Varys and Littlefinger may seem to be minor players — but the maneuverings of the noble families of Westeros often seem to come back to their ongoing chess game. Also, in last night's Game of Thrones, Varys and Littlefinger articulate two very different philosophies, which help illuminate the divided loyalties you're seeing all over.
So Varys really seems to believe in "the realm," even after he acknowledges it's a fictional construct. It all goes back to the parable he told Tyrion last year, about the sellsword trying to decide whether to serve the rich man, the king or the priest. He knows that all these things are just shadows on the wall, but they still matter.
That's why Varys was so keen to stop Stannis, the worshipper of the Lord of the Light, from taking the throne, and why he worked with Illyrio Mopaitis, the merchant who sold Daenerys in marriage to Khal Drogo. And that explains Varys' concern for the well-being of the people, who after all make up the realm. Varys is a schemer, who gains influence by learning secrets and worming his way into people's confidence — but he doesn't want to live in a world that's entirely governed based on who's the best at scheming or fighting. And the only other way to wield power is through abstractions, like "the realm" or "the throne."
And meanwhile, Littlefinger has also seen that these things are just shadows on the wall — and thus, they don't matter. All that matters to Littlefinger is upward mobility through total nihilism. As Littlefinger explains in the crowning moment of the episode, chaos isn't a pit, it's a ladder. It's every man (or woman) for himself or herself, and you're either a player or a pawn. Littlefinger wants to build a world of Social Darwinism on the backs of dead hookers.
And thus, even over the course of the series, Littlefinger's rise has been dramatic — he betrayed Ned Stark and cemented his ties with the Lannisters. Then he brokered the alliance between the Tyrells and the Lannisters, wedding Joffrey to Margaery, and was given Harrenhal — the castle where Jaime Lannister is currently a "guest." And then, for his further services, he was told to marry Lysa Arryn, the breastfeeding maniac who rules over the Eyrie. If he weds Lysa and then still manages to get hold of Sansa Stark, he'll basically have Ned Stark's old position, plus a large chunk of the rest of the country.
The crucial difference between Varys and Littlefinger is that we've never seen Varys seek position or rank for himself — maybe because he knows that nobody would take him seriously as a nobleman, but also because he wants to strengthen these social institutions rather than chipping away at them. Varys works to strengthen a system that despises him, but meanwhile, Littlefinger knows that the weaker the system of title and rank gets, the more power he can wield in the open, rather than in the shadows.
So what's the point of abstractions like "the realm," and how do they affect people's day to day lives? The episode does a lot to show us.
Abstract loyalties versus personal ties
A lot of this episode has to do with people caught between their allegiance to a big, abstract group or notion on the one hand, and their personal loyalty to the people in their lives, on the other.
Take Jon Snow, now fully caught between his vows to the Night's Watch and his personal loyalty to Ygritte — she can tell that Jon Snow hasn't stopped being a crow just because he's signed up with the wildlings, and those vows have meaning to him. But now that she's his woman, and "you're going to be loyal to your woman," which comes first. (This is why crows aren't supposed to have girlfriends.) She even gives a whole speech about how Mance's army and the Night's Watch just see the two of them as disposable foot-soldiers, but they are everything to each other.
And this is later symbolically underlined, when Orell cuts Jon and Ygritte loose, and they save each other, becoming their own separate climbing party, their fates tied together.
(Around the same time, we see Jon's fellow crow, Samwell Tarly, practically becoming a surrogate dad and husband to Craster's daughter/wife Gilly and her son, talking about the comforts of Castle Black while apparently being oblivious to how un-crow-like he's suddenly become.)
And meanwhile, the Brotherhood Without Banners faces an unexpected conflict between their loyalty to their sworn brothers, and their devotion to R'hllor, the Lord of Light. R'hollr wins, of course (with a little help from gold), and they hand King Robert's bastard son Gendry over to Melisandre, who wants a blood relative of King Stannis to do unspeakable things to. This is sort of ironic, after all the speeches last week about how the Brothers stick up for each other, and they are beholden to no lords, blah blah blah, they throw Gendry under a bus the moment a priestess shows up.
And meanwhile, Bran tries to make Meera and Osha stick together — they may be from different backgrounds and belong to groups that traditionally are hostile to each other, but now all they have is each other. Meera is a lady from a fancy castle in the North, who learned to make her own bow and arrow, while Osha is a Wildling, from north of the Wall, who learned to skin a rabbit in 10 seconds. They're traditional enemies. But Bran tries to convince them to put that aside and have solidarity with the group. You know, just like the Brotherhood Without Banners!
And finally, there's the torturer who derives power from the fact that his victim doesn't know who he is, and more importantly who he's working for. The man torturing Theon Greyjoy has the power to flay Theon's finger little by little, until Theon begs to have it cut off to stop the agony — but he also gains power from the fact that Theon does not know why he is doing this. There's no reasoning with him, and no explaining him. He's not anybody's bannerman, that Theon knows of, and he's not bound by any chains of loyalty that Theon can see.
And not only does the torturer not have any name or affiliations, but he's also a liar — he tricks Theon into thinking he's one of the Karstarks (the son of Rickard Karstark, who was beheaded last week). For a moment, Theon thinks that he's got the measure of this guy — he's a Varys, wanting to prop up the old institutions no matter what. But no — if anything, this guy is a Littlefinger, seeking to advance himself and not particularly caring about what he tears down on his way up.
Religion and family
So the Brotherhood Without Banners chooses their god, the Lord of Light, over their loyalty to each other. But what's religious faith mean, anyway? Thoros of Myr didn't really believe in R'hllor until he actually performed a miracle, bringing Lord Beric back from the dead — so in fact, he didn't believe until he had proof, which is the worst kind of faith, really.
And later, Arya protests that Melisandre isn't a priestess, she's a witch — she's just doing dark magic, not actually doing the work of any god or gods. What's the difference between the two? If you can do magic, is that a miracle, the result of connecting with the divine, or just another mystical trick?
Even Melisandre seems a bit perturbed by the notion that Thoros is bringing the dead back to life, which is somehow more awful a power than giving birth to murderous ink babies — and then Beric makes it even worse by saying there's no "other side" that he's visited. Just darkness.
So is Gendry worth more as a maker of bodkin arrows, which are miraculous in their ability to pierce plate armor, or as a tool in one of Melisandre's spells?
Meanwhile in the episode, two different people are basically browbeaten or blackmailed into accepting marriages that they don't want — even though the "laws of gods and man" forbid forcing people to marry against their will, as Edmure Tully points out.
Edmure is being strong-armed into marrying Lord Walder Frey's daughter — and he doesn't even get to pick which one, or count her teeth first. He's just stuck with whatever Frey girl he gets, and this is apparently the culmination of Lord Frey's longstanding ambition to wed his girl to the Lord of the Riverlands. Poor Edmure is having to pay the price for Robb Stark's breaking of his own sacred oath to marry Lord Frey's daughter, and Robb is clearly squirming a bit at having to do all this horse-trading and bowing and scraping, because of his own dishonorable behavior.
And meanwhile, Lady Olenna matches wits with Tywin Lannister over Tywin's plan to marry her grandson Loras to Tywin's daughter Cersei — and loses, in one of the great stand-out scenes of the season. They debate which is worse: Loras' admitted "sword-swallowing," or Cersei's alleged incest. Tywin believes that Olenna doesn't care what people say, but as "an authority on myself," she disagrees — she cares a lot. She just doesn't care if people are homophobic towards good old Loras. (Who has always dreamed of a fancy wedding, he just doesn't particularly care about the bride.)
The great Tywin/Olenna scene is followed almost immediately by a terrific Tyrion/Cersei scene — in which they commiserate about the fact that they're both being forced to marry unwisely. But then Cersei gives Tyrion what he's been craving all season — acknowledgment that he played a key role in saving them all from Stannis in the Battle of the Blackwater. And it turns out Cersei didn't order Ser Mandon to kill Tyrion. That was King Joffrey, who hates Tyrion for being the only one who will admit what the King is. (And in case we forgot what Joffrey is, we get a reminder — poor Ros, who had such a promising career as a spy, has been slaughtered in Joffrey's first attempt at making his own personal snuff porn.)
Cersei is hopeful that when Jaime gets back, he'll deal with all this nonsense — and the good news is that Jaime is on his way back to King's Landing, because Roose Bolton has decided he values gold and safety more than his loyalty to Robb Stark. The bad news, of course, is that Jaime is maimed — Roose almost warns Jaime not to "overplay his hand" in trying to protect Brienne, but switches at the last minute to "overplay your position." (Thanks to BlueJeans for the reminder!)
And then poor Tyrion has to go tell Sansa that he's been ordered to marry her — in front of Shae, his lover, whom he wanted to tell in his own way.
These marriages are unholy, in the sense that they're contrary to the laws of gods — but they're how these squabbling families maintain themselves, and these families are the building blocks of religion and worship. Especially in Westeros, where the family unit is the basic model of the religious order.
To remind us of that fact, the episode begins with Samwell singing a song about the seven new gods, starting with the Father and the Mother, who fulfill very stereotypical paternal and maternal roles. Oh, and Samwell reveals that he found a very ancient dagger that has absolutely no function other than looking pretty. Absolutely none. Really.
The episode ends, then, with Jon Snow and Ygritte making out on top of the wall, with the entire realm of Westeros spread out before them, in a total Fuck Yeah Game of Thrones moment — because they've not only climbed the wall, in a symbolic recapitulation of Littlefinger's philosophy of social climbing, they've risen above their loyalties to large groups and abstractions. When their rope was cut halfway up the wall, no lords or kings or vows could save them — but they saved each other. Thus proving that Littlefinger is only partly wrong: It's not every man for himself, it's every man for his nearest friends and lovers.