Cersei Lannister, she of the golden locks and soft-spoken brutality, has long been a Game of Thrones character that everyone loves to hate (she is, of course, hardly alone in that category). But according to some critics, Cersei sank to new lows of cruelty during this Sunday’s episode, titled “Sons of the Harpy.” Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post accused Cersei of acting with “a kind of abuse” toward her son, King Tommen. Slate has labeled her as both the worst person and the worst parent in Westeros, at least until next week.
In the face of a mopey Jon Snow, a mopey Ser Jorah, and a very mopey Tyrion Lannister, I do not object to Cersei breathing some life into things with her unflinching nastiness. This week’s episode sees Cersei give a tremendous amount of power to a religious zealot called the High Sparrow, who then goes on a castration-happy spree of arrests. Among his victims is the homosexual brother of Margaery, Cersei’s new daughter-in-law and chief rival for power.
The arrest is a political play: Margaery had been quietly coercing Tommen to boot his mother out of King’s Landing, and Cersei made it clear that she is still calling the shots. When Tommen protests on Margaery’s behalf, Cersei tells her son to speak to the High Sparrow himself, knowing full well that the soft-hearted boy king will be both unsuccessful and publicly shamed during the confrontation. It’s a categorically jerkish move, and one that makes Cersei the most textured character in the season thus far.
Cersei’s decision to humiliate her son for the sake of her own advancement is surprising because Cersei, in spite of her cruelty, is a “good” mother. She is not the most effective parent (case in point: Joffrey), but she has always been a fiercely loving one. She grieves deeply when Joffrey dies. She is shattered over the precarious well-being of her daughter Marcella, and this season sees Cersei send her brother/baby-daddy (it’s a weird show) on a mission to rescue the girl. It is this aspect of Cersei’s personality that has allowed her to transcend beyond a caricature of evil: Cersei is more than a brother-schtupper, more than a husband-killer, more than a conniving beauty. She is a mother, and an affectionate one, too.
But for Cersei, motherhood brings both power and powerlessness. Since Tommen is still a child, she is able to effectively take over the position of the King’s Hand, paring down the royal council until there is scarcely anyone left to oppose her. Cersei’s grip on the Iron Throne is tenuous, however. Her title as “Queen Mother” is essentially meaningless, and her control will dissipate as soon as Tommen starts asserting himself. As it is, Cersei can barely wrangle the subservience she desires, which was never more clear than during her epically passive-aggressive exchange with Margaery, reproduced in part here:
“What’s the proper way to address you now?” Margaery, the new queen, taunts. “Queen Mother, or Dowager Queen?”
“Remember, anything you need,” Cersei later replies. (Subtext: “I hate you and I want you to die.”)
It is true that in “Sons of the Harpy,” Cersei deals harshly with her son for the sake of her own political preservation, but that hardly makes her an exceptional case among female characters who are willing to do whatever it takes to rise to power. Cersei is no different from Margery, who is using sweet little Tommen to ascend the ranks of authority. She is also not all that different from Danearys Targarian, who similarly struggles to strike a balance between the coziness of (metaphoric) motherhood and the brutality of power. During last week’s episode, a devoted follower disobeyed Danearys’ orders in what may have been a justified effort to protect his queen. Danearys promptly had him executed in front of a crowd that cried out to her as their mother and begged her to have mercy—a very clear assertion of her authority.
Game of Thrones is such a thrill to watch at least in part because of these female characters that defy easy categorization (the occasional head explosion doesn’t hurt either, of course). Sure, the series offers up women like Catelyn Stark, a thoroughly appealing character who was willing to give her life to spare her eldest son. But in the Game of Thrones universe, bad women are sometimes good mothers and good mothers sometimes act with brutality as they stake their claim to the Iron Throne. At least for the time being, Cersei Lannister is a bad mom who rules.