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Jaime and Cersei’s Final Moment Had Power—Just Not As Much As It Could Have

The Lannister lovers’ end worked in the moment but raised broader questions about Season 8’s pacing and character choices

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Spoiler alert

Jaime Lannister ends Game of Thrones’ pilot episode by pushing a young boy out of a tall tower, hoping to kill the lad for spying on his dalliance with his sister/queen. “The things I do for love,” he says, almost shrugging as he attempts a murder.

Within two seasons, this heterodox Prince Charming—once replete with flowing blond hair and nonchalant swagger—was the most complex character on the show and, against all odds after the pilot performance, a fan favorite. His conversations with Catelyn Stark while in captivity start him in this direction; his chats with Brienne on the road to King’s Landing, and subsequent rescue of her in the bear pit, complicate his arc further; his bathtime story in Season 3, in which he explains the reason behind his famous kingslaying, exposes his raw persona entirely.

Five seasons later, it seemed that the Kingslayer—nay, Jaime; Brienne knows him as Jaime—had entirely changed tack. He’d fled Cersei’s side to uphold his promise to fight for the living. He’d knighted Brienne in an intimate ceremony. After the Battle of Winterfell, he’d slept with Brienne, the woman he seemingly loved, to cinch their new, all-encompassing bond. And then he stared into the Winterfell fire, left Brienne in tears, and returned to Cersei’s side, only to die in the arms of the woman he actually, apparently loved.

Jaime Lannister is dead. Cersei Lannister is dead. So are the Cleganes, Euron Greyjoy, Varys, and more—lots of characters met fiery or otherwise violent ends in Sunday’s penultimate Thrones episode, “The Bells.” But no other deaths were met with so much theater, and no other deaths were so important to the plot. Most of all, no other deaths Sunday were more representative of the tricky path Thrones is weaving as it approaches its end. Jaime and Cersei, it’s no surprise, had it all.

Numerous storytelling positives emerge from Jaime and Cersei’s deaths by burial in the Red Keep’s dungeons, blocked by a wall of debris from reaching the dinghy Tyrion had arranged to spirit them to safety in Pentos. The characters’ two scenes together Sunday were a touching encapsulation of their long-lasting relationship, which had begun well before the show’s timeline and in a short span the episode brought the attendant emotions to the fore.

Only her children could coax tears from Cersei’s eyes—remember Myrcella’s death; remember Season 2’s “Blackwater,” as she almost poisoned Tommen during Stannis’s invasion rather than see him captured—and the same is true at the end. As she surveys the King’s Landing wreckage from her helpless perch in the Red Keep, she doesn’t think of her loss of power or the destruction of her fleet and capitulation of her armies. The vacant Iron Throne isn’t on her mind at the end. It’s Jaime and their unborn child; our, she calls it when she addresses her brother. All the Tywinesque games and political traps are gone. It’s her, and him, and their fourth child together, forever doomed by Maggy the Frog’s prophecy never to be born.

The cinematic elements of their final moments play about as well as possible, too. Composer Ramin Djawadi’s score, which changes the tempo of Cersei’s theme and softens the “Rains of Castamere,” tugs at these very strings, serving as both a reminder of their backstory and a sonic sign of all that they’d lost. The two actors—Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for Jaime, Lena Headey for Cersei—convey those years of connection and betrayal and ultimate love in their whispered tones, their facial creases, their tender looks as the Red Keep crumbles around them. Coster-Waldau and Headey were two of the series’ strongest performers from the beginning, and their last scene displayed all this work one final time. (So, too, did Coster-Waldau’s scene with Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion earlier in the episode—even if that scene also caught some narrative snags.)

But when viewed as the last link in a chain of events and character development, Jaime and Cersei’s dual death can’t help but squander some of that positivity. The back end of Jaime’s twisted arc in particular required much more explanation, as this final sequence—from his nasty breakup with Brienne in “The Last of the Starks” through his death—seemed to erase all his progress from the preceding years. His initial scenes with Brienne in Winterfell thrust him in one direction, and then he returned to Cersei like a brotherly boomerang.

“We’re used to having a whole season to get to a point,” Coster-Waldau told Vanity Fair after his character left Brienne in Episode 4. “Now suddenly, a lot of things happen very quickly.” Even Jaime’s actor was confused by the sudden reversal of course. “Trying to connect the dots between the scenes was a little complicated,” he continued, “because you invest so much time, so many years in these characters.”

This move also seemed to run counter to Jaime’s charted course in the book series (though in George R.R. Martin’s telling, he does, at one point, dream of dying underground). The show never introduced the valonqar part of Maggy’s book prophecy, but plenty of readers still expected that proclamation—which stated that a younger brother, or valonqar, would “choke the life” from Cersei—to be fulfilled in the form of Jaime killing his sister. And in the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows, an imprisoned Cersei (at this point in the books still dealing with the High Sparrow’s taste for religious justice) sends a letter to Jaime begging for his help. Angry at his sister for sleeping with other men while he remained faithful, Jaime doesn’t respond and orders the letter burned. In the next book, Brienne desperately asks him for help and he chooses to ride at her side.

Of course, Martin has yet to finish the books; Jaime’s flight at Brienne’s plea is the last readers have seen of the knight, so he very well may follow the show’s veering course on the page. The preponderance of the evidence, however, suggest his feelings lie with Brienne rather than Cersei, and at the very least, the show could have used a scene to explain his motivation. This isn’t the first time Thrones has decided to keep a crucial piece of character work off-screen—see: Arya and Sansa’s conversation with Bran about Littlefinger last season, and the second half of the Stark family meeting last week—and it’s not a pleasant pattern to continue.

Cersei, meanwhile, spent the last season of the show largely on the sideline, seeing her political machinations succeed but—absent rivals like the High Sparrow, Tyrell women, and even her relatives—unable to let the full delicious might of her character shine. Fortunately for Cersei, in her capacity as a seeker of power, her wildfire trick in the Season 6 finale removed all threats in King’s Landing. After the Sept of Baelor’s explosion, the city is fully in her control, to the point that nobody opposes her ascension to the throne after Tommen’s death.

Unfortunately for Cersei, in her capacity as a character in a television show, her wildfire trick also removed nearly all the interesting foils in King’s Landing. After Jaime leaves her side, her fellows are the sycophantic Qyburn, the speechless Mountain, the caricatured Euron, and the Golden Company’s Harry Strickland, who somehow has less of a personality than the Mountain. (Bronn was also briefly in the city, but actor Jerome Flynn and Headey reportedly refused to appear in scenes together.) Cersei was one of Thrones’ greatest villains, but without any characters to battle in repartee, she did and said nothing of real consequence all season. Her plans either succeeded or failed magnificently with no middle ground. And until her teary plea for her unborn child, all her complexity, all her nuanced grays, had disappeared.

The two lovers’ deaths still struck a powerful chord in the moment, like Arya’s thrust into the Night King’s heart before it—but as with Arya’s surprise kill, that power might have been mitigated by the odd storytelling leading to it. The siblings’ deaths, then, reflect a lot of the critiques of Episode 5, and Season 8 at large: resonant in and of itself, but unnecessarily tangled and confusing when connected to its antecedents.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.