Updated: May 20, 2019
[Spoiler Alert: This post speaks freely about the television series Game of Thrones, up to and including the series finale]
Immediately following the conclusion of May 12, 2019's Game of Thrones episode, "The Bells", several of my friends reached out to me. They did not do so to rage it about, as so many have done on the internet (some taking it to a whole new level), or to console me over the apparent deaths of my two favorite characters (Jaime and Cersei Lannister - played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey, respectively). Instead, they contacted me to tell me that when they watched the episode, they thought of me, and how pleased I would be about the way Jaime and Cersei died.
They were right.
I fell in love with the television incarnations of the Lannisters (I love the books too, but given that they are a very different entity at this point, I'm leaving them out of this) the moment Jaime was discovered having sex with his twin sister by a young Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in the pilot and Jaime's way of handling the situation was to push Bran out of the window and comment, "The things I do for love." So much about those characters was conveyed in a single act: their forbidden relationship, their need to protect it, the lengths they would go to in order to do so, and how little guilt they felt about using extraordinarily cruel means to keep themselves safe.
I was instantly all in on the Lannister family.
I find clear-cut heroes boring. I like my characters incredibly flawed. I want them equal parts stunning and vicious. I love when they are complex and layered, with moral compasses that make complete sense - but only to them. Few characters I have encountered in my television-watching life embodied these twisted, intriguing traits like the Lannister twins.
Born to Tywin and Joanna Lannister, and with a family seat at Casterly Rock, they are the only siblings of Tyrion - known as "The Imp". By the time we meet Jaime and Cersei in the pilot, they have been in an incestuous relationship for years although Cersei is at the side of her longtime husband, King Robert Baratheon. Robert came to the throne prior to the series' start, following an uprising that ended the reign of the Targaryen kings. More specifically, King Aerys II Targaryen ("The Mad King") was killed by - you know it - Jaime Lannister, who earned himself the nickname Kingslayer. With the old king gone and Robert in power, he needed a wife, thus his marriage to Cersei. But their union lost any potential for happiness almost immediately because of Robert's adoration for another woman, Lyanna Stark. The unhappy couple did have one child together - a dark-haired son - but he is claimed to have passed away. (Though he might, in fact, actually be a character in the show named Gendry, but I digress...) Luckily for Cersei, Jaime remained wholly devoted to her and their relationship continued on the sly, resulting in three children: Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen, all of which they (outwardly, anyway) passed off as being Robert's.
That is one hell of a backstory, and I simplified it.
As the show progressed, Cersei, who established herself as capable of cruelty time and again - including when she had Lady (my favorite direwolf) killed - grew even harder, fighting for her children, fighting for herself, and growing increasingly paranoid as she climbed the rungs of power, creating more and more enemies everywhere she went. She was self-destructive and desperate. Simultaneously, Jaime appeared to be finding his heart. The twins grew apart and the personal troubles - and new people - he encountered changed him from the inside out. It would be as strange of him to be captured by the enemy, lose his hand, and develop a rapport with the pure-yet-fierce Brienne of Tarth without coming out the other side a different person as it would be for Cersei to have gone through perpetual disappointment and dealing with constant patronizing and still manage to be soft and doe-eyed. (I have always firmly believed that the reason people immediately disliked Cersei but love Sansa Stark now that she is a tougher adult woman, is because they watched Sansa's transformation from young and naive to grown and stern, where by the time they met Cersei, she was already largely developed. The two are not as different as you might want to insist, but that's a whole different topic.) Regardless of what occurred between Jaime and Cersei, they shared a love of their children and suffered together as those children perished one after another: Joffrey (yes, a monster!) by poisoning, then Myrcella similarly, and finally Tommen through a suicide that came as the result of one of his mother's grander acts of brutality (destroying the Great Sept of Baelor while his wife and others were inside). Watching them change, yet always orbit around one another, was exciting and constantly provided a new view of their multi-faceted dynamic.
It's easy to wonder how I could love these characters so much when you could argue against them in so many ways. They do brutal things, but so does every other character. Jorah Mormont, Dany's most-devoted sidekick, was a slave trader. People cheered when Olenna Tyrell confessed to poisoning Joffrey. And, lest we forget, in season 1 the honorable Eddard Stark literally had his young son watch an execution. In a show like Game of Thrones it becomes less about whose hands are clean and more about whose side you are on when people get their hands dirty. (For the record, regarding deserving poisoning: Joffrey totally did. Myrcella did not.) I just happen to prefer Jaime and Cersei to Arya or Jon or Daenerys, perhaps because they never attempted to claim clean-hearted goodness or righteousness. They were who they were.
Their relationship is horribly incestuous and while in the real world I would be reviled, in Westeros as much as it is still hardly something they would be proud of, it is not unheard of: the Targaryens intermarried for generations while they ruled the Seven Kingdoms, and many of those who love Jon and Daenerys are willing to overlook that they are nephew and aunt - though Jon, we learn, is not. We all make our allowances in a world where that type of a relationship has been accepted, even with major side eyes involved. I have a hard time placing my personal values on characters in a different world, and I prefer to judge them within the established morality of their realm. Jaime and Cersei's relationship is a twisted manifestation of their intense love for (and ultimate devotion to) one another, and I find it fascinating. I'm a historian who loves biography and so regularly studies of the lives of people, which means I was naturally drawn to one of the darkest stories Game of Thrones provided. Knowing their relationship was wrong, but that it endured, and I could watch as it transformed was infinitely more exciting to me than anything else. Besides, what fun would any epic show be if everyone in it was righteous and upstanding?
As Cersei became darker (ordering the assassinations of both of her brothers!) and Jaime became lighter (rescuing Brienne! going to join in the fight against the Night King!) it would be simple to assume this means they would permanently turn against one another, but that was never truly their relationship. Things are never that simple, in television or in real life, and the "best" or "healthiest" relationship is not often the one that a person chooses.
In the end, when Cersei's back was against the wall as Daenerys torched King's Landing, Jaime showed up. It is no coincidence that this occurred immediately after he hit his highest point of character growth (which, in my opinion is knighting Brienne, not sleeping with her - to me, the knighting was a more gorgeous moment embodying the arc of their relationship than sleeping together could ever be and although it was significant because it was the first time he chose to sleep with someone other than Cersei, I was more emotionally moved during the knighting than the consummation). For the majority of the episode Cersei watches from the Red Keep unaware that her brother is trying to reach her. Jaime risks his life to find her, even once he knows that the bells have rung, Daenerys is creating havoc, and he is bleeding from his battle with Euron. It is the only possible action for his character to take. Why? Because he loves Cersei. He always has and he always will, even when he knows she is not good for him. Plus, how could Jaime - who has grown so much as a human - abandon her to certain destruction? His going to Cersei does not destroy his character growth, it fits as much into his original love of Cersei as it does to his new outlook as a better human being.
There are a lot of things to complain about in this series - as in many others - such as, why did the Night King situation just end and everyone move on without questioning it? Who thought it was a good idea to send the Dothraki out first against the Night King's army? Why didn't Daenerys have her dragons light up the Greyjoy fleet the first time she set eyes on them? But as far as I'm concerned the handling of Jaime and Cersei in "The Bells" is not one of them.
Back in season 5's "Sons of the Harpy", Jaime tells Bronn that when he dies, he wants to do so in the arms of the woman he loves. In season 6's "Blood of my Blood", when Jaime and Cersei embrace before he departs for Riverrun and she prepares to be defended by the Mountain in trial by combat, she tells him that they will always be together, "the only two people in the world". In "The Bells", Jaime returns to her, and attempts to save them both but ultimately fails, leaving them aware that they will die - with Cersei still pregnant, thus taking a child's life too. She cries, because she has always loved her children and wants to live. Seeing where her life has left her is devastating and her tears are a good reminder of the humanity that she has long hidden away. Jaime continues his lifelong role of being her other half, her true solace. They go out not with overt declarations of love, but with Jaime's verbalization that nothing else matters but that the two of them are together as their world quite literally falls apart around them.
It is tragic and it is beautiful.
(Note: for those disappointed in the lack of a direct fulfillment of the Valonqar prophecy from Maggy the Frog, that bit was actually not in the show's version of Cersei's childhood conversation with Maggy in season 5's "The Wars to Come".)
Yes, their death denies those who hate the Lannisters the most (people like Daenerys and Arya) the satisfaction of getting to kill them directly. By extension, it denies the viewers who supported those quests the ability to see it. I understand how that would be disappointing, but for me there was no other way for them to go out: together, in each other's arms, the only two people in the world that matter. It was not a massively flashy, shocking moment. In the grand scheme of things it was insignificant and quiet. It diminishes their importance -- no crowds gathered and the war outside did not stop when the Red Keep collapsed. It shows that Cersei could fall no lower, but Jaime would always be there to catch her. In the end, they lose everything except each other and Jaime gets the death he wants, the one in the arms of the woman he loves.
I have always been one to prefer a beloved character die than become a shadow of itself, and I am a sucker for a death that is true to the hearts of characters I love. While it might not please some of the other characters in the show, or many of the fans looking for brutal retribution, it definitely pleased me -- and I openly confess that after some plots in recent seasons I was convinced I would be disappointed with Jaime and Cersei's endings. What happened with "The Bells", though, was that I saw the only possible way I could fathom them truthfully going out realized.
I went into the series finale ("The Iron Throne") at peace with the episode prior being my farewell to Jaime and Cersei, but I was also mildly concerned about fan theories that posited one or both of the twins was still alive. I was prepared for that to happen because, you never know, but I also knew it would be a disappointment. A disappointment was the opposite of what I received. When Tyrion entered the Red Keep alone, we followed him as he moved through the ruins, stopping only when he saw Jaime's golden hand among the rubble. He then uncovered Jaime and Cersei's bodies, resting against one another. Their fates were confirmed and it was one of the most haunting images I have ever seen. They were not just assumed dead and brushed aside. As much as it would be easy to see their deaths treated in a callous way, or even completely ignored. Tyrion's reaction -- especially to the sight of Jaime, spoke of enduring family ties despite complicated and damaging histories. It was a chance for the only surviving member of the Lannister brood to say goodbye, and although it was certainly more significant for Tyrion than for the twins (they are dead, after all) I appreciated the chance to mourn with him.
Also mourning, we learn, was Brienne of Tarth -- though certainly not for Cersei. To those who sought redemption for Jaime, I hope you realize he received it at her hands, maybe not in life, but to history. She took to the task of completing his entry in the White Book - a chronicle of the actions and deeds of the members of the Kingsguard. We see Brienne with the book, and get glimpses of her description of his life. She completes it with:
Died protecting his Queen.
The sentence is as heartbreaking as it is true. It is one I will think about for a long time.
The Lannisters were not heroes, but they were never supposed to be. Sometimes they were villainous, others they were sympathetic. They were messy and dark and light and human, and the perfect imperfect pair. Their love was inappropriate, ugly, and in a strange way, magnificent. They will forever be my favorites.