless of Petyr’s insistent pursuit, Sansa will no longer be so easily swayed. Sophie Turner has stated that Sansa is “ruthless” in the upcoming Season 7. But who deserves her ire? Whatever tension remains between her and half-brother Jon Snow, Jon has proven that he’ll do all in his power to protect her. Meanwhile, Petyr has shown time and again that his main priority is himself. Petyr may whisper in Sansa’s ear that Jon can’t be trusted, but Petyr has proven himself the untrustworthy one. Of course, that’s never stopped him from one-upping his foes before, so it probably won’t deter him this time, either.
Prior to Sansa’s triumphant return to Winterfell in Season 6, it was easy for Petyr to manipulate her. For a time, she thought his enduring love for her mother would keep him loyal to her. Instead, he’s projected those feelings onto Sansa, thus turning their relationship lecherous. Even still, Sansa had no one else to turn to. Now, though, she has Jon. And if the rumors about Season 7 are true (and this one probably is), Arya and Bran will return home as well. What is Littlefinger compared to Sansa’s own family? Petyr will undoubtedly be threatened when faced with such strong familial bonds, especially since his relationship with Sansa has become so tenuous.
Other rumors have it that Petyr will attempt to drive a wedge between Arya and Sansa, who were known to bicker in years past. This isn’t much of a spoiler when we consider that Petyr has tried to keep them apart before. When he visits Harrenhal in Season 2’s “The Old Gods and the New,” he’s in the same room with Arya, who’s serving as Tywin’s cupbearer. If he recognized her, he didn’t say a thing. He needed to keep Sansa isolated, and fetching her sister back to the capital would surely put a snag in his plan. But will Petyr be successful in turning Sansa and Arya against each other when and if they’re both at Winterfell?
Short answer: doubtful. Speaking about Sansa, Ned once told Arya, “You may be as different as the sun and the moon, but the same blood flows through both your hearts. You need her, as she needs you.” These aren’t throwaway words meant to patch up a sibling argument. They’re a very real assessment of Sansa and Arya’s relationship. No matter their differences, they need each other, now more than ever. The Starks thrive on togetherness; after being apart for so long, come hell or high water, they’ll stick with one another. Yes, the girls have walked very different paths during the years they were separated. But everything they’ve both done has been to survive, and to avenge their family.
So what I propose is this: if a rift between Arya and Sansa happens, who’s to say it isn’t feigned? Sansa doesn’t trust Petyr anymore, nor will the steadfastly honest Arya. Why backtrack on the girls’ character development? It makes more narrative sense for the pair to contrive bitterness in order to lull Petyr into a false sense of security before they take him out. Since such manipulations are Petyr’s modus operandi, this would nicely suit the circumstances of his own death.
“Look around you. We’re all liars here, and every one of us is better than you,” Petyr told Sansa in the Season 2 finale. But he, like so many others, underestimates her. She’s learned from him and developed a knack for reading people. Think of her conversations with Joffrey and Ramsay in Seasons 2 and 5, respectively. She attempted to manipulate Joffrey into dying in battle during “Blackwater” by comparing him to her brother Robb, who’s “only a pretender.” A few years later, she played upon Ramsay’s insecurities over being born a bastard by pointing out that his father had a trueborn son on the way. Sansa has been playing the game longer than she lets on. And now that she definitely knows what Petyr wants, there’s little stopping her from using it against him.
But this poses another important question: what would compel Sansa to sentence Petyr to death? Brienne could have cut him down on her order during their meeting in Season 6’s “The Door,” but Sansa didn’t give it. She recognized the bigger picture, and that she might need Petyr’s influence over the Knights of the Vale. But now that she’s won back Winterfell, there’s a definite shift in power. She holds at least as much over Petyr as he he holds over her, and could gain more if she cozies up to the impressionable Robin Arryn or the stalwart “Bronze” Yohn Royce, the latter of whom is not a fan of Littlefinger’s. And with Bran on his way home, there remains the possibility that he’ll take a short vision quest and see Petyr’s betrayal of Ned from Season 1. While the Three-Eyed Raven’s word might not be enough to convince some, there are plenty of people who could back this claim up if need be. For example, Varys, Tyrion and the Hound all know about it, and all of them have more loyalty to Sansa than they do Petyr.
Whatever the details of Petyr’s downfall, it seems likely he’s going down. But who will swing the sword? The alleged leak points to one individual in particular, but three possible executioners offer different but equally satisfying ends to Petyr’s long career in puppet mastery:
- Jon Snow: The newly crowned King in the North has killed before, both in battle as well as during his tenure as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. A scenario where Jon is the executioner would echo Petyr’s duel with Brandon, only unlike Catelyn, Sansa wouldn’t beg Jon to spare Petyr’s life.
- Arya: She may be the only character on the show who isn’t susceptible to manipulation, which is Petyr’s tool of choice. Arya detests liars and hypocrites, and Petyr has built his successes on double-crosses, so it would be suitable for Arya to strike the final blow. It would also quench Arya’s thirst for vengeance. If Arya knew how Petyr had betrayed Ned, surely he would have been on her kill list from the first.
- Sansa: While Sansa will almost certainly sentence Petyr to death, she could feasibly carry out that sentence as well. She likely wouldn’t wield a sword like Jon or Arya, but should Petyr be sentenced to death by hanging, she could cut the rope. As Ned once said, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Ned’s children, both actual and foster, have lived by those words—think about Robb beheading Lord Karstark, Theon beheading Rodrik Cassel, and Jon Snow beheading Janos Slynt. Sansa has fully embraced her identity as a Stark, and she may live by those words as well.
The world of Game of Thrones is painted almost entirely in shades of gray. The heroes are flawed, and many of the villains exhibit some kind of redeeming quality. Even Petyr, compromised as he is, started down his path because he wanted to prove he was worthy of Catelyn Tully, the girl he loved. That love became twisted along the way, but it had roots in something pure and pitiable.
But in his last-ditch efforts to win her, Petyr hurt Catelyn unalterably by ensuring her beloved husband’s death. His love for her is tainted by his self-interest, and so it goes when he sets his sights on Sansa. Petyr isolates her so he can continue to use her, and perhaps even manipulate her into loving him. He attempts to seduce her with promises of power, and is blinded by his own desire for it and her alike. It’s this desire that makes a fool of Petyr, just as it did when he challenged Brandon Stark for Catelyn’s hand. For someone who prides himself primarily on his shrewd logic, Petyr falls victim to the whims of lust and love as easily as any man in Westeros. This simultaneously softens him and makes him so desperate for success that he made one, likely fatal, flaw: revealing his ambition to Sansa in “The Winds of Winter.”
In Season 4’s “Oathkeeper,” Petyr gives Sansa some advice: “Always keep your foes confused. If they don’t know who you are or what you want, they can’t know what you plan to do next.” Tragically for him, Petyr doesn’t recognize Sansa as a foe, just as he didn’t recognize how he’d made an enemy of Catelyn when word of his betrayal reached her. Once again, it seems that Petyr will underestimate the Starks’ love and loyalty to one another. In Season 3’s “The Climb,” he told Varys that “the climb is all there is,” and yet Petyr has been clinging to a fruitless love all his life. Petyr may have climbed higher and more efficiently than most, but that only means he has the furthest to fall.