A Song of Ice and Fire Game of Thrones

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.


  1. Courtney

    July 18, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    My two cents is that by then, Tommen was pretty much dead to Cersei already, since he sided with the High Sparrow over her. And since she’s already lost two children already, she really didn’t care that much anymore.

    Man, I’m still bummed about Margaery. She was such an awesome female character, so savvy and ambitious.

  2. Rachel

    July 18, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    Several thoughts…

    – I was also perplexed that Cersei was able to take the throne without more of a kerfluffle. I loved that whole sequence but for someone who only has Qyburn and the Mountain on her side, she had to at least manage to get control of the city guard in order to seize power….maybe she did, but we didn’t see it onscreen. I’m hoping that the show will address the reaction of the smallfolk next season, because they’d have to protest a woman with absolutely no claim to the throne seizing it after destroying a major monument/the Queen/the High Sparrow/hundreds if not thousands of innocent people.

    -I actually thought Jaime did look horrified…not jaw-dropping-bug-eyed horrified, but “in-so-much-shock-that-the-woman-he-loves-undid-everything-he-sacrificed-his-honor-to-protect-and-oh-Seven-I’m-going–to-have-to-kill-her-now-aren’t-I?” horror. I thought he looked like he was desperately trying to keep a straight face on the outside while keeping a lid on what had to be all his inner turmoil, but that’s just my opinion.

    – I did like Tommen’s death scene and felt it fit with the arc…earlier in the season I remembered that one of my favorite moments of Lena Heady’s acting was when she recieved Myrcella’s body (that face….THAT FACE!). Looking back on it, I think that it was actually Myrcella’s death when the last of Cersei’s humanity died. We saw her weeping and grieving for Myrcella, but after that is when I think she slips into the mad monster she was destined to become. Sure, Tommen is still alive, but…
    One of the things I keep reading in analyses of her character is that as much as she proclaims to love her children, she pretty much ignores and neglects Myrcella and Tommen. She “loves” them because they’re “hers”, but she doesn’t care about them as individuals at all, even as she lavishes adoration and attention on Joffrey, and I think this makes a lot of sense. Never, once, do we see her address Myrcella or Tommen as individuals (at least not until Tommen becomes king). She’ll pull them out of the room because she’s disgusted by Tyrion’s joke even though the children are laughing, she’ll prod Sansa when she ignores Myrcella because she perceives a slight to her daughter as a slight to herself, but never once do we see her talking to them privately like she does Joffrey, or even Sansa. Myrcella herself I thought captured it brilliantly when confronting Jaime in Dorne “You don’t know me!!” (I swear, Myrcella was one of the few good things about the Dorne plotline) Cersei can relate to Myrcella a bit more because Myrcella had to “suffer” the same thing Cersei suffered by being shipped off into a marriage pact without any say in the matter, but Cersei never once imagined that Myrcella was happy there and would want to stay there (I’m actually really sad that Myrcella didn’t survive long enough to see her mother again, because I really wanted to see Myrcella’s independant dynamic with her controlling mother play out).
    Joffrey was her “darling boy” who would make the world as he wanted it, who brought her joy when she wanted to die, and she screamed and raged when he died even though she knew by then he was horrid. Myrcella was the sweet little girl on whom she could project all of her frustrations of being a woman, and she wept at her death. And Tommen? She threatened to tear apart anyone who tried to get their claws in him, but she was willing to kill him herself when someone was going to take him away from her in Season 2.

    In season 5 she suffered torture and pain and humiliation to get back to him…but never considered his happiness in all of her machinations against Margaery, despite knowing how much Tommen loved her, and I think this culminated beautifully when the sept was destroyed, with Tommen looking on in the full horror and knowledge that his mother, out of her “love” for him, had killed his beloved wife (and hundreds of innocent people besides)….and still, she never thinks he might be upset by this, and immediately afterwards goes off to TORTURE SEPTA UNELLA instead of even considering that Tommen might need some comforting or guidance.

    Poor Tommen, who was ignored by his parents because he was the second boy, who was tormented by his older brother, who lost his sister (the only person who really cared about him according to the books) to Dorne, who spent his brief time as king wanting nothing more than to be a decent king but was in way over his head and was torn apart by all of the master Game players trying to use him, who had his wife torn from him, and then just as he had gotten her back he had to watch his entire future go up in a green cataclysm…so Tommen gives up, and Cersei, who started getting into the mindset that the prophecy was coming true with Myrcella’s death, doesn’t have enough humanity left in her to weep.

    That said, I am surprised Cersei’s as accepting of his death as she is. Not that she’s ever been one for self-reflection, but he killed himself directly because of her actions. Sure, she could be in denial about this, but then why isn’t she, say, putting out a blood hunt for whoever “assassinated” her boy? Why doesn’t she think someone pushed him out the window after everything she did to keep him safe? Since she doesn’t she must know he killed himself, but there’s no angsting about her fulfilling her own prophecy? She’s wondered before if she brought this on herself, if Joffrey’s temperment was the punishment for screwing her brother, but maybe she’s descended too far into madness now?

    Anywho. I guess those are my musings. I definitely noticed a lot of the same moments you did (sure we’ve seen the other noble houses rise in rebellion against Cersei, but no one in King’s Landing protests at all??) I think you’re right in that it feels like the show writers have the “story framework” they want and they’re kind of struggling to make the various characters fit that story and it gets weird when the characters don’t quite fit into their allotted slot.

  3. Linda

    July 18, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    I agree with Rachel, when Jamie watched Cersei being crowned, I got the feeling this will be turning point, when he actually leaves her. The way he looked at her… Perhaps I read in too much in his face, but he looked like he now despises her, or has given up on her.

  4. Lars Sjöström

    July 18, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    I agree that Cercei’s claim to the throne should be controversial. But in the book A Clash of Kings, the wife of lord Hornwood is threated as his heir in lack of children or other heirs of his blood. Of course the nobility will demand more of the Iron Throne than of a lordship, but with no heir apperant many people might accept her ascention since they have no other option at hand. At the same time it will no doubt make it easier for Daenerys, but I would be diappointed at GRRM if her victory against Cercei or dealings with the man who believes he is Aegon VI would be simple things.

    I also can’t see that this would be the end of the faith militant, surely there are more of them and their sympathizers about in the seven kingdoms, at least in the books. This might become their and pious nobles reason to support Daenerys.

    If I had attended Cercei’s coronation I would have tried to look neutral or cheerful out of fear for being burned next. So I don’t find people’s expressions strange.

  5. Mila

    July 18, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    I agree with previous posters — I thought Jaime looked horrified, and I’m pretty sure he’ll end up realizing Cersei has become the Mad Queen and killing her.

    The coronation was definitely too easy, and so many things in Cersei’s plan could have gone wrong. What if Lancel hadn’t followed the boy? What if the High Sparrow had sent more men? What if he had sent them sooner? The Mountain was with Tommen. Who was protecting Cersei in case they tried to take her to the sept?

    On Tommen — I think Cersei had already given up by that point. After Myrcella’s death, she realized the prophecy is coming true and there is nothing she can do to stop it. Sending the Mountain to guard Tommen was a half-hearted attempt to keep him safe, but she was resigned and not at all surprised at his death. She has lost her love for her children — the thing that Jaime admired and valued so much.

  6. Aphelotes

    July 18, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    I am quite sure that we can expect at least some of those things you are talking about in the next season. As this was the final episode of this season, it demanded a certain kind of closure. Opening new plots by already showing riots/intrigues/resistance against Cersei´s coup d´etat would have completely destroyed the pace and the ending of this season.

    And even then, i don´t think it´s too unrealistic anyway. There is literally no other heir. Roberts sons are dead as well as his brothers, so at the very least Cersei has a strong claim or even is the rightful heir depending on how exactly the succession law of the iron throne works in detail.
    Furthermore there is no real political resistance anymore. Cersei has killed basically the complete political elite of King´s Landing including the small council and turned house Tyrell openly hostile. There is no one left in a position to act against Cersei on a political level.
    Concerning riots/revolts one must take into account that Westeros is a late-medieval society, where most people are illiterate and politically passive. In reality there were sometimes peasant uprisings, noble revolts or of course city-riots during a famine etc, but modern-style city-rioting for political reasons was quite the exception, even when the rulers did really nasty stuff.
    However, as we are talking about some extraordinarily nasty stuff in the case of Cersei, at least some kind of resistance on the ground level would be logical.

    Personally i think next season we´ll see Cersei going full North-Korea-Mode like the mad king, just in her case driven by cold psychopathy instead of burning madness.

    And basically this also answers the questions concerning her reaction to Tommens death. The only people, Cersei cared about and felt empathy for, were her children and herself. In the very moment in which the last of her children died, she literally became a psychopath, completely cold inside and uncapable of any more empathy, as she got nothing more to lose, which explains, why she seems to take Tommen´s death much more lightly than the others.

  7. Mark

    July 21, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    Unfortunately, Jaime’s character has become so ruined and so defined by his obsessive love for Cersei that any redemption they give him will feel OOC and nonsensical. I mean, seriously, didn’t he say to Cersei at the beginning of this season “fuck anyone who’s not us?” And later to Brienne that he would kill every Tully man, woman and child in order to return to Cersei? And yet we’re honestly supposed to believe Cersei slaughtering a ton of innocent people gets him to turn on her? Why, Jaime? Those people weren’t you or Cersei, so fuck them, right? You would have done the same if it was for Cersei’s sake, would you not?

  8. Katie

    September 20, 2016 at 11:22 am

    I just wanted to let you know that I stumbled upon your articles today and I LOVE them. I have literally worked my way through every single article in the archives. Thank you for writing articulate, perceptive analysis on female characters in media and the stereotypes they are still unfortunately dogged by. I’ll try and bear all this in mind as I write my own female protag!

    1. Rhiannon

      September 23, 2016 at 10:26 am

      Thank you so much! <3

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