Game of Thrones Season 7 has a Petyr Baelish problem — and it isn't a little one
Ever since he brought the Knights of the Vale charging onto the battlefield at Sansa Stark's behest, and changed the tide of the Battle of the Bastards, Lord Petyr Baelish hasn't had much to do.
Littlefinger, used to the lavish comforts of King's Landing and the (mostly) hospitable environs of the Eyrie seems out of place in the gloomy and forbidding environs of Winterfell. Not that he hasn't adapted to his new setting and his relatively recent station (as Lord of the Eyrie) admirably.
Gone are the dandy-ish costumes he preferred when he ran the brothels in King's Landing that nobles liked to frequent. Littlefinger goes for the stately, if dull, look now — grey cloak, his trademark silver pin at his throat. From his cosmopolitan avatar, he seems to have adopted a sedate provinciality, perhaps to be viewed as less of an interloper in the North.
Apart from the outward change (which is only to be expected, and is keeping in line with all the other characters' sartorial transformations too) there is another metamorphosis — in Littlefinger's behaviour — that is far more problematic.
Littlefinger was always what one calls a 'doer', an opportunist unparalleled in Westeros. He's never been content to stay on to sidelines — after all, he didn't go from being the son of a minor house on the Fingers to Lord of the Eyrie on the strength of just good luck. This is the man who espoused to Lord Varys his theory of chaos 'as a ladder'. And himself as the ultimate (social) climber.
He may not be a 'major' player, as we understand Cersei, Dany and Jon to be, but lest we forget, this is the man who triggered the 'game of thrones' as we have seen it unfold. It was him, plotting with Lysa Arryn, that led to Jon Arryn's death — in turn prompting Robert Baratheon to travel all the way to Winterfell to ask Ned Stark to be the new Hand of the King. We know how well that turned out for the Stark family — not to mention for the rest of the realm.
Littlefinger has unerringly had his eye on the main chance, and he's shown a propensity for picking the winning side. He seems, for now, to have sided with Sansa Stark — not that it's done him a fat lot of good so far. Beyond the kiss they exchanged at the Eyrie, Sansa hasn't given him any indication that she's likely to return his assiduous attentions. Moreover, at Winterfell, Littlefinger has had no say in the matters going on. We've been two episodes into season seven — that's two whole hours of onscreen proceedings, spanning weeks as per the characters' timelines — and all Littlefinger has had to do, is lean against a wall and cast sidelong glances at Sansa while Jon makes his speeches in the great hall while his northern bannermen alternately squabble and fall into line with what their chosen King wants. Heck, until episode 2 — 'Stormborn' — little Lyanna Mormont has had a more impressive showing than Littlefinger.
So what is Petyr Baelish doing? Are we to assume that he is so transformed by
lust love for Sansa that he has turned over a new leaf? That he will now subsume his life to the furthering of her cause? That moment in the crypt, when he confessed his feelings for Sansa (and Catelyn, yech) to Jon, what was Littlefinger attempting to do? Seek Jon's blessings for the union?
Littlefinger's 'love' — as was proved in the case of Catelyn Stark — is just as self-serving as anything else the man does.
This is the man who promised to support Ned Stark — because of his love for Catelyn — and then promptly held a knife to his throat when the time came to confront Cersei. This is the man who delivered up poor Ros to Joffrey for archery practise, tasked one of his employees to get proof of Loras Tyrell's homosexuality — and handed over Sansa to Ramsay Bolton for a bride (this was after he'd already botched her possible alliance with Loras Tyrell in an earlier time).
If we go by the theory that Littlefinger didn't know of Ramsay's sadism, then he's a far less clever man than we were led to believe. Littlefinger's plans would not have such a loophole. The Littlefinger we've seen over the past six seasons would not engage with the unknown; he wouldn't rely merely on chance.
[In the book of course, this wasn't an issue because Sansa was never married off to Ramsay Bolton; it was her friend Jeyne Poole, the daughter of Winterfell's steward, who was passed off as Arya Stark. Sansa was still living as Littlefinger's illegitimate daughter at the Eyrie when we last encountered her in 'A Dance With Dragons'.]
What then answers his seemingly glaring oversight?
What answers his present inactivity?
One — unpopular — approach to view Littlefinger's current malaise could be that David Benioff and DB Weiss have lost interest in his character, or the thread of his story. That isn't an unlikely view. As fans have pointed out, since the HBO showrunners began to veer away from George RR Martin's books, there have been some loopholes that have crept into the plot.
Forbes, for instance, highlighted in this review, that geography would have made it far more convenient for Dany to stop off at Dorne/Sunspear on her way to Dragonstone, leave Yara Greyjoy and the Iron Fleet there to ferry Ellaria plus the Dornish army up to King's Landing for their planned siege, meanwhile having Grey Worm with the Unsullied move towards Casterly Rock, even as she and Tyrion — with an appropriate guard — sailed on to the Dragonstone holdfast. Euron Greyjoy wouldn't have had quite such easy pickings then.
George RR Martin's books may have grown excessively bloated over time, in part due to his insistence on fleshing out every single plot line and character in his series — but it also makes for intricate storytelling. Martin of course doesn't have the constraints of budgets, time — or practicality — to take into account. Sustaining the storytelling of Game of Thrones as a televised spectacle, at the pace and with the intricacy of Martin's books would be well nigh impossible. Weiss, Benioff and HBO now have a tough balancing act in store, as they try to bring together a score of loose threads — well, all that they didn't blow up in the big, bad explosion at the Sept of Baelor — within the space of just 11 additional hours. Have they, in Littlefinger's case, lost the plot?
The second approach — and one that does make more sense — is that for Littlefinger, this is the lull before the storm. With Jon leaving for Dragonstone, presumably caught up in persuading Daenerys to join him in his fight against the White Walkers, and Sansa all alone at Winterfell — in charge of the North — this could be the moment Littlefinger's been waiting for. Maybe even plotting for.
What if, when he handed Sansa over to Ramsay, he intended all along to come to her 'rescue' with the Knights of the Vale at a later stage? In this scenario, Sansa would be grateful to her rescuer — perhaps she might even marry him. As the husband of the oldest surviving Stark, and the only one still at Winterfell, Littlefinger would become lord of Winterfell — and all of the North would come under his control.
The East is already under Littlefinger's reign, as the current Lord of the Eyrie. Adjoining the Vale's western boundary are the Riverlands, where the Tully name — Sansa's maternal family — and Littlefinger's own knowledge of the region, having grown up there, would still hold some sway (Brynden the Blackfish's defeat to Jaime Lannister notwithstanding). That would have put nearly two-thirds of Westeros under Littlefinger's charge.
With Dorne and Highgarden (Littlefinger and Lady Olenna Tyrell are old co-conspirators, having plotted Joffrey's death together — but also antagonists) extremely unlikely to support the Lannisters, all that would have stood between him and complete domination over the Seven Kingdoms would have been King's Landing and Casterly Rock.
The way Petyr Baelish looked at the Iron Throne when he though he was unwatched — just before he made that speech to Varys — is confirmation enough (if any was needed) of what his one, true love really is: Power. Unbridled, unfettered power.
And what Littlefinger wants, Littlefinger gets.
So maybe Sansa escaped Ramsay's clutches with a little help from Theon, and it was Jon at Castle Black, whom she rushed to in her moment of distress. Littlefinger still found a way to position himself as a valuable ally, if not her 'saviour'.
Fans are already calling the moment when Jon roughs up Littlefinger in the Winterfell crypt a throwback to Ned's altercation with him back in season one.
Ned Stark lost his head because he underestimated Littlefinger. What will Jon lose?
More importantly for viewers, if the showrunners underestimate Littlefinger — what will Game of Thrones lose?