The Rehabilitation of Cersei Lannister
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
“I don’t play her as a villain, I don’t set out to do that consciously, I just play a woman who is a survivor and will do exactly what a man would do — which is, you know, murder somebody when you’re in a war.”
— Lena Headey on her character, Cersei Lannister
With Season 8 fast approaching, I’ve had Game of Thrones on the brain. I recently re-watched the Season 8 teaser. What grabbed my attention was the still shot of the humorless Cersei Lannister holding her ubiquitous goblet of blood red wine. She has a mysterious look. You can't tell if she's tearing up or smug.
It’s become a visual trope. Cue the shot of Cersei drinking wine while doling out evil or watching people suffer. She is often cast as the comic evil Disney Queen. The beloved underdog Tyrion drinks and “knows things.” By contrast, Cersei drinks and is labeled a malevolent alcoholic and a “wine merchant’s best friend.”
I had to wonder … does Cersei deserve her irredeemable “villain” label? She’s an antagonist, to be sure. But that’s not exactly the same as being a villain.
Or is her drinking, like much of her conduct, driven by a tragic past and insatiable desire to subvert the patriarchy and diminish her feelings of powerlessness? I drink because I can. I smirk because I can. I seek revenge because I can.
Is that so profoundly evil, all things considered? Why is nearly everyone an avowed Cersei hater when Lena Headey gives such a brilliant portrayal of a flawed and vulnerable human?
Book Cersei vs Show Cersei
First, it’s worth pointing out, to be fair, that there is a canyon size difference between the Cersei character in George R.R. Martin’s novels and HBO’s show.
Book Cersei is essentially a vain, cruel, egotistical, power hungry psychopath. She is a toxic destructive character whose only apparent virtue is that “she loves her children.”
In the books, it is Cersei who orders the murder of King Robert’s bastards on his death, not Joffrey. We learn that she physically tortured Tyrion as an infant. And we learn that she killed her “greedy little scheming” best friend for daring to dream of marrying Cersei’s twin Jaime. She’s unspeakable, with no redeeming story arc.
To quote Tyrion,
“Cersei is as gentle as King Maegor, as selfless as Aegon the Unworthy, as wise as Mad Aerys. She never forgets a slight, real or imagined. She takes caution for cowardice and dissent for defiance. And she is greedy. Greedy for power, for honor, for love.”
In the show, book Cersei is whitewashed and, happily to my way of thinking, given a more complex character. This likely was done to showcase the astonishing acting talent of Lena Headey. She is flat out the best actor on the show and “new Cersei” gives her a lot of material to work with.
Since it appears —dramatic sob — that Martin may never finish the book series, I’m going to focus on new Cersei. She is all we have, or may ever have.
To me, new Cersei seems smarter, more humane, and more of a real player in the game of thrones than book Cersei. Though she is obsessed with power, she is mostly driven by a desire to protect and promote her family. And by revenge. She is a revenge lover’s fantasy character. We can all re-live our own subliminal desire for revenge through Cersei. You've got to admit that’s a little endearing.
And you know what, I love TV Cersei. I find her compulsively watchable. I see her, mostly, as a damaged product of a tragic past, much of which involved mistreatment by men. I’m not saying she’s “misunderstood” like poor Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series. I’m just saying she’s not your standard villain.
Empathy for Cersei’s Tragic Past
Let’s look at Cersei’s past. I bet most TV watchers don’t know the whole hell of it. I find it wrenching.
Despite her high birth into Lannister privilege, Cersei’s life is straight out of the worst Victorian novel you can imagine. Worse than the characters in Les Miserables. Worse than Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Christo. Worse than Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary. Honestly, it’s worse. It’s surreal.
Cersei's Rotten Childhood
She was born into an uber-masculine society. She was always treated differently than her twin, Jaime, who was groomed for power and prestige. Cersei lost her mother when Tyrion was born, which set her against him for life.
She was left with the stick-in-the-mud, no emotional IQ, stern faced Tywin as her only parent. That would subvert any child’s normal emotional development.
In fact, Tywin's cold, tyrannical approach to life and parenting may have lead to Cersei’s incest with Jaime -- as a passive aggressive measure of defiance against Tywin. She knew he would hate the sexual deviancy (even though she and Jaime are technically the product of Tywin's and Joanna's incest).
And what did Tywin do with his golden child Cersei? Well, as was the fashion in those days for rich dictators, he commodified and objectified her. Even that didn’t go exactly as planned.
Bad Luck in Love and Marriage
The beautiful Cersei was rejected outright by her father’s intended match and the object of her affections — Rhaegar Targaryen. It turns out that Mad King Aerys, Rhaegar's father, thought his hand Tywin had gotten a bit too uppity. This was the punishment, no marriage between their children. Rhaegar was hastily married off to a Dornish girl while Tywin fumed and Cersei cried.
It was a blow to Cersei, as it would be to any smitten young woman. If you’ve had a teenage daughter suffer heartbreak, you know what I mean. It’s a traumatic ordeal. The misery is so abject, so despondent, so lingering that you want to put a pillow over your head and scream silently. Or take an emergency geographical cure. (France is always an attractive option.)
Then, Cersei was married off to the angry, unpredictable drunk Robert Baratheon. Sure, she was the queen and had the accompanying material trappings. And plenty of high quality cru premier. However, under the money doesn’t buy happiness truism, that is hardly recompense for a loveless marriage. Robert raped her, physically abused her, and relentlessly taunted her with his dim memories of his "one true love," Lyanna Stark.
If this were me, I wouldn’t take it well. I wouldn’t smile brightly at the unpleasantness. Scars would be left, perhaps permanent ones. In Feast of Crows, Cersei is described thusly:
“She had played the dutiful daughter, the blushing bride, the pliant wife. She had suffered Robert’s drunken groping, Jaime’s jealousy, Renly’s mockery, Varys with his titters, Stannis endlessly grinding his teeth. She had contended with Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, and her vile, treacherous, murderous dwarf brother, all the while promising that one day it would be her turn.”
But the Children ...
The pain train just kept barreling toward Cersei, like a hungry hyena laughing at its doomed prey. Her son Joffrey becomes king, but is poisoned by Lady Elena. Her daughter Myrcella is poisoned by Ellaria Sand in Dorne, shortly after Cersei warns Ellaria's lover Obeyn that “everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” Her son Tommen is married to the scheming Margery Tyrell who constantly undermines Cersei, stoking divisiveness.
Tywin demands that Cersei remarry to further solidify the Lannister-Tyrell alliance. Initially, she defiantly refuses, unwilling to sell herself into another loveless marriage with the Loras Tyrell. Moments later, in a plaintive melancholy way, Cersei whispers: “Father please don’t make me do it again. Please.” She pleads; that is gut wrenching.
At least that marriage was thwarted by Tyrion’s patricide. An act which Tyrion does not get much criticism for, at least from the fans. Everyone cheered when Tyrion launched the crossbow at Tywin, no matter the gravity of his crime. Tyrion is excused for vengeance; Cersei is not.
The Walk of Shame Debacle
And then there was Cersei’s Walk of Shame — the most brutal, graphic, ugly humiliation imaginable.
After confessing to incest, Cersei is stripped down, shorn, and forced to walk naked and bleeding through King’s Landing while being pelted with spoiled food. You can see the emotions of vulnerability, violation, and rage writ large on her pained visage.
I didn’t particularly like the way the scene was depicted, too much gratuitous nudity to titillate TV viewers. But the pathos was well conveyed, and it was unbearable. And the walk likely made Cersei even more self-preservatory.
If it were me, I’d have a deeply damaged and fragile psyche after that too. And probably enough rage to blow up the equivalent of Baelor’s Sept. In fact, much of Cersei’s desperate power seeking isn’t misplaced paranoia. It’s designed to reverse what’s happened to her, to combat being powerless and abused. We all struggle with negative experience, and Cersei is no different.
Why I Love The Cersei Character
With that tragic backdrop, I believe Cersei can be a more meaningfully evaluated. In fact, I think there are some damn positive things about her personality. Here’s why I love show Cersei.
First, she’s got backbone. You have to give her that. She’s dauntless and resilient. Despite constant abuse and adversity, she can’t be kept down. When the husband-lout Robert punches her in exasperation for her outspokenness, she doesn’t hesitate and fires back: “I shall wear this [bruise] as a badge of honor.”
At bottom, Cersei’s a feisty survivor who’s weathered shitstorms and clawed her way to personal freedom. Yes, she’s ruthless. But one has to be ruthless to survive the torrent of bad luck, sexism, and outright criminal behavior to which she’s been subjected. And ruthlessness comes in handy when playing the game of thrones where “you either win or die.”
Second, Cersei pushes gender boundaries. She makes men uncomfortable and uneasy by refusing to be proper. That's a super likeable quality. She doesn’t do what “is expected” of a woman in her position. Like a man, Cersei uses whatever she has to get whatever she wants. She declares herself to be a “lioness” and refuses to except exclusion from the boys’ club.
Consider the scene with Littlefinger where he is outmaneuvered to his shock and chagrin. He claims that “knowledge is power,” threatening Cersei over her incest with Jaime. Cersei blows him off. She responds with blades and the retort that “power is power.” Her transformation from miserable wife to wine toting alpha is almost complete.
Related to this boundary bashing trait and the best thing about Cersei to my mind, is the fact that she doesn’t give a toss about the judgment of others. In a world where female self doubt and taking the submissive “diplomatic” route are still the norms today, this is a fabulous kick ass trait. Most women need to read the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Cersei could have written it.
Third, most of Cersei's action are driven by a fierce desire to protect her children. Perhaps because she was stuck with the medieval female lot in life and excluded from political power for so long, she focuses all her energy on her children. Even Tyrion concedes that “she loves her children." As Cersei tells Joffrey, “everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.”
This is real, not phony. She doesn’t want her daughter shipped off to Dorne for an arranged marriage. When Myrcella is murdered, Cersei cries: “She was so sweet … Where did she come from … She was nothing like me.” That seems akin to real love to me.
She was also wrecked by Joffrey’s death, in genuine mourning over it. And she was pissed that Margery Tyrell was ruthlessly using both Joffrey and Tommen to gain power for herself and her family without genuinely loving her sons.
Sure, Cersei’s a bit of a narcissist (an inherited trait from Tywin) and sometimes views her family as possessions or extensions of herself. This is in fact the order of the day in Westerosi culture.
But when Cersei says “I would do things for my family you couldn’t even imagine …” you believe the tiger mom. So she scores some points for loyalty. In Westeros, loyalty is a scarce commodity, not something to be sniffed at. The Starks certainly prize it.
Fourth, Cersei’s intelligent. I like smart ladies. Lately, she’s more intelligent than Tyrion, the sibling portrayed as a veritable genius. Her strategic thinking has improved, and she is no longer a fount of bad ideas.
For example, she completely outsmarted Tyrion and Daenerys in “The Queen’s Justice” episode in Season 7. Cersei ceded the empty Casterly Rock (having transferred the gold). Then she handily seized Highgarden, the fertile home of the Tyrells, when Tyrion’s back was turned. Even her courtship of Euron was an inspired tactic. He's got an unmatched fleet.
Fifth, I think Cersei’s the victim of sexism, and that flat out irks me and makes me root for her. Sure, she’s done a lot of vicious things and is very murdery. We all have our faults. But every single man in the show has committed vile acts too, and some are nonetheless revered or forgiven.
Unlike Cersei, the men also are not labelled “bitches,” with few exceptions. No, the violence wrought by men is often deemed par for the course in lawless medieval Westeros. Cersei shouldn’t be condemned for acts that other male characters are not condemned for. Fair is fair. The fact that Cersei fights against sexism and stereotyping should make her human, not inherently evil.
In fact, if Cersei is “evil,” one might consider the conduct of the Starks. The Starks are everyone’s favorite Westeros family. Pure as the driven snow. At least that has been the narrative from day one.
Ned Stark, a pillar of rectitude, has lied to Jon Snow his entire life. He denied Jon his rightful status as a Targaryen heir and branded him a bastard. Arya is a face swapping nameless killing machine bent on revenge (and is still everyone’s favorite).
In reality, the Starks have played a significant role in wreaking havoc on Westeros. Ned Stark put the dissolute Robert on the throne -- someone who hated governing, hated the people, and squandered the treasury. In the next revolt, the Starks told everyone that Cersei’s children were born of incest. This incites a slew of suppliants to the throne and, on a macro level, upends peace in Westeros. Then, the Starks declare independence and plunge Westeros into civil war. What a family.
Sometimes it’s good to be wary of things that are too universally loved. (Some people might be wary of this counter-intuitive sentiment.)
The Great Sept of Baelor
But now we must turn to Cersei’s most vile act, the explosion of the Great Sept of Baelor. When the wildfire explodes, she murders the Faith Militant, the Tyrells, and many innocent people. Must she be unanimously condemned for it? I’m not sure, in the world that is Game of Thrones.
On the one hand, it was a large scale extermination. Though that in and of itself is dispositive or even that uncommon in Westeros. Recall the Red Wedding. Recall Tywin slaughtering the Reynes and Tarbecks families for defying House Lannister. Nor is mass murder unusual in Essos, where the saintly protagonist Daenerys murdered 150 slave owners by dragon. Geopolitics is a complicated affair.
But there was a huge body count at the Sept, and innocents were involved. And among the corpses was Margery. Cersei must have known that the timid and pliant Tommen would be unable to cope with the death of his beloved wife. She therefore bears some guilt for his suicidal leap from the window of Kings Landing. And Cersei’s actions could even be viewed as a de facto seizure of the throne from her own son. This is clearly her most heinous act.
On the other hand, the timely explosion could be regarded as a cunning preemptive move worthy of a true queen. Cersei was threatened. She was to stand trial. A law unto himself, the creepily sanctimonious High Sparrow denied her the traditional trial by combat. Death was squarely in front of her, a kind of filter that helps crystallize the essential course of action.
The High Sparrow’s lackey, Lancel, treks to King’s Landing to collect the recalcitrant defendant and berate her further. If Cersei doesn't attend the trial, Lancel admonished, “blood would be shed.”
How was Cersei to response to? Meekly submit? Be imprisoned and shamed yet again? Turn the kingdom over to a cult? Not a chance. You'd have to be mental to choose that option.
No, Cersei had to act against the fanatics. Kill or be killed, win or die. Westeros is a feudal society where might makes right. Even Ned Stark boasted in Season 1 that he "was trained to kill my enemies." Why should Cersei be any different?
Plus, Cersei clearly perceived the explosion as her only recourse. She was not doing evil for evil’s sake, like a classic villain. She was, like Ned Stark, masterfully eradicating a foe that threatened her family and her country. And one wouldn't be amiss in thinking the High Sparrow had it coming.
Indeed, I would argue that the High Sparrow was more of a villain than Cersei in an "evil vs evil" contest. He was a power hungry, twisted, homophobic, manipulative hypocrite whose goal was revolution and global theocracy. His religious fanaticism was worse than Cersei’s Realpolitik.
I mean, just look at Lancel’s carved forehead.
Cersei used wildfire, to be sure, a devilish weapon. But she’s not reckless with the wildfire like the Mad King Aerys. She surgically deployed it to target only the Sept of Baelor.
Cersei’s maneuver is just a bold wartime move. As Jaime Lannister tells Lady Olena (before he kills her):
"But after we've won, and there's no one left to oppose us, when people are living peacefully in the world she built, do you really think they'll wring their hands over the way she built it?"
I can see why Cersei chose violence. Sometimes “I like to play a little game” and imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. If a crazy fundamentalist locked me up, tortured me, and marched me naked through the streets, you can be assured I’d want to eliminate him. Especially if he was threatening a repeat performance.
And I’d probably have a whopping case of PTSD, which it appears Cersei may indeed be suffering from. With her three children in their “shrouds of gold” as prophesized, Cersei has psychologically devolved, possibly into madness. Martin likes history to repeat itself in his works. And, so the Mad Queen Cersei may supplant the Mad King Aerys.
Or, who knows, the newly Goth Cersei may stay atop the Iron Throne in the end, depending on whether the "valonqar" prophesy comes to fruition. But I think it's more likely she'll be killed by her twin Jaime in his attempt to regain his honor.
Besides, the ultimate owner of the throne may largely besides the point right now. “Who cares who sits on the Iron Throne if all they rule over is skeletons?” Jon Snow wisely asks Daenerys.
So what conclusions can we draw? Well, I think it’s fair to say that Cersei is not a one dimensional, irredeemable villain. She’s not even all the bad, by Game of Thrones standards.
She’s not nearly as evil as Gregore Clegane, Roose and Ramsey Bolton, Euron and Victorian Greyjoy, her own father Tywin, or her own son Joffrey. Much of what she does is reactive and has some justification. Almost like fan favorite Arya ...
In Game of Thrones, there is no firm moral order, virtually no one is purely good or evil, and they are all “playing the game” with whatever weapons are at their disposal. No one is safe. Sometimes the good guys win, sometimes the bad guys win.
Cersei was the victim of rape, abuse, negligence, and prejudice. And she was tasked with saving herself. She’s unquestionably a deeply flawed, unlikeable, and often toxic character, as befitting an antagonist in a florid medieval novel.
But I view her through the lens of her past and the atrocities committed against her. They are what drive her. And her survival instincts and gumption are admirable. She fights back, and sometimes I can’t blame her. Love her or hate her, she's a gloriously complex character.
So I disagree with Clive James when he famously called Cersei “a beautiful expression of arbitrary terror.”
There’s nothing remotely “arbitrary” about Cersei. Everything she does is for a strategic purpose, whether it’s defending her family, avenging a wrong, or playing the game of thrones while “lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out by the root, one by one, before they strangle you in their sleep.”
Game of Thrones image credits: HBO
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