Midway through “Dragonstone”, Game of Thrones’ seventh season premiere, everyone’s favorite face-changing assassin, Arya Stark, shares a meager meal around a fire with Ed Sheeran and his traveling troupe of Lannister troubadours…I mean, soldiers. Arya tells them she’s on her way to King’s Landing, and when they ask why she says she’s going to kill the Queen. Sheeran and his friends laugh, thinking Arya’s only joking; Arya laughs, too, playing along. But we know that Arya couldn’t be more serious. She wants to kill Cersei Lannister, and she’s got the special skillet required to get the job done.
There’s no doubt in my mind that for anyone on Game of Thrones to survive the coming of the Night King and his zombie army, Cersei’s destabilizing influence has to be eliminated, and there’s no doubt that Arya has what it takes to kill her. However, while Arya can do it, and as much satisfaction as it might bring to watch her slit Cersei’s throat, I don’t think she’s the one who should.
If anyone’s going to kill Cersei, it has to be Jamie.
What Game of Thrones—and George R.R. Martin before it—did with Jamie is a pretty remarkable feat: they took a character who started out as basically a cartoon villain who pushes a defenseless child out a window, and turned him into Westeros’ most tragic hero. Watching the layers peel back and learning Jamie’s perspective on his actions was one of the most fascinating aspects of the middle stretch of both the show and books, and it all informs why it needs to be Jamie who finally puts an end to his sister’s mad ambition.
After Robert’s Rebellion Jamie was christened the Kingslayer, for literally stabbing the Mad King Aerys in the back. To the people of Westeros, this was seen as an act of betrayal and cynical ambition. Jamie was a member of the Kingsguard, but he ignored his sacred vows to protect the king in order to advance Lannister interests and secure his House a place of power in Robert’s new order.
Thanks to Jamie’s time with Brienne, we know that the reality behind his actions that day were very different from what people think. Aerys confessed to Jamie his plan to use wildfire to destroy all of King’s Landing rather than surrender the city—and the Iron Throne—to Robert. By killing the Mad King, Jamie may have betrayed his vows, and he may have given Tywin another piece of leverage to secure House Lannister’s position, but he also singlehandedly saved the entire city. One could argue that by betraying his vows as a Kingsguard he was actually upholding a higher ideal of knighthood by protecting the innocent.
Of course, your average Westerosi citizen doesn’t know any of this. Through a combination of unfortunate Lannister disdain and genuine honor, Jamie has never felt the need to explain himself to anyone—except Brienne, when she finally managed to chink away some of his emotional armor. It was a revealing moment for both Brienne and the audience, and ever since we’ve watched the war raging inside Jamie.
Like Tyrion, Jamie is too good to be a Lannister. Unlike Tyrion, however, it hasn’t been so easy for him to cut his ties with his family. It was easier for Tyrion because he was a “freak”, and no one wanted him around anyway. While Tyrion did try pretty hard to carve a place for himself in House Lannister, when it finally became clear that was never ever going to happen, it was easy for him to cut and run, leaving his father dead on the shitter in the bargain.
Jamie’s road has been more difficult. Joining Aerys’ Kingsguard was a canny attempt at distancing himself from his House, since members of the Guard renounce all claims to lands, titles, and inheritance. Two powerful forces worked against this attempt at distancing, however: Tywin’s singleminded determination that Jamie would still somehow assume lordship of Casterly Rock, and Jamie’s love for Cersei.
That love is at the center of Jamie’s conflict as a character. Jamie’s feelings for Cersei are unhealthy, not so much because they’re incestuous (which is less frowned upon in Westeros than the real world), but because Cersei’s toxicity corrupts Jamie’s essential goodness.
That love’s caused Jamie to do some genuinely reprehensible things. He pushed Bran out a window because Bran saw Jamie and Cersei together, and he played a part in capturing, discrediting and ultimately killing Eddard Stark because Ned threatened to reveal the true parentage of Joffrey and his siblings. Those are hard acts to stomach as a viewer, but we maintain sympathy for Jamie in spite of them in the same way we’ve maintained some shred of sympathy for Cersei through all her heinous acts: because they were actions taken out of love, however twisted or misplaced that love may be.
Now, however, with no children left to protect, it’s time for Jamie to step out from under Cersei’s corruptive influence and complete his journey from villain to bonafide hero. Through the deaths of her children and her humiliation at the hands of the High Sparrow, whatever beauty was inside Cersei that caused Jamie to love her has been fully stripped away. Finally perched atop the Iron Throne, and with nothing but her own life left to lose, Cersei is more dangerous than ever—and if the show is taking a cue from the books Euron Greyjoy will soon be bringing Cersei a bride-gift that will make her still more dangerous.
Cersei has to go, and the rules of narrative all point to Jamie being the one to do it. By using wildfire to blow up the Sept of Baelor, Cersei committed the very act Jamie murdered the Mad King to prevent. Cersei will not doubt think up a similarly ghastly scheme at some point in the future, and someone is going to have to stop her. Who do we know who’s close enough to Cersei to take her by surprise, with the demonstrated courage to kill a monarch, even if it’s in part an act of terrible betrayal? Jamie Lannister.
This is the kind of narrative recursivity that writers love, where characters repeat past actions with a different result. Jamie commits regicide again, but this time he’ll be lauded as the hero he is, just in time to join up with the rest of the good guys to take on the Night King and his zombies.
Jamie’s killing Cersei would have the side effect of denying Arya personal vengeance for the death of her father and the implosion of her family, but to be fair, Arya has had her own full-circle moment: avenging the Red Wedding by killing Walder Frey and all his male heirs. (As an aside, now that the Freys are dead I’d be pretty worried for Arya’s safety if I were you. At this stage in the Game, Arya appears to be one of the few remaining main characters, along with Cersei, who can be killed without breaking the meta narrative of the show.)
No, unfortunately for Arya, killing Cersei is the natural culmination of Jamie’s character arc. The title of Kingslayer may have been given to Jamie as a slight, but the title of Queenslayer will be the final stone laid in Jamie’s path to redemption. Arya’s just going to have to be happy with the Freys.