Curtain Call: Lena Headey


A Lannister always pays her debts. That’s certainly been true of Cersei Lannister, who has been one of Game of Thrones’ most iconic villains since the show’s first season. Cersei has never been a likable character, but it wasn’t until later in the series that she turned into something of a supervillain, driven by the many losses she suffered over the course of the story. And there was no better actress to capture Cersei’s descent than Lena Headey, who never missed a beat when it came to portraying the Lion Queen. From day one, she captured Cersei’s cruelty—and functional alcoholism—with ease, while also highlighting the queen’s rare moments of humanity.

But as the series continued, Cersei’s cruelty won out over her humanity. That finally came back to haunt her in “The Bells,” when Daenerys burnt King’s Landing to the ground as revenge for Cersei executing her closest friend and most-trusted advisor, Missandei, and for killing her dragon Rhaegal, and for not surrendering the Iron Throne. Cersei was buried beneath the wreckage of the Red Keep along with her brother Jaime, who came back for her in the end. It’s fitting that she’d die buried beneath a building that represented the power she’d coveted for so long.

When we first meet Cersei, she’s married to King Robert Baratheon and having a secret affair with her twin brother. She stands by as Jaime pushes Bran Stark out of a window, and insists that Sansa Stark’s direwolf, Lady, be killed after Nymeria attacks Joffrey. She comes off as ruthless from the beginning, and that description of her only becomes more accurate when she plots to have her own husband killed. At first glance, Cersei seems positively unfeeling, but it becomes clear as time goes on that she’s a product of the world she grew up in.

When Ned discovers the truth about her children—that they’re all Jaime’s—he approaches her, and viewers learn about her unhappy marriage with Robert. As much as you want to hate Cersei during the first few seasons, it’s difficult not to pity her as well, especially after seeing how she’s abused and dismissed at the hands of the men in her life, including her husband and her father—and eventually the High Sparrow, as well. Whether you love her or hate her, Cersei’s words to Ned during this scene set the tone for the rest of the series: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Cersei has always known how the game is played.

It’s also clear that Cersei would do anything for her children. Sadly, Cersei’s dedication to her children never equated to her having any control over them, particularly Joffrey. Her oldest son rarely listened to her counsel, something that eventually got him killed. The other two Lannister children don’t fare much better, leaving Cersei with nothing much to live for by the time season 7 arrived—nothing but power, that is.

And power is exactly what Cersei reaches for during the last few seasons of Game of Thrones. This time, instead of achieving it through the men in her life, Cersei takes the Iron Throne for herself. She becomes the conniving ruler her father and Tyrion insisted she could never be, and she does whatever it takes to maintain her spot on the throne, even if she has to resort to killing innocents and putting up with the likes of Euron Greyjoy.

In fact, “The Bells” is the first episode in a while where fans get a glimpse of Cersei’s vulnerability, right before she and Jaime perish. It’s obvious that Cersei never expected Daenerys to call her bluff, and she certainly didn’t want to die—that was made abundantly clear by her whimpering to Jaime that she didn’t want them or their child to burn along with King’s Landing. These cracks in Cersei’s armor are part of what makes her character so fascinating. Headey does an incomparable job of making us believe all of Cersei’s contradictions.


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But Cersei said it herself: You win or you die. And since the Lannister queen didn’t win the fight for the Iron Throne, there was only one fate left for her. It’s hard to say what we’ll miss more: Cersei’s constant scheming or Headey’s brilliant work in bringing it to life. Cersei will go down in history as one of the greatest television villains to date.

Cersei may be gone, but Headey isn’t going anywhere. You can see her now in Fighting With My Family, where she plays the matriarch of a wrestling family.

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