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Power Is Power: In Westeros, It All Comes Down to Dragons

Through two episodes of ‘House of the Dragon,’ King Viserys has lost sight of a fundamental truth: No power can compete with House Targaryen’s flying, fire-breathing beasts

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For a Westerosi ruler, King Viserys seems like a pretty good guy. He doesn’t want to start wars or wed 12-year-olds. By Targaryen or Lannister standards, his hobbies are harmless; instead of torturing captives, he plays with miniature models. He gave the go-ahead for his wife’s fatal C-section, but he felt really bad about it, and as a single dad, he makes time for dinner with his daughter. As Alicent observes, he has an easy way about him. Sure, he’s not great at talking to teens he’s related to, but hey, who is?

As a strong head of state, though, Viserys leaves a lot to be desired. As his brother Daemon observes, an aptitude for kingship is not his “strongest trait.” In House of the Dragon’s second episode, Viserys displays his indecision during a meeting of his Small Council. Master of Ships Corlys Velaryon, a man of action who advocates to Viserys for both battle and child brides, brings bad news from the Stepstones. Triarchy Admiral Craghas Crabfeeder is purging pirates—and, in the process, endangering Velaryon’s ships and shipping lanes. Corlys wants to “seize the Stepstones by force and burn out this Crabfeeder.”

Viserys preaches diplomacy and patience. He assures the Sea Snake that he’s sent envoys to Pentos and Volantis, and that “the Stepstones will be settled, in time.” Corlys isn’t placated. Princess Rhaenyra speaks up to propose dispatching different emissaries—ones who’d have little trouble burning out enemies on land or sea. “You have dragonriders, father,” the princess says. “Send us.”

The Sea Snake approves of the plan. But Viserys, unaccustomed to his daughter doing more than holding his cups, tries to put the princess in her place, saying, “It isn’t that simple, Rhaenyra.” By episode’s end, though, Rhaenyra has put her mount where her mouth is and proved that the solution is simplicity itself. Viserys lost sight of a fundamental truth about Targaryen rule that Rhaenyra knows: It all comes down to dragons. As Cersei once said, “Power is power.” And no (mortal) power can compete with a flying, fire-breathing beast.

When “The Rogue Prince” begins, the titular prince, Daemon Targaryen, has been squatting on Dragonstone for roughly six months since his banishment from King’s Landing for insolence in the series premiere. Daemon, who has garrisoned the island with gold cloaks from King’s Landing, styles himself the Prince of Dragonstone, but that title—like “Prince of Wales” for the British monarchy—belongs to the heir to the throne. Daemon lost that distinction when Viserys named Rhaenyra his successor. Even so, Viserys has made no move to dislodge Daemon from Dragonstone, which makes the king look weak. As Corlys asks, “What reason does the Crabfeeder have to fear us?”

Even with Daemon and his dragon, Caraxes, sulking at the Targaryen ancestral seat, the crown’s enemies have two reasons for fear: Syrax and Meleys, the dragons of Rhaenyra and Rhaenys, respectively. Yet Viserys doesn’t deploy them, either because he doesn’t dare disturb the peaceful status quo, or because he doesn’t view his dragonriding daughter and cousin as the potent weapons that they are. Nor can he take to the air himself, because Balerion, his former mount, has been dead for almost two decades (as symbolized by the broken dragon figurine that Alicent repairs). Somewhere in the world are three dragons who once had riders but no longer do—Dreamfyre, Vermithor, and Vhagar, the last two of whom were once attached to Viserys’s grandfather and father, respectively, and remain the largest living dragons—but Viserys doesn’t seem concerned about bringing them to heel. His family may have other dragons on the way, but he’s still entirely too passive for someone who occupies “the most dangerous seat in the realm” and acknowledges that his “line is vulnerable.”

Perhaps that complacency comes from being born into power and privilege. As the eldest son of a Targaryen prince who was designated next in line to the throne when Viserys was still a teen—and also as a guy who grew up riding the biggest, baddest dragon in the realm—Viserys has never had cause to question his place in what Rhaenys calls the “order of things.” Contrast that with the Sea Snake, the most potent non-Targaryen in Westeros, but also a self-made man. As Corlys confides to Daemon, “Unlike the Targaryens, we were no dragonlords. For centuries my house had to scratch out an existence from the sea, with grit and luck.” Viserys tells Velaryon that the latter’s fleet is “one of the realm’s most important assets,” but not the most important. Dragons breathe fire, and fleets are flammable.

Dragons were OP in Game of Thrones, but the species was thought to be extinct when the series started, and the dragons born to Daenerys at the end of Season 1 took time to mature. Dany didn’t ride a dragon until late in Season 5, and she didn’t go to war in Westeros until Season 7. In this series, Rhaenyra rides Syrax in the first sequence set in the prequel’s present, which hints at a far different time for Targaryens and dragons alike. This is a world where war is a distant memory, and where excelling at tourneys and capturing poachers makes men candidates for the Kingsguard. It’s also a world where dragons are real and spectacular, and where only one family can command them. Dragons are the Targaryens’ pride, deterrent, and trump card. As Rhaenyra notes at the end of “The Heirs of the Dragon,” “Everyone says Targaryens are closer to gods than to men, but they say that because of our dragons. Without them, we’re just like everyone else.”

Viserys isn’t wrong in his rejoinder about dragons being dangerous to Targaryens too. But by refusing to use the dragons at his disposal, he risks looking like everyone else, which a king can’t afford to do. Rhaenyra knows what’s needed: a show of force. And that’s what she delivers when Daemon takes his revolt too far by commandeering a dragon egg for his hypothetical future child—the same egg that was intended for the cradle of Viserys’s short-lived son. This latest insult to the “heir for a day,” coupled with the threat that Daemon would pose with a second dragon on his side, stirs the overindulgent Viserys out of his noninterventionist stance.

The king concedes that it isn’t safe for him to rebuke his brother in person: The king doesn’t have a dragon, and Daemon does. So Viserys sends his hand, Ser Otto Hightower, to Dragonstone, backed up by Ser Criston Cole, Ser Harrold Westerling, and a complement of soldiers. They confront Daemon on the bridge to the castle, which goes just fine until Caraxes enters the chat. As the opposing forces face off, the Blood Wyrm waddles over a rise, lets out a roar, and perches in the path of the potential attackers, as if to say, “You shall not pass!” (wait, wrong fantasy series) or ask, “You and what army?” With one glimpse at Daemon’s mount, Hightower realizes he’s brought swords to a dragon fight and tells his overmatched men to “sheathe the fucking steel,” lest the new knight of the Kingsguard quickly become Ser Crispy Cole.

Daemon’s move would have checkmated the hand had Rhaenyra not arrived, but that’s when the rogue princess swoops in on Syrax, prepared to fight fire with fire. In this case, the show of force is sufficient: When Rhaenyra dares Daemon to kill her, her uncle backs down and returns what he’s stolen. That one bit of brinksmanship put six months of seditious posturing to rest. (Daemon may not have left Dragonstone, but he clearly cowed.) As Rhaenyra tells her father upon her return to King’s Landing, she’d “retrieved the egg without bloodshed—a feat I’m not sure Ser Otto could have accomplished alone.” Otto wasn’t really alone, but he was without a dragon, which amounted to much the same thing.

That showdown on Dragonstone didn’t defuse the long-term tension—this series is just getting started and there’s plenty of conflict to come. But it did provide an object lesson in how dragons can create or neutralize threats just by being on the scene. Granted, it’s not a news flash that dragons are pretty important in a prequel called House of the Dragon that depicts the Dance of the Dragons. But Rhaenyra’s ride does demonstrate the degree to which dragons end arguments and finish fights. As Doreah told a different dragonless Viserys in Thrones Season 1, “They can fly. And wherever they are, just a few flaps of their wings and they’re somewhere else, far away. And they can kill anyone or anything that tries to hurt them.”

In resolving (or at least deferring) a dispute just by dropping in, Rhaenyra followed in the footsteps of her famous forebears and revealed herself to be a true Targaryen. During Aegon’s Conquest, dragons gave Aegon and his sister-wives a series of decisive victories, not all of which followed fire and blood. Sometimes the sight of a dragon was enough to take the fight out of foes, as Visenya and Vhagar showed when they quelled the Sistermen’s Rebellion with one flyby. When the wars were over, Aegon continued to tour his territory, making the rounds of the realm on the grounds that “it is better to forestall rebellions than to put them down.” As Archmaester Gyldayn explained later, “A glimpse of the king in all his power, mounted on Balerion the Black Dread … did much to instill loyalty in restless lords.” A massive skull in the Red Keep is the only piece of Balerion left, so Viserys doesn’t have the option of intimidating enemies with his personal super-pet, but Rhaenys, Rhaenyra, and Daemon do—and so might anyone who harnesses another dragon that’s single and down to fly.

Viserys’s grandmother, Queen Alysanne, made a declaration that many men in Westeros would dispute: “A ruler needs a good head and a true heart. A cock is not essential.” But even Alysanne—who rode Silverwing alongside her brother-husband Jaeherys’s mount, Vermithor—might concede that dragons aren’t optional. For male monarchs, dragons are insurance against the vagaries (Vhagaries?) of battles, seasons, and smallfolk. For female aspirants to the Iron Throne, they’re potential tools to melt the iron ceiling. As Rhaenys tells her niece, “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than go to therapy see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.” If you don’t have human friends in high places, a dragon may do; it’s not about what you know, but what you ride.

Even Meleys wasn’t enough for Rhaenys to rule, but Rhaenyra needs Syrax to have any hope of avoiding her cousin’s second-fiddle fate. Viserys, meanwhile, may depend on those dragons to fend off Daemon. HBO’s new blockbuster wasted little time telling its audience how things work in its world: To find out who holds power, follow the flames. In Westeros, words are wind, but wind can fan a fire. Dragons can ignite fires—and when dragonriders speak, those who want to live listen.