For seven seasons, he’s been rarely unruffled and always the smooth operator. But now, we’re finally starting to see some cracks in the long con game of Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. Sansa’s persistent (and not very gentle) rebuffs all season have done nothing to stop the scheming player from lurking, smirking, and waiting to make his move. Unfortunately for Littlefinger’s strategy, there are also two new Stark players on the board—each of whom have reason and opportunity to take him out of the game once and for all. Littlefinger’s conversation with Bran was unsettling, but it might actually be Arya who has better reason to destroy him.
If you’re not a Littlefinger obsessive (or haven’t listened to the “Chaos Is A Ladder” theme on the Season 3 soundtrack), it’s possible that Bran Stark’s coded message to Baelish flew right over your head. So let’s quickly break it down. This line, “chaos is a ladder,” is a reference to a private conversation Littlefinger had with Varys back in Season 3. It basically sums up Baelish’s entire life philosophy: sew the seeds of mischief, violence, and misunderstanding, then use the confusion to climb up the social/power ladder.
But Bran getting a bead on Baelish’s mercenary ways isn’t the most dangerous thing to Littlefinger. Sansa knows exactly what kind of grasping opportunist he is, so this knowledge won’t come as a shock to her. Besides, Bran very clearly doesn’t always understand the fuller meaning of the things he sees or says. But Littlefinger’s reaction (played beautifully by Aidan Gillen) likely involved a few quick calculations as to what else Bran might know.
In that same “chaos is a ladder” conversation, Baelish also admitted a few damning things to Varys. Specifically, he ghoulishly admitted—even gloated—to giving the prostitute Ros over to Joffrey. We all know how that turned out. He also implied that he wouldn’t be stuck with Lyssa Arryn for long. Then again, Sansa knows Littlefinger killed her aunt.
Crucially, however, Sansa thinks Littlefinger killed her aunt for her. Which he kind of did. But in that “chaos” speech—when Littlefinger was essentially monologuing like a Bond villain—he also admitted to Varys that he had ruined the Spider’s rather benevolent plans to marry Sansa to Loras Tyrell and protect her from all the things that came next. (Face it: a sham marriage to a nice, rich, gay man like Loras would have been a lemon cake compared to what Sansa had to later endure.) In other words, Littlefinger tips his hand here that his crush on Catelyn’s little dopplegänger Sansa doesn’t mean he always has her best interests at heart.
Still, Bran doesn’t necessarily know what he’s saying here. (It’s fascinating that Baelish insists on calling him “Brandon,” which was the name of Ned’s brother and the man who nearly killed Littlefinger for the love of Catelyn Stark.) But Arya may pose an even deadlier threat. She’s clearly unhappy to have Littlefinger in Winterfell, a fact she doesn’t even attempt to disguise.
Remember: the last time Arya Stark saw Littlefinger wasn’t at King’s Landing. It was at Harrenhal in Season 2. While acting as cupbearer for Lord Tywin, Arya witnessed an exchange between the Lannister and Lord Baelish. First of all, Littlefinger tried to dress up his “chaos is a ladder” philosophy in a shiny new dress for Tywin, telling him “a moment of chaos affords opportunities.” Tywin, bless him, immediately smacked this down: “You say that as if you’re the first man alive to think it,” he sneers at Littlefinger. “Yes, crisis is an opportunity. What other brilliant insights have you brought me today?”
More pertinently, Arya overheard Tywin and Littlefinger plotting the downfall of her brother Robb Stark (and Stannis Baratheon). And Littlefinger knows Arya overheard him. According to Aidan Gillen, Baelish recognized the disguised Arya in that scene and decided, strategically, not to say anything to blow her cover.