Beyond The Wall

What the Battle of Winterfell Means for Cersei's Big Plan

cersei
HBO
This post contains spoilers up through Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 3 "The Long Night." Visit Beyond the Wall, our official Game of Thrones hub page for recaps, theories, spoilers, explainers, and the best episodes of all time.

There's been one major element missing from the second and third episodes of Game of Thrones Season 8: Cersei Lannister's withering gaze. While our pals in the North have been prepping for the battle with the Night King's Army of the Dead, Cersei, for all we know, has been twiddling her thumbs in King's Landing, drinking wine, and having disappointing sex with Euron Greyjoy.

Now, based on the trailer for episode four, she's set to make her glorious, conniving return, but what exactly does that mean? For so long, the Night King seemed like the wildcard in the world of Thrones. He was, after all, an inhuman creature with no discernible motivations, so it makes sense that Jon Snow had dedicated his life to screaming about the need for allies to defeat the White Walker leader. But now the Night King is dead and gone, leaving Cersei the last person standing in the way of our heroes. Is it possible that her insane, nonsensical "plan" will play out exactly as she envisioned it? 

From the start of the season, Cersei's plan was somewhat, shall we say, confusing. She chose to sit out the Battle of Winterfell, thinking that if her living enemies did the dirty work, she'd just have to clean up and stay put on the Iron Throne. But if Jon Snow, Daenerys, and their crew had lost, she would've been basically powerless against the Night King. It didn't seem like a smart gamble.

Now that the living have won, though, it's questionable whether she's at a disadvantage. On the one hand, she doesn't have any dragons (or elephants, for that matter). On the other, as one Reddit user pointed out, she's got wildfire, probably some dragon-killing arrows, the Golden Company, Euron's fleet, and she's fighting forces that have suffered major losses.

The footage we do have doesn't offer many clues as to what the unfolding conflict will look like from King's Landing. Cersei's amassing her forces, her slime-tastic beau by her side. She's switched up her black robes for deep red ones. If nothing else, she looks damn good, all sleek and ready to murder. 

dany
TFW your next enemy is a human woman. | HBO

The fact that this is the endgame scenario for Game of Thrones has proven controversial in itself, three episodes before we'll find out who sits on the Iron Throne when it's all said and done. "The Long Night" exposed a stark divide in what fans think Game of Thrones is ultimately about. Is it a saga about the battle between the living and the dead? Or is it a political allegory with some fantasy elements, more about the interpersonal relationships between warring clans?

While the series has consistently emphasized the White Walker threat, the most compelling narratives have been the human ones. The creatures beyond the wall were frightening when used to devastate the living in close combat and show their overwhelming power over death, like in "Hardhome," but have long only been as relevant as the allegiances they spurred.

The Battle of Winterfell did elicit an "is that all there is?" reaction from a large portion of the fanbase, in part because the episode on the whole was something of a mess. But the fact that all the blue-eyed baddies have shattered into pieces also feels like something of a relief. The first three installments of the final season chugged along to the big fight with a grim inevitability. Now, for the first time this year, it's hard to predict what's going to happen, and that's genuinely exciting.

And, of course, it's always going to be more complicated than just whether or not Cersei lives or dies. The promo indicates that Daenerys aims to "rip her out root and stem," but the Dragon Queen herself has interpersonal issues to work out in the meantime. Dany and Jon Snow have yet to deal with the revelation that he, in fact, is a Targaryen, and she clearly hasn't won Sansa Stark's unwavering loyalty. Considering neither Daenerys (nor Jon Snow, for that matter) were all that effective in fighting the Night King, their leadership skills may come into question, while Arya's victory could be celebrated. (And what about the youngest Stark's relationship with Gendry? Is he more than just a bastard?)

Meanwhile, Cersei is far more than just a boring, silent, evil force. (Sorry Night King, but you were not very intriguing.) Her motives are self-serving and her tactics are cruel, but she's also a woman who has survived trauma herself. Now she's been all but abandoned by the only person that seemed to love her unequivocally, her brother Jaime. To that point, she's ordered Jaime's onetime pal, Bronn, to murder both him and Tyrion. An infinite number of possibilities can evolve out of these dynamics, and the show will (hopefully) be better for it. Will Cersei's army take down the two remaining dragons? Will her bribe of Bronn result in the complete extinction of all but one Lannister? Is she really going to stay with Euron? 

Bran knew exactly where the Night King was heading. Cersei is unpredictable. That's what makes her thrilling.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.