Game of Thrones has never been short on villains – in fact, it’s usually the good guys that are thin on the ground. From monsters like Joffrey and Ramsay to scheming gits like Tywin and Maester Qyburn, Game of Thrones is full of wrong-‘uns. Over the years, Cersei has emerged as the show’s chief villain, plotting and murdering her way to the throne and driving her only nice son to suicide. She swans around, wearing black, drinking wine and being horrible to people. She’s obviously a baddie. But is she really the show’s ultimate villain?
The show set its stall out early in on the season one episode Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things. Thematically, Game of Thrones is not interested in the people who have the power; it’s interested in the people on the fringes. Ned Stark and his healthy male heir died, but his daughters, crippled son and his bastard (wink wink) are all thriving. Cersei, being a woman, falls into the ‘broken things’ category in Westeros, but she is as powerful as a woman could hope to be in that world – she’s the goddamn Queen, and has been since episode one. She’s just gradually shed all the men she had to share that role with.
But the show has another villain operating on the fringes of power, dismissed and overlooked by everyone around him. Littlefinger is to Game of Thrones villains what Daenerys is to its heroes – someone who has had to struggle for everything he has achieved. Like Daenerys, he has risen from nothing and found himself at the head of an army that has already turned the tables of one major battle. Daenerys’ big speech on having faith in herself parallels Littlefinger’s speech about making his goals come to fruition. “Every time I'm faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same picture,” he tells Sansa. “Whenever I consider an action I ask myself, 'will this help make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world?' And I only act if the answer is ‘yes’. A picture of me on the Iron Throne – and you by my side.” Like Daenerys, Littlefinger has no-one to rely on but himself.
Like the heroes of Game of Thrones, Littlefinger has to operate on the sidelines. Just about everything that happened in the show has had Littlefingerprints all over it. While it hasn’t been confirmed that Littlefinger was the one who set Tyrion up for the attempted murder of Bran in season one, it seems likely. He was in possession of the dagger, after all. Catelyn Stark blaming Tyrion for the attempted murder of her son is what sowed the seeds of the War of the Five Kings, while Littlefinger’s betrayal of Ned Stark led to his execution – and everything that followed. He even orchestrated the poisoning of Jon Arryn – the event that set everything in motion and brought King Robert to Winterfell in episode one.
Littlefinger helped Olenna Tyrell to murder Joffrey, although she didn’t give him up when she confessed to Jaime. He married Lysa Arryn and promptly murdered her, becoming the Lord Protector of the Vale. He claims to love Sansa, and ultimately wants her to be his Queen, but he also married her off to Ramsay Bolton, so it’s clear he only loves the power that an alliance with Lady Stark could give him. He’s now doing his best to keep the Stark siblings apart, setting Sansa against Jon and Arya against Sansa. Given how easily Arya and Jon are emotionally baited, he may well succeed with them, but Sansa – who has learnt the hard way to trust no-one – might just be his biggest challenge yet.
Littlefinger has chinks in his armour – he didn’t account for Bran returning to Winterfell as the all-knowing Three-Eyed Raven, and he didn’t foresee Arya’s return. The White Walkers have also put a serious crimp in his plans for the Iron Throne, although it’s entirely possible that while everyone else is looking at the danger from the North, Littlefinger will use the opportunity to snatch the Iron Throne.
While Cersei’s behaviour is somewhat understandable – we see her grieve for her children, struggle to get approval from her father and endure a violent marriage – Littlefinger’s behaviour is coldly calculating. None of his crimes are performed in the heat of passion, they’re all carefully planned. He’s always one step ahead of everyone else, and the only time he has ever looked out of control is when Sansa berated him for marrying her to Ramsay. Littlefinger seems, frankly, unstoppable. While Cersei is surrounded by people who want to see her dead or usurped, Littlefinger has no-one standing in his way, except for the Stark sisters, who he has set against each other. But perhaps Sansa and Arya are merely faking their conflict in order to lure Littlefinger into the open.
By sending Brienne away, Sansa was either following Littlefinger’s advice and removing someone who would protect Arya against Sansa, or she was thwarting his plan and removing someone who could defend her if Brienne was made to believe that Arya was a threat. Littlefinger is clearly stepping his scheming up a notch, but he’s on unsteady ground. He could be about to face his comeuppance, which would be a real shame, given how well he fits into the villain role. But there’s every chance that Littlefinger could outlive Cersei and become the show’s final human villain. At the very least, surely he has to have one last confrontation with his old enemy Varys before the end?