It’s never been easy to love Cersei Lannister. From the very first episode of Game of Thrones, Cersei has established herself as one of the show’s driving antagonists. Whether it was playing a part in the injuring of Bran Stark, torturing his sister Sansa, being insufferable to her brother Tyrion or her role in the ascension of the High Sparrow and the murder of Margaery Tyrell, to say she’s been awful would be an understatement. But one thing Cersei has always been is compelling to watch, and no matter how many reasons she gives us to hate her we can’t completely write her off as a villain. This is largely in part to actress Lena Headey’s exceptional work, which has been getting better and better each season the show goes on. It’s time that the Emmy’s reward her.
Cersei doesn’t benefit from the same characterization as straight heroes like Tyrion or Daenerys Targaryen. She’s no hero, she doesn’t deliver galvanizing monologues about freeing people or saving the day. On the contrary, she’s looking out for herself more often than not. And she’s not exactly an underdog like a lot of the other characters are. She’s a Lannister, and was the wife of King Robert Baratheon with two sons by him ready to ascend to the throne after he died. Her father was Tywin Lannister, one of the greatest minds in Westeros and her brother Jaime is the famous King Slayer. But for all of her power and status, it’s lonely at the top for Cersei. Though she possesses a cunning, wit and a talent for manipulation that outweighs everyone around her, she’s largely dismissed and written off. The love of her life, Jaime, begins pulling away from her. Her children are In that sense, Cersei is someone you do want to root for even if her actions make you turn away in disgust.
But as the show progressed, we began seeing flickers of warmth and humanity behind the cold and iron clad wall Cersei projected to the world, specifically her love and devotion for her children. She tells Sansa that the only people in the world you should love are your children, even if they make you weak. This is a testament to much of Cersei’s behavior; though she has an unquenchable thirst for power, she clearly loves her children, even if those children *cough cough* Joffrey *cough cough* are unloveable at times. It would be so easy to write her off as just “a bitch” as I have heard people call her, but that’s an unintelligent assessment and insulting to the character as a whole. Her stone cold exterior is the result of a lifetime of being used as a chess piece by her father, trapped in a loveless marriage for the benefit of her family and being dismissed by the men around her. When Cersei made that walk of shame through the city streets in season 5’s finale, it was a cruel twist of irony seeing Cersei being punished by the very group of people she wanted to use to bring Margaery Tyrell down. After all of the lies, murder and and plotting, her manipulative ways had finally caught up with her. And yet, it was heartbreaking to see her degraded to the lowest point imaginable. There was no justice in any of that, no matter what the High Sparrow preached.
And so when Cersei Lannister got her revenge by blowing up the Sept, I found myself wanting to scream “YAAASSSS!!” even though it came at the expense of one of my favorite characters, Margaery. Season 6’s finale was so incredibly effective because it was the emotional culmination of everything the show had building towards for the past several seasons, and one of those things included the characterization of Cersei Lannister. She’s not a villain and she’s not a hero. She’s a woman shaped by her circumstances and the result of a lifetime of neglect and mistreatment. When we watched her ascend the Iron Throne, we saw the death of Cersei as we had known her up until that point; as the crown was positioned on her head, she stared out into the crowd, not with a look of joy or jubilation, rather an empty one. With the death of her last child, Tommen, the light in her eyes had finally been snuffed out. Backed into a corner, she came out swinging and took out everyone that challenged her, but also alienated herself to the point of no return. Somehow, it seems like life might be even lonelier at the top now than it was before. With Danaerys on her way with an army and three dragons to claim her birthright, I can’t imagine Cersei really stands a chance against her, but I know she won’t go down without a fight.
As I said before, Lena Headey has been slowly and silently building her performance to this point, and upon reflection, it’s the show’s most expertly handled characterization. Sure, we’ve seen Denaerys rise from under her brother’s cruel oppression into becoming the show’s hero, we’ve seen Tyrion excel despite his family’s urge to see him fail and even John Snow stepped out from older brother Robb’s shadow to become a hero in his own right. But none of the actors on Game of Thrones have been working on the level Headey has. Cersei could have easily become just a villain, with no agency outside of taking the throne for herself. But she’s done something more complex and intricate than that. Her descent into becoming much like the next Mad King is completely fascinating; if only she could see beyond her rage, there might be some hope for her. But from the looks of that empty stare we saw as she sat on the Iron Throne, it’s a hollow victory. All of the plotting and manipulating took pieces of her humanity, leaving her with nothing. Headey’s expressive face conveys a lifetime’s worth of backstory, suggesting pain and loneliness fueling that inherent urge for self-destruction.
Peter Dinklage has been the only actor from Game of Thrones to receive a major award; he has two Emmy’s and a Golden Globe, along with many others and countless nominations. Heady has been nominated by the Emmy’s two times and has never won a major acting award, and I think it’s time she join Dinklage (who really is fantastic) as an Emmy winner. Not many actors could handle Cersei’s arc with the same complexity and pull it off in the way Headey has. It’s a performance that grows even more effective upon watching the older episodes. And while the writing on the show is some of the strongest on television, in a less capable actress’ hands, Cersei wouldn’t be so compelling. Last year’s winner was Uzo Aduba, who is similarly fantastic in Orange is the New Black. But anyone who follows the Emmy’s knows they have a habit of rewarding the same people over and over again, and though I would love to see Uzo take the stage again for her complex work as the lovable Suzanne Warren, I think it’s Headey’s turn to be rewarded for being the quiet and unrewarded MVP of TV’s most popular shows.
Your move, Emmy voters.