Game of Thrones has always been a glorious example of grippingly realistic characters. Through its current six seasons on air, it has offered us a host of very flawed, but very engaging characters. Perhaps one of the show’s most gripping characters has been Cersei Lannister. For a long time, she’s walked the thin line between protagonist and antagonist – until season 6’s phenomenal finale, Winds of Winter, where she dived head-first into the role of primary villain.
One of the biggest ways in which Game of Thrones sets itself apart is in how its characters are presented, particularly its antagonists. As I said in my previous post “When Bad Isn’t So Good,” removing the concept of antagonists from the story and replacing them with protagonists who happen to be on different sides is one of the best ways to flesh out characters. Too often, books, television, and movies present a villain in all their wicked glory from the start, then flashback to give glimpses of lost humanity. This may be interesting and even evoke some surprise sympathy, but it’s always colored by our first impression of the character. If your antagonist is introduced while peeling a baby’s face off, I doubt you’ll want to hug him, no matter how tragic his childhood traumas turn out to be. Furthermore, the character’s tragedies and sympathetic plights exist in the past and are thus set in stone, making them less gripping.
The solution is rather simple. Mold the villain in the present.
Let’s get back to Cersei. When the story starts out, Cersei is a snobbish, cold, entitled queen, but she’s also trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage where she has to watch her husband feeling up tavern wenches in front of her. She’s in an incestuous relationship with her brother, but she genuinely loves him and their children. She craves power, yet doesn’t know what to do with it. The show never tries to portray her as anything other than what she is – a terribly flawed yet engagingly human person.
Cersei is a power player right from the word “go.” As the story develops, Cersei makes increasingly desperate attempts to grab power for herself as her control over her own life is curbed and her family’s safety and stability threatened. When she is stripped of all power by her uncle and the new queen, Margaery, she makes a desperate and poorly thought-out gambit to militarize the local religious leaders so that they can take down her opposition. When the sect, the Sparrows, imprison her as well, Cersei is brought to her lowest point yet. Driven by loss, humilation, anger, and despair, Cersei is finally brought to her breaking point when she makes the decision to blow up the High Sept where all her enemies have gathered. In the aftermath of her final play, all her enemies are dead, and her path to the throne and total freedom is cleared – at the cost of her last child’s life. But after all she has suffered and gone through, Cersei can no longer shed tears. She has nothing more to lose, and everything to gain.
The reason why this story is so compelling is because we see every painful step play out. We see the worst of Cersei firsthand, but we also see her fears, her sufferings, and her losses that shape her into the Mad Queen we sitting on the throne at the end of the season.
Villains are made, not born. And when they’re made before our eyes, the experience is all the more powerful.
I’ll still never forgive her for killing Margaery though.