Westeros is a funny place. With its kings and queens and lords and ladies, it’s the opposite of egalitarian. But it’s also a place where women and smugglers can be knighted, where having a famous name can lead to a lifetime of exile, and where pimps and eunuchs can end up advising kings. Cunning Varys, who has risen to great influence in mysterious fashion, demonstrated his skills this week, and made it clear that Westeros offers multiple paths to power-seekers.
First, he shares with Tyrion with the traumatic story of how he was castrated and then thrown out to the streets to die. “Influence is largely a matter of patience,” he says. “Step by step, one distasteful task after another, I made my way from the slums of Myr to the small chamber.” This scene is important not only because it gives the viewer insight into Varys, but also because it sets the tone for the rest of the episode: Vengeance is on the minds of many in Westeros, though not everyone is as patient as Varys.
Next we see Varys at work as the Master of Whispers. He and Ros are gossiping about the sexual prowess of Pod, Tyrion’s squire, when he tells her that “prodigies appear in the oddest of places.” This is, of course, a largely nonsexual double entendre, as Ros herself started out as one of Littlefinger’s prostitutes but is now his trusted assistant and adviser.
And lastly, we see Varys doing what he does best—using the intelligence he has procured from Ros to serve the realm, at least as he sees it. Having learned that Littlefinger intends to take Sansa Stark—the “key to the north” and the Lannisters’ hostage—on his voyage to propose to her aunt, Varys turns to Lady Olenna Redwynne, matriarch of the Tyrells. And whaddya know: All of a sudden Margaery Tyrell suggests to Sansa that it would be lovely for her to marry Loras so they could be sisters.
No doubt that some will complain that these scenes are a departure from the events of Storm of Swords, on which the season is based. Over at the AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff (a frequent guest of Slate’s “TV Club”) addresses the need for the show to depart from the source material at times. He’s mostly talking about the way the show has handled Barristan Selmy and Daenerys’ knowledge of Valyrian. I would argue that the same point applies to Varys.
He’s an important figure in Westeros, but because he so often lurks in the shadows, we know of his exploits and power only from what other people say about him, and how wary of him they are. That is fine for a book, but on a television show, it’s far more entertaining for us to see at least few scenes showing a smooth operator at work than it is to listen to characters cursing him and his spiders. And while we don’t yet know all the “distasteful tasks” that he completed on his journey to the small council, we are now privy to at least a few of his secrets.