Game of Thrones returns this weekend and, after six seasons, we’ve learned some important truths: Westeros is a terrible place to live. Few nobles are noble. Lands are ruled by tyrants vested with power through birth or blood. The realm’s subjects exist at the mercy of their autocrats’ whims. And those rare few who do rise in station tend only to do so by their martial prowess.
In short, Westeros was never great, so it cannot be made great again.
One powerful lord does enjoy a rags-to-riches story, though — and he’s set on making the Seven Kingdoms into a good old-fashioned American meritocracy. I write, of course, about Petyr Baelish, whom you may know better as Littlefinger.
Do not fall into the trap of choosing among royal brats. Baelish is the only plausible candidate for the Iron Throne whose claim is not hereditary. He epitomizes what could soon be called the Westerosi Dream.
With Baelish, you have the opportunity to root for the little guy or, more precisely, the Littlefinger. His nickname derives from his humble origins: He’s from the smallest of the peninsulas known as the Fingers. His family consists of poor soldiers only recently granted useless land. At eight years old, he was able to pack all of his belongings in a bundle and set out on his own. From there, he experienced an “arrow-swift” rise as a “grasper from a minor house with a talent for befriending powerful men and women.”
What Baelish offers is pure, raw talent. He started his career as a customs officer who brought in three times the revenue of any peer. Lured to the capital, King’s Landing, he rose to the royal cabinet within three years to become Master of Coin, an immensely important position that many of the feudalists found beneath them. (“It’s always been a grubby job,” one lord of the Vale later snidely remarked, “Why not let a grubby man do it?”)
And yet in this new position, Baelish brought in revenues ten times larger than his predecessor. Amid premodern manorialists, he stood out as a devotee of the free market, mastering supply and demand by buying grain when it was plentiful and selling bread when it was scarce. No one worked harder, as his colleagues would attest. And he proves a masterful diplomat, negotiating a key alliance between Houses Tully and Lannister in the nick of time.
The important thing to remember here is that Baelish has not done it alone. According to the books, “Harbormasters, tax farmers, custom sergeants, wool factors, toll collectors, pursers, wine factors; nine of every ten belonged to Littlefinger. They were men of middling birth, by and large, merchant’s sons, lesser lordlings, sometimes even foreigners, but judging from the results, far more able than their highborn predecessors.”
The alternatives are impulsive heirs to the old hierarchy, totally reliant on magic; they offer rebranding rather than revolution.
What’s more, Baelish has pledged to drain the swamp. He’s all too familiar with the misdeeds of the entrenched elite. As a teenager, he fought for the love of his life and challenged the arranged-marriage system in a duel that left him grievously injured. As Master of Coin, he saw all the money he brilliantly raised and borrowed squandered on tournaments and luxuries for the ruling class. Through Ned Stark he helped expose the lie at the heart of the evil King Joffrey’s succession and sowed doubt about dynastic power transfer. He clashed with the powerful queen mother, Cersei, who threatened his life on a power trip. And ultimately, he proves to be the hero of Westeros for ensuring the deaths of its absolute worst, Joffrey and the sadistic Ramsay Bolton.
Of course, Baelish is not perfect. He acquired much of his fortune — and much of the information that facilitated his political rise — from running seedy enterprises, since shut down by the fanatical Sparrows. In the television series, he badly misjudged Ramsay Bolton when he offered up Sansa as a bride, a plot point that notably doesn’t come from George R.R. Martin’s books. The consequences were terrible, but he was extraordinarily contrite, offering up his life in penance and eventually coming to Sansa’s rescue during the Battle of the Bastards, potentially at personal cost to his ambitious plans for Westeros. Do those plans, Machiavellian as they’ve always been, really make him so much worse than the alternatives?
No, because the alternatives are impulsive heirs to the old hierarchy, totally reliant on magic; they offer rebranding rather than revolution.
I am sure you know a diehard fan or seven of Daenerys Targaryen. But for all her supposed upending of social mores, she stakes her claim on her dynasty. Her God complex and dragons have not taught her boring management skills: Blindly following her means starvation for the Khalasar and chaos in Mereen. If she was bogged down by Harpies, how can anyone expect she’ll master the much more complex politics of Westeros?
Jon Snow and the Starks are no different. Temporarily displaced, they are all integral members of the ruling elite, even if they are more noble than the typical noble. Snow himself is an oathbreaker. Running Castle Black for five minutes hardly qualifies him to lead the Seven Kingdoms. And his supposed prowess in battle led him to an impulsive decision hat certainly would have resulted in his death at the Battle of the Bastards if not for the intervention of . . . none other than Littlefinger.
There are no constitutional republicans in Westeros. The uncivilized Free Folk and the tiny Brothers Without Banners have admirable qualities, but they are fundamentally too weak. Littlefinger, meanwhile, has consistently acted as an agent of chaos enabling those who desire to rise, regardless of birth or station. Only he can reorder Westeros for the graspers. Every red-blooded American should root for him.