Burn Them All: Cersei in Game of Thrones S6
The opening twenty minutes of The Winds of Winter was one the best things I’ve seen on TV in a while. Sure, the battle in episode 9 was gritty and artistically shot, but the conclusion to the Faith Militant plotline this season was near stylistic perfection. It was beautifully directed with fantastic music, slowly building and building to a wonderfully tense and atmospheric conclusion. Some elements didn’t quite make sense — I’m still not sure why Lancel followed that child — but it was too compelling in the moment to care.
I’m fairly convinced that some version of this storyarc will also appear in the novels — it fits Cersei and Jaime’s book character arcs too perfectly for it to be entirely a show invention. But although the show did a great job atmospherically and stylistically, it tripped up with its interpretation. Because, for a series that’s determined to show us how gritty and unflinching it is, it really flinched away from the consequences of this dark plotline.
In one fell swoop, the show killed off a huge number of named characters and destroyed one of its major landmarks. But the drama didn’t seem to have any further reaching consequences for King’s Landing, even though that much wildfire should have destroyed more than one building, and people should have had some reaction to the fact that their most important religious building was just destroyed. Fury and rioting? Terror and rioting? Something and rioting, certainly. The explosion acted like a neat bow tying up the entire Tyrell and Faith Militant plotline, when really, it should have dealt with the immediate threat Cersei faced and then replaced it with something worse. After all, acting boldly out of self interest and then causing even worse problems for herself is kind of Cersei’s raison d’etre.
Cersei was crowned in perfect calm, but surely her ascension wouldn’t have been that smooth. She’s not the heir. She just destroyed a huge religious symbol. Sure, she’s killed off most if not all of her council, and dealt with all of her rivals, but there would still be some kind of power struggle. Some kind of reaction. I love this idea that she becomes Mad Queen Cersei, determined to burn them all, but people should at least have looked frightened during her coronation. In the end, I felt uncertain about how we’re supposed to react. This is Cersei’s literal crowning villain moment, but there was no-one left to react like she was a villain. It left it feeling confusingly triumphant.
Tommen’s death had similar issues for me, in another case of being misled by technically accurate spoilers. From what I’d heard, I thought Tommen was in the burning Sept of Baelor and jumped to escape the flames. I didn’t think he jumped after seeing the destruction from the Red Keep. So Cersei killed her son far more indirectly that I expected, and although the scene was beautifully shot, I would have liked something more from it. Some shot of Tommen’s face, some greater exploration of what he was thinking. But the bigger problem was Cersei’s reaction to his death. It felt very unemotional to me, as though Cersei grieved for him, but had accepted his death as part of her rise to become queen. I thought it would be the great tragic irony of her revenge, that she killed her enemies but killed her beloved son too, fulfilling the prophecy while trying to prevent it, but the show seemed to portray it more like a foregone conclusion than a horrible surprise. Sure, he’s dead, but now she gets to be queen. She got what she wanted after all.
And finally, Jaime. The show has clung to the idea of Jaime and Cersei for far longer than the books did, but if there’s one thing that should make Jaime turn on Cersei, it’s her using wildfire to massacre people and destroy part of King’s Landing. Yet at the end of the episode… maybe it was just poor acting, but there was pretty much no reaction from Jaime as he saw her crowned. No horror, no trepidation, just, “hey, it’s Cersei.” Obviously there’s still time for the show to dig into things next season, but for now, it felt weak.
I’ve commented many times before that the show seems to pick and choose plotpoints to include from the books, without including the characterizations and character journeys necessary to explain it. It happened with Catelyn freeing Jaime, despite not thinking Bran and Rickon were dead. It happened when Shae betrayed Tyrion and Sansa, even though Shae in the show had been shown to love Tyrion and was willing to do anything to protect Sansa. And now, weirdly, it seems to have happened here. It seems beyond odd to argue that the show is wrongly interpreting the books, when we have no idea what was suggested by George RR Martin and what is the show’s own invention. But it feels like the most likely conclusion. The show wanted Cersei’s Badass Moment of Revenge and Villainy, but it missed out all the messy consequences that should have happened around it. It’s as though the writers got that headline detail — Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor — and ran with it, without thinking about the other narrative details needed to make it work.
It feels as though it’s simply placing Cersei as queen now so that she can be in charge of King’s Landing when Dany attacks next season, and has handwaved any problems inherent in her surprise ascension to keep the story moving. And it makes sense that Cersei would want revenge, and that she’d get it in such a brutal way. It makes sense that Cersei would think this would rid her of enemies and win her more power. But it doesn’t make sense that she’d actually succeed without any consequences beyond the loss of Tommen, which the show doesn’t fully explore as a consequence at all.