After last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, “First of His Name”, I can finally write an article I’ve been wanting to for a while—a defense of Cersei Lannister. From the very beginning, viewers (and readers) have been explicitly instructed to despise Cersei. Starting with an ice-cold glance upon her arrival at Winterfell in the pilot episode, and then her ordered killing of Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, in the second episode, Cersei did little to gather a supportive following from the audience. But I would argue that her forced execution of Lady is actually the worst thing she does in the series. And now that show-watchers know that Jon Arryn was not murdered by Cersei, or any Lannister for that matter, but rather by Littlefinger and Lysa Arryn, I can prove that all of this fighting was the result of two other women—sisters—who with their sheer incompetence, ruined Westeros.
Those two sisters are Lysa Arryn and Catelyn Stark. Lysa killed her husband, the Hand of the King, and told Catelyn that the Lannisters did it. Catelyn, despite full awareness of her sister’s lunacy, blindly provides the spark of war when she captures Tyrion Lannister. From there, the dominos fall quickly, starting with Jaime’s attack on Ned in King’s Landing and ending with Ned’s head being held above the Sept of Baelor by the human embodiment of filth that is Janos Slynt. And yet, despite that the cause of all of this madness starts with the two Tully sisters, it is Cersei that comes off horribly. Cersei did not kill Ned, she merely played the game of thrones better than him. She didn’t want him to die, and smartly offered him the option to join the Night’s Watch, thus ensuring no northern backlash would result. Cersei almost singlehandedly prevented war, had it not been for Joffrey and his sadistic, bloodthirsty urges. Had Ned taken the black, Robb never raises his banners or goes to war, he never spurns Walder Frey, and he never hears the Lannister’s regards. Furthermore, Winterfell doesn’t burn, Maester Luwin and the rest of Winterfell’s inhabitants don’t die, and Theon can still enjoy a lunchtime sausage without being emasculated. It’s easy to digress into what-ifs, and I fear I might be doing that right now, but coming back to Cersei—had she successfully abolished Ned to the Wall, she’d be the woman who diffused the ticking time-bomb that is Westeros.
There is a theme that follows Cersei—the only two things in the world that she wants are considered “wrong” by society: power and her brother. Cersei must live every day of her life surrounded by men who get whatever they want, while she is denied the only things she wants.
Cersei is a tragic hero. She is also a product of her environment. In a world governed and created by men, women have little hierarchical reach. Credit is due to George R.R. Martin here, as despite creating a world ruled by men, he often makes women the more competent characters: Brienne, Cersei, Arya, Daenerys, Ygritte, Margaery, Olenna. But it’s a sardonic type of power granted to these women (excluding Daenerys and Ygritte, who live in societies more open to female empowerment), and it shapes Cersei into the standoffish, internalized woman that she is. Also take into account how close Cersei is to power, without actually being able to wield it. It’s like being permanently cold while everybody around you is running on the beach, feeling the warmth. Look at the world from her point of view. She’s the oldest child of Tywin Lannister, the most powerful man in the seven kingdoms. Her father is Hand of the King, but the biggest role she’ll ever have is being the girl who gets to hold the king’s hand. All of that faux-power is not nearly enough to quench her thirst, and rather than respect her for desiring power, we hate her. And at the same time, we love or respect other power-cravers such as Tywin, Tyrion, Littlefinger or Varys.
Further proving her status as a tragic hero, Cersei is prohibited from publically embracing the man she loves. You can’t choose the person you love, and Cersei happens to love her twin brother, but this is deemed unnatural. Our society rightfully considers incest an abomination, but in Martin’s fantasy world, it wasn’t always looked down upon. The preceding royal family, the Targaryens, thought it customary to wed brother and sister. This serves as just another metaphorical slap in the face for Cersei, as she’s so close to what she desires, but in reality couldn’t be further away. Additionally, she resents Jaime to a degree because she considers the two of them to be mirror images of each other, with just a few different parts in different places. But it’s these different parts that drive a fork in their roads almost immediately after birth. Where Jaime is fitted for armor, Cersei is fitted for dresses. Where Jaime learns sword-fighting, Cersei learns needlework. Cersei wholeheartedly believes that if she were born a man, she’d have everything she wants. Jaime’s permanently-content attitude irks Cersei because she’ll never be content with her status.
Her tragicness continues with her forced marriage to Robert Baratheon—an abusive man she rightfully hates. It’s this hate that repeatedly drives her into the arms of Jaime, although she admits she did initially love Robert when they were first arranged together. But when Robert drunkenly yelled out Lyanna Stark’s name while consummating their marriage, she realized her love would never be reciprocated. She was right, and Robert not only failed to love his wife, he beat her, raped her, and whored himself out right in front of her. Yes, she organized the plot to kill Robert. But fans opt to see this purely as regicide rather than as a beaten and abused woman killing her tormenter. It’s just another example of the power of perspective; since we’re instructed to dislike Cersei from the beginning, we vilify her when in reality she’s a victim. It’s sad too, because there are far too few instances where characters triumph over their tormentors in this series, and Cersei did just that. Only nobody sees it that way.
In the beginning of the book series, we don’t get to see either Cersei or Jaime’s points of views. This leads to immediate hatred aimed at both of them. But then, in the third book, A Storm of Swords, we start reading from Jaime’s point of view, and almost immediately, we start to hate him less, and by the end of the book, Jaime is a fan-favorite. This doesn’t happen to Cersei. And it’s a shame, because what makes Martin’s work so great is that he toys with our minds, turning the man who pushed a boy out of a window into a man we root for. Cersei never gets that treatment. Once again, in typical Cersei fashion, she’s deprived of something she deserves.
A note about this article: it was written after Game of Thrones 4.05 “First of His Name” and for the sake of show-watching fans, no events that occur after this episode were discussed. Please keep comments spoiler free. Thank you.
Joe Brosnan is an editor and writer for Criminal Element who graduated from Marist College. He spends his time obsessing equally over the Game of Thrones series and the New York Giants, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.