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Game of Thrones has always been an uneven series. Even when the HBO drama still had George R.R. Martin’s novels to serve as a guide, the series wasn’t perfect. However, throughout the show’s lengthy run, we could count on one constant to lift even the most ineffective writing: Lena Headey’s performance.
Although Headey’s co-star Peter Dinklage has already taken home three supporting actor Emmys — one he earned, one even he was embarrassed to win, and one that felt inevitable — it is Headey who most deserves to be recognized for her work on the series. As Cersei Lannister, Headey successfully anchored the sprawling cast of Game of Thrones and gave depth to a unique villain who will be remembered as one of TV’s best. So it’s a shame she’ll likely walk away from nearly a decade of work empty-handed because the show failed her character in the end.
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Cersei was many things over the course of the show: a manipulative schemer, a grieving mother, a vengeful and heartless ruler. Headey not only made us believe Cersei was capable of being all these things at once, but she brought nuance to a story about a woman seeking power in a world where having a penis was a key qualifier for the highest position in the land, regardless of skill set.
Much has been written about Cersei’s inevitable death in Sunday’s “The Bells” and how the character deserved better than to die under a bunch of rocks, so I won’t rehash that here. But the show also failed to give Cersei a substantial storyline for its final six-episode season; she mostly just stared out the window as Thrones repeatedly attempted to reduce her formerly rich and complex character, focusing solely on her status as an expectant mother.
The character stagnated, essentially becoming one-dimensional, and no amount of work by Headey could lift material that simply didn’t exist. As a result, the chances that Headey could rise above the rest of the supporting actress field to take home an Emmy for her performance in her last year of eligibility for Thrones is very slim. And the idea that Emmy voters might choose to award her for her complete body of work since it’s the final season is also unlikely. Academy members aren’t likely to equate Headey’s work on Game of Thrones — a popular fantasy drama with a sprawling cast, some of whom were even nominated in the same category — with, say, Jon Hamm’s work on Mad Men — a critical darling led by Hamm, himself a long-time favorite in the category before his eventual win.
Headey was the strongest rock in the foundation of Game of Thrones throughout the series’ previous seven seasons — elevating even the sloppiest writing — yet she was never recognized for it in the way Hollywood likes to recognize people, not even for her performance in Season 5, the year of Cersei’s brutal walk of shame. It wasn’t just Headey’s best performance, it was also the kind of performance that used to scream Emmy bait. But Headey lost to Orange Is the New Black‘s Uzo Aduba.
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So Peter Dinklage remains the only performer from Game of Thrones to go home a winner at the Emmys. And he’ll likely win again because Emmy voters are creatures of habit; Dinklage can get by on name recognition at this point. And although the final season of Game of Thrones has largely turned into an unstoppable dumpster fire because of the writers’ ongoing mistreatment of women and rushed writing that mistakes foreshadowing for character development, the series will also likely go on to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, too, because of a rule change a few years ago that opened up voting to allow eligible members to vote in all categories in their respective peer groups (acting, writing, directing, etc.) as well as all the program races. The show has already taken home the top award three times since the change, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t win again for what is, without a doubt, its worst season.
But when I think back on Game of Thrones‘ legacy at the Emmys, winning for all of its worst seasons won’t be what I think about. No, I will think about all the times Lena Headey went home empty-handed and how the show’s writers not only destroyed Cersei’s legacy by the end, but in doing so threatened to destroy Headey’s as well. Cersei and Headey ultimately deserved better.
Game of Thrones‘ series finale airs Sunday, May 19 at 9/8c on HBO. Emmy nominations will be announced Tuesday, July 16 at 11:30am ET / 8:30 am PT, and the awards will be handed out Sunday, Sept. 22 on Fox.
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