Spoilers ahead for ‘Game of Thrones’ season 8 episode 5.
Don’t cry for her, Throners, for her death was foretold.
The end for Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) was prophesied in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and was given a twist in HBO’s televised adaptation. Cursed to die at the hands of her “little brother”, she instead met her maker while in his arms in The Bell, the fifth episode of Game of Thrones’s final season. The twincestuous couple Cersei and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) left the world as they came into it – together – when the crypt they were in caved in during Daenerys Targaryen’s carnage at King’s Landing. Cersei was older than Jaime by a few minutes.
As Lena Headey parted ways with the character she had excellently brought to life for eight years, she told Entertainment Weekly that though she initially felt that Cersei should have gone down with a fight, a conversation with Coster-Waldau changed her mind. “They came into the world together and now they leave together,” she said. “It’s maybe the first time that Cersei has been at peace.”
That peace came after eight seasons of frenetic plotting, scheming, lying and destroying by the resident “Mad Queen” of Westeros, her machinations almost as stylised as her wine quaffing. In a show with no dearth of villains, Cersei was singularly sinister, with motivations more well-rounded than Ramsay Bolton’s psychopathy or Petyr Baelish’s Machiavellian manoeuvering.
Armed with some of the best dialogue on the show, Cersei was one of the most memorable and accomplished players of the game of thrones.
‘Power is power’
Perhaps nobody else lusted for power as Cersei. She orchestrated the death of her husband, king Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). Her ferocity came out in full force after the exit of her father Tywin (Charles Dance). As Queen Regent to her soft-hearted son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), she became the de-facto ruler of the kingdom, embellishing her son’s council with sycophants and Lannister sympathisers.
As characters went on rich and complex journeys spanning Westeros and beyond, Cersei stayed at King’s Landing, always within striking distance of the Iron Throne, before ultimately ascending to it at the end of season six. Travel has been a catalyst for transformation in Game of Thrones – Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) developed her killer instincts while on the road; Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) collected armies and skills by spanning the breadth of Essos before arriving at Westeros to lay claim on the throne. Cersei’s partner in crime, Jaime, was also humanised during his time away from King’s Landing, carving out a path towards redemption before ultimately coming back to the love of his life in season eight.
Consequently, Cersei’s low travel footprint meant that her arc was arrow-straight, moving further and further towards ruthlessness and villainy.
That power was Cersei’s ultimate motivation is clearer in the books than on the show, which softened her by making her primary concern the well-being of her children. “My sister lusts for power with every waking breath,” said Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) about her in A Game of Thrones, the first in Martin’s novel series.
A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the series and the first to have Cersei as a point of view character, similarly establishes her fascination for control. Her first chapter opens with: “She dreamt she sat on the Iron Thone, high above them all.” While mourning her father’s death, she also notes, “Casterly Rock was hers now, and all the power of House Lannister. No one would disregard her again. Even when Tommen had no further need for a regent, the Lady of Casterly Rock would remain a power in the land.”
‘Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. The best one’s between your legs’
Cersei’s unique blend of manipulation frequently involved weaving elaborate (and often disastrous) plans based on seduction. While part-time lover Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon) helped her eliminate Robert Baratheon, Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) was part of her armoury against Daenerys. Her relationship with her fraternal twin Jaime was equal parts love, lust and machination.
When Jaime returned to King’s Landing in season four, having lost a hand while in captivity, Cersei kept him at an arm’s length, only occasionally seeking him out for comfort. Overcoming her repulsion for the one-handed Jaime after losing the last of her three children after Tommen’s death, Cersei welcomed him back into her life and bed in season seven, only to send him away to destroy the Tyrell household. By the time Jaime returned, Cersei had another plot brewing – to keep the lascivious Euron by her side to prepare for Daenerys’s eventual march on the Iron Throne.
‘Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls’
What made Cersei so much more than a cardboard villain was that many of her anxieties were surprisingly relatable. Her self-preservation was in part a result of her parenting – having lost her mother at a young age, Cersei had only Tywin as a paternal figure. The cold and distant Lannister patriarch had more interest in his son and heir Jaime, leaving Cersei to largely raise herself. This discrimination – and the realisation that she is treated differently only because of her gender – is the source of her primal anger and worst impulses
In season two, Cersei says, “When we were young, Jaime and I, we looked so much alike even our father couldn’t tell us apart. l could never understand why they treated us differently. Jaime was taught to fight with sword and lance and mace, and l was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, and l was sold to some stranger like a horse to be ridden whenever he desired.”
As the series progressed, Cersei embodied that defiance in her external appearance. After her hair was brutally chopped off during the controversial Walk of Shame in season five, fans wondered why it never grew back – her trademark gold locks were a key element of her sexual appeal in the books and were put to glorious use in the show’s stylists to give her numerous glamorous hairstyles. Queen Cersei perhaps chose to go for an androgynous appeal, wearing her shorn hair as a badge of pride as she ascended to a throne that she had been told all her life was the domain of men.
‘Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy’
This bit of advice was given by Cersei to son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) in season one. By season eight, it had been revised to, “Everyone who isn’t me is an enemy”.
Cersei, in many ways, followed in the footsteps of her authoritarian father, Tywin. While Tywin’s agenda was family first, Cersei’s motivations slowly became increasingly self-serving. Tywin wielded control through influence and wealth rather than position, but Cersei sought both control and crown.
Cersei fits the textbook definition of a narcissist – her preoccupation with her children and her relationship with her twin are extensions of her love for herself. With her children gone and Jaime parting ways with her in the end of season seven to join the battle against the White Walkers, Cersei’s “I-me-myself” agenda received an open canvas. The battle for King’s Landing in the latest episode was Cersei’s last bid to preserve herself.
‘I choose violence’
This proclamation by Cersei came shortly before she committed her most horrific crime in the show in season six – burning down the Great Sept of Baelor. It was an act of revenge against the radical religious order Faith Militant for imprisoning her and forcing her to parade the streets of King’s Landing naked. The burning of the Sept not only eliminated the religious order but also killed hundreds others, including Tommen’s wife Margaery Tyrell and other members of her family. Tommen promptly jumped to his death.
The incident was also a sign of how Cersei dealt with chaos by unleashing even more chaos. The Faith Militant had been armed by Cersei to get back at the growing influence of the Tyrells over Tommen. When the militant religious order showed that it did not discriminate, Cersei destroyed the monsters she had created.
With this act, Cersei’s transition to Mad Queen was complete. The correlation between power and madness has been a strong undercurrent of the show, going back to the time of the original Mad King, Aerys Targaryen. It’s a legacy that has haunted both key throne contenders – Cersei and Daenerys – and as season eight’s episode four approached, the stage was set for a battle between the Mad Queens. While Daenerys’s fire power comes from her dragons, Cersei’s weapon of choice, like her predecessor’s, was wildfire.
‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground’
Cersei’s most memorable quote came early on in the show – in the first season, when she warned Ned Stark (Sean Bean) that he could not outsmart her. Game of Thrones has, at heart, been about real-world politicking, and this was a game that Cersei knew how to play better than most.
Cersei sought no middle ground. She did not make foolhardy peace deals like Robb Stark (Richard Madden), whose naivete led to his death in season three’s heartbreaking Red Wedding. Neither did she rely on others, as Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) did with the Red Priestess, to bolster her position. Stannis, also a Mad King contender, had a better claim to the throne as Robert’s brother, but squandered away his gain by taking bad advice from Melisandre (Carice van Houten)and using blood magic rather than strategy to get to the throne.
This pearl of wisdom from Cersei was the other prophecy that shaped her fate – she kept winning the Game of Thrones, until she died.