At the onset of Season 4, the newest power player in King’s Landing was Oberyn Martell, a formidable warrior and passionate lover who set up shop in a brothel. One season later, Oberyn is dead, and his replacement as the thorn in the Lannisters’ side seems almost calculated to be his exact opposite. The High Sparrow, played by Jonathan Pryce, is a religious ascetic and avowed (at least initially) pacifist — and the head of a zealot mob that destroys the very establishment Oberyn once frequented. With his ascendancy, Game of Thrones has ushered in a new thematic focus in Season 5, one that emphasizes the show’s careful balance between fantasy and realism: religion.
There are three major faiths in the Game of Thrones universe, and until very recently, only one of them had amounted to much more than an extra layer of trivia and proper nouns. There are the nameless Old Gods, once worshipped across Westeros but now revered only in the North. Instead of temples or prayers, the Old Gods just have weirwoods, the creepy, white trees with faces on them. There are the Seven, whose official Faith is the state-sanctioned religion of the realm. And there is the Lord of Light, whose priestess Melisandre espouses a catchphrase to rival even valar morghulis: “The night is dark and full of terrors.”
Since the second season, Melisandre — and, to a lesser extent, her colleague Thoros of Myr — has acted as a nearly exclusive outlet for the series’ consideration of religious faith. Both she and Thoros are absolutists, but the reason for their dedication is obvious: even in a world that’s ostensibly a fantasy, they are two of the very few characters who have both access to and control over a bona fide supernatural force. Melisandre gives birth to a murderous shadow. Thoros raises the dead. And though both Robb and Joffrey died very natural deaths, it’s implied that Melisandre’s leeches ushered in their demise.
While magic is certainly possible in Westeros, it’s not actually that much more common in that world than it is in our own; recall the disbelief that has met reports of Dany’s dragons in the east, or the White Walkers’ return in the north. Because of this, the Lord of Light’s apparent power has led to strikingly realistic crises of faith for other characters, winning unlikely converts — the entire Brotherhood without Banners — and inspiring significant doubt in those who aren’t quite convinced. The conversation between Stannis and Davos Seaworth while the latter is behind bars in Season 3 is the most explicit example of grappling with faith: “I saw a vision in the flames,” Stannis tells his deputy. “A great battle in the snow. I saw it, and you saw whatever she gave birth to. I never believed, but when you see the truth — when it’s right there in front of you, as real as these iron bars — how can you deny her god is real?”
The Lord of Light may be one of Game of Thrones’ rare (though increasingly frequent) examples of pure fantasy, but the response his followers inspire is part of the complex, believable tone that’s won the show so many plaudits. And in recent episodes, the show has finally expanded its preoccupation with religion, introducing a movement that’s so far devoid of supernatural elements and playing up the contrast between different species of the faithful.
The irony of the Sparrows, the fundamentalist sect currently tearing its way through the capital, is that their movement rejects materialism while being motivated almost entirely by material concerns. Their popularity makes perfect sense in a city devastated by starvation, war, and income inequality, a dire situation the Tyrells’ arrival only temporarily fixed. So does their adherence to the hardline conservatism we associated with many organized religions in our own world, with tenets that include sobriety and heterosexuality.
While Melisandre is hardly averse to violence — just ask the man she burned at the stake a few weeks ago — she’s also far less invested in the kind of social control the High Sparrow is currently exercising. In fact, much of her behavior runs directly counter to the stereotype of a religious zealot, especially her sexuality, which she portrays as a part of her faith, rather something that exists in spite of it. “For the Lord of Light made us male and female,” she tells Jon Snow, mid-seduction attempt. “Two parts of a greater whole. In our joining, there is power.” Compare that to the Faith Militant, last seen dragging Littlefinger’s prostitutes out by their hair.
That’s because the Sparrows aren’t responding to the call of a higher power with the ability to revive the dead and inspire visions in the flames. They’re responding to the political vacuum left by Tywin Lannister and the anger stirred up by years of conflict. And while the Sparrows likely see their faith as genuine, their presence on Game of Thrones testifies to the enduring power of real, mundane forces like poverty and poor governance, even in a fantasy world. The Lord of Light’s appeal doesn’t entirely rest in His works, either; there’s a reason the red priestess Tyrion recently encountered chose a slave market for her sermon, and why she gathered such a large crowd of the disenfranchised.
Game of Thrones thus portrays religion in a way that’s a microcosm of the show’s larger appeal. Much of it plays out in a way that feels more like an alternate version of medieval history than a world entirely separate from our own; even when miracles come into play, they’re met with the same incredulity as they elicit in real life. The combination of the fantastic and the prosaic is the basis of the series’ appeal, and the reason why it’s widely acclaimed for moving its previously niche genre into the cultural mainstream. In its competing faiths, Game of Thrones may have found the ideal expression of its defining sensibility.