SPOILER ALERT: This article contains minor spoilers for the Game of Thrones season five finale. If you don’t want to learn those details, stop reading now.
Over five seasons, Game of Thrones viewers have put up with a lot. We’ve watched our favorite characters die suddenly and brutally; we’ve watched women suffer untold cruelties; and we’ve seen more nudity and sex on display than at a 1970s hippie commune. We have learned the hard way that when winter is coming, almost anything goes in Westeros — no one is safe.
But even that couldn’t prepare audiences for Sunday night’s shocking finale when a newly shorn Cersei Lannister was roughly disrobed and forced to endure a nearly five-minute “Walk of Atonement” through the jeering crowds of King’s Landing (watch an edited SFW version of it here). As the angry mob pelted her with food, spit on her, and yelled obscenities, Cersei walked naked through the city she once ruled, trying to keep her head up and survive the utter humiliation deemed appropriate punishment for the sins of “falsehood and fornication.”
It was a gut-wrenching scene that was hard to watch. With the chanted chorus of “Shame” echoing in living rooms across the world, audiences were left cringing for Cersei, both out of empathy and out of our own guilt that we were implicated as part of the rabid, voyeuristic crowd. In an article for Vanity Fair, author Jon Roson brought this home even further, equating the brutal mob of King’s Landing with that of the public shaming often found on social media.
The scene put many viewers in another uncomfortable position, as well: finding themselves sympathizing with and supporting the tyrannical queen that everyone loves to hate.
Cersei hasn’t been a particularly beloved character. She’s schemed and screwed over innocent people with the best of the political manipulators of Westeros (let us not forget the horrendous act she and brother Jaime Lannister committed against Bran Stark in the very first episode). But one thing is certain: even Cersei didn’t deserve a punishment this brutal.
“It’s not hard when people are screaming at you and you look like shit and you’re being F**king humiliated to figure out how that would feel,” Lena Headey, who plays Cersei, told Entertainment Weekly. “There’s a part of you that’s f**king terrified. I can’t even imagine people wanting your blood. Cersei has done wrong, but she doesn’t really deserve this.”
There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether Headey used a stunt double for the extended scene. Entertainment Weekly reported that she did, and the denizens of Reddit have been collecting the technological evidence to prove it. And Hannah Waddingham, the actress who depicts the “Shame!”-shouting septa who accompanies Cersei on the brutal walk, reportedly confirmed the stunt double, saying, “Our fantastic body double was just so brave. I had a lot of respect for her.”
But even so, the scene still gives a powerfully emotional punch to the gut, and Headey deserves a Golden Globe for the suburb complexity of emotions that play across her face as she struggles to maintain her resolve during her horrific walk of shame.
Viewers weren’t the only ones shocked by the latest Game of Thrones twist. Of all the things that Dubrovnik, Croatia, has seen as the site where the King’s Landing scenes are filmed, this is the one that finally caused objections. The Catholic Church protested the idea of nudity being filmed inside St. Nicholas Church. But the seven gods of author George R.R. Martin prevailed, and the filming was allowed to go on, provided that none of the nude scenes were actually shot indoors.
Objections weren’t quite so vocal hundreds of years ago, however, when similar walks of atonement were actually used as punishment. Martin told Entertainment Weekly that he modeled Cersei’s punishment on that received by one of King Edward the IV’s mistresses in the 15th century (although she was allowed a bit of covering). And Business Insider reported that a similar sentence was also used in some areas of 13th-century France to punish women convicted of adultery and their lovers. (Although, the lovers had the option to try to escape before their day of reckoning, in which case they were allowed to go free).
It’s hard to decide if the historical roots make this scene more horrifying or instead provide some reassurance that not everything perverse in the world of Game of Thrones was the sole product of Martin’s ingenious and more than a little twisted imagination.
Either way, with each bloody, disgraced step, yet another of the rare formidable women in the male-dominated world of Game of Thrones was toppled from her position of power.
As the fifth season came to an end, there’s hardly a strong and powerful lady left standing in the seven kingdoms. Queen Margaery is suffering in the same holy hell hole that Cersei gave up her dignity to leave. Arya Stark killed a brutal pedophile and pissed off the Many-Faced God in the process, possibly losing her sight and plunging into an unknown future. Melisandre has retreated after the horrific sacrifice she demanded proved ineffective. And we left Daenerys in a real pickle, surrounded by more Dothraki than the eye can behold.
Cersei, for her part, has been humiliated and objectified within an inch of her life—not to mention lost her beautiful long tresses. But, she’s not dead yet.
As Cersei looked out bruised and almost broken from the arms of her champion, The Mountain, there was a determined glint in her eye that we have come to know all too well. Cersei will undoubtedly be back—maybe with a few more viewers on her side this time—and all hell will surely break loose. When that time comes, may the gods protect those who made her suffer.