“I want you to know I understand,” says Cersei Lannister to her nemesis in the dungeons underneath King’s Landing. “I understand the fury that drives you.” It’s that old saw that every movie has parroted for as long as anyone can remember: We’re not so different, you and I.
She, too, has been paraded through the streets in humiliation. She has been spat upon, jeered at, made into an object of fun. And now that it is happening to her most hated enemy, to the woman who killed her daughter, she has one thought above all others: finally. Finally, I can give my enemies exactly what they deserve.
Like every story about war, Game of Thrones is centrally concerned with trauma. Think about it as an exchange of energy: How does pain enter someone, and how does it leave them? How do they receive it, and how do they release it? In Cersei, as in Sansa Stark, our notions of trauma and sexism fundamentally intertwine. They receive damage, always, as women, in ways that can never be separated from their gender.
In another iteration of Westeros, Cersei might say that what she suffered was beyond the pale, beyond what any human being should suffer. That this particular type of torture should be extinguished, or shamed, that no one should suffered as she has suffered. Instead, she says what a certain type of person always says when the knife is finally in their hands: I choose violence. It is my turn.
People grow up under presidents, under kings, under administrations. They grow up in eras. Like parents, those leaders shape whole generations, constructing their notions of the world, whether they like it or not. They learn about power from watching the way it’s exercised. Who did Cersei grow up under? Aerys II Targayren, the Mad King of Westeros, the man who wanted to burn King’s Landing to the ground the second he felt his reach slipping away from his grasp.
And who does it sound like, who is the real child of the Mad King now? Daenerys Targayren, the woman who would rather risk the failure of her entire life’s endeavor than catch thousands of innocents in the flames? Or the woman who detonated a massive cache of wildfire beneath its streets—the same one that Aerys had once threatened to burn—and turned thousands of its citizens into ashes?
Instead, Cersei says what a certain type of person always says when the knife is finally in their hands: I choose violence. It is my turn.
There was a moment when everything turned. It’s easy to think of it now in terms of Ned Stark’s execution, the enormity of Joffrey’s childish anger, shearing a sense of civility and honor from the world. But it happened so many times before it happened, most notably when two other Starks died: Ned’s father burned alive in his armor by Aerys, his son strangling himself in a noose trying to reach for the sword that might free him.
Five hundred honorable men stood and watched. Notions about the rules of the world, the values that hold it in place, turn out to be disturbingly pliable in these moments, when kings and presidents wave their scepters both visible and invisible and turn fundamental beliefs about right and wrong on their heads. In Westeros, at least, this perversion of power, this disgrace to the throne, was contemptible enough that it ended a dynasty, and lead to the civil war that unseated Daenerys’ father and exiled her across the sea.
Regardless of the outcome, this sort of rot has a way of seeping into the bone of a culture, especially once it makes its way to the top. Who it chooses to elevate to the highest seat in the land says a lot about a society. So when Cersei finally comes into this kind of unquestioned, uncompromising power and decides to demonstrate it, should anyone be surprised that it ends with an eye for an eye, with two people tortured and straining at their chains towards each other, their love transformed into horror? What has she learned from the men who dominated her world about what power means?
This is the lesson that Dany has struggled with for so long, the desire to take pain and deal it back in the same way. When do you receive the agonies of a world ruled by cruel, opportunistic men and decide to deal them back tenfold, and when do you decide to break the wheel?
This is the lesson that Dany has struggled with for so long, the desire to take pain and deal it back in the same way. When do you crucify your enemies, and when do you forgive them? When do you receive the agonies of a world ruled by cruel, opportunistic men and decide to deal them back tenfold, and when do you decide to break the wheel?
The speech that Dany gives in last night’s episode is, tragically, almost identical to the one Cersei gave to Sansa when she explained what it meant to be a woman: “I have been sold like a brood mare. I have been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled.” The refrain is similar—to Dany, to Cersei, to Sansa—because every woman in the Seven Kingdoms and beyond is subject to the same song.
When Sansa tells Jon Snow that she learned a great deal from Cersei, this is what she means. She might hate her; she might want to destroy her. She might, in the end. But Cersei is still the closest thing she has to a model for the sort of female power that she wants, the best alternative to the eye-rolling BS that anyone around her has ever been able to offer. However hard the game is to play, it is still harder for women, in a way that Ned and Jon and Littlefinger have little to nothing to say about. When the villain speaks more to you than the hero, do you turn the lesson down?
Like the Conways and the Coulters of the world, Cersei has learned to speak the language of her oppressors and remade herself in their image. In her conversation with the Iron Bank, she turns hard into capitalism—the ultimate power base of the Lannisters—to the sort of power that ultimately does not care about names and places and genders, only about the cool, indifferent truth of the bottom line. “You are your father’s daughter,” they say, and it is the greatest compliment, the greatest compliance. If a woman can deliver, what does it matter? She has been trying so very hard. It is a kind of success, depending on how you define it.
The proper term for this is internalized sexism, although it would have no meaning to them, as it would have no meaning to so many women. How does someone find their way through a world that has all of its teeth out for them, that is waiting to take them apart at any sign of weakness and assigned them so many?
People rarely talk about how close internalized sexism and vengeance are to each other, about the brutal and intimate space that they inhabit. The way that you want to hurt someone in the precise way that you have been hurt, the way that this feels like a kind of justice. How good it feels to march another woman through the streets for the same kind of humiliation that you have felt, the way that this feels like taking something back.
Dany, the revolutionary, might say something different, and perhaps so would Sansa, who has grown up with three teachers in the school of power: Ned, Cersei, and Littlefinger. Each one with their own truths and limitations. Ned, honorable and just to a fault. Littlefinger, calculating and ruthless to a fault. Cersei, defiant and wrathful a fault. Go too far in any direction, and you tip over—you are ruined.
Blood and shame and loss are the spokes of the wheel, and the way they come into the world—through honor, through vengeance, through the brittle masculinity of the men who happen to rule—come to define that realm.
How does pain come in and how does it go out? Jaime Lannister says that when Cersei’s world is finally wrought, that no one will care how it was built, or whose blood it was built upon. The history of House Lannister, of House Stark, of House Cersei, says something different. Blood and shame and loss are the spokes of the wheel, and the way they come into the world—through honor, through vengeance, through the brittle masculinity of the men who happen to rule—come to define that realm. They create the shape of the world to come.
If there is anything to be learned from Cersei and Dany and Sansa, it’s that there is no way to forget—suffering cannot be erased. The better question, then, is who will you be when the whip is finally in your hand: the woman who gets to wield it, or the one who drops it in the sand?