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.