Cersei’s Big Game of Thrones Episode Showcased Lena Headey

Game of Thrones‘s seventh season is finally in high gear—and much of that is owed to one particular performance.

After a premiere filled with the sort of table-setting that usually occupies Thrones season openers and a somewhat weak second episode heavy on exposition, this week’s installment delivered jolts in each of its storylines, but none more so than in the story of Cersei. As embodied by Lena Headey, the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms has grown ever more concerned with the wrongs done to her in the past now that she’s in power. Her understanding of the world has long been that the wrongs done her (in particular, the deaths of her children) were ugly, necessary steps towards her ultimate installment upon the throne; what she’s rapidly learning is just how gratifying it can be to work her way backward, using the power of the throne to redress those same wrongs.

The scene in which Cersei kills one of the Sand Snakes with a deadly, poison-laced kiss is among the perpetually strong Headey’s very best scenes on Thrones. The sheer pleasure the queen takes in revenge places her in the ranks of the greatest villains on the big or small screen. It also, for one scene, justifies this season’s uncharacteristically heavy reliance on scenes of lengthy exposition delivered in monologue. When Headey is spitting out her motivations, it’s a symphony. And, shortly after, when Cersei discovers just how easy it is to live openly as part of an incestuous couple, her heedless joy is almost infectious even in spite of its warped object (her brother) and genesis (she only really gets her groove back once she’s condemned an enemy to a protracted and painful death). In her quest for vengeance, Cersei makes the venal seem cosmic; having achieved it, she makes what is wrong on a global level feel like the give-and-take of human love affairs.

It’s not, and she knows it’s not. But Headey, who told me when I interviewed her for TIME’s recent cover story on Game of Thrones that she’s a…

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