What is Cersei Lannister so afraid of?
The Orange Couch is going up tomorrow, but in the meantime, enjoy the first video of a new series we’re doing, called House Slate, that looks at Game of Thrones and puts the story lines into the context of the larger world that all this is happening in.
Our purpose with this video series is to help show that Game of Thrones is even more complex and textured than it first appears, which might be hard to believe, but there it is. This is not a “but in the books!” show—we’ve banned the phrase “in the books” from our scripts—even though we obviously draw a lot from the books in filling out our understanding of this world. But this is about the TV show and about how there’s a real purpose and unity to all this that may not seem immediately apparent.
Because, I think, some people clearly need that lesson. Andy Greenwald’s review on the premiere is a good example of what I’m talking about. He found the Cersei prophecy boring, mostly because I don’t think he’s that into the character—which makes him an extreme outlier amongst fans, who nearly universally love Cersei as a villain—and so really struggles to understand the prophecy’s relevance to the show:
So at first glance, spending a few precious minutes in the company of YA Cersei seems almost wasteful — a masterpiece of casting, sure, but not much else. After all, seeing fine gowns dragged through the mud is basically a metaphor for the entire series. And weirdos both drawing and desiring blood is more common in Westeros than courtesy. It took the witch’s final words to blast the episode out of its wintry slumber: “Everyone wants to know their future,” she hissed. “Until they know their future.” Here was the season’s thesis, for characters and viewers alike, spat out by an unwashed crone with teenage blood still staining her teeth. Is it better to know your fate? Or to reject the idea of fate entirely and hope and claw for a better tomorrow?
It’s a nice effort, but also completely wrong. There’s a simpler, and I think obvious, explanation for this flashback: It establishes Cersei’s motivations. The show, even more than the books, has taken great pains to make Cersei more than a mustache-twirling villain, though both end up with roughly the same characterization: A woman who was spoiled as a child and grew into a petulant brat, but someone who did initially mean to be a dutiful wife until her abusive husband drove her back into an incestuous relationship with her brother. And then she curdles into an angry, vindictive person.
This prophecy adds some wrinkles and, I believe, makes her behavior more understandable, even if it’s still awful behavior. Here is a woman that has long feared all three of her children will die young and that a young woman is coming to take away not just her crown, but everything she holds dear. Her behavior makes way more sense if you realize that she doesn’t see Margaery just as an interloping daughter-in-law, but a portend of doom. It also makes her more sympathetic. She’s not just an overbearing mother-in-law, but someone try to prevent this horrible doom.
MAJOR SPOILER DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU ARE UNSULLIED(which is the fan term for non-book readers).
As book readers know, we didn’t hear every part of Maggy the Frog’s prophecy. We heard “Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds” but not the part that really has Cersei wigged, which is, “And when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.”
Since the show cut away while Cersei was listening, I suspect they will revisit this prophecy. “Valonqar” is a High Valyrian word for “little brother”, so it follows that a lot of Cersei’s behavior is driven by a fear that Tyrion will murder her—and her efforts to get him executed were about preventing that. Of course, the irony here—and prophecies are nothing if not ironic—is that her actions are why Tyrion now wants to kill her. By trying to prevent this murder, she may have caused it. (There’s the alternate and far more fan-popular theory that Jaime is the valonqar, but that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of this analysis.) Just as, by trying to prevent Margaery from taking everything away from her, she’s actually alienating Margaery and giving her cause to want to destroy Cersei.
Which just makes this misreading of Greenwald’s all the more egregious:
Her anguish over the death of Tywin isn’t emotional, of course. The only thing that ever united the Lannister kids was a shared loathing of the old man.1 Rather, it was the skittering of a spider caught out before her web had finished being spun. She’s furious at Jaime, but not for freeing Tyrion. Not really. What truly galls her is that he never plans ahead. “You are a man of action, aren’t you,” she fumes. “When it occurs to you to do something, you do it. Never mind the consequences.” Translation: Prince Valiant makes for a great cartoon, but he’s a lousy strategist. Cersei’s role this season might be the most intriguing. She’s broke, alone, and outflanked by younger, prettier people who are already looking past her. Her betrothed is gay. Her cousin/lover has shed his shoes in search of a higher calling. All she has left is her intellect and an econo-size jug of Dornish Chianti. In other words: She’ll be fine.
Even without the valonqar stuff, it’s a stretch to even jokingly say Cersei will be fine, not while she’s afraid her kids will all die and her life is about to be ruined. But if you know about the second part of the prophecy, it becomes impossible to believe that Cersei’s anger is about anything but Tyrion getting freed. He’s the man she believes will murder her! Jaime snatched not just a victory away from her, but an action—Tyrion’s execution—she believed is necessary to prevent her own murder. Which is why I think they’ll revisit this, to enjoy the dawning realization that all this out-of-control Tyrion hate has always been about this particular fear. It will also make her more sympathetic, because as brutal and awful as she is, the fact that a lot of it is a misplaced attempt to survive makes it much harder to hate her for it.
But again, prophecies are often ironic. Whether it’s Tyrion or Jaime who kills Cersei, it will be, beyond a shadow of a doubt, in retaliation for actions she took that were done to prevent the murder, actions that are quickly alienating both brothers. Because that’s how these things go.