Game of Thrones Failed Cersei
How the show’s characterization of the Lannister lioness flattened into spiritless villainy
This article contains spoilers through Season 8 Episode 5 of Game of Thrones.
In his A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin frames every chapter around the perspective of a single character. This strategy not only helps him build out his complex world, but also captures the conflicting, multifaceted interests of the story’s key players.
Cersei Lannister, despite being one of those key players, doesn’t receive a point-of-view chapter until A Feast for Crows, the fourth volume. In this first glimpse inside her head, which takes place during the funeral for her father, Tywin, her thoughts pinball wildly: She conjures insults she wishes she could direct at the attendees, expresses annoyance at having to mourn in front of the smallfolk, and dotes on her remaining son, Tommen—all topics anyone in Westeros would have assumed she’d be thinking.
But when she finally sees her father’s body, she ponders something not even Tywin would have guessed. “He had been a great man. I shall be greater,” she muses as she gazes at his corpse. “A thousand years from now, when the maesters write about this time, you shall be remembered only as Queen Cersei’s sire.” For three books, Cersei had been observed by others as a petty villain who put her family above all; this thought revealed just how far she actually wanted to climb on her own.
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.”
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.
And though no adaptation is expected to adhere exactly to its source material, the books had laid plenty of groundwork for Cersei to remain a nuanced character even if her children died. All her life, Cersei had been obsessed with a prophecy a witch had told her—a prophecy the show portrayed—that warned of her being cast down by “another, younger and more beautiful.” So she obsesses over her looks and her status. “Words cannot hurt me,” she thinks repeatedly in her final chapter in A Dance With Dragons. “I am beautiful, the most beautiful woman in all Westeros.” Sure, the mantra has the ring of vanity, but it also captures Cersei’s fear. The show could have pulled on that thread of vulnerability after Cersei ascended to the Iron Throne, especially when that “younger and more beautiful” dragon queen began heading for her, but it never did. (And: Would it really have been so hard for production to swap out Cersei’s pixie cut for a better wig?)
The show tapered off its exploration of Cersei’s difficult relationship with Jaime, too. The pair began as incestuous siblings and parents to the future king; by the beginning of the final season, they were estranged and their dynamic sidelined. Aside from Cersei’s shocked expression as Jaime walked away in the Season 7 finale, the show didn’t bother to dig into her feelings about her brother’s betrayal. Cersei’s right-hand man, Maester Qyburn (Anton Lesser), even ordered the sellsword Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to kill the Lannister brothers on her behalf in the Season 8 premiere—a cold-blooded move for a highly personal assassination order.
Rather than diving into these other facets of Cersei, the series saddled her in her final episodes with another pregnancy—a twist that once again served to reduce her to that familiar trope: the villain who happens to be a mother. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) spelled the writers’ perspective out for viewers when he made his last-ditch appeal in “The Last of the Starks.” “You’re not a monster,” he told his sister as she glared down at him from the walls of King’s Landing. “You’ve always loved your children more than yourself.” Not content with explaining themselves in behind-the-scenes videos, the showrunners had one of the most clever characters in the series’ universe undermine his intellect and say it for them.
Would having more women writing and directing the series have saved Cersei from becoming so one-note? Maybe. Other prestige series such as The Affair and The Handmaid’s Tale, both of which have tackled the grief of child loss in major arcs without demonizing the mother, regularly count women in their writing and directing lineups.
Even within the violent world of Thrones, Cersei’s loss of her children needn’t have completely erased who she was. Other characters before her have outlived (or thought they’ve outlived) their children and grieved in compelling ways: Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) learned of her younger sons’ supposed deaths while away from Winterfell and mourned their fates throughout Season 3. The Baratheon princess Shireen wasn’t Davos’s daughter, but she may as well have been: Her death still has lingering effects on him that have been revisited over the past two seasons. Even Daenerys got juicy scenes following her first dragon’s death in Season 7. Cersei, however? While Joffrey’s and Myrcella’s deaths left her reeling and contemplating loss, Tommen’s, at the end of Season 6, appeared to barely affect her, if only because she had a single scene—a look at Tommen’s body—to convey her grief.
The version of Cersei viewers saw in the time since her deadliest move—blowing up the Sept of Baelor—could have been so much richer. Lannisters always pay their debts. It’s too bad the show does not.