“When you play the game of thrones you win, or you die. There is no middle ground…”
Any Game of Thrones fan worth their salt will tell you that Cersei Lannister – portrayed by the magnificent Lena Headey – is the true villain of George R R Martin’s tale. And, at a glance, I suppose that looks to be true: after all, it is her affair with her twin brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) which led to the paralysis of Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) – and, subsequently, the execution of his oh-so-noble father, Ned (Sean Bean). It is she who arranged for her husband, King Robert (Mark Addy), to be killed in a hunting accident. Cersei later attempted to have her brother, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), killed during the Battle of the Blackwater – resulting in his being permanently scarred and stripped of power. And she refused to hide her disgust when Jaime is maimed, insisting he be fitted with a golden prosthetic hand.
Her evil deeds do not end there. Jealous of the relationship Margaery (Natalie Dormer) shared with her son, Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), it was Cersei who engineered for the younger woman to be arrested and imprisoned by the High Sparrow. It was she who ordered Qyburn (Anton Lesser) to resurrect the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) – which means that, yes, there’s a ginormous zombie in the Kingsguard. And it was she who ignited a large cache of Wildfire underneath King’s Landing, resulting in the deaths of Margaery, Mace (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) and Loras Tyrelle (Finn Jones), as well as countless others.
Later, we saw her chain up Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and force her to watch as her daughter, Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers), slowly expired after consuming poison. And then, of course, came the final nail in the coffin: come the end of season seven, she dismissed the threat of the White Walkers and refused to send aid to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Instead, she has declared that she will allow her enemies to exhaust themselves against the Army of the Dead, and will send her Golden Company to mop up the remnants when the battle is done.
No wonder she has been abandoned by Jaime. No wonder she has been branded a manipulative, untrustworthy, power-mad narcissist. No wonder so many people deem her the biggest villain of Westeros.
Well, Cersei isn’t evil for evil’s sake: far from it, in fact. This is a queen who was forced into a difficult position by the expectations of her father and of her culture. This is a woman who tragically lost her first-born son, a “little black-haired beauty”, when he was just a babe in arms.
“Such a little thing,” she recalled during an emotional chat with Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), way back in season one. “A bird without feathers. They came to take his body away and Robert held me. I screamed and I battled, but he held me.
“That little bundle. They took him away and I never saw him again.”
Above all else, this is a woman who fell in love with a warrior king, only to learn that he would not, could not, love her back. Instead, he raped and abused her at every possible opportunity.
As the book states: “For Robert, those nights never happened. Come morning he remembered nothing, or so he would have had her believe. Once, during the first year of their marriage, Cersei had voiced her displeasure the next day. ‘You hurt me,’ she complained. He had the grace to look ashamed. ‘It was not me, my lady,’ he said in a sulky sullen tone, like a child caught stealing apple cakes from the kitchen. ‘It was the wine. I drink too much wine.’ To wash down his admission, he reached for his horn of ale. As he raised it to his mouth, she smashed her own horn in his face, so hard she chipped a tooth. Years later at a feast, she heard him telling a serving wench how he’d cracked the tooth in a mêlée. Well, our marriage was a mêlée, she reflected, so he did not lie.
“The rest had all been lies, though. He did remember what he did to her at night, she was convinced of that. She could see it in his eyes. He only pretended to forget; it was easier to do that than to face his shame. Deep down Robert Baratheon was a coward. In time the assaults did grow less frequent. During the first year he took her at least once a fortnight; by the end it was not even once a year. He never stopped completely, though. Sooner or later there would always come a night when he would drink too much and want to claim his rights. What shamed him in the light of day gave him pleasure in the darkness.”
Is it any wonder that Cersei arranged for her husband to be killed, then? Is it any wonder that she protested – and lashed out – when her father threatened her with another loveless marriage? And is it any wonder that she did what she could to find happiness in the midst of all that heartbreak?
Cersei is a victim of circumstance, sure, but an orchestrator of her own destiny. She found love where she could and clung on to it with all her might. She took solace in her children, and did everything she could to protect them from harm. She – just like Catelyn Stark did – swore vengeance on those who harmed her babies.
And… well, I don’t want to be that person, but she didn’t order Ned’s execution: she was just as shocked as we were when her son, King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), unceremoniously lopped Lord Stark’s head off. Nor did she ask Jaime to throw Bran out of the tower window when he stumbled across their incestuous union: that was her twin brother’s decision entirely, and one which she berated him for afterwards.
And the stuff with Tyrion and Margaery and co? Well, that was all down to her mistaken belief that they were plotting the demise of her children. Indeed, come the most recent series, Cersei had every opportunity to kill Tyrion where he stood before her… but chose not to. Same with Jaime.
Essentially, there isn’t a lot about Cersei that could be described as noble, but she is certainly realistic – and follows a strict moral code, albeit one less conventional than that of her fellow Westeros leaders. Remember that it was her late husband who called for a newly-pregnant Daenerys to be assassinated back in season one. That is is Arya (Maisie Turner) who has been steadily working through her own “kill list” ever since she witnessed her father’s execution. That Sansa (Sophie Turner) fed her rapist to his own dogs. And that Catelyn Stark killed the innocent Joyeuse Frey (Kelly Long) in retaliation for the death of her son, Robb (Richard Madden).
Perhaps the most important comparison to draw, though, is the one between Cersei and Daenerys.
At a glance, these women have a great deal in common. Both were married off to powerful men in a bid to forge political alliances, and both eventually played a hand in the deaths of their doomed husbands. Both have an insatiable thirst for power. And both would do anything – and we mean anything – for their children, human or dragon.
The stark differences, though, come in how they deal with their enemies. Take the moment when Cersei was delivered the dead body of her beloved daughter, Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free), for example. Against all expectations, she did not – as one might expect – fall into raging revenge plans, nor did she ask for war to be brought to the Dornish. Instead, she determined to punish those who harmed her, and only those, when she gets the chance.
It’s a far cry from Daenerys’ sense of “justice”. Indeed, the Dragon Queen’s first impulse is to always destroy indiscriminately: remember when she burnt all the Khals? Or her plans for the slavers of Mereen?
“I will crucify the Masters,” she said. “I will set their fleets afire, kill every last one of their soldiers, and return their cities to the dirt.”
Unlike Cersei, who always utters her threats from a strongly emotional standpoint (one of helplessness or grief), Daenerys does so calmly and from a position of power. She is detached, and calculating, and cruel – and yet, somehow, it is Cersei who has been branded the monster.
It is worth noting that there are many who believe that Cersei holds the key to Westeros’ salvation. That she will ‘come good in the end’. And that it is she who will make the ultimate sacrifice to save the kingdom from the White Walkers – perhaps after being reunited with the “black-haired” son she’s long believed to be dead (more on that here).
Then there’s Headey’s recent comments about her character’s role in the final season (due to air later this spring), which saw her point out Cersei’s determination to undo the sexist rules of Westeros and make it so a woman might take the throne.
“We’ve seen [these characters] over such a long period of time, and with the subtleties of men’s weaknesses being exposed throughout, these women have risen over the course of this series,” she said.
“I really, genuinely love Cersei and you just have to admire a survivor like that. She absolutely refuses to let go.”
Exactly. Cersei may not be the most popular woman in Westeros, but she’s certainly the most compelling – and we can’t wait to see what role she will play in season eight. At the very least, we hope the anti-Cersei propaganda machine stops whirring for once. After all, she may not be our number one choice for a dinner party (if only because she’d drink all the wine), but she’s certainly one of the most empowered women in Westeros, and as such has earned our grudging respect… from a safe distance.