Villain of the Month: Cersei Lannister
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
All right, let’s get the ritual caveat out of the way: the Cersei Lannister we’re looking at today is the version from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, as opposed to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Admittedly, this distinction gets a little messy now that the show has overtaken the books. I’m going to shamelessly take advantage of that by using the show as a sort of bonus reel of material, but in cases where the two sources diverge, the books will always trump. Clear? Good. On with the fun.
And Cersei is loads of fun – if you consider murder, treason, incest, and child-maiming fun. Yes indeed, Cersei’s list of crimes is long, and she shows no sign of slowing down. But for all the ghastliness of her deeds, she’s one of the subtlest, most textured, and in many ways the most believable villains I’ve come across. Not because of what she does, but why she does it.
Cersei’s motivations are complex and evolving; they make her consistent and unpredictable all at once. So even if her over-arching goal (power) is as basic as they come and many of her tactics are wearily familiar (sexploitation being the main tool in her, er, box), she still manages to keep us on our toes, provoking surprise, disgust, and even a grudging sort of respect.
GRRM does a masterful job developing Cersei’s character, a feat that is particularly remarkable given that she doesn’t even appear as a POV character in her own right until A Feast for Crows, fully four books into the series – only to be virtually absent again in the fifth and most recent book (if you can call 2011 “recent”). In fact, Cersei has a grand total of twelve chapters in the entire series. (Davos Seaworth gets more, for crying out loud.) And yet even by the end of book one, we have a pretty good idea of what makes Cersei tick. Through Ned, Catelyn, Tyrion, Sansa et al., we see an ambitious woman who is by turns prideful and insecure, cool and temperamental, nurturing and shockingly hard-hearted. We see a mother who will do whatever it takes to protect her children, and win the game of thrones. And, crucially, we see someone who, in spite of all her privilege, has in many ways been powerless for much of her life. Lacking access to the more conventional (read: masculine) levers of power, Cersei has become a master manipulator, charming, seducing, threatening, and deceiving her way to the top.
All this we’re shown pretty much from the outset, but it isn’t until A Feast for Crows that we glimpse the true extent of her neurosis. From the earliest pages, Cersei’s extreme paranoia shines through. We see the depth of her anxiety for her children’s safety, as well as her obsession with the political machinations around her. Having spent her entire adult life manipulating and betraying those around her, she fully expects that everyone else is doing the same. And the more power she gains, the more paranoid she becomes.
To be fair, she’s not entirely wrong. She hasn’t made many friends, what with the murdering and child-maiming and five-star snark (seriously, Cersei, five gold stars for that snark), and there is that whole prophecy about all her children dying, which is enough to make anyone a tad jumpy.
But if you’ll forgive a more serious angle for a moment (this is grimdark, after all), what makes Cersei so interesting, at least to me, is that she’s not just a villain who happens to be a woman; in many ways, Cersei’s villainhood is intimately bound up with her womanhood. Not only would she employ very different tactics had she been born a man, she might not have grown into a villain at all.
Wait, what? Are you saying Cersei Lannister is a villain because she’s a woman?
Kinda, yeah. But hear me out. This isn’t a theme in the books; I’m not arguing that woman=villain in the world of ASOIAF. It’s something very specific to Cersei, to her particular circumstances and personality.
The path to villainhood starts with conflict: a fundamental obstacle or obstacles standing between the villain and what s/he wants most in the world. For Cersei, that fundamental obstacle is her gender. In the misogynistic society of Westeros, Cersei’s ambitions, her self-image, even some aspects of her personality itself, are incompatible with a woman’s place in the world. That’s not unique to Cersei, but combined with her privileged birth and the role she ends up acceding to in the kingdom, she has (dark) pathways open to her that most other women railing against their place in society do not.
To be sure, Cersei would probably never have turned out to be a nice person. Even as a child, she’s portrayed as cruel and arrogant. But in and of itself, that doesn’t make her villain material. That metamorphosis begins when prideful, ambitious young Cersei starts to realize that she’ll never be treated the same way as her twin brother; that she’ll never amount to much in Daddy’s eyes (and, as we established last month, daddy issues loom large in Villain Land). She might think she’s “the only true son [Tywin Lannister] ever had”, but it doesn’t matter, because boobs. She’ll never be Tywin’s heir; her fate is instead to be traded as political capital, and to mint some of her own as Royal Babymaker. Still, little C does her best to embrace her fate, drawing adorable pictures of herself riding the backs of dragons with her betrothed, handsome Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. But even these dreams are shattered when Rhaegar dies and she’s married off to Robert Baratheon, who turns out to be an abusive, lecherous drunkard bent on humiliating her at every turn. Whatever fragile romantic innocence Cersei still nurtured was shattered, twisted and hardened into bitterness and cynicism, and all that was left to her was the game of thrones. That, and a prophecy foretelling the death of all of her beloved children.
Cersei’s overarching goal is power, but she can’t truly achieve it because she’s a woman; there will always be someone above her, calling the shots, deciding her fate. Her deepest love is as a mother, but her children are in mortal peril. So, to protect her children and fulfill her ambitions, she resorts to the ‘weapons of a woman’, the greatest of which is “between her legs”. Even her eventual shaming is deeply gendered, scandalously exposing her naked body and parading her through the streets to chants of “whore”.
See what I mean about the woman thing? It’s an inextricable part of why, and how, Cersei is a villain.
All this makes her an incredibly textured character. But as I argued last time, the on-screen portrayal can really make or break a villain, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to the amazing work of Lena Headey, who’s brought us some of the best bitchface ever to grace television.
And now, without further ado, The Machine.
Strengths: Cersei doesn’t lack for wits. She sees most of the angles, and manages to find gaps in pretty much everyone’s armour. A cunning tactician and a master puppeteer, she has leverage in the form of wealth, power, and connections, and she knows how to use them. Given her preferred methods, her beauty and polished manners have to count as an advantage too.
Weaknesses: Paranoia, anger management issues, and a fondness for wine that probably doesn’t help with either of those problems. Daddy issues, brother issues (x2), and a textbook case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Best Quote: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
Lair: The Red Keep? Not much of a lair, if you ask me, lacking entirely in sharks, lava pits, etc. Although it does have a dungeon and a designated torture area, so… 2 points.
Toys: Nothing of note, unless you count fancy dresses and bit of bling. 0 points.
Henchmen: Where to begin? The Kingsguard, a flotilla of spies and servants, every man she’s ever seduced, not to mention the Zombie Mountain. Seriously, that guy’s worth 5 all on his own. 8 points.
Intimidation factor: “Power is power.” “Call me sister again and I’ll have you strangled in your sleep.” Pretty stone-cold for a woman with no fighting ability to speak of. Plus the bitchface. 3 points.
Schemes - Scope: To rule Westeros, directly and/or alongside her family. By the standards of her peers, pretty lofty overall. 4 points.
Schemes - Complexity: The woman has more gamepieces in play than a chess master. 6 points.
Overall Badass Rating: 23
As always, if there’s a villain you’d like to see put through The Machine, let us know in the comments!
Oh, and incidentally, I'll be doing an AMA over at r/Fantasy on Thursday the 22nd. Drop by and heckle me!
Last month's villain: Loki
Next month: Russell “Stringer” Bell