There was a time when Varys was my Game of Thrones spymaster of choice. But this week's brutal and superbly satisfying episode, "Battle of the Bastards," marked the moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the eunuch had been well and truly usurped by his oldest rival, the relentlessly slimy Petyr Baelish, Lord Protector of the Vale.
Coming to the House Stark's rescue as the knights of the Vale descended on Winterfell, Littlefinger saved Sansa's bacon, and it was as triumphant a moment as you will ever find in this thrillingly bleak story of war and thirst for power.
But Littlefinger doesn't do anything out of the goodness of his heart. Unlike Varys — who we know serves the realm — the endgame of Littlefinger remains a complete mystery. Who does Lord Baelish serve? Is there something bigger motivating him than the desire for absolute power?
"[Petyr Baelish] would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes."
This memorable quote from Varys described Baelish as a power-crazed egomaniac whose only objective was to sit on the throne, so let's assume for a moment that the Spider has the measure of his rival, and that taking the crown for himself is Littlefinger's ultimate goal.
Gradually, over the course of six seasons, and particularly since marrying Lysa Arryn (her own idiotic idea, lest we forget) and pushing his new wife to her death through the Moon Door, Baelish has put himself in a strong position to march south with an army. As Lord Protector of the Vale, he has the Arryn men at his disposal, many of who remain after the Battle of Winterfell.
If Baelish were to make either Jon or Daenerys aware of Jon's Targaryen bloodline — there's reason to believe he knows, and it would make narrative sense, given that, as it stands, nobody alive does (although for Bran, it's only a matter of time) — that might alter Jon's course of action. If Baelish were to arrange a marriage with Sansa, which would probably require Jon to be out of the picture, Littlefinger would become Lord of the North.
Sure, that title doesn't bring with it more men for an army, but it does bring status. Although highborn, Littlefinger's House Baelish was never of a particularly high standing within Westeros. Various references in books and on the series have been made to his humiliation at the hands of the lords of more noble houses. Indeed, way back in Season 1, he explicitly tells the prostitute Ros that he wants "Everything, my dear. Everything there is."
That's about as close to a moment of honesty as we've ever heard from a man so slippery he ought to have scales. Once Tommen is dead (as he will be by the close of this week's season finale) and with Cersei presumably on the run or out of the picture, who's going to succeed the king on the Iron Throne?
My belief is that, in the space between the fall of the Lannisters and Dany returning Westeros to Targaryen rule, a third party will sit on the throne. Back in Season 5 we discovered that Baelish had conspired with Olenna Tyrell to murder Joffrey. Bound by that secret, might he have the support of the Tyrell army if he were to seize control of King's Landing?
Perhaps, though, his endgame is rooted in a much more personal circumstance. Catelyn Stark was the love of Littlefinger's life, though he could never have her. When he smuggled Sansa into the Eyrie, she dyed her hair a darker shade of red, overhauled her wardrobe and transformed into somebody with a suspiciously strong resemblance to her late mother.
It could be that Baelish sees Sansa as his chance to cheat fate after it cheated him of the relationship he believed he deserved with Catelyn. If power is secondary to desire, proximity to Catelyn could be achieved via marriage to Sansa. But as we saw this week, Sansa is smart, and allowing his judgment to be clouded by love for a woman long since married to another man would be Littlefinger's downfall.
Next week's episode may be the moment we discover whether or not Lord Baelish is truly as clever as he thinks he is. Will the Lord Protector of the Vale graduate to a position of higher power, or is karma lying in wait for him?
Check out the trailer above for Season 6, Episode 10, "The Winds of Winter."
What do you think Littlefinger really wants?