I know plenty has been written about the botched ending to Littlefinger’s story, because a lot went wrong in it. But, I want to break down the mechanical elements of the story, because there’s more to it than simply smart characters acting stupid, cliche sister-vs-sister conflict, and the worst criminal defense strategy in the history of history (Littlefinger would have been better off with Liar Liar’s Fletcher Reede).
If we break the story down into its fundamental parts, we begin to see problems very early. For our protagonist in this portion of the saga, we have Sansa (not really Arya for this bit), and then the show jumps directly to giving us an antagonist in Littlefinger. But wait, that’s not how story craft goes. Before we can have an antagonist, we need for the protagonist to have a goal — the antagonist is what gets between the protagonist and the goal. The structure needs to be “Protagonist wants something, but antagonist gets in the way,” and not “Protagonist. Also antagonist.”
The Primary Conflict of the Winterfell Intrigue
For Sansa, the most important goal is protecting her family and the North at large. The threats to that are Cersei, soon the Army of the Dead, and possibly Daenerys later on. Littlefinger isn’t an obstacle to this; he’s an ally, albeit an untrustworthy one. Littlefinger has to go out of his way to make himself an obstacle to Sansa’s goal. Now, if Littlefinger has a strong motivation for this, it can work, otherwise it doesn’t. And “chaos is a ladder” isn’t motivation. Littlefinger isn’t the Joker, he doesn’t sow chaos for the sake of chaos; he does it when he thinks he’ll be able to maneuver into a position of greater power.
Does Littlefinger see Arya as a threat to his influence with Sansa? Maybe, though Arya doesn’t seem to have Sansa’s ear, we saw Littlefinger try to befriend Bran instead of trying to convince people Bran is dangerous, and he doesn’t appear to be working to remove anyone else with political influence (like Lord Royce). He does try to remove Brienne, but she’s not really a political counselor to Sansa, just a big meat shield, and having another noble in their retinue is a good asset to Littlefinger (even if Brienne doesn’t like him). Scratch off this possibility.
Does Littlefinger hope Arya will kill Sansa, and then most likely be arrested and killed herself, creating a power vacuum in the North? It sounds like a “Littlefinger thing to do,” …but only in a very superficial popcorn-stuffing way. Not only would he still have Jon Snow to contend with later, but he’d be losing influence, not gaining it. Being on good terms with Sansa — Lysa’s niece and Robin’s cousin — helps him maintain his somewhat flimsy influence in the Vale, and it’s his best path towards influence in the North as well. What’s more, we don’t see Littlefinger building alliances with any other lords of the North, people he would need to support him if he wanted to rule. Scratch off this option also.
The result here is that Littlefinger becomes an antagonist to Sansa simply for the sake of giving Sansa an antagonist, and to setup Littlefinger’s eventual defeat by a united Sansa and Arya. Littlefinger dies trying to execute a plot he had no reason to pursue in the first place. The events happen solely because the conclusion requires them to do so, not because they make sense to the characters (or they’re insufficiently explained for the audience). Sometimes a story needs to arrive at what Michael Byers calls the “false, required conclusion,” and there’s an eloquent way to reach it, but GoT dropped the ball here.
Most likely what we really needed was a lot more light shone on what Littlefinger was up to so that we could understand him as the protagonist of his own story. He has his own objective (to climb the ladder) and his own obstacles impeding him. If we actually knew why Littlefinger was manufacturing this conflict, the pieces might fall together. Compare against how plainly we see Tyrion’s ploy of telling Varys, Littlefinger, and Pycelle different stories about his plans for Myrcella. The editing in that sequence was a bit hokey, but seven hells, at least the audience understands what the story is.
Resolving the Conflict of the Winterfell Intrigue
I’ll first start by noting that the climax of a story is not a particularly well defined thing. In modern cinema, we often think of it as the big event in the last 20 minutes of a 2 hour film. Luke destroys the Death Star, Frodo throws the Ring into Mt. Doom, Mark Watney blasts off from Mars in his jerry-rigged spaceship. It’s when Harold Crick does the thing in Stranger Than Fiction which I’m not going to spoil. If you studied Shakespeare in high school though, you probably learned that the climax comes at the end of Act 3 (in a 5 act play). Hamlet stabs Polonius mistaking him for Claudius. And then according to Robert McKee’s Story, every act gets its own climax. But, for my purposes here, I’ll treat the climax as the moment the primary conflict is resolved, or another way to think about it is when the last serious obstacle has been overcome and the protagonist’s objective is no longer in jeopardy.
If we take the Winterfell intrigue plot and ask where the climax of the story is, we find why the ending of this plot line was so underwhelming, aside from having a confounding conflict to begin with.
The show wants the climax to be the sneaky reversal in the trial of Arya where it turns out the trial is really for Littlefinger, and then Arya gives him an OMGSOBADASS^TM death. But it’s not.
The climax actually comes when Sansa sneaks into Arya’s room, finds the bag of faces, Arya has been waiting, picks up the catspaw dagger, says she could take Sansa’s face and become the Lady of Winterfell, and then hands the dagger over to Sansa and walks out. Once that happens, the conflict is resolved. Sansa knows Arya is not a threat and has no design on becoming the Lady of Winterfell, and Arya knows that Sansa knows this, so no need to fear Sansa doing anything foolish. Their cards are on the table, and they know they’re both on the same side.
After that scene, Littlefinger poses absolutely zero threat to either Sansa or Arya, or really anyone. Sansa doesn’t trust him, Arya avoided being manipulated by him, Lord Royce would sooner be rid of him. If instead of killing Littlefinger they locked him in a cell, nothing changes. If they revealed they know everything he’s been up to, and just set him free to walk out of the North on his own, nothing changes, (at least not for this conflict). When Littlefinger stands trial, he has no army, no allies, no influence, no power, and poses absolutely zero threat to anyone.
While it’s absolutely okay for him to have this kind of loss of power as the ending to his story, the show messes up by trying to have the execution be the climax. For it to be the climax though, the central conflict needed to be resolved in that scene, not earlier. Perhaps the bag’o’faces scene goes differently, Arya is put on trial for real and during the questioning the truth about Littlefinger is figured out. Or, perhaps we get more from Littlefinger’s point of view, find he’s been building alliances with some of the Northern houses (maybe ones that don’t want a bastard, a cripple, or a woman in charge), then when he tries to leave the trial there’s a genuine moment of tension, echoing back to Ned’s betrayal with the City Watch. …Or maybe the events are the same, but in the bag’o’faces scene it’s just obvious the tension has been cleared and the show doesn’t try to trick us into thinking the Stark girls don’t trust each other. Then, in the trial scene, the focus isn’t on Littlefinger. He’s a no one now, and the direction is pointed at Sansa and what this moment means for her relationship with the other lords loyal to House Stark.
tl;dr: Stories work when there’s a protagonist with a goal, an obstacle to that goal we understand, and the conflict is resolved at a moment of heightened tension.