Welcome to the game of thrones, Alicent Hightower.
House of the Dragon might have a different name, but HBO’s new flagship series has the same focus as its predecessor: the once-titular game of thrones. Dragon’s first episode introduced two players in the contest: Daemon and Rhaenyra Targaryen, the king’s brother and daughter, respectively, who each see themselves as Viserys’s heir. In Sunday’s second episode, the game added a third contestant: Lady Alicent Hightower.
Lady Alicent, daughter of the king’s hand and best friend of the king’s daughter, drew even closer to Viserys, effectively conniving, at her father’s urging, to marry the widowed ruler. The episode ends with a wedding announcement—and, already, a potential schism in the realm. If she births a son, the Seven Kingdoms would have a new prospective successor.
Once a supporting character on the periphery of power, concerned more with books than crowns, Alicent is now poised to enter the political fray—whether of her own volition or not. Her rise began in “The Heirs of the Dragon,” when her scheming father, Otto, ordered her to comfort the king after the death of his first wife. “You might wear one of your mother’s dresses,” Otto said.
In the second episode, “The Rogue Prince,” which takes place six months after the first, Alicent has taken that instruction much further. By now, she and King Viserys have regular private conversations. She wears heavier makeup and displays more prominent jewelry. In a pivotal moment, she smiles when she says she enjoys the king’s company, then wins his favor with a sentimental gift as she repairs a broken dragon figurine—what a symbol!—from his scale model of Old Valyria.
This successful wooing sets the stage for a delicious human drama, as Rhaenyra storms out of the Small Council meeting when Viserys announces his upcoming nuptials. My best friend is marrying my dad; what do I do? sounds more like an Ask Amy petition than a relatable dilemma—yet it also centers a more grounded interpersonal drama amid lofty considerations of dynasty, succession, and the fact that “Dad,” in this case, is the king.
George R.R. Martin often cites as inspiration William Faulkner’s famous aphorism, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” What was the thorn in Viserys’s side in “The Heirs of the Dragon”—having to choose between his brother and daughter—if not the human heart at conflict with itself? What is Alicent’s choice now, in retaining friendship or pursuing power at her own father’s behest? What is Rhaenyra’s quandary, in choosing whether to forgive her best friend?
“You do not mention our talks to Rhaenyra, do you?” the worried king asks Alicent early in the episode. “I just fear that she wouldn’t understand them.” If Rhaenyra—played in her youth by a magnificent Milly Alcock—might not understand their talks, what might she think about their betrothal?
Moreover, in the best Game of Thrones tradition, this cliffhanger ending produces compelling character moments in addition to plot mechanics. As the rare non-Targaryen at the center of the story, Alicent in particular intrigues—even for readers of Dragon’s source material, because Fire & Blood offers very little exploration of her internal life.
The queen-to-be is described as “clever and lovely” in one spot in the text, “pretty” in another, and “slender and graceful” even as she ages in a third. Yet personality-wise, she is much more of a blank slate.
Even by an objective measure, Alicent is more of a mystery than the story’s other main characters. The Wiki of Ice and Fire’s “Appearance and Character” section for Rhaenyra, which summarizes the information revealed in the text, is 191 words long; for Viserys, it’s 153 words; for Daemon, 150. Yet Alicent’s corresponding description includes only 33 words.
F&B is not a “true,” objective record of Targaryen history, but rather a flawed and incomplete account written from the perspective of an in-universe character named Archmaester Gyldayn, whose own biases frame the narrative he weaves. That quirk helps explain the lack of depth to Alicent’s on-page character, and perhaps the largely unsympathetic portrait that does appear. “There’s a preconceived notion that she’s [always] scheming,” Emily Carey, who plays young Alicent in the show, told Entertainment Weekly before the season began.
Olivia Cooke, who will play an older version of the character, added, “You can understand why. The woman whispering into a powerful man’s ear has never been positively written about. So the fun was to try to find the nuance.”
(I’m reminded of another woman whispering into a powerful man’s ear: the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, who is often depicted unflatteringly as a seductress. Yet in the West, Cleopatra’s story was shaped by Roman historians who saw her as “a useful scapegoat for the disasters of the [Roman civil] wars,” writes classics professor Mary Beard.)
House of the Dragon has not only the freedom to explore the internal life that Archmaester Gyldayn ignores; it has the imperative to do so, given Alicent’s clear importance to the story and the necessity of rounding her into a fully three-dimensional figure.
Dragon is off to an impressive start in this regard. Alicent’s anxious mannerisms and bleeding fingers are newly invented character quirks imbued with thematic resonance. Her ambivalent obedience toward her controlling father—who “does not know the language of girls,” she confides in Rhaenyra—adds layers of complexity. And although their friendship began because Alicent followed Otto’s wishes, she seems genuinely fond of the king after six months; at the very least, she looks more comfortable in Viserys’s presence in “The Rogue Prince” than when she shares the screen with others.
It’s unclear at this point whether that companionship meant she wanted to win his hand in marriage, or what further ambitions she might harbor. Thus far, she’s displayed sufficient skill and poise of her own, even if not the same sort of bravado that characterizes her best friend atop a dragon. After all, Alicent, with no Valyrian blood and less political standing, managed to overcome the many logistical advantages of Laena Velaryon, the uncomfortably young candidate for queen whom Rhaenys and Corlys push in this episode.
(To be clear, Viserys and Alicent’s betrothal is still quite creepy! But it’s not nearly as creepy as if the king had chosen to obey his advisers and marry Laena, who looks—and is—positively juvenile next to him during their brief walk together.)
No matter what is coming for her character, however, Alicent is perhaps not perfectly innocent. Through two episodes, she appears to be Dragon’s version of Sansa Stark—yet when asked about similarities between Alicent and Cersei Lannister, another daughter of the king’s hand who pursues a queenship, Cooke told The Hollywood Reporter, “I fucking love that comparison.”
While the throne room drama takes center stage, “The Rogue Prince” also suggests that this show is not only about the Iron Throne. Daemon’s paramour, Mysaria, speaks for the common man and woman after a tense confrontation between Daemon and the king’s forces on Dragonstone, when she tells him, “You are a Targaryen. You can afford to play your stupid games with the king, but I cannot.”
Most of Martin’s ASOIAF series focuses on the high lords and ladies—on, as Tyrion quips in Thrones, “great conversations in elegant rooms”—but he also takes time to represent their decisions’ deleterious effect on the proletariat. Jorah Mormont’s explanation that “the common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. … It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace” is one such example; so too is Septon Meribald’s haunting “Broken Man” speech, which was reappropriated for Brother Ray on Season 6 of Thrones. With more devastating warfare to come in Dragon, Mysaria’s comment might set the stage for further exploration of the trickle-down consequences.
Yet that’s possibly a morsel for later; in the present, the high lords and ladies who play their game of thrones still dominate the screen. Alicent’s surprise selection as queen could upend the line of succession, tarnish a friendship, and destroy the long alliance between Targaryen dragon power and Velaryon sea strength. She might not want to be, but ready or not, Alicent is in the great game now.