Cersei Lannister, one of the great TV villains of the modern era, was many things. She was a schemer, a ruthless power monger, a political strategist, a grieving mother, and a sister whose relationships with her brothers were, uh, complicated to say the least. But in her final moments of life in Sunday’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, we got to see … none of that.
And now Cersei’s dead. She died in the arms of her brother/lover Jaime as the supposedly sturdy Red Keep collapsed on top of them. Prior to her death she spent most of “The Bells” standing in one place and staring out the window while Daenerys gave live lessons in how to train your dragon to destroy an entire city. Then Qyburn showed up and was like, “Hey, you should probably get outta here since this place is going down faster than Kesha can yell timber,” and Cersei was like, “Nah, I’m good,” but eventually retreated to lower ground just in time for her brother — who really shouldn’t have been able to make it all the way back to her, considering that he was bleeding out from stab wounds — to show up for their untimely incestuous demise. It was an extremely passive death for a woman who has always been extremely aggressive in her approach to, well, everything.
This was the woman who raised a monster (Joffrey), dispatched a monster (the Mountain) to do her dirty work, and also behaved like a monster capable of doing plenty of dirty work herself. Remember when she destroyed the Sept of Baylor? Cersei never accepted what appeared to be her fate back then, even when it looked like that’s what she was doing. She always had another plan or chess move or massive explosion hidden in some back pocket underneath her ornate robes, which is why it was so surprising — and frankly, disappointing — to see her with no fight left in “The Bells.”
Monday morning Game of Thrones quarterbacking has become the national pastime over the past few weeks. (Sorry, baseball, but for the time being, you don’t hold a candle to complaining about how hard it was to see anything during the battle of Winterfell.) I’m not as generally disappointed as others seem to be by the last season of Game of Thrones so far, perhaps because I was never hoping for any particular outcome. My attitude is very “whatever happens, happens” when it comes to the last leg of the Iron Throne Marathon. But it has become increasingly apparent that squeezing the last season into six episodes, albeit longer-than-usual episodes, has forced showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who also wrote the last four installments, to sacrifice the kind of character development, motivation, and emotional beats that you want from a saga like this, especially in its final act.
Is it believable that Cersei, realizing she’s finally out of options, would think of nothing else to do but stand there in shock as King’s Landing goes up in dragon-breath flames? Sure, and it’s certainly more believable than the way that Dany’s descent into murderous madness has been portrayed. But it feels like a betrayal to the character and to the audience that we don’t get to see her have one last bout of verbal sparring with someone, like Tyrion (he was just out in the field wandering around, he totally had time for a chat!), or Dany (couldn’t she have done a dragon flyby and confronted Cersei?), or even Arya, who announces ahead of time that she plans to kill Cersei but gets talked out of doing it by the Hound. It’s a good thing Arya doesn’t head to the tower; if she had, she wouldn’t have survived. But the buildup to Arya going all dagger-happy on Cersei made the fact that it didn’t happen — and that Cersei didn’t get to do anything substantive in this episode, or for that matter, this whole season — that much more of a letdown.
In an interview with EW, Lena Headey said she too was initially disappointed with how Cersei’s final moments played out. “I wanted her to have some big piece or fight with somebody,” she said. So did I! Aside from her romp with Euron and her approval of Missandei’s beheading, Cersei had been largely absent from the eighth season, which made me think the storytelling was building to some dramatic moment for the queen in the last couple of episodes. Some of the best moments in Game of Thrones have involved watching Headey with her glower on full display, sipping wine and matching wits with Tyrion or Jaime or good ’ol Olenna “Tell Cersei It Was Me” Tyrell. Even though the actress says she eventually came to appreciate the way Cersei’s story ended, surely she would have liked to rip her teeth into something meaty one final time before she went. (Anyone who thought Headey would finally win an Emmy for her work on Game of Thrones has to be second-guessing that now, since she really didn’t get a chance to fully display her talents this season.)
Cersei’s final moments on the show were certainly sad. “I want our baby to live,” she tells Jaime, and then begs him not to let her die. “Not like this,” she says, over and over. The exchange between the two of them is moving, but it also lands as though it were beamed in from some other show. It’s like Benioff and Weiss wanted to achieve a certain effect — a heartbreaking, romantic good-bye to this dysfunctional couple — and sped past character consistency to get there. Cersei comes across as fragile and weak, which she is not. She also doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about having just been usurped, and maybe it’s just me, but I think Cersei would be pretty angry about that. If she said she wanted their baby to live so the Lannisters would have another shot at the throne someday, I might have bought into the scene a bit more. But Cersei’s first instincts in the moment are to make everything about her child and Jaime. She always put herself first, and I would have expected her to do that until the very end.
It’s always a little ridiculous when viewers of a TV series complain that it didn’t do exactly what they wanted it to do. But the lack of a more substantial final arc or farewell for the woman who occupied the Iron Throne, which is what this whole thing is all about in the first place, feels like a significant oversight and missed opportunity. Instead, Cersei is simply crushed, just like the possibility that she would actually get to do something of consequence in this final season.