Game of Thrones: Honoring Cersei Lannister, the best female TV villain in history

Commentary: The Queen of the Seven Kingdoms was a stone cold monster, and we love her for it.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
6 min read

Cersei's path to the Iron Throne was bloody and brutal.


"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 who actually survived long enough to go gray, so you know she's got plenty of ammunition for that statement. Ramsay Bolton hunted humans, Craster married his own daughters and Joffrey made Sansa stare at her father's decapitated head. Still, it's Cersei who topped Olenna's list of baddies.

As usual, Olenna was right. Unlike her twin, lover and partner in death Jaime, Cersei didn't soften since the very first season. Jaime grew since 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 discovered that all those flowery words about honor really mean something. He lost a hand and, as cliched as it sounds, perhaps found a heart.

Cersei on the other hand? She would have shoved 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 hadn't ever seen a villain like Cersei before. She was beautiful, sexy, wickedly smart, powerful, and for a long time, no man or woman could 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 could compete with Cersei when it comes to her sheer will to do anything to anybody to stay in power.

Cersei herself 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 did. Somehow she took her suffering as a challenge and rose above it, and if there's anything to admire about her, that's it. Surrounded by powerful men her entire life, she knew 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 could never physically be the strongest person in the kingdom, so instead she found the true strongest person -- The Mountain -- and put him under her control. She wasn't the smartest, so she recruited Qyburn -- knowing full well he experiments horribly on living humans -- and gave him what he wants in exchange for serving her. She didn't have the biggest army, so she hired the services of The Golden Company -- even though they disappointed her by not bringing their elephants. Many of her deeds were grisly, but taught by pain herself, she 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.

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Most lives meant little to Cersei, which is a terrible quality in a human and a scarily powerful one in a leader. In the May 5 episode, she had Missandei publicly beheaded as casually as she might pour another glass of Arbor Red. Even the child she was carrying became another pawn to her, something she could use to keep Euron loyal to her and keep his ships on her side.

Cersei's end, when it came in the second-to-last episode on May 12, wasn't exactly by the book. In George R.R. Martin's series, a young Cersei is told by Maggy the Frog that once her tears have drowned her, she will die strangled by her little brother. Readers and viewers alike debated for years about whether the little brother in question was Tyrion, whom she hated, or Jaime, whom she loved.

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In the end, she wasn't technically strangled, though it is possible she died gasping for breath as the Red Keep collapsed around her and Jaime, who had found her at the last moment.

Maggy's prophecy was right about Cersei's children dying before her, but not quite right about her manner of death. (It's still possible George R.R. Martin will hew more closely to Maggy's prediction IF he ever finishes the books.)

And her death surely won't be considered bloody enough by some. Throughout her life, she mercilessly gave many orders that resulted in people dying horribly and in agonizing pain. Yet her own death came with her beloved Jaime holding her, and was probably fairly quick.

But her death was rather satisfying for those who wanted to see her taken down at last. For so long she stood in that tower, pinning her hopes on Qyburn's dragon-killing scorpions, on the Iron Fleet, on the Golden Company, on the Lannister army, and finally on the impregnability of the Red Keep. They all, one by one, failed her.

It might have been more satisfying to see Daenerys fly right up to Cersei's tower window, look her in those scheming eyes and utter "Dracarys." It might have made up, just a little, for all the deaths she arranged, from Robert Baratheon (remember him? He kinda started this whole eight-year rodeo...) to Missandei.

But in the end, Cersei lived to know that her entire empire was collapsing around her just like the Red Keep was. And as she died, she left behind an entirely new example of just how powerful, terrifying and complex a TV villain can be.

Now there's just one episode left to wrap up the world she left behind. What's that Ramsay Bolton said back in season 3? "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention."

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Originally published May 9. 
Update, May 12: Adds Cersei's fate.