Did Game of Thrones go too far with Cersei’s walk of shame last night?
Granted, it’s hard to call anything “too far” in a season that featured the barbecuing of Shireen, the rape of Sansa, and Arya yielding to a fate that even Oedipus Rex wouldn’t have wished upon her. I know Cersei’s humiliation is no less barbaric in the book, nor would it be any less terrible if it happened in real life. (Go ahead and Google what happened to Jane Shore, the mistress of King Edward IV.) Still, as I watched the High Sparrow demand that Cersei strip naked before a mass of angry commoners, force her to walk on bleeding feet as she was pelted with rotten fruit and worse, I couldn’t help but feel like this was too much.
Maybe it was the pure, visceral brutality of the scene. Although you could argue that other characters have endured worse. (Poor Theon!) Maybe it was the fact that Cersei’s humiliation warranted so much screen time in an episode that spared other villains such a drawn-out punishment. Remember that Stannis burned his own child alive, and yet he was allowed to die, mercifully, off-screen. Maybe it was the fact that the severity of Cersei’s punishment really didn’t fit her crimes. As Lena Headey told EW of her character, “Cersei has done wrong, but she doesn’t really deserve this.” Even if you believe she’s the worst person in Westeros, why not just kill her off? I think what really bothered me is that sexual violence and humiliation have become TV’s laziest trick for getting viewers to sympathize with cold female characters. Mellie gets raped on Scandal, Claire gets raped on House of Cards, and now this?
According to showrunner David Benioff, the walk of shame was designed to make us hate Cersei a little less. “One of the things I find interesting watching Lena is this character has always been an antagonist,” he told EW. “We all love Tyrion—and and she’s tried to kill Tyrion. Watching this scene flips it all because she’s being so horrifically abused you start to feel for her. It’s almost impossible not to feel for her because she’s a human and being tormented. So what we hope is, by the last shot, is you’re almost rooting for her, in a way, and hope she gets her revenge on those who have mistreated her.”
Already, this explanation is problematic. Wouldn’t Cersei want revenge on those who mistreated her, whether or not she endured this walk of shame? It’s hard to imagine her breaking out of that dungeon just to reward the High Sparrow with, say, an edible fruit bouquet. Surely, there are more creative ways to create empathy for Cersei without resorting to sexual humiliation, a tactic that Game of Thrones has resorted to before. And why do we need another reason to “feel” for Cersei, anyway? This is a woman who has been suffering ever since her mother died when Cersei was 4 years old. However you feel about her — personally, I’m rooting for her — it’s difficult to understand why she’s the one who needs to be more likeable in a world that’s filled with polarizing male characters. No one is trying to make Littlefinger more likeable.
Besides, the showrunners aren’t doing Cersei any favors. Does she even want to be liked? Clearly, she’d rather be feared.
To me, this sounds like the ultimate irony: because the showrunners wanted compassion, they did something unspeakably cruel. And the way that director David Nutter filmed the scene was filmed didn’t help.
Benioff has suggested that Nutter’s POV shots, which allowed viewers to see things from Cersei’s perspective, were supposed to help us experience this walk of shame as if it was happening to them. “Obviously you, the viewer, are not standing in the street being pelted with shit and tomatoes and eggs and everything else,” he told EW, “but he’s letting you feel what that might be like. A lot of the shots are first person. You feel quite viscerally the horror of that moment. And once you’ve been inside a character’s skin, it’s very hard to loathe them.”
Fair enough. But then, why not stick with Cersei’s point of view the whole time? Instead, the camera often switched perspective, occasionally lingering too long on Cersei’s nakedness. Maybe Nutter was trying to implicate all of us in this shaming: Just like those townspeople, we didn’t turn away. We just sat there are gawked. If he’s going to implicate us, though, he’d better take some responsibility himself. Nutter didn’t choose to only shoot Cersei from the neck up, which might’ve had an even more jarring effect, forcing us to consider what was happening with her mind every step of the way, instead of allowing us a break to consider her body. And remember that the show went to great lengths to get that body in there: Headey worked with a body double, which means the Game of Thrones team had to digitally superimpose another woman’s body below Headey’s head in every single shot where she appeared to be naked. That’s a lot of work, just to allow us to see her stripped bare. Is there a better metaphor for a scene about dehumanizing violence toward women? Think about it: we’re literally watching some anonymous woman’s naked body, walking around without her head.
Now, I’m not saying that I’m quitting Game of Thrones. There’s too much at stake next season, and I can’t wait to see Cersei unleash the Mountain on the Sparrows and all her other mortal enemies. She deserves to cross out every last name on the list of people who’ve wronged her. I just wish that list didn’t include the makers of Game of Thrones.