The Journey of Jaime Lannister, A Man of Honor
Game of Thrones and the rich world of George R. R. Martin provided us with a variety of complex and multilayered characters. In my opinion, the one that went through the most fascinating personal journey was Jaime Lannister, the infamous Kingslayer.
When Game of Thrones was roughly in the middle of its run, there was a popular joke about a fan telling a new viewer that Jaime is one of his favorite characters, only to be met with disbelief, since that surely didn’t seem like the case back then. During season 1, I don’t think there were many people that liked this guy. He was arrogant, cruel and perhaps even a little bit annoying. Even during his captivity with the Starks in S2 it felt like in every moment you want Catelyn to bash another rock into his head. But during the run of the show, Jaime is the character that presented the most personal development from all the others, in my opinion.
To me it seemed there are two major principles that were always guiding Jaime, at least to some degree. These principles are the ones that defined him throughout the shows entire run, from the beginning to the very end. The first one, is his loyalty to his family- and more specifically, his love to his sister. The fact that Cersei is considered an evil character by most people is irrelevant to this issue, since Jaime loved Cersei both as a sister and as a lover. The very first despicable act he has done in the show — pushing Bran out the tower’s window, the thing that basically set all the events of the show in motion, was done to protect him and Cersei. And the dignity and power of House Lannister, of course. The other principle that he tried to follow along the way was the concept of Honor. To try and be an honorable man that is true to his words and does the right thing. And the interesting thing is that both these principles often contradict each other, leaving Jaime torn somewhere in between. This inner conflict is brilliantly brought to life by Nikolaj Coster Waldau, that with his nuanced acting in different scenes you can see how torn inside Jaime is, between the two polars of his personality.
It’s pretty safe to say the most pivotal moment to his progress as a character was his time with Brienne in S3. During this time they made several conversations about honor, and you could see back then, or perhaps even much earlier in the show, that it really bothered him that people looked at him with disrespect as the “Kingslayer”, “Oathbreaker” or the man that literally stabbed his king through the back. The moment he lost his hand he also lost a huge part of his personality- his fighting tool as a fabled warrior, so ever since then he had to redefine himself, constantly torn between the two aspects of his identity. In the character defining bathtub scene in season 3 episode 5, we find out that he didn’t just kill the king because he felt like it, but he learned that the Mad King is going to obliterate the entire population of King’s Landing with the stashes of Wildfire he had scattered around the capital. All while his father, Tywin Lannister, was standing at the city gates, preparing an attack.
So perhaps he is not just a backstabbing jerk after all? He did break his oath, but he did it to save his family, and half a million other civilians. Surely after returning to the capital, he indeed upholds the oath he made for Catelyn Stark back at captivity- he arms and armors Brienne of Tarth and sends her to find the Stark girls, bring them home and protect them. That was the first time we as the viewers got to see a completely changed Jaime, upholding an oath no one thought he will actually go through with, behind his sister’s back. Later in season 6, in his conversation with Edmure during the siege of riverrun, he tells him he even admired Catelyn, for the ferocious love she had for her children. Kind of like Cersei, he said.
During his time counseling Cersei as Queen or de-facto queen in his times at King’s Landing, we always saw hime try to temper Cersei’s evil impulses, often in vein. Another character defining moment comes in the ending of season 7, when he learns Cersei is intending to break her promise to go and help the fight with the Army of the Dead in the North, only for her other enemies to destroy each other so they could deal with whoever is left. In that moment he decides to walk away from Cersei and ultimately go North and do the right thing. And indeed, there he was, in one of the most gruesome battles the seven Kingdoms ever knew, willing to die to protect Winterfell among his many enemies — all facing their common existential enemy.
While by the end of the show Jaime is certainly not the man he was at the very beginning, and he managed to redeem his dishonorable image he gained during his career as a warrior and Kingslayer, I do believe Jaime’s care for the innocents or otherwise is getting a little bit exaggerated by his fans and general viewers alike. While he did murder the Mad King once he learned he is going to blow up King’s Landing sky-high, he didn’t do it purely to protect the thousands of innocents in King’s Landing — I believe the most prominent factor in his decision was that his father was standing at the gates, and he did it mostly to protect his house and family. As I mentioned before, with the Lannisters and Jaime most of all, the family comes first. “We are the only ones that matter”, he used to tell Cersei repeatedly throughout the show, While on a general basis he wouldn’t go on doing horrible things to innocent people, like some might think he would do back as S1 Jaime, and despite the fact he did fight for the greater good when it didn’t contradict his other principles, when it comes to his family he would do whatever it takes to protect them and be with them. The aforementioned scene between him and Edmure in Riverrun serves as a good example- he did go there to solve the conflict as peacefully as possible, yet he told Edmure that eventually, if it comes to that, he would do anything necessary to go back to Cersei and to reclaim his house’s hold on the region. As another example, throughout the show he never seem to condemn the Red Wedding event, or the blowing of the sept by his sister- because all of it was done by the name of his family to protect them.
The scene that puts it bluntly in the eyes of the viewers is the one where Jaime is leaving Brienne at Winterfell to go back to the capital to save Cersei. While some people accuse this scene of breaking outside of Jaime’s character, I find it to be the one most true to his inside personality, and more character defining than any scene before. No matter how honorable he always tries to be, to change the stigma everyone always had about him of the “man without honor”, his one weakness was always Cersei. Throughout the span of the show, and even beforehand in his life, he made a lot of terrible things for Cersei. He pushed a young boy out of a window only to protect Cersei, killed his own kin only to go back to Cersei, etc. And in that moment he realized that Cersei might have underestimated her opponent, knowing Daenerys will unleash her full wrath on her in no time. More than ever, now he felt it’s the time to go back to Cersei and try to save her and their unborn child. He already upheld his oath to fight for the living, to bring the Stark sisters back home, and even defected from Cersei’s malicious plan to exterminate half of her enemies fighting with the Army of the Dead. But now that her life was in more danger than ever before, he had to go back and try to prevent the disaster from happening, no matter what stands in his way.
“She is hateful, and so am I”, he says in a declaration of self loathing. This scene is in my opinion one of the most important in the entire series, and this is perhaps the scene that ultimately defines Jaime’s arc and bring it to full closure. One episode later, in the heartbreaking final conversation between him and Tyrion, Jaime shows the same self loathing — “I never cared much for the innocents and otherwise” he says, putting the same veil we saw him put countless times during the show of saying what people expect to hear from him. Understanding the no matter how bad he will try he will never get over Cersei and will never leave her toxic grasp. Time and time again he tries to push aside people’s expectations about him that he would do the ‘right thing’, since no matter how hard will try he will always result back to square one- and that repulses him about himself. Here comes the same brilliant nuanced acting by Nikolaj we mentioned before- when he is talking with so much self hatred you can see in his face and hear in his voice how disappointed Jaime is of himself. Thankfully Nikolaj managed to receive his well deserved Emmy nominations for both final seasons of the show, when his character’s inner conflict reached its peak. Anyway, he should have also won the award for the third season, if it was up to me.
The penultimate episode of the show features the mighty tragic ending to Cersei’s and Jaime’s love story, as their empire crumbles on top of their heads. During Jaime and Bronn’s travels in Dorne in season 5, Bronn asks Jaime how he’d like to leave this world- to this he replies “in the arms of the woman I love”. It is clear that it was a moment of foreshadowing, and that his death was meant to be this way, just as he came to this world. Jaime’s story and entire character were formed when he kills his King, but he dies protecting his Queen- while the descendant of the King he killed is doing the exact same thing Jaime prevented him from doing back then. Their death scene presented one additional way the final season sucker punched the viewers to feelings they never expected to have. I’m sure many bloodthirsty viewers were fantasizing about Cersei dying in some horrible way, but the writers somehow managed to make her death scene rather sympathetic, perhaps even sad — while on the other hand, one episode later, a hero like Daenerys Targaryen dies so ingloriously. The setting of Jaime being there by her side, serving as the tragic ending to their love story surely helped. When the piano starts playing that Rains of Castamere theme you can’t help but feeling a little ache in your gut. One of Ramin Djawadi’s finest works in the entire show.
While some people see Jaime’s journey throughout the series as some sort of classic redemption arc of a hateful man redeeming his past crimes and becoming some sort of a reborn ‘hero’, I think like everything evolving the multilayered characters George R. R. Martin presented us in the Song of Ice and Fire universe, the story is much more nuanced than that. We’ve seen plenty of redemption arcs in television and movies (even our very own one of Theon Greyjoy), but with Jaime it’s something different. He did manage to transform into the honorable man he always prospered to be, but never got free from the thing that defined him the most- his loyalty to his family and love for his sister, no matter how toxic it may be. And as we saw, he even repulses himself with the fact he can’t escape it. Did his character develop during the show? Most certainly. He turned from one of them most infamous characters in Westeros to a true Man of Honor. But there was much more to him than that deep inside. And that’s how he finished his story — in the arms of the woman he loves, but at the same time immortalized as a hero that helped defeat the army of the dead and ultimately dying doing his duty protecting his queen.
In James Hibberd amazing oral-history book about the making of Game of Thrones, actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau provided his own insight on Jaime’s ultimate decision: “You wonder if he’s changed and if he’s escaped the destructive relationship. He’s so bound by this code of honor of family first, and he and Cersei have a strong bond on every level. But he has to go back. She’s all alone. He’s the last one she has. He has to try to save her. It makes sense even though you don’t want it to.” He was Quoted saying. “The important thing in their last scene is Jaime had a chance at freedom and to liberate himself finally from her, but ultimately they belong together. Cersei realized just how much she loved him and just how much he loved her” added Lena Headey.
The closing chapter in Jaime’s character arc indeed comes in one of the very last moments of the show, in the scene Brienne is commemorating is deeds in the White Book. While during his entire life he suffered from the stain of “Kingslayer”, “Oathbreaker” and “Man Without Honor” on his reputation, in the end he did managed to escape the stigma, and the way people will remember him, according to the entry in the book, is as a hero who fought for the greater good and died an honorable death. Even his return to Cersei, something we as viewers might perceive as a step back towards his old self, is presented in an entirely different, yet one hundred percent relevant, angle of him fulfilling his duty and dying protecting the Queen he swore to fight for.
To be frank, it’s often rather frustrating to see a lot of viewers praising George R. R. Martin for the depth of his characters (which is of course true) while accusing Benioff and Weiss of “dumbing the story down” — while at the same time those same people over-simplify a complicated character such as Jaime Lannister to just a normal redemption arc, or even characters like Daenerys to the perfect messianic hero or Cersei to pure evil itself. Seeing people reduce Jaime’s entire complicated personality to a boring “born-again hero” thing we’ve seen thousands of times already always seemed to me like missing the whole point of the show. Same goes for Daenerys, Sansa and some others, of course.
On a more personal note, that’s why I was always intrigued by House Lannister the most. While rooting for the Starks and Jon Snow on most occasions, House Lannister was always the most fascinating house for me. Besides getting the greatest musical theme of them all from Djawadi, they always seemed to me as the most complicated characters, with more things beneath the surface than what meets the eye. Tywin Lannister- perhaps the best strategist in the show that was ultimately killed by the son he condemned to death, blaming him for his wife’s death and being completely blind to the fact he was perhaps the brightest of all his offsprings. There’s also Tyrion himself, that was really trying to make a better world while being constantly accused of trying to cause the downfall of his house. While he certainly did not try to do that, eventually and unintentionally that’s exactly what he did, by supporting Daenerys and ignoring her obscure sense of justice- resulting in him watching the legacy of his house in shambles below the wreckage of King’s Landing in the final episode. There’s Cersei too, that with the profound understanding Lena Heady brought to the character managed to elevate it to have more depth than her books counterpart, and of course, Jaime for all the reasons mentioned it this article.
The best thing about Game of Thrones is the fact that you can watch it over and over again, always realizing new anecdotes about it’s characters and their motives- especially after the final season basically demands the viewer to recontextualize everything he though he knew beforehand. Jaime was always one of my favorite characters, yet it was only after his character arc wrapped up completely in the final episode I learned to truly appreciate the depth of his character. While GoT ended a year ago, I’m sure it will keep sparking discussions like that for generations to come, and will stay the crowning jewel in pop culture for the beginning of the 21st century, as it was always building up to be.
This article was written originally for HBOWatch.com, published July 17th, 2020. The quotes from James Hibberd’s “Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon” were added in October, after the release of the book.