Anatomy of a Throne: “Mother’s Mercy”

HBO’s Game of Thrones (typically, and before this current season) brandishes a consistent and high degree of fidelity to the nearly 5,000-page-long source material of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but there still, of course, are differences. While most of these gaps from the page to the screen are small and detail-oriented, it is nonetheless the case that the most subtle discrepancies often hold the biggest insight into the adaptation process, into the demands of filmmaking, and into the rigors of the literary narrative.

Cersei and the septas

This, then, is the anatomy of a key scene of Thrones – not because of its dramatic importance or visual effects whizbangery, but because of the telling nature of its realization.

Episode: “Mother’s Mercy” (510)
Scene: Cersei’s walk of shame

Game of Thrones’s rendition of Queen Cersei Baratheon’s most defining moment to date – her walk of shame from the Great Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep, from imprisonment to (relative) freedom – manages to channel Cersei’s internal monologue of crumbling confidence and, at the end, self-denial so well to the visual dimension, it’s a remarkable feat to behold. But it can’t quite catch all the subtleties and vagaries of the queen regent’s emotional state, and though the production kept most of the elements within and around her that were depicted on the page, there are still several items that were left unused. The result is contradictory: the episode’s version is simultaneously both more subtle and more overt.

First there are the external alterations. In A Dance with Dragons, Cersei is flanked by three septas – Unella is to her right, Moelle is on her left, and Scolera walks behind – who proclaim the fallen queen’s penance to the crowd, presumably sparing the High Septon the sight of a naked woman. Their presence is actually part of a far greater escort, which not only includes the Poor Fellows (called “the Stars” by the commoners due to their sigil of a red seven-pointed star on white [only a few are zealous enough to have it carved into their flesh]), but also the Warrior’s Sons (lavishly-dressed high-born knights dedicated to the Faith and who are largely referred to as “the Swords”) and several novice girls, arrayed all in white, who will one day become septas themselves. The security presence is so light in the episode, it seems more symbolic than pragmatic; there’s no way that, say, the riots that broke out when King Joffrey Baratheon rode through the streets (“The Old Gods and the New,” episode 206) would ever be held back by just a few robed brothers with truncheons in hand and a solitary nun with a bell and a singsong voice.

Bread riots

Then there’s the realm of the internal. Cersei undergoes the whole ordeal, from the sheering of her hair (which is actually all of her body hair in the novel, from her bald head all the way down to her legs, including her genitals) to the walk itself, with a huge deal of pride. She refuses to show cowardice, unlike the previous walk of shame in the books (more on this in just a moment) – “They think that this will break my pride, that it will make an end to me,” she resolutely notes, “but they are wrong.” This means that she doesn’t flinch at the hacking off of her hair, that she publically disrobes herself instead of being striped by others – “she bared herself in one smooth, unhurried motion, as if she were back in her own chambers disrobing for her bath with no one but her bedmaids looking on” – and that she makes the walk with her head held high and her arms casually at her side, ignoring the taunts and jeers of the crowds.

By the end of her ordeal, however, after sustaining injuries to her knee and feet and having a wide assortment of debris thrown at her – including a dead cat that hits the cobbles so hard, it bursts open, “spattering Cersei’s lower legs with entrails and maggots” – it is an entirely different story. The physical pain combines with her time in captivity, producing hallucinations at several points: in the crowd are her father, Eddard Stark, Sansa, and, even, Lady, the direwolf that she had killed (“The Kingsroad,” 102), with Tyrion Lannister and Maggy the Frog (the woods witch who tells Cersei her fortune [“The Wars to Come,” 501]) leaping out of the crowd to mock her. Finally, after falling for a second time, she shakes like a leaf and begs to the septas, “Please. Mother have mercy. I confessed.” Nearly every last vestige of pride has been shredded – though there is still more to lose.

Cersei's denouement

The single most noteworthy adaptation change in this regard actually bridges both the external and the internal: the state of the queen’s body, which, on the screen, obviously hasn’t been through three childbirths. Furthermore, in addition to the literary character’s stretch marks and sagging breasts (hello, old[er] age), there is the little matter of her weight gain; as her wardrobe continues to get too small for her over the course of the novels, Cersei continues to complain of her servants’ incompetence at washing her clothes, since, of course, it has nothing to do with her ever-increasing alcoholism and stress-induced feasting. The High Septon’s walk – and a constant stream of remarks such as “That can’t be the queen – she’s saggy as my mum!” – forces Cersei, at long last, to confront this reality, which does much to finally undermine her prideful resolve and have her emotional state come crashing down around her.

Indeed, at the beginning of the process, the queen regent’s denial is quite profoundly on display:

Words are wind, she thought, words cannot hurt me. I am beautiful, the most beautiful woman in all Westeros, Jaime says so, Jaime would never lie to me. Even Robert, Robert never loved me, but he saw that I was beautiful, he wanted me.

And, by the end, she’s reduced to this:

She did not feel beautiful, though. She felt old, used, filthy, ugly. There were stretch marks on her belly from the children she had borne, and her breasts were not as firm as they had been when she was younger. Without a gown to hold them up, they sagged against her chest. I should not have done this. I was their queen, but now they’ve seen, they’ve seen, they’ve seen. I should never have let them see. Gown and crowned, she was a queen. Naked, bloody, limping, she was only a woman, not so very different from their wives, more like their mothers than their pretty little maiden daughters. What have I done?

[…]

And then there was no stopping the tears. They burned down the queen’s cheeks like acid. Cersei gave a sharp cry, covered her nipples with one arm, slid her other hand down to hide her slit, and began to run, shoving her way past the line of Poor Fellows, crouching as she scrambled crab-legged up the hill. Partway up, she stumbled and fell, rose, then fell again ten yards farther on. The next thing she knew, she was crawling, scrambling uphill on all fours like a dog as the good folks of King’s Landing made way for her, laughing and jeering and applauding her.

It is, of course, exceedingly easy to see why the producers wouldn’t want to demand that their lead actress gain weight for the role (and, as a result, why they would double-down on the character’s growing alcoholism), and, even more, why they would want to hire something of a model to act as her body double during this sequence; America isn’t ready for a realistic nude scene involving a female, as the 2002 film About Schmidt, which depicted a fully nude and 53-year-old Kathy Bates, attested to. (It is noteworthy to mention that Game of Thrones did feature an aged man in the nude in its previous walk of shame [“High Sparrow,” 503], although it’s also noteworthy that only his buttocks were shown.) And, obviously, once Cersei’s physical infirmities went out the window, the denouement of both her self-denial and pride being destroyed went out with it. Left in their place is the subtler, more performance-heavy depiction seen in “Mother’s Mercy” – one of the few times that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss opted to be less overt than Martin was in the handling of the material.

About Schmidt

The last deviation is, arguably, the biggest, at least in terms of the overall narrative. In Weiss and Benioff’s telling, the idea for doing the walk of shame originates with the High Septon himself, who has adopted it as a blanket punishment for transgressors of the Faith’s laws (at least, for the high-born ones); in Martin’s version, it is Uncle Kevan Lannister who proposes the idea to the High Septon, knowing that it would psychologically destroy the queen regent and hoping that it would finally have her capitulate to her late father’s wishes, moving back to Casterly Rock and out of the political spotlight once and for all. The alteration was undoubtedly meant to somewhat untangle the dense forest that the books’ storyline often becomes – a constant necessity on the executive producers’ parts – but it also has the effect of further empowering the High Septon, specifically, and the Faith, generally, a trend we’ve already seen develop earlier this season.

Running concurrently with this is the precedent for the walk itself. As previously mentioned, viewers get exposed to the concept seven episodes earlier, when the then-High Sparrow punishes the previous High Septon for his fornicating ways. And although readers don’t have any clue whatsoever what ominous fate is looming over Cersei – Martin actually uses this to great narrative effect, as the imprisoned queen frets over the coming morning’s trials and tribulations while the audience is forced to play catch-up – the characters have had their own exposure to the practice: Tytos Lannister, Cersei’s grandfather, was a weak lord and the laughing stock of the westerlands, and, as part of the effort to reclaim House Lannister’s storied dignity, Tywin casts out the baseborn mistress that Tytos had climb into bed with him and comes up with the singularly cruel punishment of parading her through the streets of Lannisport naked, stripped of all the silks and jewels that his father had lavished on her. In this way, the “whore” would be reminded of the dirt that she actually was, and all the vassal lords of the west would immediately know that Tywin was no meek push-over – that he was, in fact, a man to be feared and respected. This is why Cersei vows to stand so strongly and firmly; she does not wish to go down in history as the second wench who cried and pleaded and tried so vainly to hide her nakedness.

Walk of shame, part I

One final point to consider in what has already gone done in pop-culture history as one of TV’s most memorable scenes: if a side-note was made about the inequalities of the television world’s ability to show older or stereotypically-less-attractive men naked but not women, then another point must be made here to discuss Benioff and Weiss’s willingness to make the walk of shame a gender-neutral punishment. Yes, it cuts against the historicalness of the medieval setting, but it also becomes something of a socio-political point of its own, particularly for a series that has become a lightning rod of similar observations or criticisms.

Such is the life of a history-making production.

Previous installments

“The Wars to Come” (501)

“High Sparrow” (503)

“Sons of the Harpy” (504)

“Kill the Boy” (505)

“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” (506)

“The Gift” (507)

“The Dance of Dragons” (509)

16 responses

Jump to (and Always Support) the Bottom

    1. Great analysis and an even greater performance by LH.

      I also think they’re pushing the alcoholism so hard as being part of the reason for why Cersei’s for her descent into madness…the stress is making her turn to the bottle and the booze is making her judgement worse.

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    2. Every thing from Book-to-Screen in season 5 had some kind of show-spin on it (I mean besides condensation and re-imagining), except this , yeah it was condensed, and rejiggered a little , but mostly it’s from the page.
      Is that right?

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    3. Whatever changes they made,
      this was still an almost perfect translation from book to screen.
      It had the same unrelenting, brutality.

      And my favorite change was Septa Unella chanting “Shame Shame”, It gave a disturbing rhythm, and you almost imagine that Cersei will have horrific flashbacks everytime she hears a bell ringing.

      David Nutter also did an equally genius job of bringing the scene to life, how it was shot, the extras, everything.

      Its definitely my favorite scene in the series. (I guess favorite isn’t the right word…).
      And I don’t think the body double changed anything for me.
      The use of the body double really was only there for establishing quick shots to place Cersei in the crowd. Most of the scene was shot from the shoulder up, featuring Lena’s acting.

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    4. i know it was harder to do this because of lena’s pregnancy, but i’m still disappointed they didn’t have “Cersei gave a sharp cry, covered her nipples with one arm, slid her other hand down to hide her slit, and began to run, shoving her way past the line of Poor Fellows, crouching as she scrambled crab-legged up the hill.” in the show. that line was the most powerful emotionally for me when reading that chapter in the book.

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    5. As usual Marc, excellent commentary on the scene. I remember when I was reading this scene, at first saying ‘yes!’ because she was finally getting her comeuppance, then realizing just what this meant. Still tho, it was watching the scene that made me feel such sympathy for her as a fellow human being,to endure such things. Lena was amazing and yeah, having a body double there made no difference to me, tho I hope she gets credit for making it appear seamless.

      I am not sure however if the Septon’s walk was the same as Cerseis. While I agree it was good to show both genders getting the treatment, there was something more about Cersei’s perhaps because of the gender issues involved. But while I am a SJW, I am not criticizing this scene at all. The adaptation was true to the book with changes that were necessary; regardless, it had to be harrowing for everyone involved, and think it was done well.

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    6. It was a great scene in both books and show. One difference the article didn’t point out: The show Cersei is not paranoid and ignorant to the cartoonish degree she is in the novels. The show cuts some of her excesses (Aurane Waters) and lets her off the hook for others (Iron Bank).

      I think this is the reason why the show Cersei is more upset by the walk, from the beginning, than the novel Cersei. The novel Cersei is too self-centered, too proud, and not bright enough to see how the Walk will affect her in the eyes of the people. It’s only toward the end that she figures it out. The show Cersei, smarter in every way than her novel counterpart, knows what she’s facing from the beginning, yet goes through it for her son, for her position as queen. I found the show walk more moving than the novel walk for that reason.

      Anyhow, I think the show will use the after effects of the walk to get Cersei to devolve to where she is in the novels.

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    7. A most excellent analysis and comparison to the book. When I read that scene in the book I kept thinking that finally Cercei was getting her just due, but when I saw it translated to the screen I actually felt sympathy for her. Kudos to LH’s interpretation and the good direction. Since I’m a newbie here I haven’t read any of your other analyses, must go back and do that. Thanks for posting the links.

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    8. brown ben romney,

      She wasn’t actually pregnant. The scene was shot at the end of September/beginning of October, but whatever, I can totally understand her not wanting to do it, she probably wouldn’t have been able to give such a good performance had she actually been naked.

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    9. Excellent analysis of a scene that was mind-numbing and infuriating all at once. Body double or not, LH managed to convey every emotion through facial expression alone. If that wasn’t an Emmy-worthy performance, what is?

      The book excerpts add to our perception of the drama. The High Sparrow was curious to know what would be there once all her finery had been stripped away – I think they have awakened a more dangerous lion than they could ever imagine. Add her rage at what happened in the dungeon and the streets to her rage when she finds out about Myrcella – the streets of Kings Landing are going to be wildly dangerous and exciting in the coming season How many times did she comment about burning cities down?

      The whole time I watched that scene I thought about what the populace was doing – how in the bloody hell does encouraging people to behave in such a manner make for a betterment of humanity? HS said he wanted the people to be not afraid of or in awe of the rich and noble, but this wasn’t encouraging stronger will, this was to the extreme opposite, an encoragement of the most barbaric and base. Now the common people need to fear the crazed nobles and crazed religious fanatics.

      A little bit more about extremes: This was the only time I’ve ever missed Joffrey. He would have had her out of prison and the streets running with blood. Cersei encouraged haughty behavior in Joff, telling him that he could write history as he wanted. When that backfired, she totally undermined Tommen, to the point where he was useless, both methods were extreme, and both her detriment.

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    10. winnie: I also think they’re pushing the alcoholism so hard as being part of the reason for why Cersei’s for her descent into madness…the stress is making her turn to the bottle and the booze is making her judgement worse.

      But is Cersei descending into madness? Cersei’s problem was not insanity: it was the delusion that she was highly intelligent and insightful, when she actually is very illogical, “mis”-observant, and extremely ignorant. She wasn’t mad: she was an Internet Troll on a throne.

      Cersei also was very depressed: not in the clinical sense, but in the sense that she was just miserable about her “breakup” with Jaime. That is quite independent of madness: that’s just real for sane and insane, geniuses and idiots alike. And, of course, she is drinking like a fish: but, seriously, who here hasn’t gone on a bender after a bad breakup? (Raise your hand twice if you don’t remember because it was that good a lost weekend….)

      Maria: The show Cersei is not paranoid and ignorant to the cartoonish degree she is in the novels.

      Yeah, Cersei really did descend to something akin to a parody of “evil queen” in the book. Here, she’s Mother from “the Wall”: I half expected to have her sing “Hush now baby, baby, don’t you cry…. mother’s gonna checkout your girlfriends for you, mother won’t let anyone dirty get through….”

      That written, I do wonder if the audience might have gained sympathy for her that GRRM clearly never intended. Of course, this might be unavoidable: I suspect that this is an audience that will have a knee-jerk reaction of siding with women against religion. The show seemed aware of this: the other “evil” thing that they have the Church do is come down on gays: and misogyny & homophobia obviously are current “sins” of modern religion.

      But even in the book, it elicited some sympathy from me. Cersei is guilty of a lot of human rights violations. Sleeping with a man who was not her husband got Cersei a conviction for one of the few deeds of hers that was not heinous. Moreover, I strongly suspect that in both book and show, the High Sparrow is going to present problems for protagonists other than Cersei: this guy is a right nasty piece of work! Pryce’s portrayal here really highlights what GRRM wrote in the book: this guy is a “group sociopath” who views everyone not like him as unworthy: and part of the way this undoes Cersei is that it is (or was) beyond her comprehension that any commoner could feel that way about her.

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    11. Wimsey,

      Do you think that Martin turned Cersei as evil as he did to keep the audience from siding with her vs sept? It would be interesting if that were the reason.

      HS: He’s probably a sociopath. He’s also a player, and the best players (LF, Tywin) tend to be sociopathic. I think the walk is his announcing to the KL that there’s a new player in town, and he just won. It’s also a way of asserting authority over everyone: The common folk watching Cersei are allowed a lot of leeway on both show and book, but there’s an implicit threat in both: If the sept can do this to a queen, it sure as hell can do it to you.

      I agree that it’s ironic Cersei does her walk for the least of her crimes. I think that’s by design. HS can’t have incest come out, as that would make Stannis the rightful king. I don’t think the HS would want to advertise the murder of the previous HS, or even Robert’s murder for the walk. I think he’ll reserve those for the trial. The point of the walk is to lower Cersei to the level of the lowest among the townsfolk. Killing a king, killing a high septon, makes her too powerful. For the walk, she’s the adulteress, not fearful, but contemptible.

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    12. Maria: Do you think that Martin turned Cersei as evil as he did to keep the audience from siding with her vs sept? It would be interesting if that were the reason

      I do not think that there is “good” or “evil” in Martinverse. Cersei is, plainly and simply, a Grade A Bitch. She is the epitome of the Alpha girl that makes her way through her teenage years with everybody paving her way because of her family name and her looks, with even those hating her fawning over her. And this has left her both woefully unprepared to think for herself and yet convinced that she is a supreme being. I.e., she’s the cheerleading captain to the 12th power!

      Maria: HS: He’s probably a sociopath. He’s also a player, and the best players (LF, Tywin) tend to be sociopathic.

      I think that the HS is something like a sociopath that can be even worse. The HS seems much like a fascist or a Bolshevik: he is not (like a true sociopath) incapable of identifying with anybody else; instead, he’s incapable of identifying with anybody who is not like him. Instead of “me, me, me,” it is “us, us, us”: and that can be very dangerous for those in the “not-us.”

      (I would not call Tywin a sociopath; Tywin is basically a social Darwinist who is totally obsessed with his Lannister-labelled genes being the Top Chimps for as many generations to come as possible. This yields similar behaviors: but whereas the Sparrow can at least cry out “Good Sevenists of the World, Unite!” Tywins’ cry is only “Lannisters of the World, Unite!” That written, many people suspect that true sociopathy is just a misprogramming of our basic tribal instincts to promote inclusive fitness [you want siblings and cousins to succeed, too, as they spread your parents and grandparents genes that you share] that keeps reading “not my tribe” for everyone.)

      Maria: I don’t think the HS would want to advertise the murder of the previous HS, or even Robert’s murder for the walk. I think he’ll reserve those for the trial.

      Well, an interesting question will be: what fury will Cersei unleash on the Sparrow? And what retaliation will be unleashed back? Book Cersei at least still holds the delusion that she can crush them. And, of course, where will the Tyrells stand? Does Cersei still think herself so clever that she’d try to play the two off against each other? (My bet: yes.) My bet is that this on the show will give us (and her) the third gold shroud: and in the books a third gold crown, if only in proxy.

      Both on show and in books, this will be interesting to witness. And, of course, I do wonder if we’ll get another little flashback for her. The last one was quite effective as it setup all of her foolishness for this year: Cersei let loose a rabid tiger hoping it would take down the Tyrells and then was surprised to see it turn on her. (Of course, in the book, she basically locks herself and the Tyrells in a cage with a tiger, and then is surprised when the tiger turns on her next: the whole burning of the Tower of the Hand basically foreshadowed it all!)

      Oh, and there is the issue that the Dornish killed her daughter. She’ll want revenge there, even if Ellaria is far away with someone else. This could get amusing rapidly.

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    13. I literally cannot wait to see Cersei unhinged next season.

      I’ve said it a billion times, Kings Landing will go down in flames. I think the story of the mad king and Jaime will repeat itself with Cersei, but she might actually succeed.

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    14. HelloThere: I’ve said it a billion times, Kings Landing will go down in flames.

      If so, then I think that someone would have had visions of Kings Landing in flames by now. Now, we have had a vision of dragon wings over Kings Landing: but if that leads to Kings Landing burning, then it will not be Cersei’s doing.

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