For the most part, hard-line morality isn’t really Game of Thrones’ bag. Whether it’s Arya Stark doling out bloody vengeance to fill out the wall of faces or Daenerys sending a big, fiery fuck you to the Dothraki leaders, even the usually squeaky clean Jon Snow didn’t make it to the seventh season without making more than a few brutal moves. But if there’s one Game of Thrones character that’s earned a reputation for bloodthirsty power-mongering and a taste for vicious retribution, it’s Cersei Lannister.
Introduced in the series’ inaugural episode with an icy stare, endless patience for Joffrey’s trifling ass and a predilection for boning her brother Jaime, Cersei has had, from the start, the kind of cocktail of personality disorders tailor-made to inspire seething hatred from even the most casual viewer. And in the following seasons, she’s committed atrocities that have easily established her as the pernicious HBIC in Westeros. (At least, she’d like to think so.) And yet? I can’t help but feel as though Cersei’s gotten a bit of a bad rap. A victim of shitty circumstances with a misplaced sense of justice, Cersei might be royally messed up, but she’s hardly pure evil.
Yes, over the course of Game of Thrones’ six seasons, Cersei’s lied, cheated and murdered her way to her spot on throne. At serious cost to herself and those around her, she’s showed an untiring ruthlessness in her search for power. But that brutality and obsession with power isn’t unique to Cersei. Jaime, who remained shadily aligned with her for the first portion of the series, was ultimately given a storyline that humanized him, sanding down his sharper edges and transforming him into a bit of a fan favorite. Cersei, by contrast, wasn’t afforded this narrative charity. Even in the original series, Martin largely chose to forgo humanizing the Lannister sister in order to build Cersei’s glowering, fairytale witch persona. It’s a decision that inarguably works—but it’s also one that obscures the more relatable elements of her neuroses.
Even Littlefinger, whose slimy sensibilities have earned him a shady reputation, has a past that looks remarkably like Cersei’s own. Littlefinger, like Cersei, killed his mate when she threatened his best laid plans for the throne, and essentially set the entire titular game into motion after orchestrating Jon Arryn’s death. And yet, even in the midst of his cringe-inducing moves on Sansa, he remains a minorly annoying villain, his anarchic attempts to change the broken system from the inside are still seen as more admirable (or at least less reprehensible) than Cersei’s.
Lofty social standing aside, it's possible no one hates the system more than Cersei herself. The eldest child of Tywin Lannister, Cersei has long been fated to stand at the side of men more powerful than she could ever will herself to be. Consider her marriage to Robert Baratheon, an abusive, philandering man she wed at a young age, a decision that tied her to a fate of violence and callous emotional abuse that would force her into the arms of her her brother (ew, I know) and eventually to plotting his death.
As easily as one could argue that Robert’s death is a bit of a tragedy, it’s also easy to see how Cersei felt it necessary: attempting to protect her children (and of course, her ties to the throne) over a man who was little more than a pawn in a greater system. And while it certainly might seem as though Cersei cares about nothing more than power, she is nearly as fiercely protective of her family as Catelyn Stark was, vigilant and loyal even as she remains shortsighted and corrupt. Yes, Cersei shows her motherly love by murdering dozens of innocent people to ensure Joffrey gets the crown, but isn’t that the sort of messed up love that Game of Thrones already has in spades?
Nearly from the start, Cersei’s been incredibly not down with the demands of the sexist society she was born into—refusing to accept that the throne is off limits to someone of her gender. For Cersei, the search for power and the search for some form of gender equality are often one in the same, as she regularly “acts like a man” (i.e. maims, threatens, kills, the works) to get what she wants. It's a struggle that nearly every female character on the show battles on the daily, as Sansa, Arya and Daenarys also insist on kicking ass with the best of them.
Daenarys is Cersei’s easiest analogue: a younger, more beautiful and honorable woman on the hunt for power, and Dany and Cersei have more in common than you might initially recall. Both intended to men in power and ultimately driven to kill them, the pair have ascended to dominance in their respective realms through an insatiable thirst for power. In the last season, Dany torched the entire Khal patriarchy after tiring of tangling with their nonsense and Cersei—not to be outdone—blew up the Sept, taking out a few of her enemies and plenty of innocents in the process.
Yes, the differences are prolific: Dany killed Drogo only after he was rendered catatonic, and the relationship, though rocky at first, wasn’t nearly as toxic as Cersei’s with Robert. Daenerys also happens to have a bit of cool factor on her side: a horde of dragons with some attitude problems is a hell of a lot more compelling (and useful) than a sniveling, sadistic boy king. But the differences between the two, particularly as the show has marched on, have begun to seem like a simple difference in intelligence and emotional clarity than proof of Cersei’s black-heartedness.
Lena Headey, whose consistently incredible performance is certainly in part responsible for Cersei’s ever-controversial popularity, considers her to be a deeply paranoid and lonely woman, lost at sea and more than a bit unsavvy, but certainly not rotten to the core. “I always think of Cersei as a wayward 15-year-old who’s never had any real parenting,” she told The National Post. “She’s just driven by the need to be a great parent and, like most of us who are parents, she’s not perfect.”
At the close of last season, we watched Maggy the Frog’s prophecy come true: Cersei has become childless thanks to her own machinations, as Tommen took his own life after witnessing Cersei’s retaliatory destruction. This action, which closed Season 6 and put Cersei on the throne, was by far the darkest thing she’s ever done. (If that weren’t enough, her confession that killing all of those people “felt good” certainly makes any defense of Cersei tricky.)
But in Cersei’s eyes, a demonstration of power is always necessary. It’s the quality that has always made her both a great and a terrible mother: a deep, maladjusted sense of justice, that demands that she set the scales, to right the wrongs made by men she’s deemed too dumb or too clueless to be in power. And while her actions at the end of last season are difficult to defend, she still remains clearly distinguishable from Ramsay Bolton or even the Night King, as even her most reckless moves of power remain to serve a purpose, however slight.
Climbing to power on the proverbial chaotic ladder, Cersei has finally done enough to reach the throne. But what will she do now that she’s there? Uneasily in power well before the series’ end is a terribly precarious place to be, and it looks likely that Cersei won’t survive to see the series come to a close. No doubt, many fans will cheer at her demise, but the loss of Cersei would mark the loss of the series’ greatest and most misunderstood character.
Perhaps she does deserve to be the most hated woman in Westeros: but it’s her questionable, yet maddeningly sympathetic moral compass that keep things far from black and white. Formed by her troubled past and fueled by a distinctly feminine strength, Cersei isn’t quite the evil, storybook queen she seems on the surface. As dark and violent as she is damaged and loyal, it’s the strangely logical method to her madness that makes Cersei so damn compelling.