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‘House of the Dragon’ Episode 10 Mailbag: Dance Lessons

Spoiler-free answers to questions about dragon-on-dragon violence, how dragons are (theoretically) controlled, how the peace that preceded the Dance lasted so long, and more

HBO/Ringer illustration

Lucerys Velaryon is gone, and so is Season 1 of House of the Dragon. For the last mailbag of the season, we’ll answer a handful of dragon-related questions, then end with a pair of bigger-picture items to commemorate the end of Season 1—and the almost immediate transition from Viserys’s mostly peaceful reign to war.

Jeff asks, “Can a dragon burn another dragon?”

HBO audiences have now seen two dragon vs. dragon battles, and we can reference a third without spoilers because it happened before the events of House of the Dragon. All three of those duels—between Vhagar and Arrax in Dragon, between Drogon and Rhaegal and the reanimated Viserion in Game of Thrones, and between Balerion and Quicksilver early in the Targaryens’ reign—involved fireballs at the start, only to progress quickly to up-close physical combat.

That’s because, as Fire & Blood says, “a dragon’s scales are largely (though not entirely) impervious to flame.” George R.R. Martin confirmed as much in an interview in the mid-2000s, when he said that dragons “are pretty much immune to fire.”

How the “not entirely” and “pretty much” caveats to that description manifest, and whether the body parts not covered by scales might be more vulnerable to fire, remain to be seen. But for the most part, dragons won’t defeat other dragons with flames. They’ll need their jaws, claws, and tails instead.

Grizz asks, “Are young dragons immature or just small?”

Both! Understanding their small (relative) size is easy, because dragons in this world never stop growing as long as they have open air and sustenance. Also, more recent generations of dragons have had their growth stunted because they’ve spent so much time in the Dragonpit, as compared to older dragons like Vhagar who could roam the skies freely in their youth.

Yet younger dragons are also more immature—and while I’m not sure if your question refers to their personality or physicality, both apply. As for the former, Game of Thrones showed how Daenerys’s dragons needed to mature through their “teenage angst,” as Vulture explained; Drogon’s actions could be explained as the behavior of a violent predator, but he also was acting out like any adolescent who chafes at a mother’s control.

Beyond sheer size, dragons’ bodies and powers also develop as they grow older. “As a dragon ages, its scales thicken and grow harder, affording even more protection,” Fire & Blood says, “even as its flames burn hotter and fiercer (where the flames of a hatchling can set straw aflame, the flames of Balerion or Vhagar in the fullness of their power could and did melt steel and stone).” So even aside from the size difference, Arrax was outrageously outmatched in his duel against Vhagar; he had less experience, less protection, and less powerful fire blasts.

Damon asks: “How did Daemon find out about Luke’s death? Who was around to see it and report it?”

In the book, the short-lived fight between Vhagar and Arrax takes place close enough to Storm’s End that “watchers on the castle walls saw distant blasts of flame, and heard a shriek cut the thunder.” Observers could actually see the young dragon and his rider fall from the sky. (Or at least they could see the dragon fall—there’s disagreement among different sources about whether Luke fell as well, or whether Vhagar snatched him out of the air for an in-flight snack.)

There are no onlookers in the show, which carries the dragons away some distance from Storm’s End before Vhagar’s fateful chomp. But evidence would soon appear regardless; in Fire & Blood, Arrax’s “head and neck washed up beneath the cliffs below Storm’s End three days later.” Given that Dragon gives no indication of the amount of time that passes between when Arrax and Luke die and when Daemon and Rhaenyra learn about the tragedy, it’s possible that they would be worried about Luke’s absence but unable to confirm his death until his dragon’s body washed ashore.

Phips asks: “How do you control a dragon during flight? Verbal commands? Ain’t no way they’ve got ‘reins’ & use their knees/heels (like a horse) & even if they did, pulling on ropes on a huge dragon isn’t gonna do a thing. Seems like Aemond has almost no chance to actually control Vhagar.”

On the page, Targaryens wield whips to control their dragons. For instance, Fire & Blood notes that Arrax was cowed by Vhagar’s roar as he arrived at Storm’s End, and that “Luke plied his whip freely as he forced him down” into the castle yard. Daenerys uses a whip on Drogon when the dragon rescues her from Daznak’s Pit in Meereen. And Quentyn Martell (a character who doesn’t appear in the Game of Thrones show) grabs a whip when he tries to tame Viserion. (It doesn’t work; Quentyn dies horribly. Don’t try to steal a dragon, folks.)

Frankly, I’d be OK if the show decided to scrub this part of the canon. I don’t care if the dragons are CGI creations; I still don’t want to see them whipped!

Otherwise, we don’t know much about how dragonriders control their mounts. We know they form a spiritual bond, which can induce almost complete obedience. In Fire & Blood, Queen Alysanne describes visiting the Wall and writes in a letter, “Thrice I flew Silverwing high above Castle Black, and thrice I tried to take her north beyond the Wall, but every time she veered back south again and refused to go. Never before has she refused to take me where I wished to go.”

I’ve long been interested in that quote because of what it suggests about the deeper, unexplored magic of the Wall, but it also shows that Alysanne’s dragon disobeyed her command only once in the many decades they spent together.

But we don’t know why this is the case. This bond simply isn’t well understood, and many questions linger—both for us audience members, and for the characters inside Martin’s world. In the context of a fight, Fire & Blood’s narrator says, “Some will claim that the bond between a dragon and dragonrider runs so deep that the beast shares his master’s loves and hates.” Did Vhagar kill Arrax and Luke because she wanted blood? Or because she internalized Aemond’s desire for vengeance?

Ultimately, much of the world’s dragonlore was lost in the Doom of Valyria. Daenerys has basically no idea what she’s doing in trying to control her dragons, and even a couple of centuries earlier, the House of the Dragon characters are mostly making semi-educated guesses.

A character like Daemon, who we’ve seen intently studying old Valyrian texts, probably has a better sense than most, which augurs well for the blacks when they try to recruit more dragonriders to their cause. But Daemon’s brother might have known best of all. “The idea that we control the dragons is an illusion,” King Viserys says in Dragon’s pilot episode—even with saddles and whips and commands in High Valyrian.

Chris asks, “I haven’t read Fire & Blood and was curious if there is anything in the source material about how the dragons act around one another when their riders or other humans aren’t around.”

House of the Dragon’s creators wanted to ensure that “each new dragon has its own personality,” co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik said before the season. That sentiment applies throughout the story, so there’s not one generic way that dragons interact, but rather a multitude of ways depending on the individual traits of the beasts in question.

Some are territorial. Some are loners and don’t like interacting at all, like the wild dragons Sheepstealer and Grey Ghost, who lived secluded on Dragonstone. The third of the wild dragons is violent toward other dragons; he’s named Cannibal because, well, he eats his own kind, preying on newborns, carcasses, and eggs. Rumor has it that Cannibal isn’t from the same lineage as the Targaryens’ dragons, which might explain his hostility toward all the other dragons we know—and, if that’s the case, we’d gain more insight into dragon behavior from studying him, because all our other observations come from the Targaryens’ dragons.

Yet those wild dragons aren’t representative of all dragon interactions. Others are playful and more social. And while much of our knowledge of dragon friendships comes from their in-flight behavior—Syrax and Caraxes seem friendly when Daemon and Rhaenyra ride them together in the book, as do Caraxes and Vhagar when Daemon and Laena travel—there is one bond in particular worth highlighting, because we know it persists even when the dragons are on their own.

The sweetest bond among all dragons in Westeros belongs to Vermithor and Silverwing, the dragons once ridden by King Jaehaerys and his sister-wife, Queen Alysanne, respectively. Their relationship reflects their humans’ love for each other, as Fire & Blood describes how “Silverwing and Vermithor oft coiled about one another” while sleeping. Adorable!

Adam asks, “How did Jaehaerys, and later Viserys, maintain peace in this kingdom for so long? From what I have seen in HotD and GoT, this society is always a powder keg ready to blow.”

Jaehaerys’s 55-year reign was not entirely peaceful—he fought Dorne a couple of times—but his battles were “short, victorious, and contested largely at sea or on distant soil,” according to Fire & Blood. That represented a marked contrast from the decade of turmoil that preceded his ascent to the throne. We don’t have time to go into all the details of how Jaehaerys maintained the peace for so long—the portion of Fire & Blood that details his reign is almost as long as the portion that House of the Dragon is adapting. But a few highlights of Jaehaerys’s leadership style stand out.

Throughout the first half-century of Targaryen rule in Westeros, conflict flowed from two key sources: succession and religious strife. Jaehaerys and Alysanne addressed the first of those issues by remaining healthy and virile; they had 13 children together, which meant succession wasn’t a concern until late in his reign, when all those kids were dead or estranged and the absence of an obvious heir led to the Great Council from Dragon’s first scene.

Jaehaerys also made peace with the Faith of the Seven by helping to craft the Doctrine of Exceptionalism, which explained that incest was acceptable for the Targaryens, and the Targaryens alone. No longer would the Faith go to war every time a Targaryen brother married a sister, as had been the case with Jaehaerys’s older siblings, Rhaena and Aegon the Uncrowned.

Beyond addressing those potential crisis points head-on, Jaehaerys was also proactive in learning and meeting the needs of his people. His philosophy was to “put out the fires before they start,” so he was an active, mobile king, who spent much of his reign touring the Seven Kingdoms on dragonback to connect with his subjects and survey his realm. He even visited “smaller lords, those whose castles had never been large enough to host” a Targaryen king before, and became the first Targaryen monarch to visit the North—such was his desire to traverse all of his lands.

“During the course of his long reign,” Fire & Blood says, “Jaehaerys would spend more days and nights guesting with one lord or another, or holding audience in some market town or village, than at Dragonstone and the Red Keep combined. And oft as not, Alysanne was with him, her silvery dragon soaring beside his great beast of burnished bronze.”

Alysanne was the not-so-secret MVP of Jaehaerys’s reign. She held “women’s courts” to understand the specific needs of women in the realm, which led to legal improvements like the Widow’s Law and the revocation of first night. Alysanne also delighted in her role as a matchmaker, which helped unite families from different regions to limit the risk of war.

And Jaehaerys himself proved an adept, forward-thinking ruler. Early in his reign, when his detente with the Faith was still fresh, he tasked a PR team with traveling throughout the land to attest to Alysanne’s virtue, the better for the realm to accept his sister-wife and its queen. He codified laws, built roads (including the Kingsroad), and implemented a smarter taxation system. And within King’s Landing specifically, he purified the drinking water and made the streets cleaner with the construction of wells and sewers, respectively.

Almost none of those highlights apply to Viserys, Jaehaerys’s grandson and successor. Viserys never flew a dragon for the entire time he was king. (He’d previously, and briefly, bonded with and ridden Balerion before the Black Dread’s death.) He appeared to spend his entire life in or around King’s Landing. He never seemed to care about the needs of the smallfolk, or making laws, or putting out fires before they started.

To a large extent, rather, Viserys coasted off Jaehaerys’s improvements for his entire reign—as Lyonel Strong tells him in Episode 5, when Viserys laments his lack of accomplishments, he “carried King Jaehaerys’s legacy.” The matches Alysanne had set up a generation or two earlier remained, and protected the peace across regions of the Seven Kingdoms. Targaryen customs were integrated into, and accepted by, the Faith. The realm was booming as a result of Jaehaerys’s rule—with more trade, lower food prices, and a population that had doubled in size since Jaehaerys first sat the Iron Throne.

The realm was in a good place when Viserys took the throne, and it would have likely remained that way if not for the internecine Targaryen strife that followed. If anything, that prosperous, stable state of affairs emphasizes the tragedy of the Dance of the Dragons. All the carnage that will appear on screen in Season 2 of House of the Dragon and beyond will be a wholly unforced error that touches all corners of the realm.

Michael asks: “Was Viserys a good king? Was his reign a failure because he was ineffectual and led to a civil war, or was it a success because Westeros was pretty peaceful during that time?”

Let’s wrap up with this question, partly because it allows me to share one of my favorite Martin quotes, and one of his most-cited. The author told Rolling Stone in 2014:

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? … In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.

This philosophy applies to characters throughout the ASOIAF series. Jon Snow is a good man, but has trouble commanding the Night’s Watch; Daenerys Targaryen has good intentions, but struggles to rule Slaver’s Bay. And extending into House of the Dragon and Fire & Blood, I think it applies to Viserys most of all. Actor Paddy Considine said it himself before the season, about the very character he portrayed: “He’s a good man, but a bad king.”

By the standards of Westerosi kings—a bar lower than the depths of the Dragonpit—Viserys isn’t just a good man, but a terrific one. He didn’t brutalize women (though he did sign off on Queen Aemma’s death in childbirth) or embrace torture or plunge the realm into needless war. As Tyrion says in Thrones, “We’ve had vicious kings, and we’ve had idiot kings,” and Viserys isn’t either.

But he’s also Westeros’s version of James Buchanan, the U.S. president who failed to prevent—and in some ways accelerated—the country’s descent into the Civil War. Scholars consistently rank Buchanan as one of the worst presidents in the country’s history. Any summary of Buchanan’s time in office has to start with his failure to prevent war; the same goes for Viserys on the Iron Throne.

Maybe he could have overcome that legacy if he’d first completed a series of remarkable accomplishments, but unlike his predecessor, Viserys was a passive ruler, content to uphold the status quo. He didn’t care about the smallfolk like Jaehaerys and Aegon V, and he didn’t improve the realm’s political situation like Aegon the Conqueror or Daeron II, a.k.a. Daeron the Good, who brought Dorne into the Seven Kingdoms after two centuries of on-and-off strife. If Westeros had made a Mount Rushmore, that quartet would surely compose the four kings whose likenesses would’ve been carved into stone. Viserys’s résumé doesn’t come close to theirs.

Perhaps it’s not fair to reduce his legacy to the fallout of his rule; the realm notably remained peaceful, with the only fighting occurring out in the Stepstones, until after his death. But Otto’s “Viserys the Peaceful” moniker won’t stick—and doesn’t appear in the book—because Viserys had so many opportunities to do more to prevent civil war, and he was so ineffectual, that it’s hard to regard his reign as a success.

So no, Viserys wasn’t a good king. But that failure speaks to one of the greatest themes running through the series, as many of his descendants—both Jon and Daenerys prominently included—can attest.