Sara Fredman | Longreads | May 2019 | 9 minutes (2,555 words)
What makes an antihero show work? In this Longreads series, It’s Not Easy Being Mean, Sara Fredman explores the fine-tuning that goes into writing a bad guy we can root for, and asks whether the same rules apply to women.
I didn’t want to write about Game of Thrones. Truly, I didn’t. In the first place, it is an ensemble show and therefore not technically an antihero vehicle. It is also generally the realm of the hot take and this series is usually a place for tepid, if not downright frigid, takes. It is Winterfell, not Dorne. But here we are in Dorne, talking about Game of Thrones, though probably a week or so after it would have been maximally festive. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that we’re in King’s Landing, which is perfect because we’re here to talk about how, on any other show, Cersei Lannister could have been the female antihero we’ve all been waiting for.
Cersei is the closest female analogue to the Golden Age antiheroes who turned the genre into a phenomenon. Those men — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White — all do terrible things for a host of reasons: because they want to, because power feels good, because they’re doing what they need to do to survive in the world. Despite the fact that these men do terrible things, we root for them because of a careful calibration of their characters and the environment in which they operate. They are marked as special, or especially skilled; they are humanized by their difficult pasts and their dedication to their children; and, finally, they are surrounded by other, more terrible people. Cersei has, at one point or another in the show’s eight-season run, fallen into all of these categories. She is smart and cunning. I recently rewatched a scene I had forgotten, early in the first season in which she pokes holes in the plan her dumb and petulant son Joffrey comes up with to gain control of the North. The scene shows us that she understands the stakes of the titular game and how to play it successfully: “A good king knows when to save his strength and when to destroy his enemies.” The audience knows that Joffrey can never be that king and, despite Cersei’s keen grasp of her political landscape, neither can she. She may be depicted as a villain throughout most of the series but she is also clearly a talent born into the wrong body, and she knows it. As she says to King Robert Baratheon: “I should wear the armor and you the gown.”
This brings us to our next antihero criterion, which is the humanizing influence of interiority and family. It is axiomatic among the show’s characters and creators that Cersei’s most humanizing characteristic is the love and dedication she shows her children. In their final scene together, her brother Tyrion begs her to surrender with the only card he believes will matter: “You’ve always loved your children more than yourself. More than Jaime. More than anything. I beg you if not for yourself then for your child. Your reign is over, but that doesn’t mean your life has to end. It doesn’t mean your baby has to die.” In showrunner David Benioff’s view, Cersei’s children were the only thing that could humanize her: “I think the idea of Cersei without her children is a pretty terrifying prospect because it was the one thing that really humanized her, you know — her love for her kids. As much of a monster as she could sometimes be, she was a mother who truly did love her children.”
But the thing about an antihero show is that it can turn any monster into a hero.
It is of course true that Cersei loves her children, but it is hard to square Tyrion’s description of his sister with the Cersei of season two’s “Blackwater” who was prepared to kill herself and Tommen, her youngest son, rather than be taken alive by Stannis Baratheon and his army. Tyrion thinks that Cersei loves her children like a June Cleaver when she actually loves them like a Walter White. For the antihero, love of family is about self-advancement, not self-sacrifice. Invoking his children will not dissuade him from doing bad things because their existence is the very thing that motivates him to do them. This is why Walter White can yell “WE’RE A FAMILY” right before he takes his infant daughter away from her mother.
David Benioff’s assertion that Cersei’s love of her children is the only thing that humanizes her is possibly the best example of the way in which the Game of Thrones writers misunderstood their characters and their audience. It overlooks the other reasons the show gave us to root for Cersei and betrays an ignorance of the extent to which enduring patriarchy might itself be, for at least a portion of its audience, humanizing. It reveals an inability to grasp the possibility that the mother and the monster can be the same person. For a show dedicated to demonstrating just how thin the line is between good and evil, Game of Thrones was surprisingly blind to Cersei’s potential to become a compelling antihero, to be humanized by something other than her children. Or maybe the show realized it all too well.
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Seasons five and six in particular could have been a — forgive me — game changer for the audience’s relationship with Cersei. Their storyline has Cersei first trying to manipulate and then fighting off a band of homophobic and misogynist religious ascetics called the Sparrows. Initially, the audience appreciates the way the High Sparrow thwarts Cersei’s attempts to use religion to strengthen her own political position. She’s been a villain for four seasons and we relish seeing her hit a roadblock. But the High Sparrow and his sidekick Septa Unella take it too far and our allegiances begin to shift. Septa Unella tortures Cersei in prison and the High Sparrow declares that Cersei must take a walk of penance through the streets of King’s Landing. Her hair is shorn and she walks naked from the Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep as Septa Unella chants “shame” and rings a bell to draw onlookers. In that sequence, we don’t forget that Cersei’s done terrible things, but we feel sympathy for her because she is, in that moment, at the mercy of other, more sinister forces. We also feel sympathy for her because this showdown with the High Sparrow reminds us that her story is that of a woman living under patriarchy, that her autonomy has always been contingent and therefore largely an illusion. We remember that this is not the first time Cersei has been powerless, that in the first season we saw her husband hit her and then tell her to wear her bruise in silence or he would hit her again. We remember the way her father, Tywin Lannister, spoke to her (“Do you think you’ll be the first person dragged into the Sept to be married against her will?”), and we also remember that she was raped by the one man she loved next to the body of her murdered son.
In most of the ways that matter, Cersei’s relationship with Sansa Stark, betrothed to marry Cersei’s abusive son Joffrey, is evidence of her villainy but it is also a frank education in what becoming a wife and mother means under patriarchy. Looking back on some of their scenes together, one gets the sense that Cersei feels compelled to explain to Sansa what she’s in for, to disabuse her of any notions of happily ever after and replace them with the reality of life as a political pawn, a prisoner in expensive dresses. We see this as coldhearted and evil because we hold out hope that Sansa will be able to remain an innocent princess looking for true love, but that’s not an option for girls like her, and Cersei knows it. In a heart-to-heart after Sansa gets her period for the first time, Cersei assures her that while she will never love the king, she will love her children. Sansa has just become a woman, which makes her eligible to be a wife and mother. Cersei knows that this is an occasion for a political lesson rather than a domestic one: “Permit me to share some womanly wisdom with you on this very special day. The more people you love, the weaker you are. You do things for them that you know you shouldn’t do, you’ll act the fool to make them happy, to keep them safe. Love no one but your children. On that front, a mother has no choice.” When we hear it from her own mouth, Cersei’s love for her children sounds less like deliberate self-sacrifice than yet another matter in which she has no choice.
Tyrion thinks that Cersei loves her children like a June Cleaver when she actually loves them like a Walter White.
It’s probably worthwhile to remember that the “game” we have spent eight years watching is only being played in the first place because Robert Baratheon assumed that a woman who left him had to have been taken (“I only know she was the one thing I ever wanted and someone took her away from me”). Women are things to be taken and traded; they are the tools men use to cement alliances and consolidate power. Freedom of movement and freedom of self-determination are precious commodities to which only some people in Westeros have access, either by birth or cunning. None of those people are women. Cersei is hardly the only victim of patriarchy on the show, but she could have been its most symbolic. More than anything, Cersei wants to control her own body and her own destiny. She wants to be a player, rather than a pawn. When Ned Stark confronts her about her relationship with Jaime and the illegitimacy of their children, he warns, “Wherever you go, Robert’s wrath will follow you.” Cersei replies, “And what of my wrath, Lord Stark?” This question is, of course, rhetorical — everyone knows that a woman’s anger only earns 78 cents on the dollar. We side with Ned, but on another show, Cersei’s question could have been a rallying cry. We might have written it on signs taken to #resistance rallies and anti-abortion protests. Neither Cersei nor Robert has been faithful, but Robert’s anger matters more because he is the king and Cersei’s infidelity matters more because her body is for making him a bloodline.
The Sept of Baelor pyrotechnics in the season six finale could have easily been Cersei’s “Face Off” moment: a shocking triumph over her enemies showcasing her intelligence and tactical skill. The move was not only brilliantly efficient, killing off everyone who opposed her at once without leaving home, but also bursting with symbolism. She destroys the religious cult that stripped her of what little bodily and political autonomy she had and blows up the place where she married Robert and was raped by Jaime. Cersei watches from her window as the architectural incarnation of patriarchy goes up in green flames and then takes a sip of wine.
That masterfully shot suspenseful sequence is immediately followed by Cersei’s vengeful speech to her torturer, Septa Unella, before leaving her in the hands of Gregor Clegane:
“Confess, it felt good, beating me, starving me, frightening me, humiliating me. You didn’t do it because you cared about my atonement, you did it because it felt good. I understand. I do things because they feel good. I drink because it feels good. I killed my husband because it felt good to be rid of him. I fucked my brother, because it feels good to feel him inside of me. I lie about fucking my brother, because it feels good to keep our son safe from hateful hypocrites. I killed your High Sparrow, and all his little sparrows, all his septons and all his septas, all his filthy soldiers because it felt good to watch them burn. It felt good to imagine their shock and their pain. No thought has ever given me greater joy. Even confessing feels good under the right circumstances.”
Cersei is hardly the only victim of patriarchy on the show, but she could have been its most symbolic.
This is Cersei’s “I am the one who knocks” speech, the moment where the antihero lays bare her unsavory machinations, and we applaud because a formerly weak person now has some hard-won power. Walter White takes some time to understand that if he is to have any power, he must take it. Cersei has always understood that power is her only available means toward self-determination, a ballast against the whims and wishes of those who would try to use her to further their own storylines and try to capture a bigger piece of the Westeros pie. Power is, for her, a necessity rather than a perk. Thinking about Cersei as an antihero, however brief the time we spend cheering her on, makes clear the extent to which writing a successful antihero always involves portraying that character as but a small player in a much bigger game. This is Walter White up against Big Pharma, which cut him out of profits to which he feels entitled and is now forcing him to forfeit his family’s financial security to stay alive. It is Tony Soprano chafing against RICO and the possibility that anyone in his orbit could help the FBI lock him up. It is Don Draper trying to hold on to a life he was never supposed to have. And it is Philip and Elizabeth Jennings doing the job they were trained to do, while people we never see change the rules and determine its stakes. An antihero isn’t on top of the world but right there in the melee, jockeying for some small measure of self-determination. We realize, as they do, that no matter how much power or control they seem to have, they are only one step away from being literally or metaphorically paraded through the streets naked while someone rings a bell.
Cersei is the closest we’ve come to a female version of this kind of character. David Benioff is right: Cersei is a monster. But the thing about an antihero show is that it can turn any monster into a hero. It compels us to root for a monster by making us see the monstrosity lurking all around him and, in so doing, turns him into our monster. Monstrosity in Westeros is like wildfire under King’s Landing: There is more than enough of it to make Cersei a queen we root for while she sips her celebratory wine. Allowing Cersei to become a full-on antihero could have been incredible, giving the show an opportunity to explore the particular powerlessness of women under patriarchy. What difference does motherhood make? What particular vulnerabilities does it bestow, what kinds of unexpected powers or motivations? But this is the fantasy world we have, not the one we need, and Game of Thrones could never allow Cersei to fully become the antihero character they had temporarily conjured. Three weeks ago — on Mother’s Day no less — we saw her crushed by a building, dying in the arms of her rapist after begging him not to let her die. As bad as Game of Thrones was at writing women, it gave us one possible roadmap for creating a female antihero on par with the bad men we’ve seen win Emmys over the past two decades. But it also makes clear just how tough that road is to travel because it requires that we expand our idea of what kinds of people are allowed to do bad things in pursuit of their own self-determination, to become the one who knocks.
Next, we’ll dive into half-hour television for our first solo female antihero — single mom Sam Fox of Better Things — because there’s no audience more adept at pointing out a woman’s flaws than her children.
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Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.