Game of Thrones: Season 5, "High Sparrow"

By Sarah MesleApril 27, 2015

Game of Thrones: Season 5, "High Sparrow"
This week on Dear Television:

  • "Cersei Lannister’s Last F–ckable Day," from Sarah Mesle 


Previous episode: season 5, episode 2, “The House of Black and White.

Following episode: season 5, episode 4, “Sons of the Harpy.”

LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage


Cersei Lannister’s Last F–ckable Day
By Sarah Mesle
April 26, 2015

“Should I call you Queen Mother,” Margaery asks Cersei, with a faux-sweet smile, “or Dowager Queen?” Margaery’s question is politesse, and it’s also a taunt: are you old, she asks, or older? And behind that taunt, a threat: Are you losing power, or is it already lost?

Imagine: a Westeros in which Cersei has no power. It’s hard, Dear Television, to know how to feel about that. No matter how complex our feelings about Cersei may be, this episode forces us to take stock: of her, and of our response to her. And in its treatment of her, it’s crafting what may be Game of Throne’s most insightful examination of women, society, and power yet.

Game of Thrones season five began with the prophecy of Cersei’s downfall, and all signs indicate that we should take this prophecy seriously [1] (note: you should read that footnote, but it contains a spoiler). The Witch in episode one foretold the death of Cersei’s children and her ultimate loss to someone more beautiful. It’s a classic fairytale plot, where an aging queen loses out to a younger rival whose beauty somehow mirrors her virtue. It’s also the worst fairytale plot, the most misogynistic one, one that pits women against each other instead of against a system that fundamentally equates women’s youth with their beauty, and their beauty with their social worth. 

This plot doesn’t just appear in fairytales. If you’re like me, your social media feed this week was full of Amy Schumer’s brilliant comedy sketches, particularly her epic skewering of an entertainment industry in which actresses experience a “last fuckable day:” the day the media decides you are no longer believably fuckable. What happens when you are no longer believably desirable to men — when fucking you would no longer bring men status? Well, you stop getting the lead roles. You move to the outskirts of the story. In Hollywood, you play moms. You play Mrs. Claus. 

And in Westeros? Here’s where we can imagine a mind-blowing nexus of Tina Fey and Margaery Tyrell witheringly chiding Cersei Lannister: Lady, it is your last fuckable day. The role you now get to play is Dowager Queen.

Are we, as viewers, sorry about this demotion? Cersei has been so dreadful, so intimately tied to some of Game of Thrones's most horrible moments. She has protected the characters — Joffrey, The Mountain — that viewers hate, and she’s conspired against those — Arya, Tyrion, Oberyn — we like the most. She is selfish and she is ruthless, and if those qualities are far from rare on this show, Cersei’s manifestation of them is particularly unsavory in that they're inconsistently paired with charming wit or clever strategy. Left generally bereft of the one-liners that might make us love her and the plans that might make us respect her, Cersei is an easy character to vaguely loathe.

But by telling us from moment one that this is the season Cersei will suffer, Benioff and Weiss are also making this into a season fundamentally about Cersei — or, at least, a season about Cersei’s fate, the fate of a powerful woman aging. If all men must die, all women must age: all the women this show asks us to love will eventually be in Cersei’s position. Cersei’s story is the story of all women in a world where your desirability to men fundamentally determines what role you can play. And another way of saying that is that Cersei’s story is the one most urgently making the case to viewers that it’s better for all of us, men and women, to live in a world where power might work differently.

This show has had many philosophers of power. Just last week Stannis told us “if they don’t fear you, they won’t follow you.” Dany, revealing her own jumbled relationship to her own benevolent dictatorship, insists conflictingly that “the law is the law” while also claiming that she does not need to compromise because she is “the queen.” Tyrion, deep in his cynical cups, drawls that “the powerful have always trampled the powerless — that’s how they became powerful.”

But over Game of Thrones’s several seasons, perhaps Cersei is the one who has spoken the most memorable versions of truth to power.

That’s my favorite moment, but it’s not the only one worth mentioning. Here is Cersei explaining power to Margaery; here she is explaining the double bind of motherhood to Sansa [2]. Here she slaps her son and is shamed for it; here, he shames her (for aging) some more.

For all the magnificence of Cersei’s simple claim that “power is power,” every other moment of her storyline reveals how much she knows that isn’t exactly true — or rather, that she knows how her own power is crossed with her emotions, her appearance, her womb, her associations. She is a woman, and she cannot take power directly in her hand (she can’t even be The Hand). All her power comes from being able to direct men’s hands, or to try doing so. It’s probably an exaggeration to say that all of Cersei’s power comes from being (by virtue of appearance and name) fuckable. But it’s not that much of an exaggeration, really.

And what of the other women in this episode: from whence does their power come?

Margaery lords her fuckability over everyone: her husband, her friends, and, as I’ve said, Cersei most of all. We’ve been made to like Margaery on this show: she’s smart, and power hungry, and willing to be generous to the women (like Sansa) who don’t stand in her way. 

So it’s interesting how carefully this episode puts our affection for Margaery into question. The episode’s second scene opens on Cersei in her chariot — note that this is the second time this season when our first glimpse of Cersei comes as she’s confined in a box, as if to illustrate her constriction — while Cersei listens to the crowds chant Margaery’s name. We move to Margaery and Tommen’s marriage, but the camera focuses on Cersei’s pained face, framed between the newly weds. And in Cersei’s amazing confrontation with Margaery, the one with which I began, we follow Cersei into the scene, and we are with her as she walks away, Margaery’s laughter echoing in her ears. The camera wants us to care about what Cersei is feeling. I don’t think it wants us to dislike Margaery, exactly. But we are meant to realize that Margaery’s weapon of choice is very Regina George. Margaery isn’t mean. But she doesn’t mind being a Mean Girl, at the expense of other women — and maybe, as her indulgence of Joffrey shows, she never did.

The question of women’s power plagues Sansa this episode, too. Friends: can we pause and discuss how awesome Goth Sansa is? Her character is shifting and Sophie Turner’s acting creates a tremendous sense of tension around all her scenes, making us sense the precariousness of the power she is trying to wield. Sansa has only bad choices, here: she knows that, even if (not knowing what’s happened to Theon Greyjoy) she doesn’t exactly know how bad they are. Petyr Baelish is a liar and a cheat, but that does not mean he is wrong when he reminds her that marriage is her quickest path — perhaps her only path — to safety and vengeance.

Lingering on Sansa standing on a hillside and overlooking the muddy wreck of Moat Cailin that so perfectly represents her future, the camera leaves us unclear what to hope for: is the brave thing to marry Bolton, or refuse him? I think that ambiguity only becomes clear when Sansa (on a white horse!) rides into Winterfell and so brilliantly greets the man who murdered her mother and brother. Removing her glove as if to propose a duel, withholding her smile for not quite too long, Sansa shows Bolton, and us, that she, like Margaery, knows her politesse is a weapon — even if here she chooses to leave it sheathed. Her control leaves us confident in her. But we’re also asked to realize the danger of the womanly weapons she is choosing to use: the scene ends with a close up on the women who (I believe) have been Ramsay Bolton’s lovers. Each of these angry women is clearly wondering: does Sansa mean that this is my last fuckable day? We’re meant to wonder what they will do, and do to Sansa, to retain some access to Ramsay’s power.

Dany is not in this episode, directly: she is replaced by a prostitute. This prostitute’s appearance was a fascinating moment, though a gut-roiling one for me: Tyrion and Varys watch curiously as a woman dressed as though she bought a “Sexy Daenerys” costume at the Halloween store vamps her way for through a brothel, stealing all the best clients from the other women. Seeing this prostitute through Tyrion and Varys’s Machiavellian eyes emphasizes that we are meant to evaluate what this prostitute means for the real Dany’s power. For them, this prostitute is a good sign: it means Dany’s last day of desirability is very far off indeed. And what are we, the viewers, meant to think about this prostitute? It was a cynical reminder that men’s response to Dany will never simply be respect; it will rather or also be a desire to possess. “They all like her,” a watching prostitute says. “They all want to fuck a queen.”

I thought about Dany, too, in a very different scene: Jon Snow’s decision, exactly like Dany’s in the previous episode, to behead a man who disobeyed him. The parallels between the two scenes make the differences between them starker. Unlike Dany, but like his father, Jon holds the blade himself. And unlike for Dany, Jon’s decision is praised. Stannis had told Jon, as I said above, that fear is linked to followers. But Dany is held to a different standard: as a woman, as a mother, she cannot wield fear the same way.

And that leaves us with this episode’s two characters who are trying to forge a different path of womanhood: Brienne and Arya (even saying those names together brings back the painful conclusion to last season, sigh). Brienne tells Pod her story, and it is basically the story of how hard it is, in her world, to be an undesirable woman: even though she has found men who do not mock her, being “mulish and tall” has always left her vulnerable, as we know, to “nasty little shits.” Brienne seems in every way the opposite of Cersei, but this episode gestured to a subtle connection between the two women. “Nothing’s more hateful,” Brienne says to Pod, “than failing to protect the one you love.” From Brienne this lines sounds like a kind of moral wisdom, and we understand her sentiment as a reasonable spur to her desire to kill Stannis. But it’s worth realizing that it’s exactly this logic that’s currently motivating Cersei to try and kill Tyrion. Indeed, in this season’s first trailer, Brienne’s are the first words we hear, but they are paired with Cersei’s face. By linking these two women, the show asks us, perhaps, to regard Cersei with more sympathy.

Arya, of course, does not regard Cersei with sympathy, although she too shares Cersei’s interest in revenge. Arya’s plot is a complicated one for viewers this season. Her voyage into the House of Black and White is an enticing mystery. But what will it finally offer us? I am thrilled, thrilled, to see Arya finally interacting with another girl, a person who could potentially be a peer. But the cost may be everything we’ve come to value about her. Arya, as my friend Michelle points out, is all about the proper name: Arya spends her spare time chanting her kill list, and we love her because, in all her suffering, she has never lost track of the fact that she is Arya Stark. Arya, of all the women in this episode, has the chance to seize power for herself — indeed, it’s already been given to her in some measure, in the form of the sword she refuses to throw away. But for “a girl” to become “a man,” it seems she must give up her gender, her face, and her name.

It’s not a compromise Cersei seems in any way willing or able to make. So she ends this episode by making a different negotiation.  “Every ambitious move is a gamble,” Petyr tells us, and Cersei’s move is ambitious indeed. With her son, her father, her husband, and her brothers all gone, Cersei finds a different sort of man whose power can, perhaps, be a proxy for hers. The High Sparrow gives this episode his name, and there’s no doubt that this signals the attention we’re meant to give him — one who, we might note, is the only man in the episode who refers to Cersei (Queen Dowager though she may be) as “tempting.”

Linking her fortunes to the High Sparrow seems like a terribly bad move. Acclaimed actor Jonathan Pryce plays the High Sparrow as sincere and appealing, but friendliness has never really meant much in Game of Thrones. If the first thing we learn about the High Sparrow is that he’s inspiring and endorsing the violent zealousness of angry young men, we probably shouldn’t think he’s ultimately going to be a reliable or merciful force. Why would Cersei align herself with a dangerous evangelical religion? Why would she, with her own sexual proclivities so widely known and so fiercely prohibited, encourage and empower anyone to patrol sexuality? Won’t this surely come back to haunt her?

Probably. Probably the High Sparrow with whom Cersei now sides with will eventually fuck her over. But I think this episode does everything possible to help us understand her decision, even as we judge it. Cersei was the one who told us, back in season one, “in the game of thrones, you either win or you die.” She has tried to win by marriage; she has tried to win by motherhood. It’s clear that the High Sparrow is a bad idea, but he is also likely her “best bad idea” of how to win now. I am dazzled and horrified by how carefully Game of Thrones is bringing us to realize, and care about, the limits of Cersei’s options: the way it is showing us that, win or die, being fuckable is simultaneously the best that women can hope for, and the worst that they can fear.

We must do everything necessary to protect one another,



[1] Indeed, and don’t read this if you don’t like spoilers, but as I’ve hinted, Benioff and Weiss have admitted that this season will include Cersei’s punishment. My sense is that they want us to know, even if they don’t want us to know the details. They want watching Cersei to be like watching Titanic: it’s not whether she’ll sink, it’s how. I really feel like we should all admit we know this, but since I do not want to get yelled at about SPOILERS (SPOILER THE TITANTIC SINKS!) I will keep putting these notes in awkward asides. 

[2] “He would present me with a pelt, or a stag’s head. I would present him with a baby.” “Permit me to share some womanly wisdom with you on this special day: the more people you love, the weaker you are.” Cersei really is good, isn’t she?


Previous episode: season 5, episode 2, “The House of Black and White.

Following episode: season 5, episode 4, “Sons of the Harpy.”

LARB’s Collected “Game of Thrones” Coverage

LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of You can follow her on Twitter.


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