In Defense of Cersei Lannister on 'Game of Thrones'

Emily Hannemann
Opinion HBO

Hate her, love her or grudgingly tolerate her — the fact remains that Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) has grown into one of the most formidable opponents on HBO’s Game of Thrones, and that wasn’t a result of pure luck.

Throughout the show’s previous seven seasons, Cersei has become a magnet for fan hatred. Some of that ire is undoubtedly deserved. After all, she is in a relationship with her brother and she has done some pretty awful stuff to hold onto power. But there’s a complexity to Cersei on the show that doesn’t always find its way into fan discussions; there are layers to the queen in the way she’s written and in Lena Headey’s fantastic performance.

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If nothing else, Cersei Lannister at least deserves respect. Here’s why.

She Was Born Into a World That Wouldn’t Let Her Rule

In Westeros, Cersei would likely be far happier if she’d been born a man. She even says as much to Robert, during one of their arguments: “I should wear the armor, and you the gown!”

Many of the less savory aspects of her character arise because she is unable to physically fight for the things she wants; instead of picking up a sword or making battle plans, she is forced to rely on cunning and manipulation to gain any kind of power. And since she grew up with Tywin as her not-so-loving dad, Cersei had likely learned from a young age that power is the most important thing in the world — more important than family bonds, more important than kindness, more important than one’s own life.

Her Abusive Marriage and Broken Family

Cersei’s marriage to Robert Baratheon certainly wouldn’t have helped her develop into a kind, empathetic ruler. Cersei was at first overjoyed to be marrying him and told Ned Stark that her wedding ceremony to Robert was, at the time, the happiest moment of her life… until the wedding night, when he was already horribly drunk and called her “Lyanna.” It became abundantly clear Robert had no romantic feelings for Cersei, and largely regarded her with hatred; that hatred became physical when he slapped her in Season 1.

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If her marriage was horrible, her family wasn’t much better. Cersei could never fully win her father’s approval because he clearly favored Jaime, and he favored the Lannister legacy over any of his children. To her father, Cersei — and the rest of the Lannisters, save for Tyrion, whom he hated — weren’t worth love so much as they were means to an end. Growing up in that kind of environment would’ve changed the way she thought about family and familial relationships (though of course, this doesn’t excuse the incest), and robbed her of the affection she needed to become a more empathetic, generous ruler. With Tywin as a role model, who else could she have become?

She Was Fated for Tragedy

Whether or not Cersei brought some of the bad things that happened to her on herself, the fact remains that, like many of the other characters on Game of Thrones, she has been a magnet for tragedy. But Cersei’s tragedy is unique because it was fully foretold, and she was powerless to stop it. Since her youth, Cersei had to live with the knowledge of the prophecy she was once told and watch it slowly coming true; she lost her children, several other, younger women came along to challenge her rule, and while the final chapter of the prophecy hasn’t yet come to pass… if it does, and it likely will, she’ll be killed “once [her] tears have drowned [her].” Yikes.

Having to live with the knowledge of that prophecy for decades couldn’t have been easy, and living with it as it was all coming to pass would’ve been even harder. While many characters who have endured horrible circumstances wouldn’t have been able to predict them weeks or months ahead, Cersei had to live with the knowledge that if the prophecy came true, everything she cared about could be taken from her at any moment and she wouldn’t be able to stop it. Helps explain a little of her “paranoia,” doesn’t it?

She's Smarter Than She’s Given Credit For

Though she’s certainly made some not-great choices, Cersei has proven several times that she knows a thing or two about how to rule — or at least how to keep herself in power. Arguably her greatest “triumph” took some serious planning, scheming and forethought to get that many of her enemies into the Sept of Baelor and then blow it up using Wildfire, thus securing her hold on King’s Landing for the time being.

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When you play a game of thrones, you win or you die.

Furthermore, at least on the show, Cersei has a functioning sense of logic and reason… at least when it comes to getting what she wants. When she meets with the representative from the Iron Bank in Season 7, she manages to rather easily reframe her family’s excessive debts as a tricky situation the bank found itself in and painted the Lannisters as the bank’s potential saviors. It’d be hard to argue with her logic — the bank couldn’t support Daenerys, who was costing them quite a bit by freeing all the slaves — and unlike revolutionaries, she reminded him, Lannisters always pay their debts.

Her Love as a Mother

Cersei isn’t exactly overflowing with affection for most of the population of King’s Landing, but there’s no question that she deeply loves at least three people: Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen. She genuinely loved her children, even though they would have been seen as abominations in the eyes of larger society had the truth about them been known. She was heartbroken by their deaths (though by the time Tommen died, she was more resigned to his fate based on the prophecy than truly, openly grieving).

“Love no one but your children,” Cersei advises Sansa, “on that, a mother has no choice.” And for that reason, many of the most emotional moments Cersei has had on Game of Thrones have been connected to her children. Her rage at the Sand Snakes for killing Myrcella was heartbreaking, and her revenge on that occasion felt justified.

She Has Some of the Best One-Liners

If you find it hard to see anything sympathetic in Cersei’s character… you at least have to admit some of her lines have been among the funniest or most epic we’ve heard so far on Game of Thrones. While she might not quite be on Tyrion’s level or the all-time sass master, Olenna Tyrell, Cersei has had some devastating roasts that still sting today, as well as some of the most iconic lines from the show.

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“No one cares what your father once told you,” is one of her best burns (RIP, Loras Tyrell), but her most memorable lines have often been serious ones. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground,” is one of her most well-known quotes, along with the perhaps character-summarizing “I choose violence.”

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