HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN
Game of Thrones’ ‘The High Sparrow’: Cersei the ‘Dowager Queen’ Gets Served
In the latest episode of HBO’s violent fantasy epic, an empowered Margaery verbally undresses Cersei while Sansa remains the unluckiest girl in Westeros.
Poor, poor Cersei Baratheon.
Life for Cersei in Season 5 has devolved into the equivalent of her first scene in Sunday’s episode, “The High Sparrow”: a long, anonymous carriage ride through her own city, with throngs of admirers screaming another woman’s name. Her dad is dead, her eldest son is dead, her husband is dead, but no one’s crying for Cersei. Worse, they’re straight-up ignoring her.
One of the great joys of the past half-season or so of Game of Thrones has been watching the seismic power shifts inside the Red Keep, where the once-impervious Lannisters dwindle in influence (and number) by the day. Some of this has been self-sabotage: If Tywin hadn’t been so viciously cruel to Tyrion, he might still be alive; if Cersei hadn’t had the Mountain Hulk squish Oberyn Martell’s head open, her daughter Myrcella wouldn’t be in danger and one-handed Jaime wouldn't be sailing straight into the snake pit.
But no part of the Lannisters’s slow downfall has been more deliciously fun to watch than Cersei inching closer and closer to a table-flipping meltdown over Margaery Tyrell. One of the best scenes from “The High Sparrow” was a loaded exchange between Cersei and the newlywed queen, in which Margaery, for the first time, shoves her now-secure power advantage straight down Cersei’s throat.
Cersei walks in on Margaery and her handmaidens gossiping about young Tommen’s endurance in the bedroom. Like a true queen, Margy the Magnificent wastes no time establishing dominance: Within two minutes, she’s called Cersei, still generally considered a great beauty, both old and an alcoholic—all while feigning pure affection and propriety (then she mentions how fun it’s been screwing her underage son):
“Can we bring you anything to eat or drink? I wish we had some wine for you, it’s a bit early in the day for us.”
“[I’m] exhausted, to be honest, but what can I expect? [Tommen] is half-lion, half-stag.”
“Oh, I always forget—what is the proper way to address you now? Queen Mother or Dowager Queen? ... Anyway, judging from the king’s enthusiasm, the Queen Mother will be the Queen grandmother soon!”
Cersei, the Dowager Queen! If this conversation got any shadier we’d be in Ru Paul’s Drag Race territory.
Defeated, grandma Cersei turns tail with her bodyguards and retreats downstairs, the sound of women’s laughter taunting her the whole way down. It’s a jarringly sharp contrast from the way we saw Cersei (and indeed, all the Lannisters) just a few seasons ago, when they seemed like the most dangerous players in the game of thrones. They seemed to have infinite wealth, infinite power, and overreaching influence throughout the Seven Kingdoms. Then it turned out that Ned Stark was killed through Littlefinger’s manipulating, not the Lannisters’s. Then it turned out that they’re broke. Then Joffrey and Tywin were both killed in ugly, undignified ways, Jaime lost his sword hand, and Cersei must ingratiate herself to the new girl in town because she’s more popular. It’s been a strangely conflicting experience to watch—it was so much fun to hate these people as the villains of the story. Now, you can’t help but feel sort of sorry for them.
Margaery’s machinations extend beyond face-to-face power throwdowns, though. She’s also nudging Tommen to ship the she-devil back from whence she came, to Lannister HQ, Casterly Rock. And she’s doing it by emasculating her new husband in the middle of post-coitus sweet nothings.
In the privacy of the royal bedchamber, Margaery calls Tommen his mother’s “cub,” her “baby boy” whom she’ll “never” let out of her sight. She talks straight over poor Tommen (“Uh, well, I’m a man now, so…”) and sure enough, the next time Tommen speaks to his mother, he won’t quit asking: “Wouldn’t you be happier in Casterly Rock?”
Of course, Cersei knows exactly where this is coming from. And revenge is coming, as surely as winter.
But while Cersei doesn’t reveal her plans for striking back in this episode, she does pay a visit to a powerful man of a different kind: the newly arrived High Sparrow (played by Jonathan Pryce), a holy man devout to the Faith of the Seven. After the current High Septon is caught in Littlefinger’s brothel by the fanatical Sparrows and ultimately imprisoned, Cersei seeks out the humble, pious High Sparrow to forge a new alliance.
“The faith and the crown are the two pillars that hold up this world,” she tells him. “If one collapses, so does the other. We must do everything necessary to protect one another.” We know the position of High Septon—a powerful job in King’s Landing—is currently vacant, guaranteeing Cersei will appoint someone more favorable to her ends. If he’s game, that could very well be the High Sparrow, a move that would only embolden the already-violent religious extremist Sparrows. Whatever Cersei is plotting, the humiliation she endured in this episode guarantees the “Dowager Queen’s” ire will be aimed at Margaery and her kin very soon.
Revenge becomes a big part of Sansa Stark’s story as well in this episode (indeed, this is an especially woman-driven season so far), as Littlefinger revealed his endgame for the eldest surviving heir to Winterfell: to marry sociopath Ramsay Bolton, who’s been spending his time skinning people alive.
Sansa reacts to the news like a classic damsel-in-distress (“I’LL STARVE MYSELF!”) before Littlefinger convinces her to use this marriage to instigate vengeance for Robb and Catelyn Stark, whom the Boltons slaughtered at the Red Wedding. When they finally meet, Sansa looks Roose Bolton dead in the eye, thinks a thousand violent thoughts, then puts on a masterful faux smile. Darth Sansa mode activated.
Of course, Littlefinger isn’t orchestrating this marriage out of goodwill. He’s counting on Stannis Baratheon riding to Winterfell, overpowering the Boltons, then marching south to King’s Landing, leaving Sansa as Wardeness of the North. He apparently assumes he can maintain control over Sansa and the North once she’s in power. But now that TV Sansa is free from the lethargic grip of George R.R. Martin’s books, she’ll hopefully flower into Miss Independent quickly enough to realize that uncles do not make out with their nieces and ditch the creep. No one who trusts Littlefinger ends up living very long.
And neither does anyone who crosses the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow. Mr. Know-Nothing faced the same situation Daenerys Targaryen did last week: applying the law to punish (read: behead) an insubordinate. In Snow’s case, however, the move didn’t end with a legion of angry subjects hissing and throwing rocks—which might say something about the bastard’s aptitude for politics. He mollifies a former enemy, Alliser Thorne, by naming him First Ranger. Then he wins affection from the rest of the Night’s Watch by making a funny ginger joke. He’s already won an actual election—maybe Snow wouldn’t be so ill-suited to the Iron Throne?
Elsewhere in Westeros, Brienne and Pod trade in their buddy comedy romp for heartfelt confessions. Pod shares the story of his first master’s death-by-ham and Brienne wins the award for monologue of the hour with her magical tale of the prince who saved her from a ballroom full of bullies.
“They were toying with me. ‘Brienne the beauty,’ they called me. Great joke. And I realized I was the ugliest girl alive. A great, lumbering beast,” Brienne tells Pod. “I tried to run away but Renly Baratheon took me in his arms. ‘Don’t let them see your tears,’ he told me. ‘They’re nasty little shits and nasty little shits aren’t worth crying over.’ He danced with me and none of the other boys could say a word. Renly was the king’s brother, after all.”
After Pod gets one inevitable question out of his system (“But, wasn’t he…?” “YES, POD, HE LIKED MEN”), Brienne takes her own turn at vowing revenge, this time on the man whose face appeared on the shadow that killed her beloved Renly. Beware, Stannis.
Across the Narrow Sea, in Braavos, pint-sized badass Arya Stark has been promoted from cleaning lady at the House of Black and White to cleaning lady for corpses, which is an improvement somehow. The temple, dedicated to the Many-Faced God (aka Death), remains mostly a mystery. But now that Arya’s gotten rid of all her old possessions (minus the sword Jon gave her, Needle—her last material link to family), Faceless assassin Jaqen H’ghar finally seems open to taking her on as an apprentice. After she gives these dead bodies a sponge bath, that is.
And Tyrion. Poor, unlucky Tyrion. The Imp has been stuck in various boxes for three episodes now, but things only get worse once he finally busts his way out. To his existential horror, he finds himself unable to bed a willing prostitute. Later, while Tyrion is taking a long, morose piss, Jorah Mormont appears. Still a walking boner for Daenerys, Jorah binds and gags Tyrion then declares, “I’m taking you to the queen.”
Except Tyrion was already on his way to find Daenerys. He was doing it safely and relatively quickly with Varys and their entourage of guards. Now, he’s stuck with one exiled, lovesick ex-knight who seems to think that bringing a Lannister to Daenerys will make the queen... forgive him? Sex him? What does he think Dany will do when she sees him, a confessed traitor, riding up with a member of the family responsible for her family’s near-extinction?
The most tantalizing promise of the season has been the possibility of Tyrion finally meeting Daenerys and then forging a super-alliance to take the Iron Throne. Let’s hope Jorah’s emo boy blues didn’t just screw all that up.