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‘House of the Dragon’ Chooses Sides

‘House of the Dragon’ was supposed to be a series without clear villains and heroes, but after Episode 7, it’s hard not to sympathize with one faction over the other

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One of the many ways House of the Dragon was supposed to be different from Game of Thrones was that it wouldn’t have a traditional relationship between protagonist and antagonist.

Even Thrones, a show devoted to depicting a brutally pessimistic view of human nature, supplied its audience with easy-to-love heroes and easy-to-hate villains. Yet Dragon wouldn’t fall into such a neat split, its creators said. “There’s no Arya—a character everybody’s going to love,” George R.R. Martin said before the show aired. “They’re all flawed. They’re all human. They do good things. They do bad things.”

Yet if viewers weren’t already on Rhaenyra Targaryen’s side in her budding war against Alicent Hightower before Episode 7—and to judge from the overwhelming internet reaction, they were—they’re certainly wearing their Team Rhaenyra jerseys now. “Driftmark” offered the greatest disparity yet between Rhaenyra’s and Alicent’s portrayals, and it’s difficult to imagine the show ever returning to an ostensibly even emotional playing field.

The differences between the two former friends, and their respective families, in this episode are numerous and encompass both small-scale and major events. For instance, their children are a study in contrasts, with Rhaenyra’s boys engendering much more sympathy than Alicent’s children.

Jacaerys, Rhaenyra’s eldest son, offers comfort to Baela and Rhaena as they mourn their mother, Laena, at her funeral. Meanwhile, Aegon, Alicent’s oldest, leers at serving girls with “long legs” and gets drunk, while younger brother Aemond wastes no time in claiming Laena’s dragon, the mighty Vhagar.

Aemond’s first ride on Vhagar makes for a fantastic visual sequence, as the titanic dragon takes flight—but it also precipitates the episode’s main conflict, which deepens the divide between the two leading women on the show. Baela and Rhaena notice Vhagar’s flight and wake Jacaerys and Lucerys, and the quartet confronts Aemond once he returns from his maiden voyage.

A skirmish ensues, with Aemond holding his own despite fighting one-on-four. He wins the trash-talk portion of the scuffle, at least, sneering at Lucerys, “You will die screaming in flames, just as your father did. Bastards.” But Luke gets the last and most literally cutting blow when he knifes a gash across Aemond’s face, permanently incapacitating his eye.

The scene that follows is one of the best to date on Dragon, with almost the entire cast crowding a chamber to observe the fallout and hear King Viserys’s vain attempt to stitch his family back together. A notable juxtaposition arises when Rhaenyra is gentle toward her kids, while Alicent yells at Aegon.

Queen Alicent is the most vehement in her defense of her now-disfigured son and her subsequent anger at Rhaenyra’s boys—and while her initial emotions could be excused as the worries of a mother, her actions after Viserys attempts to end the dispute without any punishments are over the line. “That is insufficient,” she says, her voice wavering. But she gains confidence as she continues to speak: “There is a debt to be paid. I shall have one of her son’s eyes in return.”

The king dismisses this request for a Westerosi version of the Code of Hammurabi, but Alicent presses on. “If the king will not seek justice, the queen will,” she says. “Ser Criston, bring me the eye of Lucerys Velaryon. He can choose which eye to keep, a privilege he did not grant my son.”

And when even Criston Cole—a man who murdered an innocent knight in cold blood two episodes ago—thinks she overreaches and declines to come to her aid, Alicent takes the matter into her own hands. She swipes the Valyrian steel dagger from Viserys’s belt, charges a pair of young boys, and eventually—accidentally, it seems—stabs Rhaenyra in the arm as the latter protects her children.

This scene is reminiscent of an early episode of Thrones, when Cersei demands the execution of Arya’s direwolf after it attacks Joffrey. (Arya successfully shooed Nymeria away to safety, which led to the heartrending death of Lady, Sansa’s innocent direwolf, instead.) This comparison seems intentional, given other similarities between the two queens: Olivia Cooke auditioned for the role of adult Alicent by reading Cersei’s dialogue, and when asked about parallels between Cersei and Alicent before the show, she said, “I fucking love that comparison because Cersei was my favorite character.”

Yet even when defending her son, Cersei didn’t go so far as to draw a blade herself. And in Fire & Blood, the book that Dragon adapts, Alicent doesn’t either, but rather stops when Viserys denies her request for Lucerys to lose an eye. On the show, Otto, Alicent’s manipulative father, applauds her combative attitude, but his approval should have the broader effect of making Alicent’s actions more reprehensible to viewers.

At the same time, the show changes Rhaenyra to be more appealing to a modern audience. The other main event in “Driftmark” is her and Daemon’s marriage, which follows a bit of subterfuge to end her decade-long marriage to Laenor. “We could not marry unless Laenor were dead,” Daemon tells her when she broaches the subject. “I know,” she responds—making it seem as if she’s contemplating her husband’s death.

But Rhaenyra does not want to kill Laenor. She wants to set him free—to let him live with his true love, as his true self, across the Narrow Sea, unshackled from the courtly burdens that his marriage requires. So Daemon convinces Qarl Correy, Laenor’s paramour, to stage a public fight with Laenor, then secretly throw a separate corpse into the fire to make it look as if Laenor has perished and been burned beyond recognition. (No wonder Laenor and Qarl practice sword fighting in the yard in Episode 6.) Then, the two lovers can sneak away in darkness and adventure together far from home.

This sequence of events deviates from the book in that the unreliable narrators in the Fire & Blood book all think Qarl did indeed kill Laenor, perhaps at Daemon’s urging, or more likely because he grew jealous when Laenor started making eyes at another man. Rhaenyra isn’t involved at all. And it appears that the deception succeeds, because there’s never any hint in the book that Laenor is actually still alive. The last we hear about either Laenor or Qarl is that “some claimed a ship had been waiting for [Qarl] offshore. He was never seen again.”

Rhaenyra comes across as smart and caring and accepting of her gay husband’s lifestyle, and even though she says the realm might fear her because of her suspected role in Laenor’s purported death, Dragon’s audience will love her for the scheme. And they’ll probably love her for her new husband, too: When Rhaenyra and Daemon hook up on the beach and later conduct a private wedding ceremony—smart thinking, given the violence visited on seemingly every large wedding in this world—the scenes are rendered as sweet and tender, with gentle, romantic music scoring their movements.

Alicent, conversely, hasn’t enjoyed that soft portrayal in either episode since the time jump. Instead, she appears aggressive and vindictive, a clear villain to Rhaenyra’s just-as-clear protagonist. It’s almost as if the showrunners were taking a page out of reality TV’s playbook, and giving their characters a “hero edit” and “villain edit” to influence audience perception.

This divide has become noticeably starker since the midseason time jump, and it runs counter to how the showrunners pitched Dragon’s moral grays. But it follows traditional television—or, more broadly, storytelling—patterns. Even Thrones fell into this structure for the most part: There are good guys and bad guys, Starks and Lannisters, and audiences root for the former to overcome the latter in an extended conflict.

Even when viewers could appreciate individual Lannister characters, like Tyrion and Jaime, they still hoped the Starks would win the war between the families. The same seems likely to hold true in Dragon, too: Even if a character like Aemond holds appeal amid his arrogance—his “It was a fair exchange. I may have lost an eye, but I gained a dragon” line oozes with charisma—he’s inherently allied with Alicent, Aegon, Criston, and Otto.

Meanwhile, neither Rhaenyra nor her children have done anything notably off-putting yet. (OK, Daemon did kill his first wife, and now another random guy whose corpse is burned as a secret replacement for Laenor. He also seduced his niece. But audiences still love Matt Smith and his roguish character.)

“Now they see you as you are,” Rhaenyra hisses at Alicent moments before the latter stabs the former’s arm. This episode made Rhaenyra look better than she did in the book, and Alicent worse. Now viewers of House of the Dragon see the characters as they are, too—or, at least, as they appear to be before the real battles begin.