This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 episode 5, “The Bells.”
In all the blood and mayhem that befell King’s Landing on Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, it is easy to forget how quiet “The Bells” began. With a 20-minute prologue that could’ve easily been expanded into its own episode, a significant portion of “The Bells” was focused on the grim fate of the man who always dreaded their ringing—Lord Varys. Perhaps the most cunning man in Westeros, Varys has survived numerous monarchs—eight by my count, including spouses—before Daenerys lit him on fire.
Even for those still grappling with why Daenerys went genocidal, her execution of Varys made a cold, reluctant sense. He was actively attempting to undermine her and committing treason by writing to an unknown number of lords and potential enemies that Jon Snow is actually Aegon Targaryen, and thus the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Dany executing an advisor who betrayed her so thoroughly is a reasonable choice for the Dragon Queen, but then again so was Varys’ treachery after we saw what the Mother of Dragons did to the people of King’s Landing. Be that as it may, Varys’ will is likely to be done.
When the episode begins, it is morning when a serving girl from the kitchen, Martha, knocks on his door. He is in the midst of writing a message of Jon’s paternity when he stops long enough to assuage her anxiety and convince her to continue to spy for him. We do not exactly know what Martha is doing that serves the Master of Whispers’ plans, but we do know that he has her recite, “The greater the risk, the greater the reward.” It’s a phrase I’m sure Varys has told a multitude of assets he’s left out high and dry to die—remember Ros from the first three seasons?—but it is a curiosity here. Is he simply paying Martha in gold or is the reward something more abstract? There are even some who believe Varys is attempting to poison Dany via the kitchen, but that wouldn’t really matter now since Daenerys is refusing to eat.
It’s all a bit nebulous, but the point remains that after Martha leaves, Varys has hours to go before his own execution. We know this because he makes time to greet Jon Snow when he lands on Dragonstone and attempts (and fails) to bring him to his side like he failed with Tyrion in the episode before. This further attempted treachery is what forces Tyrion’s hand to warn Daenerys. And aye, Varys seems completely unsurprised when the Unsullied come later that night to bring him to his fate.
In the time between, however, he had hours to write more than the single parchment we see him burn when the Unsullied knock at his door. He also had days, if not weeks, before that execution given how far Jon Snow was from Dragonstone when Varys first made the decision to betray the Khaleesi while talking to Tyrion in “The Last of the Starks.” Varys has been preparing for this inevitable doom for hours when the soldiers approach, and he is ready. Without skipping a beat, he takes off all of his jewelry in a strangely ritualistic and meaningful fashion, leaving them in a chalice before the bell tolls for him.
Admittedly this could be something as small as him not wishing his jewelry to be immolated with his body. However, the fact the show focuses on this in close-up would seem to suggest it has more significance than a little character detail. If I had to guess, it has an unknown significance especially for Martha. Perhaps Martha, even as she serves in the Dragon Queen’s kitchen, has concerns about this apparent foreigner on her shores? What if Martha has family in King’s Landing she fears for (and that are now ash)? It is entirely plausible that the rings are a signal for his spies, including Martha, to carry out his will. This could include the ravening of a secret stash of letters about Jon Snow’s parentage to every corner of the Seven Kingdoms. Varys might die, but his will shall be done, and the world will know that Jon Snow is a Targaryen, much to Daenerys’ bitterness. And if Martha really was supposed to poison the queen (which I find unlikely), it would make a hell of a shocking, if unsatisfying, ending if the rings allows her to do so. Varys poisoning her beyond the grave and not living to take credit could very well mirror the initial mystery around Joffrey’s sudden and surprising death… but this seems a little too anti-climactic, even after what happened to Jaime and Cersei.
This is of course just a theory, but one we’ll know soon enough is correct or not with the Game of Thrones finale in only a few days.