A good antagonist makes for a good story, an undeniable fact. Tales pitting a pure evil entity and a larger-than-life hero were compelling for a while, and in some cases, they still are. But when you move past how one-dimensional such characters are in their pursuits, the story ceases to be engaging. Real life villains have more complex motives than they let out, which oftentimes blurs the line separating good and evil. In my opinion, Game of Thrones is such a gripping show for this very reason. A broad, unbiased look at what has happened so far in Westeros will reveal to you a simple picture – warring factions fighting for power and survival. No great good, no pure evil. A closer look, and you wouldn’t blame somebody for thinking the Lannisters are not in the wrong. As the cliche goes, we’re all heroes in our own stories. Hence, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that Cersei Lannister is not the chief antagonist of the show. Her actions are wholly defensible and there is absolutely no reason to claim that her deeds are any more insidious than those of any other major player on the show.
At the very outset of the show, it is established that Cersei and Jaime are in an incestuous relationship. True to patriarchal norm, Cersei receives more flak for it than Jaime does, and Cersei is seen as this deplorable, vile woman who cannot keep her urges under check. Cersei had her reasons to pursue this relationship. Jaime is the male Cersei, at least according to her. She says to Sansa before Sansa’s marriage to Joffrey:
“When we were young, Jaime and I, we looked so much alike even our father couldn’t tell us apart. l could never understand why they treated us differently. He was heir to Casterly Rock, and l was sold to some stranger like a horse to be ridden whenever he desired.”
This stranger is none other than Robert Baratheon, with whom she was in an abusive, loveless marriage. A marriage forged to keep intact, an alliance between two Great Houses, and not on the basis of any mutual infatuation. It also didn’t help that Robert seemed to love everything but Cersei; wine, whores and Lyanna, who was already dead by that time. It is no surprise, given the state of her marriage and her fondness for Jaime because of their strong familial bond, that she turned to him for support, which eventually took the form that it did. In an alternate explanation for the illegitimate relationship, Cersei could have possibly seen this as an act of defiance, to reassert her will over her body.
Cersei’s blind love for her son Joffrey, admittedly an idiot son, was what really got our goat. Her love enabled him to be the prick that he was, which is why when he died, the audience needed a new person to hate. Cersei was there for the picking. Had Ramsay Bolton been introduced as a character then, we probably wouldn’t still be vilifying Cersei as much, but that’s another debate altogether. Joffrey’s death was a seminal moment, responsible for fan favour drastically turning against Cersei. His death put Cersei at odds with Tyrion, the darling of the show. Her suspecting that Tyrion might have had a hand in Joffrey’s death is not baseless. Tyrion has always had a dislike for Joffrey, smacking him around and demeaning him at the drop of a hat. Cersei loved her son more than she trusted Tyrion, which is not saying much since she didn’t trust Tyrion at all. From here on, till the death of Tommen, almost all of her decisions are motivated by one thing – fear of losing her other two children or their love. Her torturing Ellaria and Tyene Sand was simply an act of revenge, dished out in the same manner as they did with Myrcella. Poetic. Cersei also caught onto Margaery’s ploy to manipulate Tommen to act as she seemed fit. At around the same time, she was also subject to the Walk of Atonement, which compounded her quandary. So, she put a full stop to all the injustice against her the only way she knew how, with an emphatic statement that was the Sept of Baelor incident. The incident, while absolutely wicked, is not unlike what the Other Powerful Lady did to the Tarly bannermen. Burning Randyll and Dickon Tarly alive despite being counselled against it by Tyrion doesn’t really scream ‘benevolence’, something she is often claimed to be by her cancerous fanbase.
A lot of the hate thrown Cersei’s way can be attributed to her gender. Violence and Machiavellianism are common themes appearing in Game of Thrones (if not the only themes). Cersei merely made choices befitting the circumstances to survive. The men of Game of Thrones have the age old “upholding honour” excuse that they use to redeem themselves. If not honour, then they have horrific things happen to them which manages to garner our sympathy. Take Jaime and Theon Greyjoy for example. Jaime had his hand cut off and Theon had his member mutilated. We as an audience have not witnessed a satisfying humbling of the ‘evil’ Cersei Lannister, and continue to hold her in that regard. Her losing all three of her children, two of whom definitely did not deserve to die, her father being killed by her own brother, and her Walk of Atonement, weren’t enough to paint her differently in our eyes.
Cersei Lannister, despite “choosing violence”, resorted to politics to play the Game of Thrones, and she has lived thus far. Other men and women have not been so lucky. Her vilification can be traced to the fact that her statesmanship is indelibly stained by her gender. There is something unsavory about a woman in Westerosi politics, a fact from which she cannot escape in her own world and in ours. If she does have a flaw, it’s that her choices are often motivated by love, vengeance and self-preservation. Her flaw is that she is human.
Taking a step back, it is now clear as day that I am a huge fan of the character Cersei Lannister. The developments in the show hinge on her decisions. Every other character on the show has constantly been trying to catch up to her, and to my disappointment, they finally are. The Other Powerful Lady of the show is only as interesting as her dragons. Her words are dispassionate compared to Cersei’s, and her motives, dreary. Preternatural elements aside, Cersei Lannister is the draw of the show, we just don’t realise it. It remains to be seen what happens in the next season of the show, with Cersei having her back up against the wall. How she will face the threat of the Whitewalkers and of the Other Powerful Lady, I’m not sure. But until then, you can root for your queen, and I’ll root for mine.