“Listen to me, Queen Regent,” Tyrion told Cersei way back in the second episode of Game of Thrones’ second season. “You're losing the people. Do you hear me?”
Cersei replied with one of her classic sneers. “Ha—the people? You think I care?”
In the sixth season finale, Cersei demonstrated just how little she cares for “the people” by incinerating the commoner-driven religious movement that had taken root in King’s Landing. The demolition of the Sept of Baelor would seem to be a major milestone in the ongoing, somewhat submerged narrative running throughout Game of Thrones about the brutal relationship between lords and peasants. The show has long hinted at a popular revolution, and Cersei either just quashed it or ignited it.
Thrones itself sometimes seems to care as little about the commonfolk as Cersei does. While its storylines empower the marginalized—women, children, bastards, the disabled—they almost always center on members of the realm’s 1 percent rather than than its 99 percent. Lords, ladies, and knights make up the vast majority of the main characters, whether they were born into status like the Starks and Lannisters or whether they had status bestowed onto them like Davos and Baelish. As the saga has gone on, heredity has only become more important, with the Lannisters living out grim prophecies and the Starks seemingly guided by destiny back to prominence and Daenerys’s blood bestowing world-conquering powers—powers that, Sunday’s episode suggested, Jon Snow might share.
But the squabbling of the ruling class has clearly left the realm’s citizens ailing. The rise in refugees and starvation across Westeros was a drumbeat throughout the show’s early seasons, resulting in a riot against Joffrey in King’s Landing. The journeys of Arya and the Hound have offered close-up looks at the war-torn countryside, and the Brotherhood Without Banners occasionally have entered the frame with reminders that some people are trying to live outside noble control. In Essos, Daenerys’s campaigns used populist appeal via the freeing of slaves, though the recent unrest in Meereen was revealed to been caused by meddling from elites in other cities.
These story threads, if they’d been portrayed from a commoner’s point of view, may well have made for more compelling material than, say, the hijinks in Dorne or the endless Faceless training in Braavos. Instead, the show has chosen to keep the masses only in secondhand view, glimpsed ever so often by our highborn heroes and villains or spoken about by helpers like Gilly or Melisandre who have risen from lower castes. This narrative choice might be meant to have thematic dimensions: In a society as unequal and unjust as this one, it’s the powerful people who really do drive the action. But the increasingly supernatural significance of the Starks and Targaryen also imply bloodline hierarchy to be just and divinely willed.
The Sparrows arc sums up the show’s ambiguous intentions regarding smallfolk. Many viewers have complained about the suddenness with which the Faith Militant took over King’s Landing, and Thrones’s perhaps intentionally limited point of view is partly to blame. The first mention of the movement came in the fifth season premiere, when Kevan Lannister reintroduced Cersei to his newly pious son Lancel. Two episodes later, the Faith attacked the current High Septon and Cersei visited the High Sparrow, who revealed the movement’s fealty with the poor. His egalitarian politics in light of everything that’s been shown about the state of Westeros’s commoners makes sense. His religious-purity obsession, though, is more opaque—we’re left to draw parallels both to other Thrones fanatical leaders like Melisandre, and to real-life puritanical movements in history.
Though the High Sparrow had scene after scene of sermonizing to imprisoned royals, his motives always seemed suspect—in a world where callous pragmatism rules, was he actually a true ideologue? Was he working for someone else, or was he really, as he said, a cobbler turned ascetic after a night of partying? Because we could only experience this lowborn character through the eyes and ears of our noble protagonists and antagonists, we never felt like we fully knew him, nor did we get a sense of the texture of the popular sentiment behind him. Certainly this mirrors the ignorance of the higher class within the show. But just one scene of the High Sparrow and, say, Septa Unella or Lancel discussing strategy with each other would have had a powerful effect on the viewer’s understanding of what was really going on.
Even now, with the High Sparrow and his top followers turned to ashes, we are left to guess at exactly how sincere he was, and, perhaps most importantly, just how strong a following he had outside of the Sept on the day of the trial. Cersei takes the Iron Throne in a chamber of studiously blank-faced subjects; if there is popular blowback from having blown up the religious center of the city, spiritual leaders, and a very popular queen, we don’t yet know about it. That’s perhaps because Cersei herself has never cared about such things—and the show has, when it comes to King’s Landing, largely limited its vantage point to her own. This could all result in some genius long-con storytelling if she’s caught flatfooted by a violent uprising next season. But the culmination of the revolutionary subplot might have already arrived in the rise and fall of the High Sparrow, an arc that was frustrating for many viewers right until its explosive end.
The threats to Cersei’s rule now are myriad, coming from the east from Daenerys and from the south by the new Tyrell-Martell alliance and from the North by the White Walkers and Starks. Plus the famous Lannister gold mines have run out and the crown is in immense debt to the Iron Bank of Braavos. But it’s still possible the show might allow Cersei’s lowly subjects, rather than her noble enemies, to be her downfall. In that season-two scene where Tyrion and Cersei discussed the commonfolk, her younger brother warned, “You might find it difficult to rule millions who want you dead. Half the city will starve when winter comes, the other half will plot to overthrow you.” As of last episode, winter has arrived.
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