As King Robert Baratheon, comedian Mark Addy, still fondly remembered as the insecure fatty from The Full Monty, resembles John-Rhys Davies from Sliders with maybe a touch of Luciano Pavarotti thrown in for good measure. He’s been given an impressive makeover here and his roaring performance at times suggests Henry VIII (eating, drinking and whoring his way to an early grave, leaving his kingdom six million dollars in debt), at others Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter, though his family sigil is the stag and not the king of the beasts. Indeed, the stag symbol on his Baratheon flag looks eerily identical to the John Deere logo, but it’s a fitting personal emblem for a royal house that will be preyed upon by the predatory Lannisters. Like O’Toole’s Henry II, his Robert also finds himself forced to come to terms with the rapidly advancing years and the realization that he’s no longer a young man. The signs of creeping age are all about him. He may still boast the testosterone-driven desire to engage in a good fight, but he can’t even fit into his breast plate any longer. Ned is the only person in the king’s inner circle of yes men not cowed by his old friend and honest enough to speak truth to him whether he wants to hear it or not, which is why Robert values his counsel above that of the others (“The girl, Daenerys. You were right. Varys, Littlefinger, my brother, worthless. No one to tell me no but you, only you. Let her live. Stop it, if it’s not too late.”).
He wants the friend who helped him win the Iron Throne seventeen years earlier to share in ruling the realm, believing they were always meant to reign jointly. Like the Night’s Watch men, they’re bound together like family. As Robert states, “I never loved my brothers. It’s a sad thing for a man to admit but it’s true. You were the brother I chose.” The king suggests they join their houses, arranging a marriage between his son and Ned’s daughter. They would have been bound by blood already if Ned’s sister, the king’s true love had lived (“I only know she was the one thing I ever wanted. Someone took her away from me and seven kingdoms couldn’t fill the hole she left behind.”). It was the mad king’s eldest son Rhaegar who abducted Lyanna, the face that launched a thousand ships, instigating a full-scale war to win her back, but Robert wants to exterminate the entire Targaryen line in his unquenchable thirst for vengeance. Every night he claims to kill them again in his dreams and he tirelessly pursues the last surviving descendants of the once all-powerful dynasty no matter which corner of the earth they flee to (“Go as far as you can with as many men as you can because wherever you go, Robert’s wrath will follow you.”), even commanding Ned to assassinate princess Daenerys when he learns she’s with child. “The Robert I grew up with didn’t tremble at the shadow of an unborn child… I thought you were a better man.” His scheme to abort the baby he sees as a potential threat, same as Daenerys’ advisor suggests the Dothraki will do after Khal Drogo dies, evokes intimations of the slaying of the first born. It’s clear that Robert is abusing his office to work out a personal vendetta, and he’s shooting himself in the foot just as badly since it is these continued attempts on Daerneys’ life that will finally incite Drogo to mount a defensive to win back the Iron Throne for her. Robert’s dishonorable order (“I’ve got seven kingdoms to rule, seven kingdoms and one king. You think it’s honor keeping them together? It’s fear, fear and blood.”) causes a rift between the King and his Hand, with Ned going so far as to step down believing to carry out such an assassination would make them “no better than the mad king.” The distance that has fallen between the two old friends now that the specter of the crown stands between them was made painfully clear earlier when Robert allowed his wife to take out her petty vengeance on the Stark daughter’s direwolf. Asking him if this travesty of the king’s justice was truly his own command, using his formal designation “your grace,” Ned sees that the title has changed him, that Robert is no longer the man he once knew when he just strides away rather than intervening.
Breaking with Ned is the only thing Robert’s ever done to please his queen, who resents this man who has greater pull with her husband than she does. Cersei intends to drive a deeper wedge in their friendship after her brother Jaime ambushes Stark and butchers his men by impugning the indecisive king’s masculinity concerning whether he should again take his wife’s side or his friend’s. That troubadour whose tongue Joffrey will cut out isn’t mincing words with that ballad he composes about the lion in the king’s bed having ripped off his balls. Trying to rile him up and incite him to action, his emasculating Lady Macbeth points out, “He’s attacked one of my brothers and abducted the other. I should wear the armor and you the gown.” Though it’s depicted as a dishonorable act, we actually find it gratifying when he wallops her, as Tyrion did Joffrey, rather than falling for her manipulative wiles, and more so upon her declaration that she’ll wear the bruise like a badge of honor as though she’d earned it fighting on the side of the angels, when he warns her to “wear it in silence or I’ll honor you again.”
Drawing from the books on which it’s based, Game of Thrones has the depth to give full roundness to even its villainous characters, letting us see what shaped Cersei into the ice queen she’s become, every brick laid in her path to perfidy. A woman scorned, she didn’t start out wicked but was emotionally steeled by painful experience. Cersei entered into her arranged marriage with a trusting, open heart but found herself betrothed to a man who couldn’t return her affection in kind. As Robert cruelly reveals, he only married her at the urging of former Hand Jon Arryn for her father’s money. “It’s a neat little trick you do. You move your lips and your father’s voice comes out,” he disparages. She was nothing more than a dowry to him and their marriage of convenience the means to maintain an unsteady truce between the seven kingdoms’ warring noble families. When Ned accuses her of having always hated Robert, Cersei scoffs “Hated him? I worshipped him. Every girl in the seven kingdoms dreamed of him but he was mine by oath. And when I finally saw him on our wedding day in the Sept of Baelor, lean and fierce and black-bearded it was the happiest moment of my life. And that night he crawled on top of me stinking of wine and did what he did what little he could do and whispered in my ear Lyanna. Your sister was a corpse and I was a living girl and he loved her more than me.”
Robert was a greater villain than Cersei in the marriage, having wed her for political expediency then compared her with an unrealistic ideal he’d romanticized out of all proportion. The real Lyanna (“You want to know the horrible truth? I can’t even remember what she looked like.”) has been replaced with a fantasy figure as insubstantial as a fading dream. There are shades of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (and by extension Jane Eyre) in the position Cersei found herself in as a young bride, trying to compete with a ghost still in possession of her husband’s heart. When their royal entourage arrives at Winterfell after a month-long journey, the king ignores his wife’s plea for rest and refreshment, instead insisting on visiting the family crypt where his long lost love lies buried. Even in death her needs come first for him. Little wonder Cersei bears the Stark family no love. As the clashes between their two houses snowball, eventually resulting in civil war, Robert states, “I can’t rule the kingdoms if the Starks and the Lannisters are at each other’s throats, so enough,” little grasping that he is, at core, the emotional cause of their conflict. Where he wants to destroy the Targaryens for murdering his one true love, Cersei wants to wipe the Starks off the face of the earth for their affront to her, representing as they do blood ties to the woman who should have been left to rest in peace, rather than ruining any chance she might have had for a happy life. Putting them all in the ground is her displaced way of burying Lyanna’s memory forever. As she inquires when challenged, “And what of my wrath Lord Stark?”
When Cersei visits Lady Stark at her crippled son’s bedside, she poignantly recalls that before he was taken by fever her own firstborn was ‘a little dark-haired thing’ like Bran. This telling admission indicates that she was genuinely in love with her husband at the time, rather than bearing her brother’s blond bastards. Yet in the same breath she claims to “pray to the mother every morning and every night that she return your child to you. Maybe this time she’ll listen.” We’re not sure how to take her seemingly sincere expression of sympathy. It suggests a degree of sorrow that Jaime took such drastic measures (“How could you be so stupid! He’s a child! Ten years old. What were you thinking?”), but then they turn right around and try to have Bran assassinated a second time. Still, this revelation concerning the death of her son is critical because it helps to illuminate why she holds on so tenaciously to the surviving royal rotter.
Cersei’s revealing tête-à-tête with the king, one of the most memorably poignant moments from season one, allowed her to sift genuine emotions through her thickened skin. “I felt something for you once you know, even after we lost our first boy. For quite a while actually.” The companionship of Robert and Cersei has petrified into one of platonic partners in the joint business of state since. She even claims their seventeen year marriage is the only thing holding the realm together, a statement which strikes them both as ironic since they can hardly tolerate one another. As Robert asks, “How long can hate hold a thing together?” They’re the opposite of the scheming, backstabbing royal couple in the Lion in Winter, who still shared a deep, abiding affection despite all the conniving and calculating they subjected one another to trying to gain the upper hand. Having calcified into an implacable iron butterfly, Cersei is no longer the frightened, insecure bride intimidated by the specter of the woman haunting her marriage bed. Screwing up the courage to ponder for the first time what the woman Robert loved was like, she asks “What harm could Lyanna Stark’s ghost do to us that we haven’t done to each other a hundred times over?” The sangfroid she initially affected as a pretense has become her reality, and at the end of their days she finds she no longer feels any pain at all over her husband’s rejection. Whatever feelings she might have once held for Robert died when he locked her out of his heart, long before she ever invited her brother into her bed.
The bewitching Cersei, whose name recalls the mythical siren whose beauty transformed Odysseus’ men into swine, is like the enchantress Morgana le Fay, sweeping into rooms with her swishing dresses and long, trailing tresses. Even in Cersei’s blond Lady Godiva wig, actress Lena Headey still resembles Jacqueline Bisset to a marked degree, with the dimples of a young Kelly McGillis. No stranger to medieval fantasy such as this, having starred in the 2005 Terry Gilliam film The Brothers Grimm, she’s appeared in scads of films (most recently The Purge and 300: Rise of an Empire) and even a few cancelled TV series, but seems to have finally found her signature niche.
With cold eyes and cruel countenance, marked by an insincere smile that’s constantly on the verge of twisting into a sneer, Headey has created one of the great villainesses on TV. Reportedly, the role of Cersei was inspired by Isabella, she-wolf of France, as depicted in the historical novel series The Accursed Kings, but surely Martin used the Borgias for a model as well. The moral perversity of the decadent Lannisters is meant to have manifested itself in the twisted, deformed countenance of Tyrion, the dwarf they shun as the black sheep of the family, considering him a pariah for carrying on the outside the abnormalities they keep safely concealed within. Because he wears the family shame for all to see there’s no reason for him to conceal anything beneath a facade of conformity so he seems the most normal branch of the bunch. The truly twisted soul of the family tree has been concentrated in Joffrey, ruthless, infantile, spoiled, sadistic, the accumulated end result of generations of impurities in the bloodlines. Being inbred is meant to make him inherently e-v-i-l, but Dylan over on the Bates Motel, who recently found out he’s in the same fix, is the only normal person on that show, comparatively speaking, so we shouldn’t be biased.
The one all-governing principle in this fantasy world seems to be a Nietzschean will to power and with their lion sigil, the Lannisters see themselves as apex predators, superior to the laws and morals governing common man. “The lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinion of the sheep,” Tywin resolutely declares. In her cliquish court of backstabbers, Cersei believes she can only trust her own, observing “everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.” She’s been subtly placing kith and kin in key positions, a cousin as king’s squire, her father as Hand of the King, her brother as Commander of the King’s Guard, and Joffrey right on the throne itself, ensuring she has eyes everywhere. Finding himself surrounded by Lannisters, Robert snorts, “Every time I close my eyes I see their blond hair and their smug, satisfied faces.” Wherever he goes, they’re there, watching and waiting for the king to let his guard down so they can place a knife between his shoulder blades. Cersei only trusts her own kind in the bedroom as well, practicing incest to keep the Lannister line untainted. “She has odd cravings, our sister,” Tyrion remarks. “Family trait,” Jamie concurs. Cersei even proves to be bedding down with her own young cousin, the squire. When Ned hurls the accusation that her children are all Jaime’s, her response is to “thank the gods,” justifying her own actions by citing the fact that the Targaryens wed brothers and sisters for three hundred years to keep bloodlines pure. “Jaime and I are more than brother and sister. We shared a womb, came into this world together, we belong together,” Cersei passionately states, failing to consider it may have been the Targaryen’s own shrinking gene pool that resulted in the last king’s madness. Having the villainous Lannister twins blonded to evoke the towheaded, exiled Targaryens seems to make sense. By comparing her own incestuous relations with those of this family of dragons who have allied themselves with huns, the clear links to German history and Wagner myth become all the stronger.
Just as the Nazis would attempt to bioengineer a master race, through incest the Lannisters, who speak of establishing “a dynasty that will last a thousand years,” the same length the Third Reich was intended to, are likewise seeking to breed their own physically superior line of blond-haired, blue-eyed supermen, strained of inferior outside taint. They also feel that those who fail to meet the demands of these exacting standards should be sterilized or destroyed. It’s because dwarf Tyrion, a physical affront to their aesthetic sensibilities, falls so short of their rigorous ideal that his father orders him into the vanguard against the opposing army (“Surely there are ways of having me killed that would be less detrimental to the war effort.”). It’s their equivalent of Hitler’s final solution.
Platinum Joffrey is the prize result of their painstakingly bred new Aryan master race and while the recessive gene for hair color seems a specious basis to rest his entire case on, it’s Sansa’s assurance that he’s nothing like his father, that he’s a “golden lion” and that she’ll give him sons with beautiful blond hair that makes the light bulb go off, the secret Jon Arryn died for suddenly dawning on Ned. By placing a pure blood Lannister on the throne, Cersei has seized the crown for her own family, breeding the Baratheons right out of succession as surely as the former Targaryen king was forcibly removed from power. Just as she wants to see the Stark family plowed under, this is Cersei’s way of spitefully getting back at the king who so squandered everything she had to offer. Eliminating his line and placing the Lannisters in their place is her penultimate, emotionally motivated coup d’etat. Through Joffrey, her puppet emperor, she believes she can pull the strings. When he hears that Robert is dead and Joffrey now rules in Kings Landing, Tyrion clarifies “My sister rules you mean.” Having usurped the throne in a most subtle sense, Cersei could be referring to her own way of playing the game when she advises her son, “A good king knows when to save his strength, and when to destroy his enemies.”