This post will be discussing plot points from HBO’s excellent Game of Thrones (as well as some points in the books that cover show events.) I’m okay with anyone reading my posts who aren’t caught up on the story, but you might as well watch the show/read the books. Why have me spoil you on details?
In the fourth season of Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister is on his way to an assuredly dreadful pre-wedding breakfast with his nephew, King Joffrey Baratheon. En route, he encounters Lord Varys aka The Spider, the eunuch equivalent of SHIELD’s Nick Fury for the crown. When Tyrion asks the spy-master if he’ll be attending the breakfast, Varys explains that he was not invited. People of his sort are not often welcome at such events.
Tyrion: Forgive me if I don’t weep for you.
Varys: No one weeps for spiders or whores.
Tyrion pauses, since Varys is clearly bringing up one of Tyrion’s vulnerabilities: that he’s sheltering in the city his mistress, Shae. Tyrion’s disapproving father Tywin had expressly forbidden Tyrion from consorting with prostitutes, and his sister Cersei would not hesitate in threatening Shae as leverage over Tyrion should she learn of her.
Varys is good at communicating a complicated situation in just a few words.
Maester Pycelle: He’s a eunuch, you know.
Eddard Stark: Everyone knows that!
Varys is an interesting and shadowy figure. He inhabits the gray area of power-behind-the-throne (the same as Littlefinger) pulling strings, hatching schemes, and sussing out plots.
We know that Littlefinger is in the game for personal aggrandizement (or so I’ve been led to believe by his speech on ladders) but Varys’ motives are unclear.
- Varys is seen by Arya plotting with Maester Illyrio, who had sheltered Viserys and Daenerys for years, and apparently is playing the role of kingmaker for a Targaryen return.
- Being a Targaryen kingmaker didn’t stop Varys from employing assassins to kill the pregnant Daenerys on King Robert’s orders. (Although since the attempt failed, the question is did Varys employ top of the line killers or bargain-basement hitmen in the hopes that they would fail?)
- He was a help to Tyrion (when it served him and was safe to do so.)
- He certainly seemed sympathetic to Ned Stark’s plight. (But wasn’t going to bust him out of the Black Cells.)
So what is Varys’ endgame? Is he one of the good guys? One of the bad guys? Or just one of the guys?
But, you know, without his guy junk.
We might just not know Varys well enough to form an informed opinion on his motives.
It’s clear though that Tywin Lannister’s murder was a situation he hadn’t planned on, necessitating his departure from King’s Landing with Tyrion.
(Book Varys, I believe, had resigned himself to going off the grid as soon as Ser Jaime forced him to assist in freeing Tyrion.)
Regardless, Varys was smart enough to get far away from a vengeful Cersei, not giving anyone the need to weep for him.
Shae was not so lucky in her role. Endangered just by being Tyrion’s woman in King’s Landing, with the diminutive Lannister desperately trying to keep her safe, it’s ironic that Tyrion eventually ends up her executioner.
Tyrion was absolutely correct in telling Shae that she was not safe.
Shae from the books, I believe, is generally perceived more negatively than Shae on the television show. Although book-Shae is only seen through the positive filter of Tyrion’s point-of-view chapters, I’m not sure there’s any reason for the reader to connect with her. Tyrion always had anxiety in regards to Shae and I think those doubts served to poison the well when it came to readers and their view of his mistress. Her role in Tyrion’s trial and the discovery of Shae in Tywin’s bed were camel-back breaking straws.
Shae in the show is very similar, but since the watchers could observe Shae independently of Tyrion, the occasional positive actions on her part (her protectiveness of Sansa being the major credit on her account) served to give her a higher approval rating over the book analog.
In the third season, for a time, I was not so sure that Tyrion would end up strangling Shae. Since Peter Dinklage’s Lannister is a more likable character than the edgy and ruthless Tyrion in the book, I felt that his murder of Shae might be too much.
Then Tyrion gave Shae the elaborate and heavy gold necklace as a peace-offering because of his forced marriage. (The gold necklace would replace the non-existent gold-hand necklace that was the badge of the Hand of the King.) It seemed pretty clear her fate was set.
The show runners engineered the bedroom scene in such a way to keep Tyrion’s hands not quite as metaphorically blood-stained. A desperate Tyrion was forced to protect himself from the dagger wielding ex-girlfriend.
That resolution wasn’t entirely satisfying, but I appreciated that at least Tyrion showed remorse over Shae’s demise. Contrary to Varys’ words, someone did weep for this particular sex-worker.
Shae’s depiction on the show gave a bit more depth to her character, but it didn’t clear up her motivations in testifying against Tyrion or the circumstances in ending up as Lord Tywin’s mistress. Shae pulling a knife on Tyrion doesn’t really make things any clearer. Westeros is a dangerous place. If I testified against my boyfriend, and he’d been sentenced to death, and then I woke up with him on the loose and in my bedroom … I might also assume the worst was about to happen to me.
It would be tragic if Shae had been forced into these circumstances, and her fight-or-flight reaction had sealed her fate, when some diplomatic communications might have resolved things. (Which was not ever an option in the books.)
I think I’m still trying to make up my mind on the motives of either versio of Shae.
I’d like to end this brief character study by talking about a character who was not from the books at all. Ros.
Ros was introduced in the first episode of the first season (back when they had no budget for Lannister wigs) as a working girl at a brothel outside Winterfell castle. Season One has been faulted for relying heavily on sexposition, having info-dumps as pillow-talk, and more often than not, Ros was involved.
She was instrumental in being an audience for Tyrion and Theon up at Winterfell, and after relocating to King’s Landing provided the excuse for Littlefinger to monologue.
If the show-runners could have justified Ros taking a detour to Vaes Dothrak, maybe she would have been in the bathtub with Viserys instead of Doreah.
Although Ros was an element for convenient sexposition, in general she served as an observer for non point-of-view chapter events. Through her eyes we received insights into Littlefinger, the shadowy war between Baelish and Varys, and following her departure from Pycelle’s chambers, we learned that the feeble old Maester was playing his own duplicitous game.
In the first season, show watchers were somewhat wary of Ros the more screen time she got. Early in the show, any scene not from the books had its existence questioned. Is this canon? Is this important? Oh my god are they changing the books?
One fear was that on Ros’ journey south, she’d end up with Tyrion, replacing Shae entirely. If that happened, the fans were ready to discuss the merits of this action. I mean, if they wanted to do that, why not just call her Shae and not Ros?
(We did see some of this play out with Jeyne Westerling being replaced completely by Volantene noblewoman/battlefield medic Talisa Maegr.)
Ros did not replace Shae, but interestingly did replace another prostitute from the books, a sex worker misidentified and threatened by Cersei as Tyrion’s mistress.
Eventually, Ros’ role as Varys’ spy in Littlefinger’s affairs forced Baelish to make good on his warnings about bad investments, and Ros was cruelly murdered by the bloodthirsty mini-mad-monarch, Joffrey Baratheon.
With her death, I feel the character was granted a new-found appreciation among the show’s fans. As an observer, she had become so involved with the machinations in King’s Landing that she had somehow elevated her status above being a show-runner-invented character, and into one of the more tragic figures on the show.
Ros went from being an ambitious young woman, realizing that she needed to better position herself before wartime hostilities broke out (taking the men and money away from her home-base in Winterfell), and not wanting to just be a camp follower, dared to find a spot in King’s Landing. And to attempt to climb Baelish’s metaphorical ladder out of the pit.
I respect her for that, and I miss her character on the show.
By working for Littlefinger and by being one of Varys’ informants, Ros became in parts both whore and spider, and I won’t say I’m not weeping for her.
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.)
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text. So there. (Well, only to the stuff that I wrote. Not to any of the quotes, obviously.)
If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2015 Some Rights Reserved