By far the most disquieting question to come out of "The Winds of Winter," Game of Thrones’ season six finale, concerns an act we didn’t witness: Just what was the zombified Gregor Clegane doing to Septa Unella behind that closed door?
Lest you’ve forgotten, Unella is the "Shame!"-proclaiming nun who presided over Cersei’s humiliating walk of atonement at the end of season five. And while Cersei spent most of "The Winds of Winter" claiming the Iron Throne for herself (after suffering her own devastating tragedy), she made sure to spare a few minutes to get her revenge.
To recap, after Cersei gleefully confessed her many crimes to Unella, who was strapped to a table, the queen mother — and soon-to-be queen, period — revealed that Unella’s death, while certain, would not come quickly.
And then Cersei called for Ser Gregor, announcing to Unella, "Your gods have forsaken you. This is your god now."
Gregor loomed over her prone figure as Cersei left the room, chanting "Shame, shame, shame," and closing the door behind her. Unella screamed. Cue thousands of, "Ewwww!" tweets.
The implication to me, at first, seemed clear: Zombie Gregor was going to rape Septa Unella. Everything about the scene suggested as much, to me.
But the more I’ve discussed this matter with other viewers, the more they’ve proposed that maybe Gregor was "just" torturing Unella. And their case is at least somewhat compelling.
So what, exactly, happened behind that closed door? Let’s take a look at the evidence.
The case for Gregor "just" torturing Unella
So, not to be too crude about it, but Game of Thrones has rarely been all that subtle when characters have been sexually assaulted.
It might make weird choices, like focusing on a character other than the victim, as it did when Ramsay Bolton raped Sansa Stark on their wedding night.
Or it might avoid acknowledging that what it’s depicting is rape, as was the case when Jaime raped Cersei in the Sept of Baelor, next to Joffrey’s dead body. But it usually lays its cards on the table when it comes to almost any act of violence.
And if you look at the framing of that shot through the door as Cersei exits, Gregor is standing near the Septa’s head. Since Unella almost immediately starts screaming, it seems likely enough that Gregor began inflicting physical pain. (The table she’s on also resembles a torture rack.)
Finally, there’s the simple fact that Gregor is a zombie who shuffles around a lot. Breaking limbs is something he can do easily enough, but anything that would require more movement seems like a tall order.
This is not to say that torture is some sort of easily dismissible act; it’s gruesome and terrible. The only benefit of it in this instance, story-wise, is that torturing Unella would further underscore Cersei’s descent into utter depravity without resorting to sexual assault as a cheaply deployed plot point (something Game of Thrones is guilty of having done in the past).
But I still think the strong implication of the scene is rape.
Even though it’s not as explicit as we’ve come to expect from Game of Thrones, the scene functions in a very specific manner
There’s a certain inference we draw from the image of a man standing over a prone woman in a fictional work, and it’s generally sexual in nature. In a romance, that can be positive; on Game of Thrones, it’s almost always negative.
So the very nature of the image that closes this sequence seems to imply sexual assault, regardless of Game of Thrones’ usual tendencies toward explicitness. (Similarly, if the showrunners had wanted to imply torture, they easily could have hinted in that direction more forthrightly than they did.)
Now consider that implication in the context of Cersei’s relationship with Unella, which primarily consists of Unella punishing Cersei for a number of sins, most of them sexual in nature. It would make sense for Cersei to visit what she would see as a similar punishment on someone she viewed as a tormenter.
Also, Gregor removes his helmet, the first time we’ve seen him do so since his corpse was revived. The implication is that more of his armor is going to be coming off.
And while it might be a little unfair to bring evidence from the books into the TV show, within the pages of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, Gregor is known for his raping and pillaging. For those who’ve read the books, that whole sequence would have been unmistakable in terms of what it signified.
Finally, there’s the fact that Lena Headey, Cersei Lannister herself, commented to Entertainment Weekly that the scene as originally written was much, much worse:
But it’s so depraved, it’s brilliant. The scene was meant to be worse, but they couldn’t do it. This is like the tame version. It’s pretty bad still though. I’d take being exploded in the Sept over that any day.
Could that statement refer to extensive torture? Sure. But Headey knows all about controversies stemming from Game of Thrones’ cavalier treatment of sexual assault, so to me the implication here is clear.
But, look, either way, the scene is a sign that Cersei has finally lost whatever tiny scraps of humanity she had left, as yet another casualty of her quest for power and revenge. And that sets her up as the series’ ultimate villain.
Why do we demand answers when things are left even slightly ambiguous?
I started writing about this because I was still seeing people ask on various social media channels what had happened in this scene, more than a week after the episode originally aired.
The ultimate question, to me, is why we feel like we need to know what happened inside that room. Whatever it was — even if it was just Gregor taking off his armor and forcing Unella to gaze upon his zombie body — it was horrible. We probably don’t need to know the gruesome details.
And to me, there’s very little ambiguity here. Cersei’s arc has always been about a woman, raised in a patriarchal culture steeped in sexual violence, trying to seize her own power within that structure. And having her cave to utilizing sexual violence to get her own revenge would be in keeping with that.
Everything about both the filmmaking and the storytelling of the scene suggests Gregor rapes Unella. And I would argue that goes too far — but it’s hard to have that conversation if nobody agrees on what happened in the first place.
And, of course, if you’re the people behind Game of Thrones, you probably want to keep this scene as ambiguous as possible, because it’s such a horrifying notion to contemplate that it might completely break the story. The best villains are ones where you can sort of understand where they’re coming from, which is why Cersei is such a great villain. Toss in an explicit scene of zombie assault, and it would perhaps turn audiences against her too thoroughly.
But we don’t deal well with ambiguity in art, do we? Fans still construct elaborate theories to "prove" if Tony Soprano lived or died, and there were many who were certain that Jesse Pinkman had let Gale live at the end of Breaking Bad, season three, even though he shot a gun into Gale’s face. (To be fair, weird filmmaking choices contributed to the confusion there.)
Maybe this is because whatever Cersei did, it was so beyond the pale that we don’t want to contemplate it. But ambiguity is often the heart of great narrative, and it’s not as if Game of Thrones hasn’t indulged in it in the past. Yet here we are, wanting answers. Sometimes knowing what happens behind closed doors is worse than not knowing 100 percent for certain.