As this tale of kings, queens, ice demons and fire dragons begins to ramp up towards its inevitable climax, it is becoming harder for the natural schemers and plotters to keep their hidden hands out of sight. That should not be a surprise. For six seasons, a number of protagonists have been able to glide through the traps and the dangers by being more astute than others or by aligning themselves with the right player to achieve what they wanted. But the time is approaching for cards to be put on the table in this game — and some of these players are going to find all their plotting and scheming was for nothing.
Among the best players has been Varys, Master of Whisperers and Spymaster to the three of the last five kings to sit the Iron Throne. For years, he has been scheming to place someone other than Robert Baratheon in charge of the Seven Kingdoms. First, it was Viserys Targaryen, the last son of the Mad King Aerys. Then, when he died, it became Daenarys Targaryen, his sister. But he also worked in conjuction with Robert’s small council to send spies and assassins after Dany — facts which Dany called him out for at long last. Varys was obsequious to Robert yet worked to overthrow him. Varys deferred to Joffrey and was still plotting his downfall. How can Dany trust him to not do the same to her? Dany’s solution: put Varys’ track record on the table and convince him that he’s better served by expressing that Dany is coming up short. Varys agrees to do this while also understanding that he will be burned by Dany should he scheme against her.
Not soon is she done coming to peace with Varys that another of our schemers arrives in Dragonstone. Melisandre, the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light, somehow found her way back to the same island where we first met her. Back then she had teamed up with Stannis Baratheon and proclaimed him the hero that would defeat the forces of darkness. However, Stannis and his entire House fell in following Melisandre’s path. She then tied herself to the potential in Jon Snow until the new King in the North banished her for burning the former Princess Shireen alive. Her new quest is to convince Dany that she is the princess that was promised, the hero that will stop the coming Army of the Dead. Dany doesn’t know whether to believe her or not, but agrees to send for Jon to come to Dragonstone — to tell her of it and to swear fealty to her as the true Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
For his part, Jon knows that he has to go to Dragonstone to convince her to unite her forces with his in order to stop the Army of the Dead. She has large armies, sits atop a mountain of dragonglass and has three dragons who could turn the tide against the White Walkers. But the specter of past Northern lords answering calls from monarchs in the South looms like a shadow over such a decision. Jon is not a schemer and he has never been one. He has been at the mercy of the plans of others — whether Ned’s, Jeor’s, Qhorin’s, the Night’s Watch or now the lords of the North. His plan of action is to do as his father would have done and seek the aid of Daenerys Stormborn. In his stead, he leaves his half-sister, Sansa, in charge of the North. And Sansa has been taking lessons on plotting from Littlefinger. What happens when, or if, Jon returns?
Before leaving though, Jon finally encounters the other master schemer of the Seven Kingdoms, Littlefinger. Lord Baelish is right to demand some appreciation from the new King in the North as it was his knights of the Vale who helped turned the battle he was on the verge of losing to his side. Given all Sansa has told him though, Jon does not trust Petyr Baelish and the idea that he has designs on her is not something he’s willing to tolerate. So he accosts him and threatens him before riding out to Dragonstone. In that act, Jon may have set the boundaries of his relationship with the Lord Protector of the Vale and made a mighty new enemy.
But if Jon has never been a schemer, his other half-sister has had to become one. Trained by the Faceless Men, Arya has plotted death and ruin for those who wronged her family and her quest is taking her towards King’s Landing and Queen Cersei. So it is with a bit of irony that her plan is foiled by the unlikeliest of persons — Hot Pie. The former companion who once threatened her to try and take her sword away and with whom she spent a long time escaping the War of the Five Kings informs her that the North is won and in the hands of her family once again. Her entire plot of vengeance falls apart at that news. Instead of heading towards her target, she turns back and starts heading towards her family and her home — which she thought she would never see again. Along the way, she encounters her former direwolf pup, Nymeria, now fully grown and in charge of her own pack of wild wolves. At first startled, Arya manages to calm the massive beast and tries to talk her into coming back to Winterfell with her. But just as Arya is not the little lady her parents wanted, neither is Nymeria the faithful companion she thought she would be. Their lives and their chance for friendship have been taken from both of them by the plots of others.
You could draw a parallel line between her life and that of Grey Worm and Missandei; though they have never met. Just as Arya was taken from her old life by the schemes of others, so were the General of the Unsullied and the Lady to the Dragon Queen. One was taught languages because her value would increase as a slave interpreter while the other was castrated and taught to fight because it would make him a better soldier. Until Dany came along, they did not have control over their lives. Now, however, they do. And as Dany plans to move her own army against Casterly Rock, the ancient seat of House Lannister, it means they will be separated — maybe forever. This gives them only the night to finally profess what has been obvious between them. If their lives remain in the hands of powerful people above them, they can at least control who they fall in love with and who they sleep with — missing body parts be damned.
Another one who was like them — at the mercy of a schemer — was Jorah Mormont. The former Lord of Bear Island once worked for Varys the Spider and spied on Dany and Viserys Targaryen. But for the infatuation and respect he grew to have for Dany, he abandoned those plans. Now, he’s stuck in Oldtown, desperately seeking a cure for greyscale that may not exist. Or rather won’t be used by anyone but Samwell Tarly. It’s not that Tarly is trained. It’s that, in their “wisdom”, the Archmaesters refuse to use the one method they know that might work to cure greyscale on adults. But for the respect Sam had for the Old Bear, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, Sam is willing to try it on Jorah. In 6 seasons, we have seen the meek, mild and scared Sam be willing to risk so much for love, for duty and for respect. He’s snuck Gilly past The Wall. He’s helped elect Jon as Lord Commander. He’s now likely saved Jorah’s life. How will this affect his standing with the Maesters of the Citadel though? They are not likely to appreciate him plotting behind their backs.
But if characters like Sam, Jon, Dany, Arya, Missandei, Sansa and Grey Worm have been at the mercy of the schemers, it should never be implied that they can stand above the fray or avoid disaster. Dany’s war plan was to send the Unsullied against Casterly Rock while the armies of the Reach and Dorne, ferried by the Ironborn, would lay siege to King’s Landing. There’s reason in that: a siege by the Unsullied or the Dothraki would make Dany a foreign invader, looking to topple the ways of Westeros. But a siege by armies from Westeros against the proclaimed Queen of the Seven Kingdoms would not only show Dany has support from the Seven Kingdoms but that Cersei does not. It would pull away from Cersei’s support even further.
To that end, Cersei marshalls many of The Reach’s lords, including Randyll Tarly, Sam’s father to King’s Landing. She is also looking to pull away the support underneath the Queen of Thorns’ feet and deprive Dany of so many warriors and lords. The gambit may or may not have paid off as, despite her scheming, Lord Randyll is not one unable to see past the games. It takes Jamie and an unexpected offer to become the Warden of the South — the new lords paramount of the Reach in effect — to make Lord Randyll pause to consider. But even he knows that there’s dragons at play. Cersei, who has used Qyburn’s skills and talents before, turns to the unchained former maester for help and he comes up with a ballista capable of killing a dragon he feels. If their plans work, that would undo Dany’s superiority on the battlefield and may turn the tide against them.
Cersei’s plans get an unexpected boost when the Iron Fleet led by Euron Greyjoy surprises Yara’s Ironborn at high sea returning to Dorne. The pirate king of the Iron Islands knows how to sneak up on enemies and how to take targets. Waiting until the seas and the night were on his side, he catches Yara, Theon and the Sands unawares. In a dance of blood, his pirates slaughter both the Ironborn and the Dornish — Euron personally killing two of the Sand Snakes and having his men take the youngest and her mother captive. His grand scheme now revealed to make them a gift to Cersei given that Ellaria was the one who poisoned and murdered Princess Myrcella. It would give Cersei the opportunity to exact great vengeance on Ellaria to her heart’s content. In the process, Euron also decapitates the rebel Yara and her Ironborn forces.
In the final moments of the battle, Euron confronts Theon, who had until that point been fighting valiantly. Holding Yara at axe point, he dares his nephew to come take her from him. In that moment, Theon’s promise to fight for Yara comes face to face with the horrors he faced at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. Euron’s men proceed to mutilate the fallen warriors around them while, in his eyes, Theon sees the same madness and lust that made Ramsay so vile. In that moment, Theon is reduced to Reek once again and he opts to flee from Euron by jumping overboard — abandoning his sister to this monster.
For a brief moment long ago, Theon thought he could play the game of thrones. He schemed to take Winterfell from the Starks and declared himself its prince. He murdered children in order to drive the point home. That act cost him dearly personally as the wounds he suffered at a man more depraved and callous than he continue to break his will. This is the danger for the commoners and for the noble born, the powerless and the powerful. In their world, there’s men and women capable of manipulating them, using them and then leaving them hollow, used and destroyed. Tywin did it to his children. The Slave Masters did it to Grey Worm and Missandei. Ramsay did it to Theon. This is the way of the Old World. The one Dany is claiming to want to break. But even the Mother of Dragons may find its wounds too deep to solve.