For years now, Game of Thrones fans have feared the Night King. Set up as the show’s end-all-be-all villain, the mysterious figure, who commanded hordes of frozen zombies and had mystical abilities of his own, seemed to pose the greatest threat. After all, he desperately wanted to end all mankind by turning the living into pallor-stricken human vegetables. He was a bad dude.
But when Arya Stark leaped from the shadows and stuck the monster with the pointy end of her Valyrian dagger it became clear: the Night King was a red herring. The real threat, it turns out, has been staring us in the face all along, smugly, while drinking barrels of Arbor Red.
That’s right, Cersei Lannister is the baddie we should be worried about on Game of Thrones. And after years of outplaying her enemies in this game, it might be time to admit our favorite villain deserves that coveted seat.
Now, we all know Cersei is, at best, a morally-compromised individual. She’s massacred hundreds, gleefully tortured her enemies, used the lives of her own people as pawns in the war against Daenerys Targaryen, and that’s just in the last two seasons of the show. Cersei makes it easy for us to hate her, she seems to relish in the animosity she inspires. But her cunning cannot be denied.
After all, this is a woman who began the series as the put-upon wife of a cheating drunkard. She was practically sold to Robert Baratheon by her father, Tywin Lannister, and though she’s probably always been callous and cruel, the loss of a child early in their marriage affected her in profound ways. She had more children, of course, chief among them the child goblin King Joffrey, who she raised with a sense of entitlement and arrogance that grew beyond her control when he took the throne. And he became king because his mother orchestrated his father’s death. Though she didn’t plan for her son to behead Ned Stark — holding him hostage would’ve been the smarter play — she did have a contingency in the form of Sansa Stark, using the girl over the next few seasons to curb her brother’s military plans and cause dissension amongst the Stark family.Cersei’s always been able to think steps ahead of her enemies, something her challengers like Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen seem to have trouble comprehending. After being tortured and held prisoner by the High Sparrow, she plotted her revenge, destroying the Great Sept of Baelor — and her enemies inside it — with wildfire. In the final seasons of the show, Cersei has continued to align herself with men who would do her bidding for the right price. She’s used her family’s influence and fortune, stealing more from her enemies, to fund campaigns against the North and the Mother of Dragons. By promising Euron Greyjoy a crown, she bought herself the strongest fleet in the Seven Kingdoms helmed by a madman with a conscience even more non-existent than her own. She purchased an elite fighting force in the Golden Company, to combat Jon Snow’s forces on the ground, and she had her Hand, Qyburn, craft weapons capable of killing the biggest threat to her reign: dragons.
Cersei’s consistently made choices that only serve to strengthen her position as queen. She’s not physically capable of defending herself, so she reanimated The Mountain to serve as her personal bodyguard. She allows Qyburn to indulge in his horrific hobbies to retain the use of his strategic brilliance and ruthlessness. She attacks her enemies in ways they can’t possibly prepare for — by kidnapping loved ones and using them as bait to gauge just how impulsive and reckless her foes are. She surrounds herself with innocents, believing Dany wouldn’t attack to spare their lives. She promises troops, then reneges on that promise to keep her armies safely south while the bulk of the fighting takes its toll on her adversaries up north.
These are the moves of a champion chess player, a woman capable of thinking in the long-term, unburdened by ideas of honor, nobility, and goodness. She may be evil, corrupt, and the best villain in the history of television, but Game of Thrones has never argued that the man or woman suitable for ruling the Seven Kingdoms is someone who’s just and fair and likable. In fact, for years now, the people who’ve found the most success and attained the most power have done so by subverting those heroic qualities — by burning their enemies to the ground, by making back-door deals with liars and cheats, by manipulating and murdering the competition.
Cersei’s a truly awful human being. Some might even call her evil. But she’s also more than earned her right to sit on that seat of swords. She’s won her power through cunning and cleverness, through sacrifice and subterfuge, through completely unconscionable strikes against her enemies. And she’s playing the kind of long game her competition can’t even begin to fathom.
So we’re not arguing that Cersei is the best choice for the Iron Throne — because that would be crazy — but we are suggesting that she’s put in the work, she’s made more of an effort to hold onto her power than people like Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, and, in some ways, she’s more suited to the unforgiving, ungrateful task of ruling.
At the very least, the way Cersei Lannister has played the game deserves some damn respect.