The Lannisters aren't exactly the most beloved family in Westeros. Cersei unapologetically murders and tortures large groups of people. Jaime has as shady of a history as the rest of his family and attempted to kill Bran Stark for catching him in his incestuous relationship with his twin sister. And yet many of us still root for Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones. What is it about the so-called Kingslayer that has changed over the years to make him someone you want to see "win"? Fans know that, in many ways, he's just as despicable as his twin sister. But rather than cheering Jaime's possible death at the end of "The Spoils of War," people were thrilled when he survived what could have been his watery grave.
According to Erika Martinez, Psy.D., a Miami-based licensed psychologist, Jaime is a character that we root for because we "relate" to him. "He's got good in his heart," she says via email. "Even if he doesn't always use it, and people hope that it wins out in the end much as we'd hope the same to be true for ourselves." While it's tough to deny that Cersei is easily the least likable character on the show — a title she's held off and on since Season 1 — Jaime's storyline has allowed for a lot more adventure, change, and chances for redemption.
Plus, there's something incredibly charming about the "bad boy turned good" storyline. And it's incredibly natural to find merit Jaime's quest to become good. "Psychologically, I'd say [Jaime] fits the archetype of the antihero, who personifies the existence of good and bad coexisting in one person," says Martinez. "S/he does good, but not always for the right reasons. It's real and more reflective of the complexities of our humanity than the hero, who is always good and seems too good to be true."
Clarissa Silva, Behavioral Scientist and author of relationship blog You're Just A Dumbass, expands that point, saying that our attraction to Jaime could be a reflection of our own untethered selves. "For some, the attraction to the villain speaks to our inner child," she says in an email. "The one that viewed the world as hopeful and able to be whatever you wanted to be before adulting happens. The one that saw no obstacles or barriers to be able to be the women she wanted to become."
But Jaime isn't entirely untethered, which is what makes him even more attractive. Since Game of Thrones has plenty of extreme characters who are obviously evil through and through, like Ramsay Bolton, it's a little easier to root for a guy who makes decisions on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes he chooses to be kind, like when he gives Brienne of Tarth Oathkeeper. Other times, he chooses ruthlessness, like when he shoves Bran Stark out of a window. And sometimes he chooses a strange mix of both, like when he kills Olenna Tyrell with a gentle poison — but he still makes sure she drinks it.
Clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, believes that the difference is entirely in how much Jaime has gone through. "You almost have forgotten what he was like the very first season that we saw him... We've seen a different side of him since then, like when he got kidnapped, when his hand got chopped off, the way he was with Brienne," says Hafeez, who is the Director of Comprehensive consultation psychological services and faculty at Columbia University. She's also a huge fan of Jaime. "It almost made it feel like he paid for his sins with that... He hasn't displayed any of that egregious behavior. It feels like he's a born again kind of guy."
Of course, not all of Jaime's worst behavior was confined to the early seasons. In Season 4, "Breaker of Chains," Jaime raped Cersei over Joffrey's grave, a scene so controversial that multiple interviews were dedicated to showrunners and the episode's director defending or explaining that it "became consensual" by the end. The moment was especially controversial because that's not the way the scene happened in the books; as George R.R. Martin wrote on his blog after the episode, Jaime was initially not present at the death of their son and he and Cersei mutually decide to have sex in their grief when Jaime does arrive. After three seasons of sympathetic development, fans were outraged. Hypable's "Jaime Lannister is a feminist: Why the ‘Game of Thrones’ rape scene matters" called the scene character assassination. The Daily Beast's "Why We Should Pretend the ‘Game of Thrones’ Rape Scene Never Happened" speaks for itself. Jaime's redemption arc was going so well by that point that this change from the book canon was outright rejected by viewers, perhaps not unfairly.
That controversy aside, there's no denying that characters on Game of Thrones often have to answer for what they've done — and Jaime is certainly no exception. Getting his hand cut off was enough to nearly break him, if not physically then emotionally. He's been captured, injured, and tortured. He's had to quietly watch from afar as his children were raised by a drunk king. He watched two out of his three children die, including the seemingly good and innocent Myrcella who he held in his arms as she took her last breath. The man has been through the ringer. Some of the other Lannisters, like his father, seemed to get away with their actions without having to answer to anyone (at least until he was killed). But Jaime answers for it rather quickly. And, perhaps more than others, also seems to learn from each of those mistakes.
In doing so, he's triggered another normal human response: empathy. "With Jaime, he is not thirsting for power and control. He is fueled by one thing and that is love," Dr. Hafeez continues. "We're all such romantics at heart. We just want these characters to find true love, and we know Cersei is no good for him... We've seen a human side of him that no one else has seen, so it's like we have a personal relationship with him... like we have insight to Jaime that no one else knows, which is why we want him to come out of this and be saved."
As the show's seasons have continued, Jaime does seem to have softened up about being cruel to people while Cersei has only gotten better at it. Because they're so connected to each other in so many ways, it's easy to constantly compare one against the other. And because Cersei has done some absolutely unforgivable things, as Olenna Tyrell so wisely pointed out, it becomes even easier to be empathetic towards the literal lesser of two evils. "As for [Jaime] being one of the bad guys, that's a matter of perspective," says Erika Martinez, Psy.D. "I'm not so sure there are good and bad guys in Westeros. Each character is on a journey as a result of some predecessors' actions and dealing with, as best they can, with the lot they got dealt in order to survive."
If you're still in the Kingslayer's corner, it probably feels strange and more than a bit off, but, like so many things we feel while watching Game of Thrones, feeling sympathy for Jaime isn't wrong at all. It's just human nature.
Additional Reporting by Kadeen Griffiths