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All Hail Paddy Considine’s Viserys I Targaryen, First of His Name, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the TV Realm

In a meta sense, the ineffectual king’s presence has forced ‘House of the Dragon’ to dance around the Dance. But as he’s shed his body parts, he’s also given the show real heart.

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Spoiler warning

Episode 9 of Game of Thrones ended with a death scene that a scion of King’s Landing’s ruling clan warned would “haunt [his] family for a generation”—the execution of Eddard Stark. Ned’s beheading was a shocking, pivotal moment both for the characters in George R.R. Martin’s fictional world and for the viewers in ours. In Westeros, Ned’s demise precluded the possibility of peace between the Starks and Lannisters, making civil war certain. In real life, it established that Thrones could be bold enough to kill off a good guy and apparent protagonist played by a prominent actor.

The prequel’s pivotal bucket-kicking comes one episode earlier in its run. Episode 8 of House of the Dragon ends with the expiration of King Viserys, who takes his last breath after calling out to his late cousin-wife Aemma. This time, the death is due to age and illness, not a headsman’s sword, and the roughly 50-year-old English actor exiting the stage isn’t Sean Bean, but Paddy Considine. Moreover, this passing is the opposite of shocking, to the court at King’s Landing and the TV audience alike; Viserys’s death is foreshadowed from the first episode, and the only surprise is that the declining king lasted as long as he did. Even so, Viserys’s death is as consequential as Ned’s: It’s the event that seems destined to touch off a conflict that will loom over the ruling family’s future.

It’s also similarly significant in that it marks the departure from the series of a character and an actor who helped elevate Season 1. There were plenty of reasons not to respect or root for Viserys, or treasure his time on the screen: He was hapless, ineffectual, and often willfully oblivious to the internal tensions threatening to tear his house apart. In a more meta sense, Viserys was holding House of the Dragon back: While he lived, the series had to dance around the Dance of the Dragons instead of starting its exciting steps. His departure should bring relief—not just to him, from his suffering, but to us, from the jarring time jumps and drawn-out political posturing that precede open battle. Yet in spite of all the reasons to say “Good riddance,” I’m sorry to see him go, which is a tribute to the part and the person who played it. Viserys and Considine stole the show, even as they left it.

Matt Smith’s Daemon Targaryen, Viserys’s younger brother, was the breakout Targaryen of the early episodes. Smith was and is the most incendiary actor in the cast, and his sneering, wounded, petulant prince, a mercurial rogue as alternately plaintive and vicious as a mistreated dog, made for a compelling contrast to Considine’s indecisive but more moderate, stable, and benign brother. Viserys was the Elizabeth to Daemon’s Princess Margaret. “You were always mother’s favorite,” Viserys tells Daemon in Episode 4; Viserys wasn’t a warrior. Margarets are more fun than Elizabeths, and Daemons are more fun than Viseryses. By the end, one wanted to look away from Viserys, because he made the Crabfeeder—his fellow Phantom-style mask mate—look like the picture of health.

Yet Viserys made a more sympathetic figure than the brother who repeatedly wore out his welcome in King’s Landing. On a series that’s revolved almost exclusively around powerful elites rather than featuring a cross-section of society, the nominally most powerful figure of all—the king—was the most relatable. As Rhaenyra observed in the premiere, “Without [dragons], we’re just like everyone else.” With his short time as the aged Balerion’s rider concluding before the events of the show, Viserys was the one adult Targaryen without a dragon, and he was much closer to the common man: He just wanted to hold tournaments, build models, and avoid bloody wars and interminable meetings (not necessarily in that order). He married for affection, believed the best of his relatives rather than the worst. For a Targaryen, he seemed like a decent bloke, by far the best and safest answer to a Westeros equivalent of the beer question from American politics. He also became a broken thing, which made it hard not to have a tender spot in one’s heart for him.

Although it was sad to see Viserys slowly circle the drain, there was a darkly comic aspect to the king’s deterioration. Every time the series fast-forwarded, it took a pound of flesh from Viserys: fingers, an arm, an eye. He was a little like Monty Python’s Black Knight, gamely going on despite a series of “flesh wounds” that gradually ate him alive. “My own face is no longer a handsome one, if indeed it ever was,” a skeletal, disfigured Viserys says in “The Lord of the Tides,” maintaining some semblance of his former good nature, dignity, and disarming, self-deprecating humor—even in extremis.

The Black Knight echoes Shakespeare’s mortally wounded Mercutio when he insists that the loss of an arm is “but a scratch.” Viserys echoes both characters when in Episode 1 he dismisses a growing sore on his back, telling Maester Mellos and Otto Hightower, “It’s a small cut from sitting the throne. It’s nothing.” The wound, or others like it, would eventually do him in (with no small amount of help from Mellos’s leechings). Perhaps the sores were somewhat symbolic of his being unfit for kingship, or maybe they were physical manifestations of what he meant when he told Rhaenyra that “the Iron Throne is the most dangerous seat in the realm.”

Whatever else one might say about Viserys, he did his duty as he saw it, even though he had it hard almost from the start. In the premiere, he made the difficult (and, admittedly, dismayingly unilateral) decision to sacrifice his wife to try to save her baby; the son he’d been hoping for soon perished as well. He resisted starting wars that might have burnished his own image at the smallfolk’s expense; remarried when he wished to stay in mourning instead; named and reaffirmed Rhaenyra as his heir over the destructive Daemon and cruel, incompetent Aegon; and stayed in harness even as his strength seeped away. In all of those actions, he seemed motivated more by love and responsibility—love of Rhaenyra, and responsibility to heed and uphold Aegon’s prophecy—than self-interest and thirst for personal power. He probably would’ve been happier, and healthier, had the Great Council chosen Rhaenys instead.

In Episode 5, Viserys asks Lyonel how he’ll be remembered, lamenting how little he’s done that would be worthy of songs. “There is a part of me wishes I’d been tested,” he says. “I often think that in the crucible, I may have been forged a different man.” Lyonel assures him that he’s “carried King Jaehaerys’s legacy and kept the realm strong”—a backhanded compliment that confirms Viserys’s accomplishments pale in comparison to those of his more storied ancestors. Viserys ruefully but resignedly responds, “Another lord might assure me that I would rise like Aegon the Conqueror given the chance.”

In Episode 8, Viserys does rise—not quite like the Conqueror, maybe, and not with nearly the glow-up Théoden gets after Gandalf frees him from Saruman, but heroically nonetheless. Pained, bedridden, and disregarded, he summons his resolve, refuses milk of the poppy, and regains his wits and enough of his strength to sit the throne one last time in defense of his daughter and heir. His slow stagger through the throne room is one of the most stirring moments of the season so far, made even more poignant when Viserys stumbles and Daemon helps him to the throne. Granted, Daemon has self-serving reasons to make sure his brother reaches his seat, but there’s more to his gesture than that. “Ten years you’ve been king, and yet not once have you asked me to be your hand,” Daemon exclaimed in the premiere, less out of a sincere desire to govern than because he craved Viserys’s approval and acknowledgement that “the blood of the dragon runs thick.” Viserys doesn’t ask Daemon to be his hand here, either—but he warmly and gratefully grasps his brother’s hand when Daemon extends it.

As a tragic figure, Viserys’s choices backfired: Rhaenyra was a dicey selection to begin with, and remarrying to produce spare heirs and strengthen the line only put her in a more precarious position. In spirit, however, he earned the title “Protector of the Realm,” even if he inadvertently left his kingdom on the verge of conflagration. Whether in Westeros or in our world, those who seek power most ardently are often the least suited to wield it—and however else they may differ, the greens and the blacks seem unified in coveting the throne for less selfless and high-minded reasons than Viserys did. The disparity in speeches by the one-eyed Viserys and the one-eyed Aemond during and after the dinner in Episode 8 makes the contrast clear: They may both be Targaryens, but only one wants what’s best for the realm.

Considine, who apparently clung as closely to the Iron Throne on set as Viserys did on screen—though he hopefully took greater care with the pointy ends—deserves some laurels for what he brought to a difficult part. Viserys wasn’t the lion in winter; he was more like the housecat in fall. Yet Considine lent him a touching vulnerability, conveyed through reflexive, self-conscious smiles, while also summoning flashes of true Targaryen rage in commanding moments that lent weight to Viserys’s “crucible” quote. And he did it while enduring all manner of makeup and prosthetic work. Every other character got recast or proved remarkably resistant to aging, but Considine signed up for a laundry list of indignities, from a thinning hairline to late-stage deformities that rendered him almost unrecognizable.

In Episode 8, Viserys removes his mask like an old Anakin Skywalker—not so he can look on his family with his own eyes, but so they can look on him and see him as he is: “not just a king, but your father, your brother, your husband, and your grandsire, who may not, it seems, walk for much longer among you.” Viserys implores his squabbling relatives to set aside their grievances, “if not for the sake of the crown, then for the sake of this old man, who loves you all so dearly.” The table-pounding, deeply emotional speech takes the last of his strength—but it produces peace, if only for as long as Viserys remains to preside over dinner. Considine sells the scene despite a Harvey Dent–sized cheek hole, an empty eye socket, and mouth-and-throat sounds that make The Americans sound muted. You can feel the phlegm, but you can also feel the fire; we might almost believe that Viserys could heal his house through the force of his sentiment. Peter Dinklage, who won four Emmys for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister, is the only Thrones actor ever to win the award. Considine could be the first for Dragon.

The episode after Ned’s death was called “Fire and Blood”—the words of House Targaryen, and the title of the book that Dragon is adapted from. The episodes after Viserys’s death will probably bring both in ample quantities. In a series that’s shown us so little of the world beyond various throne rooms, and given us fairly few reasons to wholeheartedly feel for its surviving characters, why should we care if a nest of greedy, prideful, and vengeful Targaryens, Velaryons, and Hightowers tear each other—and the Seven Kingdoms—apart? “The Lord of the Tides” offers one persuasive reason: Because the sight of his family fighting would have broken Viserys’s heart.