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‘House of the Dragon’ Episode 1 Mailbag: Small Council, Big Questions

Spoiler-free answers to questions raised by the ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel’s premiere, including info on Otto Hightower, the Starks and Baratheons, and Old Valyria

HBO/Ringer illustration

What do we need to know about King Viserys’s hand and Small Council? Do the Starks hate the Targaryens yet? And what were the dragonlords of Valyria up to before the Targaryens decamped for Dragonstone?

After the premiere of House of the Dragon, HBO’s prequel to Game of Thrones, Ringer readers had plenty of questions about the new show’s time period, characters, and focus. As long as your questions keep coming to @zachkram on Twitter each Sunday night after the episodes air, our (spoiler-free) answers will keep coming, too. So let’s dive into the first House of the Dragon mailbag.

Jaime asks: “How do you feel about Otto Hightower? Do you get a Tywin Lannister vibe like I do?”

Otto Hightower serves as hand for King Viserys, after previously serving as Jaehaerys’s hand for the final two years of the Old King’s life. Given Jaehaerys’s declining health, Otto effectively ruled the Seven Kingdoms for that time. So what do we know about the second-most-powerful man in the realm?

Otto is a member of the Hightower family, which ranks among the Seven Kingdoms’ oldest, richest, and most powerful houses. That makes them sound a lot like the Lannisters. And just as the Lannisters benefit from gold found beneath their ancestral castle, Casterly Rock, the Hightowers also thrive because of geographic fortune: Their home of Oldtown in the Reach—Westeros’s most fertile and populous region—is the continent’s busiest port city, as well as the central hub for its education (via the Citadel) and religious practices (via the Starry Sept). Wealth and influence naturally flow for the town’s chief patrons, who rule from Battle Isle in the center of the city, where they live in the Hightower—the tallest structure in Westeros, even higher than the Wall.

The Hightowers have a history of savvy political operation, as well. Back in the days of Aegon’s conquest, they were pledged to House Gardener, which ruled the Reach. Yet when the Gardeners marched against Aegon, the Hightowers remained neutral in the conflict. That was a smart move: In the battle later called the Field of Fire, the three Targaryen dragons destroyed the Gardener force so thoroughly that the house went extinct—but the Hightowers were spared, and just needed to transfer their allegiance to House Tyrell, the new rulers of the Reach.

Fast-forward a century to the time of House of the Dragon. Otto should prove one of the series’ most important side characters because, as the first episode displayed, he’s quite a schemer (or a plotter; they’re the same thing).

George R.R. Martin loves his schemers. Tyrion, one of the best (at least until late-stage Thrones neutered his intelligence), is Martin’s favorite character to write, and he’s received more point-of-view chapters than any other character in the series.

But Tyrion is an exception, because Varys and Littlefinger never received a point-of-view chapter. Neither did Tywin or Olenna or Doran Martell, or second-tier schemers like Margaery or Walder Frey or Illyrio Mopatis. There’s an obvious reason Martin never shared these characters’ direct thoughts—they know too much about the surprises to come. If readers had been in Tywin Lannister’s head throughout A Storm of Swords, the Red Wedding would not have been such a momentous shock.

On the screen, however, they often proved Thrones’ most compelling characters when they went beyond book-only material. The conversations between Varys and Littlefinger were new, for instance, as were many of Olenna’s barbs. Dragon would do well to generate that same energy.

So how does Otto fit in with that plotting legacy? On the surface, he indeed looks a lot like Tywin. Both characters are humorless hands of the king. Both come from extreme wealth. Both are opportunistic, with their sights set on a long-lasting legacy.

They also both see their daughters as a means to achieve that legacy. Tywin sought to use Cersei to further his own political ambitions, by proposing her marriage first to Rhaegar Targaryen and then—successfully—to Robert Baratheon. Otto appears inclined toward the same tactic, using his daughter Alicent and a newly widowed king.

Furthermore, when Tywin was hand, the camera captured him writing a conspicuous number of letters, which was eventually revealed to be part of his planning for the Red Wedding. In “The Heirs of the Dragon,” Otto was writing letters as he instructed his daughter to console King Viserys—perhaps he’s hoping to plan a Read Wedding of his own. (Because Alicent took a book to read with the king? “Read”? Get it?)

But Otto isn’t a like-for-like clone of the Lannister Lion. Tywin was the oldest son, meaning he was set to inherit Casterly Rock and all its attendant titles and responsibilities. As Daemon notes in his argument with Viserys, however, Otto is a second son, meaning his older brother, Hobert, inherited the Hightower seat instead. Tywin is also an experienced military leader, while Otto is not.

And Tywin, above all, is cruel and feared more than almost any other man in the realm. Remember the story behind the song “The Rains of Castamere,” which was played at the Red Wedding to signal the start of the slaughter. When Tywin and his army marched on the Reynes’ home of Castamere, the Reynes hid in the mines, figuring Tywin couldn’t fight into their depths. From there, they tried to negotiate a truce. Instead, Tywin ordered his men to seal up all the mines’ entrances and flood them, killing everyone inside. Then he set the castle on fire for good measure. Otto couldn’t hope to match that level of cruelty—or perhaps wouldn’t even want to.

Unlike with Tywin, whose entire backstory is canon, we don’t know much about Otto’s life before he joined the Small Council. In the five core ASOIAF books, his name appears just once. That one mention might be instructive for the future, though. Pylos, a maester in service of Stannis Baratheon, tries to cheer up Davos by explaining that there’s no right skill set a hand needs to succeed. Pylos says (emphasis mine):

“Ser Ryam Redwyne was the greatest knight of his day, and one of the worst Hands ever to serve a king. Septon Murmison’s prayers worked miracles, but as Hand he soon had the whole realm praying for his death. Lord Butterwell was renowned for wit, Myles Smallwood for courage, Ser Otto Hightower for learning, yet they failed as Hands, every one.”

Sometimes, the schemers in Thrones succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Tywin and the Freys and Boltons executed the Red Wedding. Olenna killed Joffrey. Varys aided a Targaryen conquest, Littlefinger gained control of Harrenhal and the Vale, and Cersei ascended to the Iron Throne. But all of those characters also all died in excruciating fashion, many after losing the influence and power they had once gained.

Aza Adam asks: “Who were the members of the Small Council?”

We just went over Otto, the king’s hand. The other council meeting attendees in the pilot episode include:

  • Daemon, lord commander of the City Watch.
  • Corlys Velaryon, master of ships. He’s married to Rhaenys, the Queen Who Never Was, and rates as the best ship captain and richest man in the Seven Kingdoms. He definitely has a major role to play going forward.
  • Lyman Beesbury, master of coin. He’s old and experienced in his job.
  • Lyonel Strong, master of laws. He’s the guy who argues most vociferously that Rhaenyra should not be Viserys’s heir because of the century of precedent that a woman does not sit the Iron Throne. Lyonel is a scholar, with six links of a maester’s chain from his unfinished study at the Citadel, and the lord of Harrenhal, meaning he hosted the Great Council that started the episode.
  • Grand Maester Mellos, a close adviser to Viserys who often preaches peace and diplomacy. Unfortunately, Mellos isn’t the best doctor, perhaps because he’s a big proponent of leechings. The leeching scenes in Dragon are sure to delight!

Typically, the Small Council also includes the master of whisperers, which Thrones viewers know as Varys’s role, and the Kingsguard’s lord commander, but neither was included in the Small Council meetings shown in the episode.

hamms asks: “Where [are] the Starks and Baratheons in their timelines and where [do] their allegiances lie at the time we’re in now?”

The Starks and Baratheons are both loyal to the throne. At this point in Westerosi history, which follows more than half a century of peace under the reign of King Jaehaerys the Conciliator, the Dornish are the only folks in the Seven Kingdoms openly opposed to Targaryen rule.

But Dorne is a story for another time. To answer this question, we’ll turn to the Starks and Baratheons, who will lead the rebellion against Mad King Aerys II, 172 years in the future. The Stark who pledges allegiance to Rhaenyra at the end of “The Heirs of the Dragon” is named Rickon (not the one who should’ve swerved while running), and the Baratheon is Boremund. And the key attribute uniting them is that the Starks and Baratheons are two of the only houses—and the only two major houses—that supported Rhaenys’s claim at the Great Council over that of her cousin, the eventual King Viserys.

The vote in Viserys’s favor ultimately came in by a roughly 20-to-1 margin. Yet both Starks and Baratheons—plus a few of their vassal houses—were in the loser’s favor. The Baratheons supported Rhaenys for a simple reason: Boremund is Rhaenys’s uncle; his sister, Jocelyn, was Rhaenys’s mom.

The reason for the Starks’ support is a bit less concrete. The A World of Ice and Fire encyclopedia mentions that despite their allegiance to the throne, they were still bitter because they’d recently lost some of their land thanks to Targaryen machinations. Queen Alysanne, Jaehaerys’s wife, had visited the Wall and supported expanding the lands held by the Night’s Watch, ultimately compelling some Northern houses to surrender a fertile area known as the “New Gift.” It’s possible that followers of the Old Gods hold more modern views toward female rule—the free folk north of the Wall are much more egalitarian than Southern houses—though this is more speculative, as no woman ruled in Winterfell before Sansa at the end of Thrones.

Yet just because the Starks and Baratheons, and every other family that pledged fealty at the end of the episode, support the current crown does not mean that support will never waver. Westerosi politics are fickle: Even if two families are aligned, the particular contours of their alliance can wax and wane based on personal relationships, marriages, and so on.

Eze3251 asks: “Why didn’t Valyria rule the world before the Doom?”

Let’s end this set of questions with a fun one, traveling deep into the past to examine the dragonlords of Old Valyria, who ruled much of the known world for thousands of years until the Doom, the calamitous explosion that reduced their home base to a broken, blistering, blighted ruin.

Back in the Valyrian heyday, the Targaryens weren’t anything special, as just one of 40 dragonlord families, and not a particularly influential one. That standing suggests just how powerful the combined Valyrian forces must have been, thanks to their dragon steeds. As far as we know, Valyria never lost a war in its various conquests. Most notably, its forces fought five wars against the Old Empire of Ghis, the future location of Slaver’s Bay, and won them all.

In a series of expansions, the Valyrians influenced the development of Westerosi politics and culture, even from afar. They pushed toward the Northwestern region of Essos, called Andalos, which convinced the Andals to flee to Westeros, where they eventually dominated the continent’s religion, language, and military practice. And Valyrians defeated the Rhoynar—including a climactic battle whose Valyrian army featured more than 300 dragons—which pushed Nymeria and her 10,000 ships to sail for Dorne. (Those two groups are why Daenerys’s long list of titles included Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar.)

So let’s not give the Valyrian Freehold—the name the group used for itself—short shrift. If the continent of Essos is George R.R. Martin’s version of Eurasia, the Freehold was essentially his Roman Republic, having conquered most of Essos’s eastern and central thirds. But it didn’t extend everywhere: not to Yi Ti and Asshai in the east, nor the mysterious Sothoryos to the south, nor, most importantly for our story, Westeros in the west. Rome conquered Great Britain, but the Valyrian dragonlords largely left that equivalent region alone.

Why? There are a few general reasons Valyria might have curtailed its conquests—and a few specific to Westeros. Generally, the Freehold might have faced logistical issues controlling such vast territory, and rivalries among the dragonlord families may have kept their focus internal. Moreover, the setup of the Valyrian government meant it never had a single ambitious ruler pushing for further expansion. Martin once said, “Valyria at the zenith of its power was neither a kingdom nor an empire ... or at least it had neither a king nor an emperor. It was more akin to the old Roman Republic, I suppose.”

Yet Westeros offers its own intriguing set of possibilities. The dragonlords knew it existed, after all: The Narrow Sea between the Valyrian holdings and Westeros is, well, narrow, and Valyria had used the island of Dragonstone as a trading post even before the Targaryens made it their permanent home. The mainland likely would have seemed a simple additional jump west, and Aegon torched it into submission easily enough with just three dragons. Imagine what a fleet of hundreds of dragons could have done to the Seven Kingdoms.

This isn’t just a question for us external scholars, either. In A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion thinks, “The Freehold’s grasp had reached as far as Dragonstone, but never to the mainland of Westeros itself. Odd, that. Dragonstone is no more than a rock. The wealth was farther west, but they had dragons. Surely they knew that it was there.”

So let’s strap on our tinfoil hats and consider some theories. First, the Valyrians might have wanted to avoid yet another prophecy of doom. A World of Ice and Fire refers to “a Valyrian text that has since been lost, suggesting that the Freehold’s sorcerers foretold that the gold of Casterly Rock would destroy them.”

Or perhaps the Valyrians feared Westeros’s wargs (or skinchangers), who have the ability to enter the minds of animals and control their actions. Bran never controlled a dragon in the Thrones show—but that doesn’t mean he, or others with his warging powers, wouldn’t have had the ability. A member of the free folk named Orell, who spends some time with Jon Snow in both the books and show, can fly via his pet eagle, and Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven can clearly use birds as well.

Martin once responded to a question about whether dragons are wargable by chuckling and saying, “Well, we’ll have to see about that, won’t we?” In that case, the Valyrians may have avoided invading a new continent out of fear of having their own powerful weapons turned against them.

Another possibility: Remember when I said that the Valyrians never lost a war as far as we know? Well, there are other, mysterious incidents we don’t know much about—but that could refer to military setbacks that scared the Freehold off from further efforts. Another character in World theorizes “that the Valyrians had in ancient days reached as far as Oldtown but suffered some great reverse or tragedy there that caused them to shun all of Westeros thereafter.”

After all, the ancient fort that forms the basis of the Hightower—bringing this mailbag full circle, back to Otto’s family home—looks oddly similar to Valyrian architecture. And it rests on a small rock called Battle Isle—but nobody knows why it’s called Battle Isle, or who fought there. Spooky.

And up north, beyond the Wall, a mysterious tragedy befell Hardhome—later the site of Thrones’ best battle episode—about 400 years before Dragon, at the height of the Freehold’s power. At that time, Hardhome was developing into the largest settlement north of the Wall, but suddenly, catastrophe struck: As Jon relates the legend in Dance, all in one night, “hell had swallowed” the village, its “homes and halls consumed in a conflagration that burned so hot that watchers on the Wall far to the south had thought the sun was rising in the north. Afterward ashes rained down on haunted forest and Shivering Sea alike for almost half a year.”

If anything, that tale is even spookier. It’s not as if an icy place like Hardhome typically supports such fiery exploits; could a dragon have been involved? Could multiple theories intersect, and an effort to warg a dragon have produced such an explosion?

We might never learn the answers to these far-flung mysteries. But given the revelation of Aegon’s prophecy at the end of “The Heirs of the Dragon,” perhaps Dragon will offer even more new answers about the past.