After season one’s finale rolled in, it was time for this Targaryen stan to share her two cents on House of the Dragon‘s opening season.
Having always been a massive Targaryen supporter since Game of Thrones‘ early days, I was excited to hear about House of the Dragon. I ignored the frustration that came from the underwhelming catastrophe that was Game of Thrones‘ final seasons, and could sense right off the bat that House of the Dragon would help return the bar back to where it used to be (keep in mind that, in my eyes Game of Thrones went down and began its descent by season 4).
One of the main reasons for my interest in A Song of Ice and Fire has been my love for dragons. And so, of course, I’ve always loved the Targaryens. The Targaryens are this fantasy dynasty that is so gratuitously gratifying, one has to wonder why didn’t we, as a species, think of it before. Their connection to the dragons, something already beyond grandiose and majestic, only makes them more compelling themselves. The idea of dragons, the western, fire-spitting kind, is the embodiment of boundless, unmatched energy. The energy of the dragons is what powers the entire storyline of HOTD. What’s more, the idea of humans being deeply intertwined in that draconic energy is something instantly attracting in A Song of Ice and Fire, along with all the other magical and mystical elements.
Whereas Game of Thrones featured three dragons in the exceptional Daenerys Targaryen, her character and accomplishments felt like a drop in the sea that was the full-blown Westerosi Targaryen reign at its height, as we’ve heard of it in the main book series and in how I hope HOTD will portray it. And so, I’ve looked forward to that energy being put forward the entire time.
Valyrian lore and culture / Holding back on featuring the dragons
I feel that HOTD‘s first season shies away from using their story’s greatest asset, the dragons.
The use of magic in the lore of ASOIAF pushes the Targaryens into a full-blown dynasty. Mirroring real-life royalty, the mysterious fantasy aspects of the story give this family a mystical dimension, magnified by the presence of the dragons. I like to think of it as augmented royalty.
But dragon scenes are sporadic. It felt like it was a question of budget, or an intentional choice not to take out the big guns in a show that should be all about the big guns, but within the narrative, it accidentally gives the impression that the Targaryens are trying to limit themselves. They seem to want to blend in, to want to fit in with other noble families on an equal ground, by camouflaging the element that does set them apart. Thing is, it feels like a complex or inferiority complex, which makes it look ridiculous: why think of an asset as a bad thing? When the dragons are featured, they’re used as a symbol of might, but they do little more than posing and flying. They remain on a super tight leash, as if everyone is afraid to use them for what they’re for. They’re treated more like pet, or as a means of transportation, rather than actual ancient mystical creatures and weapons of war.
It also gives an impression of secrecy, that the Targaryens refuse to share knowledge of the magical aspects of their bloodline, to the point that the series itself refuses to peer into these secrets and contains only a few scenes sharing those secrets. Could just be an issue of not having much material to go on from.
I think that the series is not making effective use of the best tool it has as its disposal, and the dragons, and the lore connected to them, should be unashamedly put on display a lot more and not held back. We should be able to see exactly how unique the Targaryens are as a clan, and what sort of hidden customs they have to a fuller extent. I’m thinking of an anime, Attack on Titan, featuring its own in-universe equivalent of nuclear power, and absolutely not hesitating to show the full extent of that power. House of the Dragon began to scratch the surface of the dragons’ capabilities in its finale, with Vhagar taking the reins of the conflict and chomping on another dragon and its rider.
The will to survive / Setting up Rhaenyra as heir
Having not fully read the books, I don’t know the exact details of Rhaenyra and Viserys’ relationship in the original material, and so felt quite satisfied with what I saw on screen. Their relationship had a good amount of realistic tension mixed with more light moments. The scene where Viserys gets up from his sick bed to attend to court despite being one metaphorical foot in the grave felt truly impressive and supportive. My inner Targaryen stan was quite pleased by it.
However, in my opinion, Viserys should have done either one of these two things:
- Never named Rhaenyra heir
- Never remarried after Aemma.
But, nevertheless, once he had made his choice, one of the things I loved and found pleasing in the series, was Viserys’ determination to set up Rhaenyra as his next heir. It gave a sense of continuity to his reign. He established an heir that he visibly believes fits the prophecy.
In the bigger picture, that prophecy creates a sense of unity in the Targaryens, because prophetic dreams are a unique trait that binds this one family together. It was a prophecy that spared them the doom of Valyria, and so it feels like this one trait of their family spawned a huge chunk of history with its own cultural elements. One family that is a whole people of their own. Viserys’ intentions go right in hand with this, and their will to establish and preserve themselves past Valyria and its fate. Each new match, each new established heir and the solidity of their claim, is a new brick put on the wall of their legacy, which ties together with the prophecy.
That is one of the reasons why I’ve quite enjoyed and supported Rhaenyra’s claim. In comparison, Aegon’s rule feels fraudulent, because it’s pushed forward by Otto Hightower, a person who does not have preserving the Targaryens and their best interests at heart. He knows nothing of their lore and customs, and cares mostly about his own ambition. Not that I mind him being ambitious, just that he’s ready to step over centuries of legacy to act on it. His coup being successful would result in the decimation of the Targaryens’ presence in the world (which, ironically enough, it indirectly has when we look at Westeros in ASOIAF). Aegon’s rulership, though he’s a Targaryen, would not actually go hand in hand with the preservation of these traditions and secrets, because he was not entrusted with those secrets by the previous monarch. It’s an empty rulership.
That prophecy, in the way Viserys perceives it, has come to shape the idea of what a ruler is: a unifying force for the realm. Since, it seems, new monarchs make the mistake of believing the Long Night will come under their reign, or in a foreseeable future, they all believe they need to seat someone competent in their place once they pass away to make sure the realm keeps it together when this cataclysm does come. Of course, there’s no way to genuinely predict the arrival of the Long Night, but this gives a sense of responsibility to every ruler taking the prophecy seriously.
That sense of responsibility coincidentally supports the Targaryens establishing themselves in Westeros, because as they consider themselves an important pillar in the war for the dawn, they must be firmly rooted in the land to have the resources to participate in the conflict.
Viserys considered Rhaenyra “the one”, not even because she was particularly fitted for the role, but because she was his daughter, his last child, and he favoured her. I’d still personally make a case for Rhaenyra for my own reasons. But his constant and unwavering support has shaped her into this unifying force for the realm. The future of the Targaryens is entrusted to her, along with its secrets to be preserved. She is the one at the helm of this great ship.
Fanning the flames of the conflict
However, that stability and continuity is then quickly overthrown and stabbed. There’s something to the idea of a good thing being challenged—Otto Hightower’s intentions are insidious in nature enough to give the impression that they’re negative, painting Rhaenyra, the “rightful” heir, in a much better light.
But I also feel like, knowing the books’ outcome, that the writers are trying damn hard to thwart Rhaenyra at every possible turn, bending characterization and common sense, playing with the pace, to make sure that, at the writing’s level, Rhaenyra is pushed out early. They’re laying the groundwork to make sure she’ll never be installed as a permanent or long-term ruler, in a way that’s pretty flagrant and rather unnecessary.
Alicent’s misunderstanding is the first punch in the writing, and by far the most infuriating and frustrating scene in the season.
It doesn’t make one bit of sense for anyone, Alicent included, to somehow misunderstand Viserys’ intentions, which he had made profoundly and indisputably clear hours before his passing. As if he was likely to change his mind on a decision he painstakingly had to drag his decaying body across court to publicly reaffirm for the umpteenth time. No one could have doubted his intentions by this point, as the obviousness of his intent to sit in judgement in episode 8 proved he believed that only through his own actions would his will to push Rhaenyra as heir would be respected—not by Otto or Alicent, whom he let run the realm on matters he didn’t want to think about, not on subjects that did matter to him, like the succession.
It also felt like lazy writing, to place Viserys’ conveniently delirious final words within earshot of someone likely to interpret them to their convenience. I strain to find an in-character reason for Alicent to so naturally re-interpret what she would have perceived as her lay back down and think of the Seven Kingdoms soon-to-be late husband’s mumbled gibberish into a confession placing his estranged son on the throne.
It might have made more sense, if Alicent had purposefully lied about Viserys’ last words. If she had openly admitted that she had twisted his words. But the way it played out, it’s like she genuinely believes the narrative she presents to her father. And so it feels like it’s this misunderstanding that kicks off the hostilities, not Otto’s coup.
It instantly felt like a stab at this well-established solidity and continuity, and one that was unnecessary to escalate the conflict—the waters were already boiling under the surface, and this misunderstanding didn’t need to happen for the conflict to turn into a full-blown civil war.
The only response that made logical sense in all this was Aegon’s, who in a pleasant display of self-awareness, scoffed at the absolutely baffling and unlikely idea that his grandfather, who had continuously showed unwavering support for someone else over him, would suddenly retract minutes before his passing.
Our second scene is Rhaenys’ escape. By far, an impressive and triumphant moment, that was dampened by its ending. We’re standing at the edge of our seats, seeing the tables turn as we witness another Targaryen’s entrance, having the upper hand and a perfect window to tip the scale, and the momentum is cut off only by strong disappointed after Meleys opens her maw only to roar at the Hightowers.
If Rhaenys had burned Otto and Alicent Hightower, and Aegon and Aemond Targaryen—despite my liking Aemond and not wishing for him to die—who were right under Meleys’ fire-breathing maw, the conflict would have been sorted out. The problem would have been solved right there and then. Which is why I can only blame the writers for wanting to perpetuate the conflict in ways that clearly push back against Rhaenyra, when an opportunity to push for that reign was standing right there. Again, I strain to agree with any in-character rationalization of this illogical bit of writing, because there’s no way to pin these authorial intentions on characterization.
It’s also frustrating because, not one episode ago, Rhaenys and Rhaenyra had managed to form an alliance. That alliance, in my eyes, goes once again hand in hand with the Targaryen continuity and legacy. To see a dent put in it in the form of Rhaenys letting the conflict’s main antagonists, even though the moment was ripe, is beyond infuriating.
The final scene is in episode 10. Episode 10 had an overall unnaturally slow pace compared to the series which was already slow, but once Rhaenyra learns Viserys died, everything should have accelerated to portray the urgency of the situation. It felt like moments building towards the conflict were slowed down to delay the full opening of the hostilities and redirect it to the end of the episode. That is notably the case when Rhaenyra receives Otto’s party and hears out his terms.
To begin with, that scene is not exactly book-canon. In the books, Rhaenyra refuses Otto’s terms. The resulting wavering shown in the series, and the marital conflict between her Daemon, makes little sense in terms of characterization.
It’s been understood since the beginning, that Rhaenyra is similar in temperament and drive as Daemon. A bit less casually murderous than him, she still has a strong sense of self and is equally fierce. She also has a defined personal will, strongly nurtured by the protection and favouritism Viserys projected on her. That freedom was furthered with Daemon initiating her earlier in the season and teaching her to own her sexuality. We overall have a very free, assertive and fierce person, who also literally repeatedly stabbed a boar to death and walked into camp blood-soaked the next day. Not as warmongering as Daemon, but not as laissez-faire and folding as Viserys, and certainly more discerning than him.
Rhaenyra also allied herself with Daemon precisely because she knew he would support her cause. Previous episodes never implied that Rhaenyra might ever consider giving her claim away; only that she was quietly preparing her defence against the Hightowers. That she’d waiver at the precise moment the plot and characterization called for action seems illogical. Holding back doesn’t fit her character, just like Rhaenys not burning the Hightowers can’t be explained away with in-character justifications.
Daemon is rightfully seething and speaks with the voice of common sense, but his character shouldn’t even have to be angry, considering that this moment is unfounded and only occurs because of characterization for Rhaenyra.
Episode 2’s mirrored entrance was charismatic. Rhaenyra had set herself apart from Otto, a “mere mortal”, by entering on dragon back, to retrieve a dragon egg from her uncle, another dragon lord. This was not a simple political matter the way Otto tried to make it out to be, so he could tackle it as his level. This was an argument between “gods”, as would Targaryen propaganda say. The scene was brilliant because we instantly knew that Rhaenyra held more sway over Daemon than Otto did. It gave her more authority, and more weight.
But contrary to episode 2’s entrance, this scene is an excuse to delay the conflict. So that, later on, the proper opening of the hostilities would occur not from Otto’s execution as it should have, but from Lucerys’ death, leading to “waking the dragon” in Rhaenyra. But to achieve that outcome, which is, again, not canon, there’s a lot of crushed characterization that goes on.
It’s illogical for Rhaenyra to let Otto walk away, and it’s illogical for her to even consider his terms. As she enters on dragon back, she should have spotted him and set him and his retinue on fire. She could have done that when Daemon suggested executing him. She could have let Daemon take care of it. The way the scene is set up, it feels like a massively wasted opportunity that could have tipped the scale of the war and prevented the conflict from escalating further.
As a side note, that brings me back to my earlier point that the Targaryens seem afraid to assert their power onto the world, and it gives the narrative impression that they’re afraid to embrace their own history and fierceness. It goes without saying that for a dynasty as amped up as the Targaryens, I don’t believe they ought to do that. I also wonder why would the writers shy away from letting their Targaryen characters use the ace up their sleeve, the undeniable advantage they have over everyone, especially now that we have access to so many more Targaryens beyond the iconic Daenerys. At some point, it makes me feel like asking, “what are the dragons for?”
Because a lot of these scenes didn’t take place in the book or were altered from how they occurred, I feel that the show deliberately placed these scenes there to influence the course of events, with the intention to discard Rhaenyra as heir. All three moments were a blatant opportunity to cement her reign, and to finally establish a compelling female character with a good bid for the throne as the ruler, that were all pushed back against. It looks like this show, just like its predecessor, is going down the Daenerys road, following the trend of building up a well-rounded, incredible female character, only to discard her last minute even though there’s just no good reason for her not to end up ruling.
The way the show is going down that path feels inorganic. It’s not done in a “this is tragic because Rhaenyra is a victim of her times and has to face a lot of adversity”, but rather in a “let’s just make sure this never happens”.
These scenes feel like a reversed deus-ex machina, that break something that was already fixed. They feel like an impossible stretch, tearing at the powerful nature of the Targaryens, who should be spending more time tapping into that fiery, draconic nature, instead of being weighted down by slow or purposefully bad writing. Realistically, if the writers hadn’t intended to make sure Rhaenyra never ends up ruling or ruling solidly, these three scenes would have simply never taken place.
The newer generation / Rhaenyra’s progeny
On two final notes, I loved the idea that the newer generation of children are too immature and inexperienced to form a truly symbiotic relationship with their dragons. One where they learn from each other, and learn how to control both themselves and their mounts. At the end of the day, the dragons follow instinctual cues, and my guess is that when sensing Lucerys’ fear, his dragon attacked. When sensing Aemond’s lust for the chase, his own dragon also retaliated and made short work of it. We have two kids climbing on top of the deadliest creatures on earth, not knowing how to curb or control their own instinctual impulses, and being surprised when a nephew or two ends up chewed by a centenarian fire breathing beast. Of all the places to chew up your enemies considering all the good windows of opportunity I mentioned before, this was not it.
Finally, while Luke’s death was painful—and goodness, it finally prompted Rhaenyra to some much-needed action—in the grand scheme of things, I didn’t mind him being removed. Once Rhaenyra had children with Daemon, I considered that her children with him were truer heirs to the throne than Lucerys and Jacaerys.
Except, there was no good way to announce Aegon and Viserys as next in line over Jace and Luke, without weakening her socially. Removing them through death is emotionally painful, it felt destructive to watch this tiny kid on his tiny dragon getting chomped by this much larger beauty, but story-wise, it seems ultimately convenient.
Rhaenyra’s first children felt like a mistake: she was expected to produce heirs, but couldn’t with a husband she was soft-forced into marrying. While they had a polite relationship, the conditions weren’t ideal. Her official consort was a man she didn’t love, who didn’t love her, so she had to turn to someone else. The result are children she wouldn’t have birthed if she had been given a choice of whom to marry. In comparison, and as far as the show tells us, she allies herself with Daemon of her own volition. Her children with him are born out of genuine attraction and interest—whatever good things she and Daemon share. Aegon and Viserys feel more legitimate for this reason. They’re not “hush-hush” children, and they’re more Targaryens than their half brothers. For these reasons, they feel more like genuine successors of personal will, rather just members of a litter the world demanded the mother produce.
“Is this worth watching?“
We’ll answer that question.
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