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Why Didn’t Cersei Just Kill Everyone?

The most ruthless character on ‘Game of Thrones’—the woman who blew up a holy site to eliminate her enemies—had a moment of decorum that seems nearly impossible to explain

HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

The biggest problem with Sunday night’s Game of Thrones episode, other than a rogue Starbucks cup, was the final showdown at King’s Landing. Or perhaps more accurately, the lack of a showdown. Tyrion convinced Daenerys to march to King’s Landing and demand Cersei’s surrender, even though they were hardly in a position to make such a demand. Team Dany had just suffered their biggest loss of the war moments earlier when Euron Greyjoy sniped Rhaegal out of the sky, before destroying much of her fleet. Cersei had Missandei; Dany had only one dragon, a depleted military, and a false sense of destiny.

And yet she rode to the gates of King’s Landing to attempt to bargain with the woman who once blew up a place of worship. As Dany approached the castle gates, her army, at first glance, looked menacing. Then the camera zoomed out, and, well ...

All stills via HBO

There aren’t enough people to typify an army. It’s more of a decent-sized pub crawl. Meanwhile, they were face-to-face with a real army.

Which one of these sides is demanding the other surrender? Cersei had at least 10 venti-sized crossbows—it’s hard not to wonder why she wouldn’t just command them to unload. After all, we just saw these crossbows slay a dragon from much farther away.

And Rhaegal was flying through the air when he was struck—for some reason, Dany had Drogon remain stationary, out in the open; an easy target. An even easier target: herself, and also Tyrion Lannister, who approached the gates more or less wearing a sign that read “Kill me now.” And yet, Cersei did not open fire on anyone. The most ruthless character in Game of Thrones acted with inconceivable honor, refusing to surrender, killing only Missandei, and agreeing to engage with Dany’s army on formal terms.

Considering we’re at the point where Starbucks cups are appearing on screen, we must acknowledge that things likely went this way because of careless planning and poor writing. There are more episodes to come—another major battle in the cards—and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss merely were not ready to end the war, even though victory seemed within Cersei’s grasp. For the sake of argument, though, perhaps we can be a bit more forgiving and at least attempt to explain Cersei’s actions.

There is a rich history of “surrender to me or I’ll kill you” pre-battle meetings in Game of Thrones. Back in Season 2, Renly and Stannis Baratheon held a rendezvous during the War of the Five Kings—the setting for one of the best lines in the series, when Melisandre told Renly that Stannis was the Prince Who Was Promised because he was born amid salt and smoke, to which Renly replied, “Is he a ham?” Before the Battle of the Bastards in Season 6, Jon, Sansa, Davos, and Lady Mormont met with Ramsay Bolton, who demanded the Starks’ immediate surrender. Earlier that season, Jaime met the Blackfish while the Lannisters and Freys were sieging Riverrun to talk state of affairs. In Season 3, Dany granted one of the masters of Yunkai safe passage to discuss surrender (though her dragons made no such promises). Then in Season 6, Dany met with the slave masters—including the same one from Yunkai—to discuss the terms of her surrender before pulling off a stunning pivot to discussing their surrender.

Meeting with your opponent to discuss potential terms of surrender before a battle is certainly a custom, and the reasoning makes sense. Wars are expensive, the soldiers who will die are hard to replace, and settling is an opportunity to pretend to care about the lives of the people who will die. The question is, why would Cersei care about any of those things? She’s not giving up, and as Tywin told Tyrion after the Red Wedding, “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner?” Just as Dany turned the tables on the masters in Season 6 when they wanted her to give up, Cersei’s countering Dany’s demand by asking her to surrender in exchange for her life would seem more fitting to the character, and more reflective of the power imbalance of 100 Unsullied versus a castle loaded with giant crossbows. Perhaps Cersei doesn’t shoot an arrow Dany’s way because she wants to win the right way? (Ya know, classic Cersei.)

Jokes aside, Cersei’s relationship with Tyrion is clearly more layered than she’d like anyone to think. She’s been fantasizing about hurting him since Tyrion was born, as Oberyn Martell revealed before his head was cracked like a peanut shell in Season 4. Yet Tyrion has now twice given Cersei the opportunity to kill him between Sunday night and the Season 7 finale—and twice she has confoundingly let him go. What could have changed within Cersei’s heart to spare him a body full of arrows? Did Tyrion strike an offscreen deal with Cersei after the Season 7 meeting he inexplicably survived? Perhaps, like Tyrion, Cersei also keeps subconsciously making mistakes borne out of unacknowledged love for her kin (though it should be mentioned that Tyrion’s mistakes—and now Cersei’s—are a creation of the showrunners to arrive at a predetermined destination). Or maybe Cersei’s pregnancy has her craving some familial dish, and Tyrion is the only one who knows the recipe.

Cersei’s mercy is brief before she has the Mountain cut off Missandei’s head, but that move seems more cruel than tactical. No disrespect to Missandei, one of the least appreciated characters on the show, but she hasn’t given council on war strategy or winning hearts and minds since she came to Westeros. Her main job has been as a translator for a woman who already speaks all of the languages she needs to speak.

Not only does executing Missandei serve no practical purpose for Cersei, it’s kind of stupid. Missandei’s main purpose at this point in the story is as Dany’s friend, and she’s an excellent hostage to keep in the Red Keep to ensure Dany doesn’t melt it to the ground. But rather than announce to Dany that Missandei will be by her side for the rest of the war, Cersei has the Mountain eliminate her.

It’s tough to understand why Cersei would follow the same customs considered proper or traditional when she is theoretically the most deceptive player on the show. At a certain point, when characters begin acting out of character, from the smartest person in the show becoming the dumbest to the coolest warriors dying off screen to the most ruthless person in the world becoming suddenly unwilling to (literally) take shots at her rival, it’s impossible not to wonder whether Weiss and Benioff have the right plan for the end of the series. It’s one small moment in “The Last of the Starks,” but for Cersei it was one massive opportunity to win the war. Perhaps the showrunners can land this plane, but right now it seems they may crash, like Rhaegal into the Narrow Sea.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.