He has emerged as the most galling villain in Game of Thrones, addressing every appeal to mercy or reason with the fanatic’s unclouded certitude. Ramsay Bolton is the show’s other psychopath, but at least he spares us the pious pearls of wisdom that the High Sparrow drops at every turn. (He is, in effect, the show’s most egregious humble-bragger.) And what is most appalling of all, what makes me ardently wish that zombie Gregor Clegane or the Tyrells get his goat, is the hypocrisy of the man. In Episode 2, Jaime Lannister threatens his life in the Great Sept, to which the High Sparrow responds, “Go on then. I deserve it. We all do. We are weak, vain creatures. We live only by the Mother’s mercy.” This show of abject humility, this courageous indifference to his personal fate, would have been powerful if it weren’t for his goons emerging from the shadows, revealing the specter of mass violence that is the true source of his clout.
This adds an interesting moral wrinkle to the show. The Faith Militant are the product of a corrupt royal regime that has been obscenely indifferent to the plight of the poor and the downtrodden. It is the only organic populist uprising in the show—in contrast to the top-down rebellions orchestrated by Daenerys Targaryen across the Narrow Sea—and yet it is composed of a bunch of terrifying, murderous zealots. “Every one of us is poor and powerless,” the High Sparrow tells Jaime. “And yet together, we can overthrow an empire.” What could be an inspirational line lifted from Braveheart is, in the world of Game of Thrones, downright chilling.