Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Season FiveA guide to Game Of Thrones: season five  

Month Of Thrones

We’re counting down to Game Of Thrones’ final season by distilling the fantasy epic to 30 essential moments. This is Month Of Thrones.

The moment

Cersei’s walk of shame, shame, shame

The episode

Mother’s Mercy” (season five, episode 10)

There have been plenty of distressing moments on Game Of Thrones, but Cersei’s long, harrowing walk from the Sept Of Baelor to the Red Keep is especially difficult to watch. It’s also a helpful contextual reminder, as we head into the eighth and final season, of how this moment in Cersei’s life informs her later decisions. She was treated brutally, and her punishment is an outsized one for her crimes—she’s charged with adultery and incest for sleeping with her cousin Lancel—and the ruthless treatment she experiences will in turn make her more ruthless in her revenge and plots for power.

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Cersei breaks in “Mother’s Mercy.” The once-indomitable queen has languished in a cell, gleefully humiliated by the septas and kept away from her only living child. Beaten, Cersei confesses the affair with Lancel to the High Sparrow and begs him for mercy. She’s allowed to return to Tommen and the Red Keep after performing an atonement: walking naked through the streets to get there. To add insult to injury, the stern-faced septas cut her hair so short and so roughly that her scalp bleeds, and she must walk barefoot. The High Sparrow has planned this walk to be as degrading as possible for Cersei—not just a public demonstration through the streets of the city, but also a demeaning one.

The High Sparrow, for all his solemnness, seems to take a perverse pleasure in seeing Cersei so completely defeated, and the septas—keen to help break her down during her stay in the Sept—take a grim pride to their task, particularly Septa Unella, of “shame, shame, shame” fame. Cersei endures more than a simple walk: The citizens of King’s Landing hurl insults, garbage, and feces at her, their venom teetering into a mob mentality that adds an element of physical danger. As shown in the shot when Cersei steps out of the Sept, it’s a long walk to the Red Keep. By the time it’s over, Cersei is filthy, her feet are bloody, and she’s shaking and crying. Lena Headey’s performance masterfully captures this proud woman’s descent into complete brokenness. It’s even more impressive for the fact that a body double was used (actress Rebecca Van Cleave), freeing Headey to focus on acting out Cersei’s emotional walk. The two were composited together fairly seamlessly.

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It’s hard to watch, especially for viewers who are reminded of a real-world connection: There seems to be great entertainment in watching women be humiliated.

And just as Cersei will avenge herself on the High Sparrow and Septa Unella later, her relationship with Qyburn is crystalized in this scene as well. While both her uncle and Pycelle wait outside the Red Keep to greet Cersei, both hang back, wary and disgusted at what they see. Only Qyburn hurries forward, and the two enact a surprisingly emotional moment as he wraps a blanket around her and hugs her as she sobs.

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What we said then

“The walk of shame was easily the biggest point of anticipation for book readers this season—while the path was a bit different, every sign pointed to Cersei being faced with her ‘sins’ and walked amongst the common people, the same people she walked through to speak to the High Sparrow and ultimately seal her own fate by spotting an opportunity to assert her power. It’s a viscerally depicted scene, very slightly diminished by the use of a body double but no less effective for what it does for the character. Headey, when caught in closeups or clothed, breaks down Cersei layer by layer as the walk progresses, drawing out some messy combination of regret, guilt, humiliation, and determination. It’s a clear arc, and Cersei’s and Cersei’s alone (to the point the episode omits Margaery and Tommen, whose roles are increased in the show compared to the books). [David] Benioff and [D.B.] Weiss make no effort to deviate from [George R.R.] Martin’s work here, right down to the reveal of Qyburn’s experiment as hope for Cersei that there is a chance her fortunes have not faded entirely.”

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Elsewhere in the episode

Tyrion takes over power in Meereen while the absent Daenerys finds herself surrounded by the khalasar, with Drogon in the wind (again); Jon Snow “dies” just as Melisandre has conveniently arrived at Castle Black; Arya is blinded in the House Of Black And White; and Theon and Sansa hold hands and leap from the parapets of Winterfell.

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Previously: Daenerys rides away on Drogon
Next: Bran travels back in time, teasing “R + L = J”