HBO’s adaptation has gone a different route. Until the end of Season 6, even without the luxury of peering inside the characters’ heads via point-of-view episodes or voiceovers, Cersei (played by Lena Headey) was a uniquely complicated villain, a vengeful royal with a drinking problem who struggled with doing her duty as the daughter of a great house. But in Seasons 7 and 8, she turned into little more than a one-dimensional monster who delighted in creatively torturing her enemies and allied herself with some of the show’s more flatly drawn characters.
And in her final appearance, Sunday night’s “The Bells,” she died buried beneath the Red Keep. Before she did, she pleaded with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to find a way out for them. “I want our baby to live,” she says. “I don’t want to die ... not like this.” After two seasons of spiritless, stereotypical villainy, Cersei finally revealed more of her character. It just came too late. As the Vox critic Todd VanDerWerff put it, Cersei “had long been the show’s best character, but it seemed to lose interest in her for this final stretch of episodes. … Her death—and, honestly, Jaime’s death—felt like an afterthought, like the show suddenly remembered it had all these characters left on the board and it might as well bump them off.”
Read: The Atlantic’s review of the latest ‘Game of Thrones’ episode, ‘The Bells’
Cersei, of course, is far from the only female character in Thrones’ final season to be underserved. The fourth episode’s writing for heroes such as Brienne of Tarth and Sansa Stark irked fans (including high-profile ones such as the actor Jessica Chastain and the director Ava DuVernay) and critics, who pointed out—as others have before—how Thrones, with its lack of female writers and directors, has always struggled with portraying women. Episode 5 only furthered that argument, as Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) burned enemies and innocents alike in King’s Landing, cementing her status as the overemotional female leader who must be stopped.
From the showrunners’ perspective, Cersei’s transformation can be traced back to the loss of all three of her children. “It was the one thing that really humanized her, you know—her love for her kids,” David Benioff said in HBO’s behind-the-scenes video for the Season 6 finale, in which Cersei indirectly caused the death of her youngest child. “As much of a monster as she could sometimes be, she was a mother who truly did love her children.”
The Thrones writers may have considered Cersei’s maternal instincts her one redeeming quality, but in the early seasons, she wasn’t just a doting mother; she was also a woman who’d constantly felt overlooked, who’d ached to wear armor instead of gowns, and who’d wanted to be respected as much as Tywin had been—maybe even more. In one of the best Lannister-centric scenes of Season 3, Cersei cowered when Tywin ordered her to marry Loras Tyrell. She even begged her father to consider reversing his command in a rare, human moment that contributed to her layered villainy.