Each week throughout Game of Thrones’ sixth season, a handful of Vox's writers have gathered to discuss the latest episode — and now we’re doing the same with the finale. Before you dig in, check out our recap of Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Next up in our analysis of "The Winds of Winter" is deputy First Person editor Emmett Rensin.
Emmett Rensin: Green smoke from the Great Sept of Baelor: The High Sparrow is dead. His followers are dead. His church is gone. He picked the wrong faith for any hope of resurrection, and there’s nothing left to resurrect in any case. So much for the Mother’s mercy.
Game of Thrones viewers hated the High Sparrow; the writers of weekly recaps even more so. While even Ramsay Bolton was eventually consigned to "Well, we know he’s awful; it’s almost boring now" status, the Sparrow regularly provoked fresh disdain. He was called sanctimonious, dangerous, hypocritical, and evil every time he appeared.
The loathing continued right through the end: Slate named the Sparrow the worst person in Westeros earlier this season, before calling Cersei’s annihilation of him "a reverse thriller, in which one roots for the evil plot to succeed." The New Yorker counts the moment when the Sparrow lights up "like the Nazi whose face melts off" among "the many great pleasures" of the finale.
Cersei still earns the episode’s "worst person" designation from Slate, but mainly by default, and with a caveat: She "murders the recent worst person in Westeros, the High Sparrow, and that’s great."
Shame about the other victims, though.
The High Sparrow made viewers uncomfortable. It wasn’t only that they hated him; hate, after all, is a pleasure in the world of Game of Thrones, and there wasn’t anything pleasurable about the Sparrow’s misdeeds. Viewers were disgusted by him, turned off, viscerally repelled in a way that not even Joffrey could manage.
Evil in Westeros was always relative — until the High Sparrow came along
It isn’t that the High Sparrow did not do evil things. He did. He subjected one woman to a particularly brutal form of sexist public shaming and very nearly did the same to another. He imprisoned a man for being gay and only spared him at the price of poverty and mutilation. His cult, if not routinely violent, was certainly menacing. But it is worth remembering that in the real world, we would find the Sparrow’s actions appalling; by the standards of Westeros, they’re rather tame.
Many Game of Thrones fans were willing to relativize their moral compass and to root for characters like Jaime (attempted child murderer), Olenna (successful child murderer), Tyrion (patricidal murderer and slavery enabler), Daenerys (mass murderer and crucifixion enthusiast), and Cersei (judging only by the season six finale, a terrorist, torture advocate, and mass murderer).
They felt no need to defend the less overtly odious Baratheons, Starks, or lesser houses at all — "It’s Westeros!" sufficed to justify their support of feudal aristocrats who routinely lead thousands of peasants to their deaths in order to secure the latest blood claim to this or that castle. At least the Starks are extremely honorable in their warmongering.
Viewers weren’t wrong to make those allowances. Game of Thrones is fiction, trivial fiction about dragons and ice zombies, and the point is entertainment, not swearing off every Ser Such-and-Such who commits an atrocity. But the High Sparrow received no such indulgence.
Despite his relatively restrained behavior, despite an earnest (if perhaps misguided) desire to empower the dispossessed of King’s Landing, despite having appeared perfectly content to merely feed those peasants before a myopic Cersei came along to turn him into a weapon, he received no sympathy. He was a hypocrite and a creep, more despised by modern viewers than the monsters who would gladly see those same peasants starve another winter, so long as they get to sit on the very best chair.
The problem wasn’t the High Sparrow’s religion. It was his judgment.
Yesterday, Ross Douthat made a similar case on Twitter. "On the show and the books, [the High Sparrow] is an apparently sincere man of the people, one of the few commoners to play a political role in Westeros," he wrote. "He champions equality before law, redistribution of wealth—ideas far closer to liberal values than anything his antagonists support. It is impossible, based on the text, to imagine a Westeros ruled by the Faith Militant would be worse off than the Westeros we see."
"My point," he concluded, "is just that it says something interesting about the story itself and (especially) our pop culture mavens that so many people identified with the privileged warmongering aristocrats in their struggle to crush the story’s lone popular uprising."
I suspect Douthat believes the answer is religion. Liberal consumers of premium television and the elites who write about it will forgive immense violence committed in the name of comprehensible self-interest, but will look to any excuse — the High Sparrow isn’t woke enough for 2016! — to resist the more alien motives of the faithful.
But I don’t believe it’s quite that. Game of Thrones has its sympathetic faithful: Septon Ray seems noble, if naive, in his religious pacifism. The Brotherhood Without Banners has its boosters. Even Melisandre isn’t despised for her dedication to the Lord of Light. Most of the hate reserved for her is rooted in predictable loathing for women in fantasy, and even when her religion is condemned by viewers — say, because it leads her to burn a child alive — it still finds more sympathy than the slightest leer from the High Sparrow.
Rather, I think disdain for the Sparrow comes from a cousin of religion: judgment, and particularly the judgment of anyone found less than perfect.
The High Sparrow was a hypocrite if he had any flaws at all, and since those flaws were easy enough to identify, the rest of his intentions could be safely ignored. Even the Sparrow’s good intentions became vile in their own way, suspect and typically written off as a mere rationalization for his purported sadism.
Did he look at Westeros and rightly see injustice? Did he look at the Lannisters and the Tyrells and see depravity? Sure, but he’s no saint, so the polite thing to do would be to shut up and play the game as basely as everyone else. That, at least, wouldn’t be so obnoxious. That, at least, would not make everyone so uncomfortable.
The High Sparrow was hated because we fear our fellow sinners less than we fear the naming of our sins. I say that in religious language, but I don’t need to: We don’t fear brutality and vengeance half as much as being found out as brutal and vengeful ourselves.
That disgust with the Sparrow, that visceral, gut-rolling discomfort beyond the ordinary fun of hating a fictional killer? That is the terror of a light turned too harshly, the question of whether, deep down, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, even if the person shaming you is just as imperfect as you are. Especially if they are as imperfect as you are.
I don’t go in much for the notion that we "learn" about faith or politics or life from television writers, much less for the idea that Game of Thrones is instructively "realistic." But we do learn from how a culture responds to its artifacts, and from the life and death of the High Sparrow we learned this: Hypocrisy is the first sin of the modern world, the one we can’t forgive, even in our suspension of disbelief.
So as we prepare for the dumb, fun coming war between a zombie, an idiot, and two sociopaths, let us pour one out for the High Sparrow: the most honest monster we’ll ever get in that cruel world.