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‘Game of Thrones’ brings Cersei Lannister to her lowest point

She finally got her punishment, but was it justice?


Michelle Jaworski


Posted on Jun 15, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 2:22 pm CDT

This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire.

After nearly five seasons of playing the game, the lioness has finally been caged—but will she stay that way?

In what looked to be a straight case of “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Cersei Lannister got Loras and Margaery Tyrell arrested by the High Sparrow (for homosexuality and lying to the Faith of the Seven, respectively) only to find herself behind bars after Lancel confessed that she slept with him. She aligned herself with the High Sparrow and brought back the Faith Militant to remove Margaery from power, but it ultimately got her too. She’s paid for it with an act designed to strip any sort of pride still left in her, and her troubles with the religious leader she put in power are far from over.

And well, if you ask the Internet, she totally deserved her imprisonment. Some might even go as far to call her a bitch for all she has done.

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But when it came to her walk of atonement (also known as the walk of shame) in “Mother’s Mercy,” something happened many of them did not expect. They felt bad for her despite however they felt about her before.

Of course, some were still unmoved by it.

Cersei is easily among the most polarizing characters on Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, but unlike the others, there isn’t really a moment when people have a change of heart. Sansa Stark started off as a naive and foolish girl for some critics, but they started rooting for her once she left King’s Landing and started to learn how to play the game. Stannis Baratheon was a humorless grump with a religious fanatic by his side, but people finally understood what Ser Davos Seaworth saw in him once he rode in and defeated Mance Rayder (at least until what he did to Shireen). Jaime Lannister, Cersei’s twin brother, was the jerk who pushed Bran Stark off a tower and injured Ned Stark until we got into his head and he became much more sympathetic two books later.

With Cersei, we have none of that. She’s already a hardened woman by the time we meet her in A Game of Thrones. We don’t start to read from her point of view until A Feast for Crows, and by then we’re pretty much set in our feelings about her, though she probably wouldn’t care what we thought anyway.

She acts like many male characters throughout pop culture in some respects, yet while they’re celebrated, she’s called a bitch for it. For example, she has a lot in common with Walter White, who was loved by many fans for a good portion of Breaking Bad.

But is she someone who deserves to take the walk of atonement—which is aimed to both punish and degrade a woman for adultery or whoring? Well, that’s something fans will be debating for weeks to come. She’s not an inherently “good” character, even in Westerosi eyes, and while she’s good at the game, she can still get played.

She may not be likeable, but she’s certainly understandable. Cersei is largely the way she is because of her circumstances. And despite being knocked down a few pegs, she’s still a dangerous adversary and one not to be trifled with. After all, “The Rains of Castamere” reminds us that the lion still has claws.

She’s a product of her time, but she won’t let gender boundaries stop her

In every part of Westeros except for Dorne, a woman can only inherit land and titles once all of the male heirs are dead. That means even though Cersei is the eldest Lannister, she’s last in line behind both her younger brothers, Jaime and Tyrion, as heir to Casterly Rock. Cersei is all too aware that all of the Lannister wealth and power—and maybe even her father’s devotion—could have been hers if only she were born a boy. Instead, the best she could hope for was to marry into a noble house (preferably the one on the Iron Throne) and have children. That’s all anyone expects or wants of her.

That’s why she expresses many times throughout the books that she wishes she were born a man, if only for the privileges that come with it. Some people suspect that’s part of why she hates Tyrion so much. Even though he’s deformed (by Westeros’s standards) and “killed” their mother in childbirth, he still has an easier go of it because he gets most of the privileges of being a man.

Of course Tyrion’s feelings for his sister aren’t exactly tender. As readers, we rely on Tyrion as a judge of character, so most of our insight into Cersei (other than Cersei herself) comes from him. But while Tyrion is usually perceptive, their shared history could skew his opinion when it comes to Cersei. She despises him from the moment he is born and even harmed him as a baby by twisting his penis until he cried—a story Oberyn Martell relays to him on the show. Their plot in A Clash of Kings is basically a cat and mouse game of wits and spies for control of the small council. They know how to push each other’s buttons like no other. She punishes him for things he cannot control, and considering her lot in life she’d still hold him in contempt even without Maggy’s prophecy. They’d probably get along if they weren’t too busy plotting against the other.

Cersei’s life has been full of disappointments, mainly at the hands of the men in her life. She dreamed of marrying Rhaegar Targaryen (much in the way that Sansa once dreamed of her shining prince), but the Mad King Aerys II put an end to that. Instead she got King Robert Baratheon to strengthen the bond between House Baratheon and House Lannister. The hero of the rebellion and new king was handsome at first, and she even agreed to the marriage, but he smothered any love that might have been their very first night. Robert drunkenly called Cersei “Lyanna,” the woman he loved, when they consummated their marriage. It’s hard not to blame her for being bitter.

He spent most of his time with other women and fathered many children, but occasionally he would stumble in drunk and assault her. He beat her, but it went unnoticed until the one time he hit her in the face.

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She put up with Robert for nearly 20 years before she finally got her revenge; she even relishes in eating the boar that killed her husband. We vilify her for it even though it’s how she finally put an end to decades of abuse.

Though everyone wants her to stay in the background as a wife and mother, she’s cunning, vocal, and she wants to rule. She finally gained some power as Queen Regent for her sons, Joffrey and Tommen, and she’s not about to let anyone pry it away—even with Maggy the Frog’s prophecy and Margaery looming over her. (More on that later.)

But unlike Arya, who resents the restrictions that are placed on her but not fellow women, Cersei resents women for the same exact reasons that men resent her.

“She’s been constantly hurt, put down and dismissed due to the misogyny of Westerosi society, and yet she has internalised so much of it that it’s all very tragic to read,” faramircaptainofgondor wrote. “She’s rightfully resentful of the way most people view her as inferior due to her gender, yet she seems to place herself above all other women, whom she dismissed as useless and stupid.”

Is she the greatest political mastermind Westeros has ever seen? No, but she’s not as bad at it as everyone thinks. She got the upper hand on Ned Stark (who was pretty terrible), after all. With Cersei’s power and the survival of her family at stake, there was no way she was gonna let him come in and take over just because a paper signed by her late husband Robert Baratheon said so. When it came time for her to rule, she wanted to be better than Tywin.

According to Jaime in A Feast for Crows, “His sister liked to think of herself as Lord Tywin with teats, but she was wrong. Their father had been as relentless and implacable as a glacier, where Cersei was all wildfire, especially when thwarted.”

As she told Littlefinger with a show of force in season 1, power is power—although we’re pretty sure knowledge helps too.

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Cersei is often compared to Margaret of Anjou, the French wife of King Henry VI who often ruled England in place of her incompetent husband during the Wars of the Roses and strove to protect her son’s claim to rule. (Sound familiar?)

She will do anything for those she loves

People may argue about whether Cersei truly loves Jaime, but you cannot deny that she loves her children. Yes, even Joffrey.

Her love of them may be unconditional, but she’s not blind enough to deny some hard truths. Joffrey was a monster, one who caused everything to go downhill when he called for Ned Stark’s head when she only wanted to send him to the Wall. Tommen is a kind boy but a pushover.

With a prophecy decreeing she will outlive her children haunting her, she’ll often go to extremes to protect them and the charade that they are Robert’s children. If anyone finds out about Cersei and Jaime (and the illegitimacy of their children), they’re as good as dead.

Instead of escaping King’s Landing when Ned Stark discovers her secret, she used her power to capture him instead. She gets rid of Robert’s bastards to protect her children’s legitimacy. She summoned the king from battle instead of having him there to rally his men. She’d rather poison Tommen than subject him to what would have happened if Stannis captured King’s Landing. She’ll intimidate whoever it takes to get back at Tyrion, who she believes killed Joffrey. When it appears that the Martells may be threatening Myrcella in the show, she sends Jaime there to bring her back.

And while getting rid of Margaery was for her benefit, it was, in her mind, for Tommen’s as well.  Her calls might not always be smart, but in her heart she’s fighting for her family.

She knows the secret to getting what she wants

“Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon,” Cersei told Sansa in season 2’s “Blackwater” episode. “The best one’s between your legs.”

And does Cersei know it. It’s a weapon she’s been using for close to 20 years, after all.

She rewards her lover (and cousin) Lancel by sleeping with him and has him knighted after he gives Robert the fortified strongwine the precipitated his fatal injury by a boar. She sleeps with Osney Kettleblack for killing the previous High Septon and does so again to get him to falsely confess to the new High Septon (AKA the High Sparrow) that he slept with Margaery, causing her imprisonment in the books.

“No matter how nefarious Cersei’s intentions may be, Cersei deserves to be lauded for using what she has in order to get what she wants,” AmandaOfHappiness wrote last month.

Cersei, like Arianne Martell in the books, uses her sexuality to her advantage in a society that values virginal brides and faithful wives. Although we get both of their viewpoints for the first time in A Feast for Crows, we’re just starting to learn about Arianne. Cersei is someone we’ve already made our minds up about (based primarily on what other characters think of her).

It’s only when Osney is tortured by the High Sparrow into confessing Cersei’s plans that her sexual manipulation backfires on her and gets her in trouble.

Her downfall comes in part because of a self-fulfilling prophecy

Prophecies are the worst, right?

Season 5 opened up with the show’s first-ever flashback, showing an adolescent Cersei and her friend going to see the witch woman Maggy the Frog because Cersei wanted to know her future. Bad idea. Maggy warned Cersei that she wouldn’t like what she heard. And indeed, what Cersei learned that day has haunted her ever since. Maggy tells Cersei she will be queen until someone younger and more beautiful strikes her down, her three children will die, and in the books (but not the show) she will die at the hands of the valonqar, or “little brother” in Valyrian. Unfortunately for her, Cersei still has two brothers alive and (mostly) well.

Prophecies tend to come true in Game of Thrones and ASOIAF, but it’s unclear whether it’s always a case of fate having more hold than free will, or—as in the case of Cersei—self-fulfilling prophecy. Suddenly, her attitude and mental abuse about Sansa and Margaery make a lot more sense.

So far, Joffrey has died and Margaery is queen. Myrcella has been poisoned on the show, and in the books she’s disfigured in a fight but remains alive (so far). And the gentle Tommen—in the highly vulnerable position of being the king of the Andals and the First Men—is being encouraged to send Cersei away by his new, pretty, and scheming wife. Cersei believes she’s protecting herself and her family, but she also lets her paranoia get the better of her. With the prophecy looming over her and circumstances deteriorating in King’s Landing, Cersei doesn’t have the luxury of long-term thinking. She feels backed into a corner and wildy tries to crush possible dangers. She fears that after killing Tywin, Tyrion will come for her. (She offers gold and a lordship for the man who brings her Tyrion’s head.)

She aligns with the High Sparrow to get Margaery away from Tommen (and ultimately herself; it’s not completely selfless). In the books, she gets Osney to lie about having sex with Margaery before she consummated her marriage with Tommen; in the show, Margaery is merely caught lying to the Faith after Loras is arrested for his homosexuality. She sends Jaime to Dorne to bring Myrcella home and out of danger. She sends Mace Tyrell off to Braavos (a show-only plot) so he won’t be able to help Margaery when she gets in trouble. She surrounds herself only with people loyal to her instead of the right people for the job—something even real political leaders sometime have to do—so they don’t betray her or try to remove her from power. But in doing so, she also sends away anyone who could help her.

It’s all great for Cersei, at first. But as is wont to happen, everything falls to shit and eventually her move to put the High Sparrow in power and bring back the Faith Militant comes back to bite her. Tommen is safe for now, but Myrcella’s death could further unhinge Cersei as she continues to see Maggy’s prophecy come true.

The Walk of Atonement is sexist by design

Cersei has done a lot of terrible stuff during her lifetime. Pretty much any of it is punishable by death. What she’s actually punished for in A Dance With Dragons is none of that.

After her imprisonment in the cells under the Sept of Baelor, Cersei eventually confesses one sin to the High Sparrow in A Dance With Dragons: She has “lain with men outside the bonds of marriage.” She’s facing charges of regicide, incest, high treason, and in the books, deicide for plotting the death of the previous High Septon, so confessing to sleeping around is the least terrible thing she can admit to. Since Lancel (and Osney in the books) have already confessed to it, she doesn’t see the point of denying it. She claims that she did it because she was weak and Robert unfaithful to her (though in the books she says it happened after Robert’s death).

The walk of atonement is the High Sparrow’s condition to release Cersei (and reunite her with her son) and make her atone for her admitted sin. She will have a trial by combat to determine whether she’s guilty of the other crimes.

A walk of atonement is designed to shame and humiliate a woman for crimes such as adultery and whoring. After a woman is stripped of her clothes, any jewelry or trinkets, and all of her hair, she’s forced to walk through past a crowd naked and barefoot as citizens will call her names and throw items such as rotten fruit and vegetables. She will be surrounded by guards, so people will not be able to harm her.

Like many aspects of George R.R. Martin’s novels, it’s a cruel sentence that has some root in history. It’s similar to a punishment given in 13th century France, which involved tying both of the guilty people together naked and walking them through town. He particularly based it on what happened to Jane Shore, one of King Edward IV’s mistresses.

When it comes to completing the walk, Cersei is defiant. She remembers stories of her grandfather’s mistress, who was forced to do a walk of atonement by Tywin after his death and pledges not to falter or let go of her pride; after all, hair grows back. “I am a lioness,” she says to herself during the walk in A Dance With Dragons. “I will not cringe for them.” Cersei may not lose every inch of hair in the show like her book counterpart, but the septas still “shave her her off like Aslan,” according to Lena Headey.

Even she is not immune to the crowd. Cersei always been a renowned beauty, and it was easy to hide signs of age and flaws from childbirth with expensive gowns. Stripped of her silks, the jeering crowd sees her stretchmarks and her sagging breasts. Part of Cersei’s power and identity has always been her good looks, and now even that source of pride is taken from her. It’s described in painstaking detail so that you’re walking right along with Cersei—and you can see it written on Headey’s face. Somehow, inexplicably, some people who once rooted against Cersei might even feel for her.

With no Lannisters there to support her, she’s completely alone. Eventually even she can’t ignore the hateful words and we see her falter and break down, but once she reaches the Red Keep, she’s greeted with a glimmer of hope in the form of her champion, Ser Robert Strong. Viewers will know him by a different name.

It’s a powerful moment in the books, and a hell of a scene for Headey in the show, but some fans don’t believe that Cersei should’ve ever had to go through with that. She’s not being punished for any of the crimes she’s committed. She’s being punished for having sexual agency. While Robert has more than a dozen bastard children, some of them conceived after he married Cersei, she is the one punished for having sex after Robert’s death. (She is still maintaining her innocence when it comes to Jaime.) We have yet to hear of men being forced to do a walk of atonement for adultery or whoring, if they are punished at all.

“[I]f she’d been tried for sending people to Qyburn / killing babies / whatever else she’s done, that’d be one thing, because those were wrong things that do deserve some sort of justice, but it’s not justice when someone’s being forced into such deep humiliation because she’s slept with people after her husband’s death,” one Tumblr user wrote. “[Y]ou can’t just pin another ridiculous ‘crime’ on someone and call that punishment justice because it’s not.”

Even Headey doesn’t think Cersei deserved it for everything she’s done.

“I don’t think anyone deserves that treatment,” Headey told Entertainment Weekly. “She’s been beaten and starved and humiliated. She thinks when she comes out and confesses that this is it—even when she’s on her knees [confessing to the High Sparrow], she’s partly lying. She thinks she’s good to go. She has no idea what’s coming when she walks out to the steps, or that they’re going to shave her hair off like Aslan.”

We don’t know what The Winds of Winter holds for Cersei. But she won’t simply take it lying down.

Hear her roar, indeed.

Photo via Game of Thrones/HBO

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*First Published: Jun 15, 2015, 8:52 am CDT