What Cersei Lannister’s Ending Tells Us About Her — And About Ourselves
Cersei Lannister is without a doubt one of the most memorable characters from Game of Thrones. Some people absolutely despise her while at the same time she has a rather large community of fans you can see around the internet — both mostly agree she was one of the better villains in the show’s history. One of her first scenes, in the very first episode, is her condescendingly extending her hand to Ned, to grant him the great privilege of kissing it. Ever since that moment, fans despised her- though in a good way, since she’s a great villain. While her twin brother Jaime also had a rather similar start with the viewers that changed over time, Cersei’s status as a villian remaind intact until the very ending of the show. Sure, she’s had moments of showing her human side throughout the series, and her unbounded love for her children is one of her most defining qualities, but at the end of the day, she’s always someone you don’t root for. She’s an antagonist, and her interests are almost never aligned with the characters that you want to succeed. Even with the Faith militant arc, it was hard to feel sympathy for her because, well, she brought it on herself.
Her acts of villainy continued to accumulate throughout the seasons- from ordering the execution of Sansa’s direwolf, conspiring agains Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark, mentally tormenting Sansa- and the list goes on and on… And that didn’t change at all in the last season. She was the same antagonist she always was, perhaps the endgame villain of the show in the fight for the Iron Throne. In a somewhat hilarious scene in the beginning of the season she sounded very pleased to hear the Army of the Dead have breached the Wall and marching towards Winterfell, she sent an assassin to kill both her ‘traitor’ brothers and finally executed one of the most pure characters in the entire series, just to piss Daenerys off and push her to the edge. “What a fucking bitch. I can’t wait to see her die,” probably everyone said.
But in her final moments, when I expected her to be the defiant lion who doesn’t show weakness, she showed her most human side yet. In some of Lena Headey’s most brilliant showcases of acting, she was terrified. Hysterical. “I don’t want to die…Not like this…” she quivers as the room collapses around her. And in that moment I couldn’t feel happy that “the evil Queen” was finally going to get what she deserved. I felt sad for her. Part of me wanted both her and Jaime to make it out and actually sail to Pentos. Who would have thought? Despite everything that happened in the past eight seasons, I felt sad about the most consistent antagonist of the show meeting her end.
The show was able to recreate empathy towards her, which was powerful move to end her story. Something that might sound impossible at first thought. Sure, it might have been ‘fun’ to see some cool dragon action around her death, green wildfire or some violent strangling. But what additional value would that add?
And to be honest it was more shocking that some people were shocked by this. At the end of the day her death was truly in the spirit of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps far more than Ramsay’s and Walder Frey’s death. Tywin died on a toliet, there’s no hero coming back to vanquish the evil king Joffrey, Drogo got anticlimatic death, Renly was killed by a shadow after we spent half a season building up expectations from his army.
While speaking generally of the destruction of King’s Landing, director Miguel Sapochnik revealed what him and the writers tried to achieve with this episode. While he is mostly referring to the carange at the streets of King’s Landing at large, his insight definitely shed light on the choice of Cersei and Jaime’s death scene as well:
“You wanted this, you wanted this, you wanted this. Here. Is that really what you wanted? I felt like there was this thing of this bloodthirstiness that exists in the fans, for revenge, for this payback that is personified by Dany. I just wanted to get to the core of what that actually means. I wanted people to know how bad death and destruction can be in the safe environment they’re living in. […] it was something that evolved out of the need, or my desire, to not just add to the equation of violence in television, but rather to at least propose, ‘Think about it.’”
This ‘twist’ in the writers take on her death scene didn’t just come out of nowhere. As we mentioned before, Cersei sustained her villainous status all throughout the show, however every time her malicious plans did backfire on her it wasn’t a satisfactory moment for the viewers like you would expect, in contrast to Ramsay Bolton’s or Walder Frey’s deaths, for example. During her Walk of Shame, and mainly due to Headey’s masterful Emmy-worthy performance, it was hard not to feel bad for her throughout the entire thing. Even though, this whole Faith Militant was ultimately something she brought on herself, trying to destroy Maergery and the Tyrells, among other things. Same can be said about every time she lost one of her children. Going back even further in time, in season 2 when we thought the Battle of Blackwater is lost for the Lannisters, Cersei’s scene with Tommen on the Throne was rather heartbreaking, and didn’t remotely give us a feeling of catharsis for the defeat of an evil character. I’m not sure who rooted for who while watching that battle for the first time, but when Tywin walked into that room and declared “the war is won!” I couldn’t help but feel this is some sort of triumphant moment, despite the fact the Lannisters just won once again.
The purpose of Cersei’s character is ultimately to show the futility of revenge. Every time the story punishes Cersei- it doesn’t feel good. Walk of Shame, death of Tommen and Myrcella,… Even watching Cersei being treated as a punching bag in Season 6 was only satisfying at first. Soon you want her to fight back. Personally I entered season 6 actively rooting for her against the High Sparrow. In the end, her death needed a similar tone. We as the audience easily turn into an angry mob, screaming for punishment. And a story, almost always, responds giving us what we want. I don’t know of any person who didn’t want Theon to get comeuppance during Season 2, while aslo being sick to their stomach while that actually happened in Season 3.
It all goes back to that briliant Gandalf’s line from The Lord of the Rings : “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”
While Cersei was a hateful and merciless person until the very end, the show doesn’t let the audience revel in her demise. There is no triumph or catharsis in watching her die. No sense that justice has been served. Instead, as she wanders looking for a way out, crying for the imminent death of herself and her unborn child, we are reminded again of her humanity. Not because Cersei particularly deserves it, but because we as an audience are meant to take no joy in human suffering.
The underlying premise of Cersei’s story was never to watch a new Mad Queen, nor to give Jaime a chance to prove his heroism, and while the fandom had been rooting for her to be killed by a hero, the story was always critiquing this impulse. It was always about forcing us to contend with the public appetite for punishment. About following this villainous Queen on her long Walk of Shame as she leads us to question whether this is the kind of justice we believe in. Is this really a better world?
What makes Cersei such a fantastic character, and what separates her from other “villain” characters, is that we consistently witness her suffering. Cersei’s struggles are made clear. Typically, villain characters like Joffrey, Tywin, Ramsay, or Walder generally don’t suffer, and if they do we don’t get a front row seat to it. They are mostly just abusive people who serve as antagonists until the day that they’re overcome and killed. We are never really given a chance to feel much sympathy for them. Yet the audience is meant to get no amusement from Cersei’s comeuppance. It doesn’t feel like poetic justice when it happens to Cersei. Even though Cersei may “deserve” it, her suffering just demonstrates how problematic, sexist, and dehumanizing the structures we are looking at really are.
When we look at her story, it’s filled with instances such as these. Cersei is an active participant in (and takes joy from) the destruction of House Stark, from Bran’s fall, to Ned’s death, to the Red Wedding. Based on the “eye for an eye” principle, Cersei should deserve to suffer the death of her own children, and the destruction of her House. After all, that would be proportional to her crimes right?
But when it happens, it’s never something to feel good about.