Cersei Lannister Is the Queen of Bad Decision-Making

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by HBO

This piece originally ran at the beginning of the season. It’s been updated to address Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones. Spoilers ahead!

Is Cersei her own worst enemy? Now that the queen mother — or the queen regent, depending on the day of the week — has been tossed in a cell, arrested for crimes against the crown, we might want to consider how she got there, and why. How much of Cersei's downfall stems from her own clumsiness as a ruler?

Game of Thrones’ fifth season opened with a glimpse into Cersei's past. As a young girl, she visits a fortune-teller to learn her future and receives a disturbing prophecy instead. Yes, she will be queen one day, but she will have a rival: "Another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear." She would have children, but they would die. (This fortune-teller was short on specifics — dying is inevitable for almost everyone in Westeros.) Still, these vague forecasts have been enough to haunt Cersei over the years, and explain why she has been so obsessive about some things (ahem, Margaery) and so dismissive of others (just about any legitimate threat to the Seven Kingdoms).

"She's rather shortsighted in all of this," actress Lena Headey laughed. "She's about to learn some really severe lessons."

When we caught up with Headey during an international press day for Game of Thrones in Belfast, she agreed on this point about her character: Cersei is the queen of bad decisions. "She doesn't really see the bigger consequence," Headey said. "It's part of what I love about her. She's not too savvy about things." Cersei is no fool, but she doesn't bother to stay as informed as the other members of the Small Council or to think long-term. "When Tywin tried to school her on some finer points last year, she was a bit like, 'Hmmm?'" Headey said. 

Let's consider some of her actions (or inactions). When Cersei’s had a chance to make crucial decisions, she's either hurt her own cause or aided her enemies. Take when she tried to force retirement on Ser Barristan Selmy, only to have him switch sides. Or when she dismissed a request from the Night's Watch to give more men to guard the Wall against White Walkers. Or when she shrugged off reports from the East that Daenerys's forces — her dragons and army of the Unsullied — were growing stronger. "I'm sure if she was actually faced with Daenerys, she would realize the enormity of it," Headey said. "But she's a bit like, 'I don't know what to do. And so it doesn't matter.'"

Cersei has instead let her fixations guide her judgment. When she finally gained an audience with her father in season three, she was more upset about Margaery having her "claws" in her son than she was about the crown's mounting debt, the weakened state of their armed forces, the lack of food as winter approaches, or just about any other actual problem. "Although she wouldn't ever say it out loud, Cersei's obviously threatened by her youth and her beauty," Headey said. "The fact that Margaery's married her only surviving son, she'll be closer to the throne than Cersei is."

And there's the rub. Although Cersei won't be able to take the Iron Throne for herself, she wants it. And if she can't have it, she wants the next best thing — to influence whoever does. "She's like, 'Isn't it obvious who should be there?'" Headey said. "She's so close, and she's been the person who lives near or by the throne at all times, so I genuinely think she's just like, 'It's going to happen if I just get rid of everybody!'" Especially Margaery, whom she interprets to be the "younger and more beautiful" queen from the prophecy. Of course, it could also be Dany, Myrcella, or even Sansa.

Instead of surrounding herself with wise councilors, Cersei was determined to make the Small Council, well, smaller ("Not small enough," she even complained). The governing body had already lost several crucial members — Tywin, Tyrion, Varys, and Littlefinger — but instead of replacing all of them, or even looking at other open positions, Cersei made questionable management decisions. She alienated her uncle Kevan Lannister. Rather than give him a real position, such as Hand of the King, she offered a made-up one, Master of War, which he rejected. And instead of appointing a Hand of the King, Cersei left the office vacant and provisionally assumed the powers of the office herself, so she could rule as Tommen's proxy. And so Cersei is left with no Hand of the King to bail her out, or to advise Tommen while she's a jailbird.

As for the rest of the Council, Cersei named Qyburn, a disgraced ex-maester, the Master of Whisperers, to replace Varys and annoy Grand Maester Pycelle, someone who used to be her staunchest ally. Pycelle might not be as eager to help her now, not since she stripped him of his laboratory and has insulted or dismissed his offers of help. Cersei also made Mace Tyrell do double duty as Master of Ships and Master of Coin (the latter to replace Tyrion) — two positions that should have been filled by two separate people. And then, just to isolate Margaery, she got rid of Mace, sending him off to treat with the Iron Bank in Braavos. Other positions also remain vacant, such as Master of Laws (Cersei seems to have forgotten that no one ever replaced Renly). Certainly, if a fair trial were to take place, a Master of Laws could come in handy. No Hand of the King, no Master of Ships, no Master of Coin, no Master of Laws, and no Lord Commander in King's Landing. The only person on the Council still loyal to Cersei (and not presently annoyed with her) is Qyburn. (We're not going to count Littlefinger here, given he's always playing both sides.)

In addition to the Council, Cersei has a horrible track record when it comes to finding and retaining people who will support her, because she doesn't seem to understand their motivations. "Cersei gets involved, wrongly, with people she thinks are her allies," Headey pointed out. She mistakenly believes she can control the Sparrows if she's the one providing their power, or because one of the Sparrows is her own cousin, Lancel. When Cersei restores the Faith Militant, she gives them the power to arrest and imprison — even the most powerful.

Cersei's scheme to isolate Margaery might have worked, had she not forgotten the whole people-who-live-in-glass-houses-shouldn't-throw-stones thing. Hello, twincest? It's not exactly the best-kept secret in Westeros. And cousin Lancel, the one Cersei continually underestimates, knows about this and more, as he oh-so-recently reminded her. A smarter queen would have found a way to keep him quiet, since it doesn't take much to make Lancel talk. And boy, the stories Lancel can tell — from committing incest to committing regicide, since he gave King Robert the wine during the fatal boar hunt. Why should the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant ignore the more serious crime of killing a king?

Given the kinds of crimes that Cersei has committed — from twincest (adultery and treason) to passing off her twincest children as King Robert's and allowing them to take the Iron Throne (more treason) to killing the king (even more treason) — she's lucky she wasn't exposed sooner. These are capital punishment crimes, and without many true allies, she's going to have a tough time defending herself. "Obviously, there are plenty of people who would like to kill her," Headey said, laughing. "If she was my daughter, I'd kill her! I often think it'll be Arya, because she's on her list. And maybe she deserves to die."

Maybe. But Headey suggests that Cersei, misguided as she is, deserves our empathy as well. "I always think of Cersei as a wayward 15-year-old who's never had any real parenting," Headey said. “She presents herself as this image of perfection, when underneath there's deep paranoia. She has no one to trust now."