Warning: This article will spoil of “Game of Thrones” thus far. Please do not read ahead if you’re not well caught up.
I have to confess an unpopular opinion. Leana Headey’s Cersei Lannister, the polarizing and widely hated villain in “Game of Thrones,” is one of the best characters in TV. Documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns once said that a great story is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, where 1+1 does not equal 2, but 3. A great story is when the good guys have very serious flaws and the villains are very compelling.
As such, Cersei Lannister is one of the greatest parts in “Game of Thrones,” a cog that brings out not only the complications of other characters in the show, as well.
Life is complicated, and that means characters are complicated. To see the world as a black and white battle of good and evil is, frankly, boring. I have brought it up in numerous classes about character that Cersei Lannister is a terrific character because she is a compelling villain, and because I hold the unpopular opinion that any character that can draw your hate, ire, and disgust is a great character. I also hold the unpopular opinion, also, that the Lannisters are better than the Starks as characters, even though my heart goes out to Jon Snow, Rob, Sansa, and Ned Stark, my feelings towards Jaime, Tyrion, and Cersei are much more conflicted and uncertain.
But this is only one article, so I can only focus on one character, and that character is Cersei, the absolutely ruthless, manipulate, cruel Queen now occupying the Iron Throne. She sleeps with her brother. She calls Tyrion a “monstrosity” for his dwarfism. She massacres hundreds inside a church and causes the suicide of her youngest son.
Tyrion once told Cersei that “you love your children. It’s your one redeeming quality. That, and your cheekbones.” But as much a manifestation of evil Cersei is, she is the closest Lannister to her father, Tywin Lannister, and his cunning and ruthlessness. The only problem, in the world of Westeros, is that she was born a woman. She enabled the cruelty of Joffrey, and did it gladly. But she goes even past her father in her ruthlessness. She is able to manipulate the very moment she is the most vulnerable, imprisoned and humiliated by the High Sparrow, to kill all her enemies in a single explosion.
What if Cersei were a man, the average “Game of Thrones” watcher may ask? I have no idea. Perhaps she would be liked more, argues the viewer who complains about misogyny on the show and the lack of compelling female characters in TV in general. She could have undoubtedly been one of the most powerful people in Westeros, much earlier than she already has.
But Cersei is always interesting. Cersei is always engaging. Every scene I watch with Cersei takes my pulls me in and takes my breath away. Her actions are sometimes so horrible and unsympathetic that we wish the writers would just kill her off, but she is still there, still standing, and now doing so on the Iron Throne.
Wow, is it fun watching her. Wow, is it fun hating her. Cersei doesn’t quit, even when she gives the appearance of quitting. She fights unapologetically until the end for her family, for her children, for herself.
And Cersei’s cruelty isn’t there without a reason. She is surviving, and thriving, the only way she knows how, and was afflicted with so much adverse circumstance that I don’t see how she could have become who she was any other way. Her mother died in childbirth. Her father gave away Myrcella, her daughter. Her little brother killed her father. Her oldest son was poisoned. Her youngest son committed suicide. Robert Baratheon, once her unfaithful husband, was in love with another woman and even uttered that woman’s name when consummating their marriage. Her brother raped her in front of her own son’s corpse.
Despite being the most capable and cunning of the Lannisters, the fact that she is a woman prevented her from attaining the privileges bestowed upon Jaime. A fortune teller foretold serious tragedy in her life, all of which has come true. And despite everything that happened to her, the cruelty that she treated (and reciprocated), Cersei is still standing now as the “Mad Queen” and one of the most powerful people in Westeros.
And we also have to ask ourselves the question of what Cersei brings out in other characters, as well. Could Ned Stark’s fatal flaw in his naive honor have been exposed without Cersei’s betrayal? Could Tyrion’s story arc of revenge and vengeance against Cersei been exposed had Cersei not continually harmed and wronged him? Could Jaime have started diverging from being the mirror image of Cersei if, well, Cersei didn’t exist in the first place? Could he have gone on the path to redemption if there was nothing to redeem him from?
And how much of Jaime’s redemption hinges on whether he is the one who kills Cersei, and fulfills the last part of the prophecy that she will die at the hands of her younger brother.
As the story of the show has moved away from the books, I have seen some characters in the show act in ways that compromised their compelling-ness, including Littlefinger being outsmarted by something an earlier Littlefinger would have very much seen coming. For me, “Game of Thrones” has resorted more to expected and popular actions that compromise core character traits in so many of its well-developed characters.
But Cersei has, in my experience, single-handedly preserved the show and its drama. She never fails to enthrall, never fails to surprise, and so much of the show revolves around other people’s interactions with Cersei that it almost seems like she is the Donald Trump of “Game of Thrones,” the character that all her adversaries obsess with thwarting. She is the mastermind that keeps the plot and the drama moving. I could very easily see a world in which her adversaries, obsessed with the threat of the Night King in the north, fail to recognize that the true threat lies south, in Cersei and all her brilliance.
As the final season wraps up the show, no matter how the show ends, I give my hat to George R.R. Martin and the show for the creation of Cersei Lannister, the most compelling and well-developed character not only in the show, but in Television.
Originally published at www.theodysseyonline.com on April 2, 2019.