Needless to say, given a laundry list of transgressions longer than your average CVS receipt, defending Cersei is a little tough, like trying to make a case for asbestos or Macklemore. Despite the difficulty of such an argument, a solid one does exist.
Consider this: Essentially everyone in “Game of Thrones” has done something awful. The people who disparage Cersei probably love characters like Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow. But they’re not exactly perfect. Tyrion murdered his dad and his former lover, Daenerys dropped Daario like a bad habit, tortures her enemies and has killed tons of people (including, by an order, her own brother), and Jon betrayed the Wildlings at one point and just generally seems like the kind of guy who would talk through a movie.
Yes, like all characters, they had their reasons for their actions — but so did Cersei, so maybe we should give her a break. Maybe she’s not as bad as we think. Lena Headey, the actress who portrays Cersei, certainly doesn’t see the character as evil.
“I don’t play her as a villain,” Headey told Mashable in 2016. “I just play a woman who is a survivor and will do exactly what a man would do — which is, you know, murder somebody when you’re in a war.”
That’s exactly right. Cersei grew up in a broken system, and she’s doing her best to make it work. It’s not like she had it easy. Her marriage to Robert Baratheon was horribly abusive, but — as she points out at various times throughout the series — she wasn’t given any choice, thanks to Westeros’s outdated, sexist views on gender roles. Meanwhile, her brother/lover Jaime is seen as a hero for having a modicum of introspection, even though he has served as a catalyst for separating countless heads from their bodies.
As Laura Hudson wrote in Vulture:
... Jaime’s revelations of emotional complexity and vulnerability helped transform the incestuous child-maimer into a fan favorite, his twin sister Cersei hasn’t fared quite so well. While, as Headey suggests, Cersei’s misdeeds are no more horrific than those committed by other GOT characters in the midst of war, she nonetheless ends up bearing the brand of villainy in ways they don’t. Cersei, of course, has observed this double standard all her life, and how differently shame and power fall on her shoulders because of her gender.
Most of what Cersei does, particularly those evil deeds, are a straight reaction to living in a world that values men’s desires more than her own autonomy. Her sexual relationship with Jaime makes sense in this context: She loves and trusts him. He feels like a safe place, and (given that they share a bloodline) a safe bet. Why would he betray her?
And while she has never been the best mother, at least she cares about her children. On one hand, she raised Joffrey, a child-monster whose death was one of the most cathartic moments for most of the show’s audience. But she certainly seemed to love him unconditionally, which is something.
She seemed to love all her children, in fact, even though they didn’t all appear to return the favor. Let us not forget that her son Tommen basically turned against her when he fell for Margaery Tyrell.
And despite everything, she is currently sitting on the Iron Throne, something that doesn’t just happen by accident. Clearly, she’s a sharp political operator, even if her methods involve bombing whole swaths of people if she feels like it.
Cersei is one of the most unrelentingly vengeful people on the show, sure, but she’s also one of the most tactical. She’s the one who knows that “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Harsh, but true. And you can give Cersei this: She doesn’t back down from the truth.
Most of the main male characters were just as ruthless as Cersei. They just weren’t adept enough to pull it off. If nothing else, she’d probably be the most fun character to join for happy hour. So maybe, just maybe, we should give Cersei a little credit. (Not that she needs it; if she doesn’t like what you think, she’ll just kill you.)