Cersei Lannister is basically every bad character trait you can think of: selfish, cruel, power-hungry, cynical, manipulative, the list goes on. Even her positive traits — devoted and loving, clever and confident — are manifestations of inner darkness. But where does that darkness come from? And can that be enough to redeem her from villainy?

Cersei Lannister, the Ultimate Queen Mother

It’s pretty clear that Cersei Lannister wants more power than just about anything else. She comes from a powerful house and is married to the king, but she wants more. When we meet her, she’s already scheming to keep herself in the king’s good graces. Even so, she obviously hates him. Cersei detests most men in her life, in fact, except for her brother Jaime, with whom she is incestuously in love. Bran Stark catches them in the act and Jaime pushes him out of a window — the swift motion that sets most of GAME OF THRONES into motion.

Bran lives, which is bad for Cersei, but she seems to show some genuine guilt. She tells Catelyn about her first child with Robert, who died as an infant. They nearly lost their minds from the grief, but it was the nail in the coffin for Cersei’s belief in the gods or happiness in her marriage. Cersei’s role as a mother is the one area where cracks in the armor start to show. She’s at her most human when she’s talking about her kids. Even in her own savage way, there is a vulnerability in her protection of them.

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Courtesy of HBO.

On the way back to King’s Landing, Cersei orders Sansa’s direwolf put to death. It puts a fracture between Cersei and the Starks, especially Sansa and Ned. Cersei uses it as a teaching moment for future-king Joffrey. She tells him that when he is king, he will get to decide what the truth is and that “anyone who isn’t us is an enemy.” This is a problematic ten ways into Sunday, but it reveals a lot about Cersei’s worldview. Power is not about diplomacy or good-will. It’s about power for power’s sake and putting your own interests first.

The Game of Thrones Begins

Ned discovers that Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen are actually Jaime’s kids and not Robert Baratheon’s (Punnett squares haven’t been invented in the GoT-verse apparently). He confronts Cersei with this information and she admits it. She loved Robert, she says, but he whispered Lyanna’s name on their wedding night and she knew he could never love her. But she and Jaime belong together. Ned tries to get her to leave the city before Robert returns, but Cersei Lannister has her own warning:

“In the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

Robert lays dying from wounds sustained in his hunt and names Ned regent upon his death. But Cersei is faster and installs Joffrey as king with herself as queen regent. Ned reveals that Joffrey is not the rightful heir and all hell breaks loose. His allies turned to him because Cersei got to them and Ned was arrested.

Cersei tries to manipulate Sansa to get her family to surrender and back Joffrey. Cersei has always had weird respect and disdain for Sansa. She recognizes that she would be a great royal and that is terrifying to Cersei. Women are always competing for her as potential detractors from their influence over men. Sansa, though just a child, poses a threat to Cersei’s power so she must be brought to heel, through manipulation and torture, as is Cersei Lannister’s way.

But the biggest threat to her power is her own son. Even after brokering a guilty plea with Ned, Joffrey orders his execution. Cersei tries to stop him since that is a sure fire way to start a war, but she is helpless to control him.

A Slow Descent

The arrival of Tyrion as Hand of the King undermines Cersei’s power even further. Tyrion is pretty much the only person who isn’t afraid of Joffrey. He tells Cersei that it’s her fault that she couldn’t stop Joffrey from killing Ned and that their father thought she was a disappointment. Tywin Lannister is the root of Cersei’s evil. His judgment has loomed large over her whole life and as a powerful patriarch, he is the epitome of men undermining her potential because she is a woman. Cersei and Tyrion’s style of ruling is quite different.

Cersei concerns herself only with herself: she closes the gates to the city from refugees and ignores requests for men for the Night’s Watch. She doesn’t care to discuss the inevitable attack on King’s Landing, only her daughter’s marriage plans. Tyrion instead tries to restore some sense of dignity: he fires Cersei’s City Watch commander for partaking in a massacre of Robert Baratheon’s bastards and for betraying Ned Stark.

Love Conquers All?

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Courtesy of HBO.

With her own daughter gone, Cersei offers some unsolicited advice to Sansa. She tells her that love makes you weak and you should only love your children since that is a mother’s obligation. Of course, she doesn’t completely follow her own advice. She loves Jaime even more than her kids. Cersei’s version of “love” is not exactly the warm and fuzzy version that most people think of. Cersei’s love is another means of taking control of herself. It’s going to great lengths to protect and avenge and fight back against the world she sees as against her. And in that way, it is her weakness.

Cersei and the women of the court take refuge during the Battle of the Blackwater and Cersei proves that her leadership style truly is not an effective one. She drops all pretense of caring about her subjects. (I’m not saying it’s because it’s only women and she thinks that women have nothing to offer her, but I’m not saying it’s not that.) The only way of caring for them is to have her executioner present to kill them all if the city falls.

Tywin saves the day and neither Cersei’s wildfire nor Tyrion’s fighting receives any credit. Tywin becomes Hand of the King and Littlefinger is rewarded for bringing House Tyrell into the fold. Loras Tyrell is granted a favor for his valor, and he chooses marriage of his sister Margaery to Joffrey. Cersei quickly annuls the engagement between Joffrey and Sansa, seemingly eliminating Sansa’s threat to her power.

Cersei Lannister Meets Her Match

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Courtesy of HBO.

If Cersei thought getting rid of Sansa would give her unfettered control over Joffrey, she was sorely mistaken. Margaery has Sansa’s charm and grace, but with the added slyness of Cersei herself. She knows how to play the role that her society has cast her in, whereas Cersei fights against it. They are both masters of their craft, but Joffrey is more susceptible to Margaery’s wiles than his mother’s iron fist. With Tywin at the head of the small council, we can see where Cersei has learned her tricks — and why she is so filled with resentment.

Tywin tests his council by seating them all on one side of the table. Cersei instead pulls up her own chair next to her father. Tywin tries to knock her down a peg, telling her that it’s a good thing Joffrey is under Margaery’s spell and that Cersei isn’t as smart as she thinks she is. While Cersei Lannister thinks selfishly, Tywin thinks strategically, even at his daughter’s expense. Rather than let Sansa marry into the Tyrell family, Tywin pairs Sansa off with Tyrion and Loras with Cersei to secure alliances in both regions.

Cersei takes great offense at being married off like a “broodmare,” and she’s not without just cause. Tywin’s machinations when she was young forced her into a loveless marriage with Robert. And now, as a grown adult and queen regent, she’s still a pawn. But her title of “daughter” is an inescapable one and trumps any power she may have in her own right.

Courtesy of HBO.

Jaime returns from captivity and Cersei’s happy to see him. That is until she notices his lack of a hand. She is horrified by him, even though he’s lucky to be alive. Some things will never be the same.

Season 4 aka Joffrey Finally Dies

Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding day is upon us, and Cersei’s impending demotion in status is getting to her. Margaery says that the feast’s leftovers will go to the poor, but Cersei orders them to be fed to the dogs. She tries to take her anger out on Ellaria Sand, but even her biting wit is failing. Unlucky for her, things can get worse. Joffrey is poisoned and dies in a gruesome death, which is great for literally everyone except Cersei. Cersei assumes it is Tyrion and Sansa’s doing and has him arrested while Sansa flees.

Cersei and Jaime’s relationship fractures even more because of the loss of their son. She wants him to kill Sansa and Tyrion, but he disagrees with their guilt. She gives him orders for the Kingsguard and dismisses him as just “Lord Commander.” With King Tommen now ruling, the small council discusses Daenerys Targaryen’s potential threat to the throne. Cersei doesn’t see her as a threat, which is surprising given her tendency to treat every young woman as a threat. Her focus is on Tyrion’s trial. She bribes Bronn to keep him from acting as Tyrion’s champion in the trial by combat and gets the Mountain to be her champion. The Mountain nearly falls to Oberyn Martell, but ultimately crushes his skull. Tyrion is sentenced to death.

Feeling emboldened by her win, Cersei insists to her father that she will not marry Loras, going so far as to confirm the rumors about her and Jaime, to his horror. She then goes to Jaime and reignites their relationship. She has decided that no one else’s opinion can have sway in her life. Tyrion also kills Tywin and flees the country.

Separation of Church and State Isn’t Invented Yet

With Tywin gone, the legacy of House Lannister falls to Jamie and Cersei Lannister. To paraphrase Uncle Ben, with great power comes great danger since all the Lannister enemies are sure to come calling. But Cersei maintains that Tyrion is their greatest enemy. Little does she know Tyrion is the least of her worries.

Margaery is very effectively weaseling her way into Tommen’s good graces by just being a good person (a crazy concept). The religious sect, the Sparrows gains an important member in Cousin Lancel, Cersei’s former lover. She is back in charge of the small council and tries to ally with the High Sparrow. She reestablishes the Faith Militant, which is exactly what it sounds like, and they arrest Loras for homosexuality. (Because even in a fantasy world where dragons exist Judeo-Christian views of sexuality are still the norm.)

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Courtesy of HBO.

Margaery rightfully accuses Cersei of trying to tear her and Tommen apart and Tommen, bless his heart, doesn’t fold so easily. He tries to make Cersei release Loras — even though he is the king — but she plays dumb. The whole ordeal is a rare moment of single-mindedness for Cersei. There will obviously be far-spreading consequences, but she’s only really concerned with the immediate pettiness. Which I have to respect her for.

Poor Tommen: A Refrain

Loras’s trial resulted in both him and Margaery behind bars, which is understandably upsetting for Tommen. Cersei turns it into a teaching moment and tries to tell him that sometimes he will be powerless, but she always loves him and will do anything to protect him. This is probably true in her mind, but in action, it’s hard to see how any of this helps Tommen. All it does is secure Cersei’s power over him. So it’s telling that, to Cersei, her unilateral control over her kids and the kingdom equates to their protection.

This once again proves not to be the case because she is soon arrested herself for adultery with Lancel, incest with Jaime, and the regicide of Robert. If she had been thinking about anything but the here-and-now, she probably could’ve seen that coming. She ultimately confesses to the first charge but denies the latter two. Before she can stand trial, she has to perform a walk of atonement. She is tormented by an angry mob as she walks through the streets naked and bloodied. She just barely makes it, where she meets her new Kingsguard: The Zombified Mountain.

The Real Cersei Lannister

In season six, we start to see Cersei’s final form, if you will. Instead of learning lessons from all the terrible things that have happened to her thus far, she opts for vengeance and violence. Do unto others what they have done unto you, right? Jaime returns with Myrcella, whom Ellaria Sand killed before leaving Dorne. Cersei sees it as confirmation of a prophecy given to her as a teenager. It’s a three-part prophecy:

  1. She will not marry “the Prince” but “the King.”
  2. She will have three kids who will wear golden crowns and golden burial shrouds.
  3. And, she will be queen but she will be taken down by a younger and more beautiful queen.

She did, in fact, marry the king. With Myrcella and Joffrey gone in their “golden shrouds,” Tommen is all the more likely to die, too. If one part of the prophecy is true, then it is also more likely that Cersei will be usurped by a beautiful young woman — which explains a lot.

Perhaps in some sort of stage of pre-grief, Cersei Lannister refuses to take any guff from anybody. A man taunts her about her walk of atonement and the Mountain slams his head against a wall. But Tommen — again, bless his heart — tries to protect his mother by not letting her leave the Red Keep. He feels guilty about making her sit in jail and walk through the street naked and vows to do better. He asks her to teach him to rule but based on his kind and loving nature, it’s unlikely that Cersei would ever be able to turn him into the ruler she’d want him to be.

The Beginning of the End

Cersei’s new right-hand man is Qyburn, the man who brought the Mountain back to life(ish). His spies flutter around Westeros to defend the Lannister name. The small council is divided, with Lady Olenna leading the charge against Cersei, who is technically no longer queen. She tries to keep the opposing faction away from Tommen, but he is mainly concerned with getting Margaery away from the High Sparrow’s clutches. His decision is to join forces with the Faith. He ends the practice of trial by combat, so Cersei and Loras will have to stand trial before a jury of septons, which will probably not end well for them.

Courtesy of HBO.

Cersei knows that a real trial is an end for her. So what do you do when you’re playing a game and you can’t win? You flip the table and send the board flying. Or, you blow up the courthouse with your enemies inside it to consolidate power for yourself.  As a result of losing Margaery and everything he has been working towards and cares about, Tommen commits suicide. Cersei grieves, of course, but there is also a kind of acceptance that wasn’t there with Joffrey or Myrcella. She already knew that Tommen would die, so if it had to be in service of her own grand plan, so be it. She takes the throne for herself and finally becomes Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.

Where We Cersei Lannister

With nothing to distract her now, Cersei Lannister sets her eyes on destroying all of her enemies. Classic empty nesting. Cersei claims to be setting up a long Lannister dynasty, but Jaime points out that a) they’re losing and b) they have no children, so none of that is likely to happen. But that doesn’t really matter to Cersei because she wants power just for the only people that count: herself and Jaime.

In search of allies, Jaime welcomes Euron Greyjoy. He wants to marry her, but she needs a really good gift to convince her. Other lords from the Reach are wary of committing to her side since Daenerys’s dragons and the army of Dothraki/Unsullied are very, very scary. But Qyburn has a solution for the whole dragon thing: a giant spear. Euron returns with Ellaria Sand and her daughter Tyene. Cersei poisons Tyene with the same poison used on Myrcella, leaving her for Ellaria to watch her die.

Courtesy of HBO.

What Cersei Lannister lacks in allies she makes up for in money. The Iron Bank of Braavos loans her money to fund her war since Dany has cost them a lot by ending slavery. Unfortunately, her army lost badly to Dany’s army while Jaime led their ransacked supplies back from Highgarden. Even worse, Jaime tells her that Olenna proudly confessed to killing Joffrey — a fact that Cersei does not take well as it denies her the pleasure of that revenge.

Lies, Lies, Lies

Her mood changes, though, when she tells Jaime that she is pregnant with another of his children. Even the fact that he has brokered a meeting with Tyrion on Dany’s behalf can hardly bring her down. Warring factions meet to discuss a ceasefire to fight the Army of the Dead. Cersei is unreceptive to the idea, thinking it a strategic move, but the wight that almost attacks her is convincing. She agreed to allow the Targaryen/Northern army to fight the White Walkers unimpeded, but she won’t withdraw her troops. She also won’t deal with Dany at all.

She’ll only deal with Jon Snow, who she thinks is neutral in the game of thrones. Completely incapable of lying, Jon admits that he’s already bent the knee to Dany, so Cersei says they can handle the White Walkers themselves and she’ll fight whoever’s left. She had a change of heart, though, after talking to Tyrion. She has agreed to send her army north and Jaime is excited to plan the logistics. But Cersei practically laughs in his face as she explains her true plan. Euron will bring her a mercenary army from Essos, which will then wipe up whatever remains of her enemies after they fight the Army of the Dead. Jaime isn’t as dumb as everyone (including Cersei) thinks is, however.

He astutely points out that whoever comes out on top will come after them next: the White Walkers will be truly unstoppable by the time they get to King’s Landing, and the Starks and Targaryens will be out for blood for her betrayal. But Cersei doesn’t care. She only cares about winning the argument, the repartee, the fleeting feeling of power. And Jaime leaves, this time for good.

A Prophecy Fulfilled?

Prophecies are among my favorite things to dissect in media. The creator obviously knows what it means in the end, so the wording is always very careful to mislead and intrigue fans. For our discussion here, it’s a convenient lens through which to look at season eight. We can reasonably assume that the whole prophecy is real in some form. The first two points have already come true, so it’s just the last that is up for discussion.

Who Will Be Cersei Lannister’s Downfall?

The prophecy says that a younger, more beautiful queen will take Cersei down once she is queen. For Cersei, this manifested as a fear of all young, beautiful, powerful women. Margaery has been taken care of, but Sansa and Dany are still at large. And since this is GAME OF THRONES, really anyone could become a queen, so all women in Westeros younger than Cersei are on the table (#TeamLyannaMormont).

Or perhaps it is some combination of several. Dany is something of a queen to her people as it is and Sansa is not far off from being Queen in the North. With Dany’s army and Sansa’s intimate knowledge of Cersei’s inner workings, they could join forces to take her down. Maybe Arya will probably get to check that last name off her list, too.

“But in the books…”

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Courtesy of HBO.

I haven’t read the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but according to the internet, there is another prong to the prophecy. The witch tells Cersei,

“When your tears have drowned you, the valonqar [little brother] shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.”

Intense stuff. Tyrion is Cersei’s little brother and their rivalry would make this plausible. But, like her twin, it could also refer to Jaime. He is, after all, known for slaying mad monarchs. Perhaps this isn’t as insidious as it seems, though. “Pale white throat” sounds an awful lot like a White Walker to me. Could Cersei Lannister be a victim of the Night King and mercy-killed by her brother? My interpretation negates all of this.

The fact that this part was left out of the prophecy in the adaptation signals to me that the showrunners have no intention of fulfilling it. Why deny the fans something so juicy otherwise? It is certainly still a possibility, but it shouldn’t be treated as a prophetic given since it isn’t technically part of the GAME OF THRONES canon.

Let’s Talk About That Baby

I’ll be honest: I completely forgot about Cersei’s pregnancy announcement. My immediate reaction at the time was that she had to be lying so I just wrote it off entirely. This is unsubstantiated, but not without merit. For one, the prophecy said she’d only have three children. For another, she was slowly losing her grasp on Jaime, and their kids have been their strongest bond for years. There’s also the hysterical pregnancy option, which is a favored trope of televisions shows of all genres. Whatever it is, I absolutely put my money on that baby never actually being born.

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Courtesy of HBO.

Does Cersei Lannister Deserve Redemption?

The characters that we have discussed so far are generally our heroes. So in those cases, it’s easier to fantasize about what we want their endings to be like. It’s harder for a character like Cersei Lannister. She’s a horrible person who deserves nothing good in her life. But as consumers of the media, we can still put that aside enough to think about what a satisfying end to her character would be. All in all, Cersei’s story is a semi-feminist one. Her never-ending quest for power is a response to a world that denied her what she deserved because of her gender.

She should’ve been the beloved Lannister, smart and strategic, destined to take over the family business. Instead, her father subjected her to unhappiness for personal gain. If Cersei were a hero, she might respond by trying to better things for women in the world. But she’s not a hero. She takes what was done to her and throws it back into the world tenfold. A story like that needs a similar ending. She should achieve the gender-neutral respect that she craves, but the destructive path that she took to get there should still be her downfall.

Her enemies will treat her as the threat that she is, regardless of her role as a mother or a sister or a daughter. People will fear her the way she wants them to, but she will also die for it. There is no way you do the things Cersei has done and treat people the way she has and make it out alive. She said it herself: you play Game of Thrones and you win or you die. She’s already on the throne, so she can only lose from here.

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