“But if Maegor’s Holdfast should fall before Stannis can come up, why then, most of my guests are in for a bit of rape, I’d say. And you should never rule out mutilation, torture, and murder at times like these.”
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
William Shakespeare never had the budget to have his battles happen on stage, and even if he had, the Globe’s stage was only 43 feet by 27 feet. Instead, Shakespeare had his battles take place off-stage (save for a few important duels) and be described (at length) either by people watching the battle or by messengers arriving with periodic updates. This theatrical technique was largely eclipsed once Hollywood directors realized that you could hire a couple hundred extras to run or ride past the camera and then circle back around to get back in the queue to run past the camera, but here George R.R Martin uses it to great effect as a one-way ratchet of stress and despair.
Telegrams from Your Worst Nightmare
In terms of the main political events of this chapter, it’s Cersei holding court in Maegor’s Keep receiving dispatches from the battlefield. And while I usually try to avoid allusions to WWII out of a healthy respect for Godwin’s Law, it’s hard to read this chapter and not think of the bunker sequence from Der Untergang, where a tyrant who’s lost touch with reality hears reports of disaster, dismisses them, and hands down insane orders to wrap the world in flames. And here’s how it begins:
“The fleets are locked in battle. Some archers got ashore, but the Hound’s cut them to pieces, Y’Grace. Your brother’s raising his chain, I heard the signal. Some drunkards down to Flea Bottom are smashing doors and climbing through windows. Lord Bywater’s sent the gold cloaks to deal with them. Baelor’s Sept is jammed full, everyone praying.”
“And my son?”
“The king went to Baelor’s to get the High Septon’s blessing. Now he’s walking the walls with the Hand, telling the men to be brave, lifting their spirits as it were.”
Here, Cersei is being told the events of the first half of Davos III, but (because this is a Sansa chapter) from a civilian perspective. We also see Joffrey’s visit to the Great Sept of Baelor that Sansa witnessed in Sansa V, but the focus on prayer and religion as a civilian response to war is paired with a slightly wider perspective, showing us the crime and disorder emerging from the darker side of human nature, barely kept in check. Despite the fact that Maegor’s Holdfast is supposed to be the ultimate in panic rooms, we keep seeing chaos creeping in from the margins, trying to find a weak spot in the defenses.
And yet…Cersei doesn’t care about any of this. Aloof to the point of disassociation, the only thing that Cersei cares about isn’t victory or defeat, isn’t her grasp on King’s Landing or the Iron Throne, and certainly isn’t the women in her care – it’s her son Joffrey. To understand why Cersei does what she does in this chapter (and what she may or may not have done in Tyrion XIV), we have to understand that she is experiencing her worst nightmare in slow motion. Tyrion has just fulfilled every fear she’s ever had about him and Cersei believes his vengeance is going to be carried out through her beloved oldest son. So each dispatch raises the pressure and tension another level:
“The hulks have gone up, Y’Grace. The whole Blackwater’s awash with wildfire. A hundred ships burning, maybe more.”
“And my son?”
“He’s at the Mud Gate with the Hand and the Kingsguard, Y’Grace. He spoke to the archers on the hoarding before, and gave them a few tips on handling a crossbow, he did. All agree, he’s a right brave boy.”
This news (the second half of Davos III) should be a moment of triumph and elation for Cersei, both as a Lannister who’s seen the seemingly implacable Stannis suddenly balked and as a woman who’s got a deep streak of pyromania (although it’s quite possible that GRRM hadn’t yet settled on that aspect of her personality). She doesn’t react at all; she cannot relax or feel anything but this gnawing fear for her son.
What makes it all the more fascinating is that Joffrey is in almost no danger here – he’s sitting out the battle, amusing himself by torturing helpless civilians, and capable of nothing more than presenting the image of a king. And this is as close as Joffrey can get to actually fulfilling the reciprocal social contract expected of monarchs, in no small part because of his mother’s teachings. If you need any proof that Joffrey’s hatred of his own people comes from Cersei, just look at this exchange:
Osfryd Kettleblack returned, crimson cloak swirling. “There’s folks gathering in the square, Y’Grace, asking to take refuge in the castle. Not a mob, rich merchants and the like.”
“Command them to return to their homes,” the queen said. “If they won’t go, have our crossbowmen kill a few. No sorties; I won’t have the gates opened for any reason.”
As with the servants that she orders killed for trying to loot the palace, Cersei cannot conceive of a world where she has any obligation to her subjects, because the world is divided into Lannisters and non-Lannisters and only Lannisters are actual people. (If this is sociopathy, and the fandom throws that word around a lot, it’s clearly one that she’s absorbed from her father while filtering out everything else.) Because of this attitude, Cersei doesn’t really care about whether her own House is winning or losing the Battle of Blackwater – the only thing that matters is her son:
“Stannis has landed men on the tourney grounds, and there’s more coming across. The Mud Gate’s under attack, and they’ve brought a ram to the King’s Gate. The Imp’s gone out to drive them off.”
“That will fill them with fear,” the queen said dryly. “He hasn’t taken Joff, I hope.”
“No, Y’Grace, the king’s with my brother at the Whores, flinging Antler Men into the river.”
“With the Mud Gate under assault? Folly. Tell Ser Osmund I want him out of there at once, it’s too dangerous. Fetch him back to the castle.”
Here we see Cersei getting updated on the events of Tyrion XIII, and overreacting enormously. Joffrey is up on the battlements, relatively safe from the battle, and yet Cersei reacts as if he’s on the front lines, and gives a fateful order without thinking at all about the potential consequences. This is the tragic irony of Cersei Lannister, that as much as she scorns others for wanting love and (like Sandor Clegane) thinks of herself as a strong, hardened character who can face down adversity, Cersei takes her love for her children to such an extreme that she cracks under the pressure and almost destroys them along with herself.
Cersei and Gender: A Hate-Hate Story
Speaking of how Cersei thinks of herself, one of the main reasons why Cersei is cracking under the pressure (along with the liberal alcohol she’s consuming) is that, despite the fact that she’s the Queen Regent and (on paper) the most powerful person in Westeros, her gender has forced her into Maegor’s Holdfast with the women, and Cersei doesn’t like women:
The queen studied the wives, daughters, and mothers who filled the benches. “Of themselves the hens are nothing, but their cocks are important for one reason or another, and some may survive this battle. So it behooves me to give their women my protection. If my wretched dwarf of a brother should somehow manage to prevail, they will return to their husbands and fathers full of tales about how brave I was, how my courage inspired them and lifted their spirits, how I never doubted our victory even for a moment.”
Once a long time ago, I described Cersei as a woman driven mad by the patriarchy, an inmate who batters her hands bloody against the bars of her cell. And Maegor’s Holdfast is her cell, the place where these women become mirrors for her life that force her to vocalize all of the resentments and frustrations she’s been bottling up. And for Cersei specifically, these are rooted in her relationship with Jaime in such a way that renders their relationship in an even more dysfunctional light than we’d seen before:
“Jaime told me once that he only feels truly alive in battle and in bed.” She lifted her cup and took a long swallow. Her salad was untouched. “I would sooner face any number of swords than sit helpless like this, pretending to enjoy the company of this flock of frightened hens…”
“…when we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. ‘What do I get?’ I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently. Jaime learned to fight with sword and lance and mace, while I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, while I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in time for a younger filly. Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood.”
“But you were queen of all the Seven Kingdoms,” Sansa said.
“When it comes to swords, a queen is only a woman after all.”
When he first arrived in King’s Landing, Tyrion said that “I never understood what Jaime saw in you, apart from his own reflection,” but I think it’s more accurate to say it’s the other way around, that Cersei sleeps with Jaime because that’s as close as she can come to being Jaime. And this brings up an interesting point that is frequently debated by the fandom – whether Cersei is trans. If it weren’t for her scene with Taena in AFFC, my answer would be a more conclusive no, because especially in this moment Cersei doesn’t necessarily want to be a man than she wants to be treated like a man, with all of the privileges that come with being a highborn male. Cersei’s conception of masculinity is focused almost entirely on warfare (an interest she shares with Jaime) and inheritance (an interest that she does not share with Jaime, although it is one that Tyrion shares), as opposed to bodies.
What’s simultaneously infuriating and saddening about Cersei is that, as much as she hates how she’s been treated, she not only doesn’t extend her sense of injustice to other women and develop some sense of gender-based solidarity, she positively refuses to. As much as Cersei despises men – hence her comment to Tyrion about thinking with his cock, and thinks of the soldiers on both sides as nothing more than a gang of rapists, murderers, and thieves (not terrible inaccurately, but it’s still reductive) – she equally despises women for not railing against the system as she does:
“Tears,” she said scornfully to Sansa as the woman was led from the hall. “The woman’s weapon, my lady mother used to call them. The man’s weapon is a sword. And that tells us all you need to know, doesn’t it?”
“…Were it anyone else outside the gates, I might hope to beguile him. But this is Stannis Baratheon. I’d have a better chance of seducing his horse.” She noticed the look on Sansa’s face, and laughed. “Have I shocked you, my lady?” She leaned close. “You little fool. Tears are not a woman’s only weapon. You’ve got another one between your legs, and you’d best learn to use it. You’ll find men use their swords freely enough. Both kinds of swords.”
It’s unfortunately common for disdain of the limited role that a patriarchal system imposes on women to turn into disdain of women themselves, and it may well be that Cersei’s twin relationship with Jaime makes it harder for her to see a systemic problem rather than thinking of herself as an exception to the rule – after all, other women don’t have twins they’re just like. But at the same time, Cersei’s reaction is deeply unhealthy, taking one look at the Madonna/whore dichotomy and deciding that the latter is somehow better, rather than realizing that both are traps. And if you look throughout the series, Cersei’s attempt to use her sexuality as a weapon doesn’t work out any better than it did for Jenna Maroney – Lancel’s a broken reed even before she breaks him, the Kettleblacks both betray her to Tyrion and Littlefinger and horribly backfire on her when she tries to use them against Margaery, and Jaime breaks with her completely.
These two themes – Cersei’s paranoia about Joffrey’s prophesied death and her hatred for her own gender – come together when Cersei reveals what her plans are should the Lannisters lose the battle. Initially, Cersei’s plans seem relatively reasonable:
“If I’m not betrayed by my own guards, I may be able to hold here for a time. Then I can go to the walls and offer to yield to Lord Stannis in person. That will spare us the worst…”
“…after the madness of battle, soldiers often seem to want flesh more than coin. Even so, a golden shield is better than none. Out in the streets, the women won’t be treated near as tenderly. Nor will our servants.”
As with her earlier comments that “of themselves the hens are nothing, but their cocks are important,” we can see that Cersei thoroughly approves over structures of oppression and discrimination when they have to do with class. Here, Cersei intends to make use of her class privilege as a Queen and a Lannister to negotiate a surrender and avoid a sack of the Red Keep, while not batting an eye about what happens to the female half of the population of King’s Landing who, lest we forget, she has specifically barred from finding refuge. Thus to the arsenal of tears and sex, we can add the “golden shield” of aristocracy.
Despite all of this, Cersei’s facade barely lasts for a minute before all of the pressures inside her burst through and the crazy starts pouring out:
“…Stannis may take the city and he may take the throne, but I will not suffer him to judge me. I do not mean for him to have us alive.”
“You heard me. So perhaps you had best pray again, Sansa, and for a different outcome. The Starks will have no joy from the fall of House Lannister, I promise you.” She reached out and touched Sansa’s hair, brushing it lightly away from her neck.
There’s no way of getting around it: this is a murder suicide, pitched halfway between the Austrian corporal’s Wagner fantasies and the modern phenomena of a family annihilator.* Cersei’s definitely in the camp of the “self-righteous” family destroyer, as this entire moment is aimed at spiting destiny (and Stannis): even if her downfall is inevitable, she will ensure that the “younger, more beautiful” queen that Maggy the Frog prophesied will not live to “take all you hold dear.” And there might almost be something admirable about her eternal defiance of destiny, if it wasn’t for the fact that she’s planning to enact it through the murder of an innocent who’s never done her any harm.
* Although one thing that I find somewhat strange about Cersei’s plan here is that she doesn’t really put any thought into what’s going to happen to Joffrey, Tommen, or Myrcella once she’s dead. Although it’s possible that’s the point; Cersei wants to defy the prophecy by killing herself before she can see her children die.
And it’s all founded on a mistake – Cersei’s belief that Sansa is the “younger, more beautiful” queen, seemingly only because she’s Joffrey’s betrothed (which has an icky Jocasta complex subtext which we will explore more in ASOS). Now I know there are some fans who think that Sansa being that figure is important to her future development as a character, but I think this is wrong for a few reasons. Firstly, Maggy’s prophecy is important to the plot in every other aspect because of Cersei’s mistakes: she believes that Tyrion is the valonqar makes him hate her, but it’s still Jaime who’s going to choke her to death; she believes first that Sansa, then Margaery is the “younger, more beautiful” queen, and all her attempts to destroy them only end up damaging herself. Secondly, Sansa’s arc seems to be going in the opposite direction geographically from Cersei – in ASOS, she flees King’s Landing and heads north to the Eyrie; in AFFC, Littlefinger pledges as her “gifts from me, my sweet Sansa… Harry, the Eyrie, and Winterfell.”
Despite all of this, Cersei doesn’t treat Sansa in this moment with sneering hatred or even her usual condescension. Instead, there’s something almost caring about the way that Cersei breaks the news, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s possible she’s feeling magnanimous with her win-win scenario set up, but then again this is Cersei who is never magnanimous. It’s also possible that, because Cersei doesn’t think a woman’s life is worth living, she feels that she’s potentially doing Sansa a favor.
As I discussed in Sansa IV, in premodern warfare, cities that chose to make a last stand rather than surrender were routinely shown no mercy. But while victory, surrender, or conquest were the most common outcomes, occasionally you would get a more Cersei-like phenomenon where the defenders would not only fight as long as they could, but then kill themselves to deny the enemy the satisfaction.
The most famous of these sieges was the Siege of Masada in 72 CE, the final act of the Great Jewish Revolt, where the Roman Legion X Fretensis laid siege to the fortress city which was held by less than a thousand rebels. The city, located on the top of an enormous tor, was believed to be almost impossible to assault. Undettered by the terrain, the consul Lucius Flavius Silva ordered that the entire city be circumvallated and ordered the construction of a siege ramp up the side of the 300 foot cliff. After three solid months of construction, the ramp was completed and the Romans sent a siege tower with its own battering ram up the ramp…only to find that the entire garrison of 960 rebels had torched every building in the city (except for the granaries, which they left standing to show that they had not been forced into surrender by hunger), and committed mass suicide, believing “a glorious death … preferable to a life of infamy.”
Despite its rightful place in world history, however, Masada was not the only instance of this phenomenon. During the Mughal conquest of India, the fortress-city of Chittorgarh in Rajasthan (a province in the northwest of India on the current border with Pakistan) followed the practice of jauhar – ritual self-immolation of the women and children of the population to prevent them being taken as slaves, while the men donned saffron robes before charging the enemy and fighting to the death – three separate times. During the Teutonic Knights’ crusade into Lithuania in the 14th century, the 4,000 defenders of the fortress committed suicide rather than surrender to the knights, but only after they had burned the fortress and everything of value inside it, leaving literally nothing to their conquerors.
All of these incidents tend to have two things in common. First, they tend to put something of a scare into the enemy, because no soldier wants to fight someone who’s not afraid of dying. Second, they are often romanticized as part of a nationalist narrative of heroic resistance, with the horrific human consequences either downplayed (to make mass suicide more palatable) or made more lurid (to emphasize the evilness of the enemy). Makes you wonder what people would have thought of Cersei’s suicide if it had happened…
There’s not a lot of room for hypotheticals in this chapter, because there’s only one main decision made in this chapter:
- Cersei doesn’t send the order? The main change here is that the Goldcloaks don’t break during the Battle of Blackwater. In addition to sparing the kneecaps of several thousand men, this also means that Ser Jacelyn Bywater doesn’t die – and therefore possibly retains command. Yes, Tywin was moving loyalists into positions of power, but he’s also not someone who gets rid of competent talent without a reason and Ser Jacelyn has acquitted himself well in a major battle. This might give Tyrion additional political options when he gets to ASOS, especially since his defense of the city looks a lot more sound, and certainly a less politically isolated Tyrion might be more in control of his anger possibly leading to an escape that doesn’t involve Tywin’s death,
- Another significant change is that Lancel doesn’t get punched in the war wound. Now the medical side of this is uncertain – unlike in the show, where we see Lancel get shot with an arrow, all we know is that there is “blood seeping out under his arm.” But given the way that Lancel goes from walking wounded to on the verge of death after a punch, my guess is that he took a wound in the armpit that penetrated into the torso and near to the heart (that being a prime target for killing men in plate armor in medieval combat), and that Cersei’s punch could have pushed a broken-off arrow or the like further into the wound. Regardless, if Lancel is not almost killed by his wound, a lot of things change – not only would he be much more likely to embrace his new life (and his new wife!) as the lord of Darry, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t have a religious awkening that leads to his confession to Tyrion’s High Septon. And that means Cersei maybe doesn’t have the High Septon killed, which creates the vacancy for the High Sparrow. For the want of a nail, and all that.
Book vs. Show:
A moment here to talk about Lena Headey. In addition to getting with a particularly gender-inflected version of the fandom’s inability to separate the character from the actor who plays them, I feel that Lena Headey has not been served well by the show. In addition to that scene from Season 4, from the very beginning there seems to have been a decision from the showrunners to have Cersei be calmer and more restrained than in the books – even when she gets angry, it tends to be more of a cold fury than wild rage. And while there might be benefits to that approach, I feel like that decision has cramped Lena Headey’s range somewhat, denying her the opportunity to chew the scenery that, say, Peter Dinklage got during his trial scene.
This scene in Blackwater is the great exception, as Lena Headey pulls off some fantastic drunk acting. Not only does it lend a darkly comedic moment to an otherwise serious episode, but Cersei finally gets a chance to emote in what should be an intense moment, and that makes her a genuinely menacing presence as she seeks to pull Sansa and Shae into her whirlpool of instability.
And it sets up what was a genuinely powerful addition to the Battle of Blackwater – the scene where Cersei prepares to poison herself and Tommen to death on the Iron Throne itself, just before Tywin and Loras come in to announce their victory. It was my memory of this scene more than anything else that made me think of Cersei as a family destroyer.
And when you remember that GRRM wrote this episode, it does make you think this is what Cersei would have done had Tommen been there at the time.