For six seasons, Game Of Thrones gave viewers little reason to doubt the sincerity of Varys (Conleth Hill), the royal courtier and sometime spymaster who claims that his true service is to the common people. Then that changed on Dragonstone, when Daenerys questioned his motives over the years, especially his fleeting commitment to previous monarchs. In an instant his lies and betrayals didn’t seem like means to a noble end, but possibly the spurious actions of a spider forever setting a web.
Since that moment, when he gave a full defense of his actions, Varys hasn’t done anything to make us doubt the earnestness of his long-held claims. And yet more and more it seems as though the Mother Of Dragons was right to worry about his loyalty, because it’s starting to look he might yet turn on her, too, especially when there might be a better ruler for the common people.
Despite being mistrusted by most in Westeros, Varys has been one of the few people of power whose focus has always remained with the lowborn instead of some great house. He recognized Robert Baratheon was a terrible king, tried (in vain) to save Ned Stark, worked to protect the realm from the flames of Stannis and his red priestess, rescued Tyrion from execution, and forged alliances for Daenerys, all in pursuit of a better world for the people.
Varys has repeatedly expressed his desire for a Westeros of “peace, prosperity, a land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless,” citing his own slave childhood as his motivation. After he and Tyrion arrived in Pentos, Varys explained why he risked so much smuggling Tyrion, in the hope the talented Tyrion would serve another.
The Seven Kingdoms need someone stronger than Tommen, but gentler than Stannis. A monarch who can intimidate the high lords and inspire the people. A ruler loved by millions with a powerful army and the right family name.
That was what drew him to Daenerys Targaryen, the Dragon Queen who had used her power not for her own gain, but to free slaves, who in doing so engendered the love and devotion of the common people and earned Varys’ allegiance.
In season two, while talking about how Stannis burns his enemies alive, Varys told Tyrion how his little birds in the east spoke of Daenerys having three dragons, saying, “It will be years before they are fully grown, and then they’ll be nowhere to hide.” If he feared the horrors of Stannis’ flames, imagine his worry about the Mad King’s daughter having dragons. But learning who and what Daenerys really is, he came to believe in her, recruiting others for her at great personal risk.
But when she questioned him, he explained why he doesn’t really serve her at all.
You wish to know where my true loyalties lie? Not with any king or queen, but with the people. The people who suffer under despots and prosper under just rule. The people whose hearts you aim to win. If you demand blind allegiance, I respect your wishes. Grey Worm can behead me or your dragons can devour me. But if you let me live, I will serve you well. I will dedicate myself to seeing you on the Iron Throne because I choose you. Because I know the people have no better chance than you.
While many rulers would consider such an answer insubordination, she didn’t. “Swear this to me, Varys,” she said. “If you ever think I’m failing the people, you won’t conspire behind my back. You’ll look me in the eye as you have done today, and you’ll tell me how I’m failing them.”
Of course, she did add that if he ever does betray her, she’ll burn him alive, but the conversation went about as well as Varys could have hoped. He wasn’t executed, and he got to explain his devotion to the common people.
But that’s why his comments in this season’s fifth episode, “Eastwatch,” made him sound like a man willing to die for what he believes in. After hearing from a distraught Tyrion about the devastation of her attack on the Loot Train, and her horrific execution of Randyll and Dickon Tarly, Varys spoke about how he would lie to himself when he served the Mad King, in a futile attempt to absolve himself of responsibility of the atrocities he witnessed.
That’s what I used to tell myself about her father. I found the traitors, but I wasn’t the one burning them alive. I was only a purveyor of information. It’s what I told myself when I watched them beg for mercy, ‘I’m not the one doing it.’ As the pitch of their screams rose higher, ‘I’m not the one doing it.’ When their hair caught fire and the smell of the burning flesh filled the Throne Room, ‘I’m not the one doing it.’
After taking a moment to pour some wine, Tyrion said, “Daenerys is not her father,” as much to convince himself as Varys. “And she never will be—with the right counsel,” Varys said. “You need to find a way to make her listen.”
“And she never will be” is as strong a statement as the always careful Varys has ever made. He knows who her father was. He even told her on Dragonstone, “There have been few rulers in history as cruel as the Mad King.” He will not sit by and allow that same madness to again consume the country he has been fighting to save.
But if Tyrion can’t find a way to make her listen, why should Varys expect her to listen to him if he tells her she is failing the people? There is no reasoning with madness, which is why he will make sure she never has the chance to terrorize Westeros the way her father did.
Especially because all of the traits he saw in her can be found in another. Varys saw firsthand how the King In The North believes in the same things he does, when Jon Snow advised Daenerys on how to take the Iron Throne. Or more importantly, how not to take it.
I never thought that dragons would exist again. No one did. The people who follow you know that you made something impossible happen. Maybe that helps them believe that you can make other impossible things happen. Build a world that’s different from the shit one they’ve always known. But if you use them to melt castles and burn cities, you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.
Daenerys was right; if Varys “dislikes one monarch, he conspires to crown the next one.” Which is why if she decides to use her dragons to burn Westeros in her quest for power, she’ll get an answer to her question about “what kind of a servant” Varys really is. He’s the kind who serves the people, and if she fails them, he has found a ruler in Jon Snow who won’t.