When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.
Cersei Lannister said those words midway-through the very first season of Game of Thrones, after Lord Eddard Stark revealed his suspicions about Robert Baratheon not being the father to Cersei’s children. Suspicions that the queen decided to confirm rather than deny.
Winning or dying framed the seasons to follow, with so many claimants to the Iron Throne (or lesser dusty thrones from Westerosi history) going the latter route.
Of course, death isn’t limited to just would-be kings and queens. So many characters – to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth – have strutted and fretted their hour upon the show’s stage and are heard no more.
Beric Dondarrion: That’s the typical case. But not a definitive one.
Jon Snow: Sometimes we come back for an encore.
Hand-waving away the occasional resurrection, the possibility of death to major characters in the show was so significant that a popular pre-season hobby was making lists of who would be most likely to die. Going into Season Seven, Cersei was deemed likely to die, based on her precarious political position.
Although she was technically Queen of the Seven Kingdoms (I hope I don’t get my head smashed in by Ser Gregor for using that qualifier) most of the kingdoms were either allied against her or specifically wanted her dead. When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. And Cersei did not look to be in a winning position with Daenerys Targaryen en route with superior special forces and three dragons. The odds were not in Cersei’s favor.
But contrary to expectations, Cersei balanced those scales a bit thanks to a timely alliance with Euron Greyjoy and his fleet. And the fearsome Daenerys Targaryen proved unwilling initially to commit to a brutal assault on King’s Landing which gave Cersei breathing room. The Lannister Queen managed to survive another season.
But now we are approaching the final season of Game of Thrones, and it’s practically a given that this will be Cersei’s last season. Okay, in one respect it’ll be the last season for all of our characters: it’s the final season. To rephrase the statement more honestly: it’s expected that Cersei will die in the last episodes.
But will she? Or rather, is there a compelling case for her to live, to survive her attempt at playing the Game of Thrones?
It’s not that Cersei deserves to live; she’s certainly done terrible things. With the death of Joffrey, Tywin, Littlefinger, and the Boltons, Cersei Lannister is one of the few villains left on the show. Euron Greyjoy is a bad guy on the rise, and of course there will be no peace for the living while the Night King still prowls about with his army of the dead, but it’s Cersei at the center of most of the dastardly plottings in Westeros. She’s certainly had the most screen time.
Entering the final season, isn’t it proper and just that a villain of Cersei’s caliber would get her lethal comeuppance?
Proper and just not withstanding, death is not something that I want for Cersei.
Am I saying that I want her to win? After all, the two choices associated with playing the game of thrones is either winning or dying. To clarify, whatever else I might say, I don’t want Cersei to win. Even though George RR Martin is credited for doing surprising things and subverting common tropes, I don’t imagine him so wanting to buck convention as to arrange for Cersei to end the story ruling over a brutally pacified realm. Likewise, I don’t think the Game of Thrones showrunners will end the show with Lannister banners flying over King’s Landing. (Unless those banners are Tyrion’s, but that’s something to explore another day.)
So what do I want to happen? I want Cersei to choose to go into exile.
At the start of this, I quoted Cersei’s conversation with Ned in Season One, where she set up the “win-or-die” parameters. He arranged to meet so he could confront her with the knowledge of her infidelity – and to offer her a chance to escape King’s Landing and the king’s wrath. Cersei was not all that interested.
“Exile,” she said. “A bitter cup to drink from.”
“A sweeter cup than your father served Rhaegar’s children,” Ned said, “and kinder than you deserve. Your father and your brothers would do well to go with you.”
— A Game of Thrones, Eddard XII
Cersei was offered the chance for exile and she refused – going forward with plans (plans most likely already in motion) to assassinate Robert and place her son Joffrey on the throne. If Cersei was offered a chance at exile a second time, a return to this choice would give her an opposrtunity to show some growth as a character. She might still opt to remain and either go down fighting or hope to engineer some kind of suicidal scorched-earth action with wildfire. Or she could cut her losses and make the best of it.
Like she should have done seven seasons before.
After all, Cersei sticking around when Ned had offered her an escape didn’t work out too well in the long run. He suggested she take her children into the safety of exile, and recommended her brothers and father go as well. (Certainly it would have been convenient for Ned had that happened.) But now most of her family is dead and her brothers are siding against her. Her remaining allies include a mad scientist, a monstrosity, and a pirate with ambitions of his own.
But is there any reason to believe that Cersei would flee if given the chance? I’ve already talked about her refusal to follow Ned’s advice. She also risked staying in King’s Landing during Stannis Baratheon’s siege, she bristled at Margaery Tyrell’s machinations to have her quietly retire to Casterly Rock, and she ignored Olenna Tyrell’s advice to flee rather than face trial by the Seven and the Faith Militant.
But she sang a slightly different tune in Season Seven for Tyrion after Jon Snow brought her first-hand proof of an undead threat to Westeros.
Cersei: I don’t care about checking my worst impulses – I don’t care about making the world a better place. That thing you dragged here – I know what it is – I know what it means. When it came at me, I didn’t think about the world. Not at all. As soon as it opened its mouth the world disappeared for me right down its black throat. What I could think about was keeping those gnashing teeth away from the ones that matter most – away from my family. Maybe Euron Greyjoy had the right idea. Get on a boat, take those who matter …
Tyrion: You’re pregnant.
Some of Cersei’s monologue for Tyrion might have been her acting (after all, she then goes on to shamelessly lie to Jon and Dany about Lannister support for Team Breathing.) It’s also a matter of some speculation if she is even pregnant or if she was misleading both Jaime and Tyrion to believe it for her own manipulative reasons. Consider me manipulated, since I’m all-in on the idea that Cersei is pregnant, and that she has something to hold out hope for, something to fight for that’s real and not just clawing at something as abstract as power.
I want Cersei to choose exile, because I’d like there to be a situation where a mother successfully escapes with her child.
Elia of Dorne couldn’t. Daenerys Targaryen’s pregnant mother Rhaella made it as far as Dragonstone, but died in childbirth. Jon Snow’s mother Lyanna Stark died from pregnancy complications just after Ned finished “rescuing” her from Rhaegar Targaryen’s kingsguard.
Things are really hard on moms in the Game of Thrones universe, and maybe it would be nice to ease up on those misfortunes just a notch.
We expect something bad, something lethal to happen to Cersei, and for her baby’s sake I don’t want that to happen.
Having that baby!
Another reason that I want Cersei to go off into exile, that’s really the only scenario where her pregnancy can meaningfully come into play in a way that doesn’t seem like lazy writing.
It’s possible that Season Eight will cover enough time for Cersei’s baby to come to full term, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I know many are expecting Cersei to miscarry which might drive her over the edge into full-blown insanity, or that complications with the pregnancy will threaten Cersei’s life. Again, this feels like a bit too much of the gendered misfortune that the story is already rife with. I don’t think those outcomes for the Lannister baby will really bring home a satisfying conclusion to Cersei’s storyline.
Cersei dying might be worked satisfactorily into one or two of the other characters’ storylines (especially if Arya kills the queen) but Cersei escaping into exile would touch on the motivations of so many of our characters who have personal histories with her.
Particularly if Jon Snow is the one that offers Cersei exile, without passing the notion by Daenerys first.
Jon Snow treating with a pregnant Cersei would echo back to Ned’s proposal in Season One, when he offered her kindness out of honor.
“Honor,” she spat. “How dare you play the noble lord with me! What do you take me for? You’ve a bastard of your own, I’ve seen him. Who was the mother, I wonder? Some Dornish peasant you raped while her holdfast burned? A whore? Or was it the grieving sister, the Lady Ashara? She threw herself into the sea, I’m told. Why was that? For the brother you slew, or the child you stole? Tell me, my honorable Lord Eddard, how are you any different from Robert, or me, or Jaime?”
“For a start,” said Ned, “I do not kill children.
— A Game of Thrones, Eddard XII
In general, Jon tries to take after his father-figure and role model, Lord Eddard Stark. Ned had his reasons for wanting to spare Cersei’s children from Robert’s punishment, and Jon very well might fear for the safety of Cersei’s innocent unborn child. (I’m assuming that Dany will be seeing red when it becomes known that Cersei went back on her word given at the Dragonpit, and Jon will be concerned about that.)
Despite Jon’s execution of little orphan Olly, he’s established his kindness-to-children bona fides by accepting Alys Karstark’s and Ned Umber’s oaths of fealty rather than stripping them of their lands. He made the case to Daenerys that neither of them should be judged by the actions of their fathers.
Jon, who never knew his mother, seems inclined to be sympathetic to the child Cersei carries.
If Cersei escapes with Jon’s blessing, it’ll create a difficult dynamic between Jon and Dany, much like the conflict between Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon in regards to sending assassins to kill the then-pregnant Targaryen. I like the idea of seeing Daenerys on the other side of that equation.
Arya would be angry that Jon sided with her number one target…
Olly: That is a perspective that I can relate to.
… but I have always hoped that Arya will have some kind of growth in her arc that moves her away from being a killer. Jon unofficially pardoning Cersei and removing her from immediate harm might give the little wolf-girl who once looked up to him a chance to reflect and change as well.
Sansa would probably be worried about the possibility of Cersei hatching plots overseas, along with feeling a need for
vengeance justice for her abuse while under Cersei’s control. (Sansa’s anxiety might feel similar to Cersei’s paranoia about Tyrion on the loose and plotting overseas after Tywin’s death. Comparisons between Sansa and Cersei are always interesting to me.)
Tyrion and Jaime might also have complicated feelings about Jon allowing their sister to go into exile. Tyrion has always had a difficult relationship with Cersei, occasionally showing sympathy for her and expressing a co-dependent need for her attention. Jaime’s relationship is no less complicated, although he seems to have taken steps to separate himself from her toxic influence. The notion of Cersei’s unborn child, possibly the only hope for the next generation of Lannisters (yes, yes, until Brienne and Jaime get married or something, yes yes) will provide interesting fuel for their characters’ reactions.
But where would Cersei go?
Tyrion: Wherever … queens … go.
I assume Cersei would be able to grab enough jewels to keep herself and her child safe and in ease. She might find refuge in the Summer Isles, since in the books Robert more or less comfortably kept Jalabhar Xho, an exiled Summer Islander prince, as a virtual prisoner at King’s Landing. (Robert liked having the prince around and was constantly putting off any kind of commitment to help the prince return to his homeland in force, a situation that the administration of the Summer Isles was probably satisfied with.) The Summer Isles royalty might be willing to return that favor.
Or she might cozy up to some triarch’s household in Volantis, as a dispossessed royal novelty from the sunset lands of Westeros.
Regardless, Cersei won’t be happy about it which is somewhat satisfying, although as Ned said, it’s a fate kinder than she deserves.
I wish you good fortune in the wars to come
Another benefit of Cersei in exile, it’s a loose end that’s not neatly wrapped up. This is realistic for Westeros, where dynastic clashes carry on through the generations. A clean end to Robert’s Rebellion was prevented when Ser Willem Darry spirited Viserys and the infant Daenerys to Braavos from storm-wracked Dragonstone. There’s no reason to expect any upcoming change in Westerosi management to be clean as well.
Dany might not get the benefit of a worry-free rule, the same way Robert Baratheon lost sleep over her existence. Although maybe I’m thinking of Dany too negatively. Rather than assuming Dany will be anxious and vengeful, she may be able to apply the lessons she’s learned from her experience, and move forward in a more productive way. She might be sympathetic to the little Lannister child’s fate, a perspective that would say something positive about her character.
Dany: If I look back, I am lost.
Cersei on the loose with a child isn’t quite the same danger that Robert feared, posed by the children of the Mad King just beyond his reach. Viserys had a legitimate claim to the throne. Cersei did sit on the throne, but with a somewhat dubious authority.
Cersei: The Seven destroyed my enemies in holy fire! Clearly that was a divine signal of their preference for my rule.
Me: Did you put that into a press release? I must have missed that on the show because that’s an excellent spin.
Qyburn: Look, I’ve been very busy making giant crossbows.
Regardless, Cersei’s hypothetical child has a better claim to Casterly Rock than a square inch of King’s Landing. It’s possible that this young Lannister might be allowed to return to their ancestral home one day, if not accompanied by their mother.
But … VALONQAR
Fine, I’ll briefly mention the Valonqar prophecy. We’ve seen Cersei talk to Maggy the Frog in a flashback, where the witch predicted Cersei’s marriage to the king and the fate of her golden-haired children. The show omitted Maggy’s prophecy from the books where “the valonqar” would eventually strangle Cersei. Much has been written by others on what this might mean, who the valonqar might be, and what hints we’ve seen in the show that contribute to the idea.
I don’t like prophecies. What can I say? Prophecies just turn me off unless they’re strongly supported in some way.
But the universe doesn’t care how I feel about prophecies. I’m probably wrong to lobby for Cersei’s survival and to dismiss Cersei’s foretold-doom, even though the show hasn’t mentioned (yet) the valonqar reference. The show has also pushed up against the accuracy of Maggy’s prophecy: Cersei’s story to Catelyn in Season One about her short-lived child with Robert and her current pregnancy makes some of the more specific parts of Maggy’s predictions problematic.
I expect that GRRM will be required to pay off on Maggy’s prophecies in the books (there’s also some Dany-centric soothsayings to execute) but I don’t want to worry too much about something that might be spun in different ways. Martin might do something tricky and unexpected. The showrunners might do something tricky as well.
If I can hedge my bets – Cersei surviving the end of the Season Eight finale doesn’t necessarily refute the valonqar prophecy. I mean, Valar Morghulis, all men must die.
Cersei: But I’m not a man!
Eowyn: Boom! That’s the loophole!
Me: Sorry ladies. This isn’t Lord of the Rings.
Even if Cersei lives through the season, her days – like everyone’s – are numbered. I’m less interested in her death than what she might do in this hypothetical exile I’m imagining her in.
Would she be a good mother, raising her child with an eye towards their happiness? Something that Rhaella Targaryen might have wanted to do with Viserys and Daenerys had she lived? Or will Cersei’s parenting strategy echo Viserys’ stewardship of Dany, desperate to return to a Westeros that lives only in imagination and not in reality?
The poetry of a Cersei-in-exile scenario – carrying out the realism of wars never fully being won, echoing old decisions combined with different choices, providing a lens with which to examine nearly every character’s fiber, and offering some framework for theoretical future drama – provides a better ending than Cersei’s death would accomplish.
Tyrion: Death is so final, whereas life is full of possibilities.
No Happy Endings
George RR Martin still has two books to write, but we feel that there’s going to be at least some similarities in his endgame to the book series, and the endgame that the show will present to us next year. Martin has said that the ending will be bittersweet, rather than happy.
For me, this implies a measure of regrets, of things undone. Of things not working out as might be expected.
Cersei: Exile. A bitter cup to drink from.
Ned: A sweeter cup than than your father served Rhaegar’s children –
Me: Why can’t it be both? BITTERSWEET! Boom.
And honestly, why should Cersei be right about winning and dying being the only outcomes when you play the game of thrones? I’m in favor of letting her be the living proof of her mistaken philosophy.
Which is also satisfying.