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In House of the Dragon, It's Bad to Be the King

Viserys faces a series of impossible decisions in the second episode of the Game of Thrones prequel.

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King Viserys sits at the head of a long table with the members of his Small Council on the side.
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) is the first truly good man we’ve seen sit on the Iron Throne. After eight seasons of Game of Thrones and Robert Baratheon, Joffrey, Cersei, and Daenerys, it’s genuinely weird to see someone ruling Westeros who cares about something more than power or sating their desires. Unfortunately, there’s a difference between a good king and someone who is good at being a king, and despite Viserys’ best intentions, the Seven Kingdoms are going to pay the price.

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When “The Rogue Prince” begins, it’s been six months since the events of the premiere. Since then, a lot has happened: pirates have been brazenly attacking the fleet of Lord Corlys “The Sea Snake” Velaryon (Steve Toussaint). Daemon (Matt Smith) has seized the Targaryen home of Dragonstone and surrounded himself with an army of fanatically loyal Goldcloaks. Viserys’ pinky finger has rotted, another sign that his days as king are limited. Alicent (Emily Carey) has been visiting him regularly per the veiled orders of her father and Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). And Rhaeryna (Milly Alcock) has been watching with increasing unease as the members of the Small Council pressure her father to take another wife and produce more heirs.

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King Viserys wants to do nothing about any of it. Not because he’s indecisive or weak, but because he’s the first truly good man we’ve seen sit on the Iron Throne. As Viserys tells Corlys and his cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best), the “Queen Who Never Was,” a king’s job is to avoid war, whether that’s with pirates likely funded by the Free Cities of Essos or his brother. He doesn’t want to marry again because he still loves his late wife Aemma too much, and is afraid that it might estrange Rhaenyra from him. It also doesn’t help that the prime marriage candidate is Laena (Nova Foueillis-Mose), the daughter of the Sea Snake and Rhaenys. Their union would build strength by merging the two great families of Valyria and bringing Corlys’ fleet under the crown’s control—but she’s a horrifically young 12 years old, which is awful but unfortunately historically accurate for the time/setting (thankfully for the audience, Viserys is greatly disturbed by the idea of marrying a child).

Unfortunately, Viserys’ pacifism is seen as weakness by others, whether it’s the pirates, his advisors, or Daemon. Even Rhaenyra believes her father can’t get things done, even as she’s forced to remain the king’s cupbearer to be privy to the meetings of the Small Council. When she dares to suggest dragonriders should be sent as a deadly show of force to the pirates, Otto suggests there is a “better use” for her “talents” and sends her to pick out the next member of the Kingsguard. She shows her practicality by picking not the knight with the most political value, but the one with the most combat experience—Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), who was also the winner of last episode’s tournament. I imagine this will prove to be a wise choice.

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Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Rhaenyra also proves to be pragmatic (arguably moreso than her father) by knowing the king will remarry and produce more heirs, although she believes she’ll remain heir to the throne. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother her to watch Viserys take his walk with the upsettingly young Laena. It also bothers Rhaenys, watching with her cousin once removed, to effectively pimp out her child to the king, but she understands “the order of things”—an order, she tells Rhaenyra, that will likely produce male children who will replace her as heir. As Rhaenys puts it, almost smugly, “Men would rather burn the realm to the ground than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.”

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Is she wrong? No. I sincerely doubt that Daemon would be staging a passive-aggressive rebellion if Viserys had a male heir. He certainly wouldn’t have snuck into the Dragonpit and stolen a dragon egg—not just any egg, but the one Rhaenyra has chosen for her short-lived brother Baelon—leaving a note inviting Viserys to come to his wedding in two days’ time, and celebrate the incipient birth of his child. It’s a slap in the face even Viserys can’t ignore, but Otto wisely stops him from going to Dragonstone himself. Instead, Otto goes himself with 20 armed guards and confronts Daemon on the long, skinny stone bridge to the keep.

Honestly, it seems like a dumb plan given how much Daemon hates Otto already, to say nothing of his army or his dragon Caraxes, which perches ominously nearby. Daemon, his bride-to-be, and his guards meet Otto’s group halfway. Daemon carries the egg, which he carelessly tosses from hand to hand in the perfect display of contempt, revealing he didn’t truly steal the egg for his unborn Targaryen child, but to provoke his brother. Daemon doubles down by making a threat on Otto’s life—whether he means to do it and began an outright war is tough to tell—but at that moment, Rhaenyra bursts out of the clouds atop her dragon Syrax. When she lands, she has a showdown with Daemon, daring her uncle to strike her down, something he in turn dares not do. So instead, he sulkily tosses her the egg and returns to his keep.

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Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Rhaenyra instinctively knows that a better way to prevent war, at least in the world of Westeros, is to show power but not use it instead of doing nothing and looking vulnerable. In that scene, she seems more of a queen than Daenerys did, although I admit my memory is likely curdled by the Game of Thronesfinal season. Rhaenyra calls Daemon’s bluff and brings him to heel, and it seems like he might even respect her for it, a little—not that it’s going to stop him from his quest to take the Iron Throne for himself.

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And yet, there’s also something heartwarming about poor Viserys’ retroactive concern when Rhaenyra returns—not for the political ramifications, not because of what she might have provoked, but because she could have been killed. Rhaenyra says she retrieved the egg without bloodshed, something Otto couldn’t have done, and even Viserys has to admit she’s right. But then, what did he expect by sending Otto? Was he trying to spare his family (and their dragons)? Was he simply sending a token force, believing that by showing a small effort he could look like he had stood up to Daemon without causing a fight? Viserys knows a king’s duty is also the realm, first and foremost. But his sentimentality is only courting disaster.

Or should I say, brings disaster. Because Viserys spends the entire episode asking members of his Small Council whether he should marry Laena for alliance, for strength, for naval power, even just to keep the Sea Snake happy as the king’s most powerful ally—and they all say it’s the right call, including Otto. But when it comes time to announce his bride-to-be, he names Alicent. She’s not a girl he loves (or even lusts after, I’d say), and he’d much rather remain a widow in honor of Aemma. But Alicent is a girl that has been a comfort to him after Aemma’s death, and Viserys feels a connection to and safe with her, while having no idea that she’s been mauling her fingernails in anxiety and unhappiness the entire time.

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Backed into a corner and essentially forced to marry for the good of the realm, Viserys makes an emotional decision, and the realm will be so much worse off because of it. Corlys storms out of the council room, furious and humiliated. And when we see him next, he’s back at Driftmark, the seat of House Velaryon... where he’s invited Prince Daemon to offer him a proposition: Take care of the pirate problem and show the realm his worth as a king. It’s an act that will steal the support from Rhaenyra, of those men who were already upset at the idea of a woman with power. Meanwhile, Rhaenyra feels utterly betrayed by her father and her best friend.

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Now, admittedly, House of the Dragon didn’t do enough to sell Rhaenyra and Alicent as best friends, but Milly Alcock does; the betrayal the character feels gets conveyed with some beautifully subtle acting. Likewise, Alicent’s tamped-down unease is likely played perfectly by Emily Carey. And the humanity that Paddy Considine brings to Viserys—actually, you know what? Everyone in the show is absolutely fantastic. The cast is stacked with talent from top to bottom.

In fact, at the moment, I’d say the cast bears House of the Dragon on their backs for these initial episodes. Not that the show is bad by any means, minus a few hiccups in the premiere. But while the original Game of Thrones was new and unique enough when it debuted to keep viewers riveted as it ramped up its story, Dragon is familiar enough that doesn’t have anything to propel the slow burn of its political intrigue other than every character is nuanced, compelling, and sympathetic, and that includes Daemon.

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The result is that House of the Dragon is already a very entertaining show, and I suspect the jillion or so people who watched the premiere are likely already hooked. While I still don’t trust the show not to make any Thrones-ian missteps, I think there’s a lot of reason to be cautiously optimistic. I suspect Viserys feels the same about the future of Westeros. Hopefully, I’m not as wrong as he is.

Image for article titled In House of the Dragon, It's Bad to Be the King
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
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Assorted Musings:

  • Hey, an opening credits scene! It’s fine, but I think it would have been cooler and more useful to have had a guide to the 17 dragons which will be featured in the show, much like Thrones’ opening credits were a guide to the world of Westeros to help viewers keep track of everything.
  • The pirates are led by a man nicknamed Crabfeeder for his habit of feeding his foes to crabs which we see in absolutely gruesome detail at the beginning of the episode. I was genuinely upset to learn one of the corpses being eaten by the tiny, horrible crabs was in fact quite alive, and less than thrilled to learn of his predicament.
  • Grand Maester Mellos (David Horovitch) has Viserys stick his finger in a bowl of maggots to have them eat off his rotted flesh. Between this, the crabs, and last week’s balls scene, it appears House of the Dragon is going to go heavy on the graphic violence instead of the sexual violence, which I am fine with.
  • Viserys’ bum finger causes him to drop and break one of his model city’s stone dragons in an incredibly unsubtle reminder of what he’s doing to House Targaryen. Alicent has it fixed, which Viserys takes as an incredibly thoughtful gift—it’s very possibly what makes him decide to choose Alicent.
  • I don’t want to gloss over Daemon’s scene with his love Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), who is very much scheduled to marry Daemon and definitely not carrying his baby. As she furiously tells him, she left King’s Landing with Daemon to be liberated from fear, but Daemon has put a target on her back, and she doesn’t have the Targaryen lineage to protect her. She’s a woman who’s already “ensured long ago that [she] would never be frightened by childbirth,” which makes Daemon’s endangerment of her for an unnecessary jab at his brother even more infuriating. It’s a good scene.
  • Apparently, Aegon’s “Dream of the Events of Game of Thrones” from last week is something that George R.R. Martin came up with and will eventually appear in the books (should they come into existence), making it canon. This makes it better, of course, but I still contend it sounded very dumb and like a desperate way to connect the two shows.
  • “They denied you, princess” is a very good and sick burn.

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