“I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met,” Olenna Tyrell says to Cersei Lannister in season 6 of Game of Thrones.
Olenna’s one of the few Westerosi whoto go gray, so you know she’s got plenty of ammunition for that statement. Ramsay Bolton hunted humans and Varys keeps the sorcerer who castrated him alive in a box. Still, it’s not them but Cersei who tops Olenna’s list of baddies.
As usual, Olenna was right. Unlike her twin and lover Jaime, Cersei hasn’t softened since the very first season. Jaime’s not the same character he was when he callously shoved Bran Stark from the tower window, snarking as he did about the things he’d do for love. Shaped by his own suffering, the Kingslayer has discovered that all those flowery words about honor really mean something. He’s lost a hand and, as cliched as it sounds, perhaps found a heart.
Cersei on the other hand? She’d shove Bran from that window all over again, and maybe stab him with a murderously sharp hair ornament first so there’s no chance of him surviving the fall.
We haven’t ever seen a villain like Cersei before. She’s beautiful, she’s sexy, she’s wickedly smart, she’s powerful, and no man or woman (yet) can keep her off the throne. No question, there have been powerful female villains lacking a conscience before (Maleficent, Hela, Bellatrix Lestrange, even the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz). But no one can compete with Cersei when it comes to her sheer will to.
Cersei herself has suffered (but really, finding a woman in Westeros who hasn’t is like finding a smartphone there). While twin Jaime rode off to fame and glory as a knight, Cersei’s father viewed her only as a gift he could give away in marriage to increase his own power. King Robert cheated on her, seeding bastards wherever he rode. She’s been imprisoned, had her hair shaved, been forced to walk naked through the streets while people threw rotten food and worse at her. She hasn’t exactly taken the glamorous Kate Middleton path to the throne.
By all rights, Cersei should not have risen to where she is today. Somehow she’s taken her suffering as a challenge and risen above it, and if there’s anything to admire about her, that’s it. Surrounded by powerful men her entire life, she knows how to exploit their weaknesses and consistently outwit them, all while playing within their own rules. They say the king’s sons should sit the throne? Fine, but as their mother, she’ll sit behind them, pulling the strings, making everyone believe their decisions are their own when they really come from her.
She can never physically be the strongest person in the kingdom, so instead she finds the true strongest person — The Mountain — and puts him under her control. She’s not the smartest, so she recruits Qyburn — knowing full well he experiments horribly on living humans — and gives him what he wants in exchange for serving her. She doesn’t have the biggest army, so she hires the services of The Golden Company — even though they disappoint her by not bringing their elephants. Some of her deeds are grisly, but taught by pain herself, she’s never hesitated. Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark, even Robb Stark — they trusted those around them and it led to their deaths. Cersei loved Jaime, but she never truly trusted anyone but herself.
There’s a horrific scene in the show’s seventh season that will stick with me forever.
Jaime and Cersei’s only daughter, the innocent Myrcella, has been murdered by a poisoned kiss from Ellaria Sand. As revenge, Cersei locks Ellaria and her own daughter Tyene in a dungeon and delivers the same poisoned kiss to Tyene, leaving Ellaria in chains. She’ll not only watch her beloved daughter die, but be kept alive to watch Tyene’s body rot away.
It’s a numbingly horrific torture, and it doesn’t come out of nowhere. We already know Cersei lost her mother as a young girl, when Lady Joanna died giving birth to Tyrion — the first reason Cersei had to hate her little brother. After that death, she’d wonder about her mother’s body decomposing, having nightmares of watching it happen. When Myrcella died, she envisioned the same process happening to her once-golden daughter. Forcing that torture on another person might have scrubbed those images out of her own mind, which must be a disturbing and dark place even on its best days.
But was Cersei really finding some sort of justice for Myrcella? Probably not. She may have loved her children, but she was never above using them. She used Joffrey and Tommen to sit the throne while she wielded the real power, and she sent poor Myrcella to Dorne as a sort of human trading card.
Most lives mean little to Cersei, which is a terrible quality in a human and a scarily powerful one in a leader. In the most recent episode,as casually as she might pour another glass of Arbor Red. Even the child she’s carrying has already become another pawn to her, something she can use to keep Euron loyal to her and keep his ships on her side.
Cersei’s end, when it comes, likely won’t be surprising. The prophecy she was given as a child by Maggy the Frog proclaims that her little brother will strangle Cersei once her tears have drowned her. She’s always thought that meant Tyrion, but everyone who’s ever watched the show is convinced it’s Jaime, because his betrayal would be so much more personally agonizing for her. They were together in the womb, and it’s been said they’ll die together.
Or maybe Maggy was wrong, and Cersei will die as stoically as she lived, holding on to power until she draws her last breath. Whenever she does expire, she’ll leave behind an entirely new example of just how powerful, terrifying and complex a TV villain can be.
What’s that Ramsay Bolton said back in season 3? “If, you haven’t been paying attention.”
Originally published May 9.