(House of the Dragon spoilers will be found below.)
The dust is finally settling after House of the Dragon aired its latest episode, but the dance is just beginning.
Episode eight, “The Lord of the Tides,” captured the unique essence of author George RR Martin’s fantasy verse, blending political gamesmanship, familial drama, and a bloody beheading to raise the stakes heading into HOTD’s remaining season one run. But it also re-scripted a major character’s death from Martin’s source material that could make the eventual Civil War in Westeros all the more tragic.
To recap, a short time jump (only six years) sees the power dynamics (and the décor) of the Red Keep visibly altered when the show’s most recent episode opens. While Rhaenyra and Daemon Targaryen have been blissfully fortified on Dragonstone, collecting dragon eggs and perfecting the “blended family life,” the Hightowers have been hard at work, positioning themselves and their offspring close to the throne. Or, more accurately, occupying the throne themselves. With Viserys now confined to his deathbed, Alicent and Otto rule in his stead, sowing discord and division amongst House Targaryen’s allies. Their handiwork culminates in a tense petition set in the throne room that ends with some light beheading and a Last Supper of sorts for Viserys and his progenies.
The fading monarch begs for rifts to be mended and his offspring to reunite and for a time, it seems that might happen — until Viserys uses his dying breaths to undo all of his good efforts by reciting the warnings of Aegon’s Dream to his wife, who misunderstands his poppy-addled version of the prophecy and resolves to place her son on the throne.
Cue up the jokes about Jon Snow once again ruining things, this time before he’s even born.
By necessity, HOTD was always going to have ties to Game of Thrones. We’re covering the legacy of House Targaryen, one that’s defined by dreams as much as dragons, by unfathomable power, and by baffling prophecies. That tension between which supernatural ability — dragon riding or dreaming — hurts or helps the Targaryen line the most has been a focal point for this show, but the emphasis on the “Song Of Ice And Fire” felt a bit forced at the beginning of the season.
Why were we revisiting a foretelling that proved false in the end, at least on-screen (Martin hasn’t finished his book series but it’s likely his ending won’t match what showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss cooked up)? The Prince Who Was Promised was meant to be a Targaryen descendant who united the realms and defeated the Night King. Plenty of GoT fans predicted Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen would live up to that title, but in the show’s final season, it was Arya Stark (neither a dragon nor a descendent of one) who wielded Aegon’s dagger against the leader of the White Walkers.
Martin may want to retcon that on-screen storyline since he hasn’t answered the central mystery of the prophecy in his books as of yet, but for TV purposes, it felt like the identity of this mythical being was pretty much put to bed. Why unearth Aegon’s dream time and time again?
Episode eight answered that question by taking a similar approach to GoT’s treatment of Martin’s central plot point. Like Weiss and Benioff, showrunner Ryan Condal toyed with the prophecy. Still, instead of rendering it useless altogether, HOTD took a cleverer approach, using what Viserys viewed as House Targaryen’s greatest weapon to destroy its legacy.
From the beginning, Viserys treated Aegon’s Dream with an almost-reverence, even comparing his own “visions” to that of his forebearer. Once he named Rhaenyra his heir, he shared the prophecy with her, putting a heavy burden on her shoulders and, possibly, preventing himself from ever naming his son Aegon as heir. (After all, only the Targaryen ruler is to know the meaning behind the dream.) As Rhaenyra seeks her father’s help in shoring up her claim, she questions if he truly believes the prophecy because, in naming her heir, he ended up dividing the realm (and his own family). So when, on his death bed, Alicent visits him in the middle of the night, he thinks she’s his daughter, affirming the prediction to be true and his support of her. What Alicent hears though is something entirely different, believing the Aegon Viserys is referring to is their son, not Aegon the Conqueror.
“The prince… to unite the realm against the cold and the dark. It is you,” Viserys tells her. “You are the one. You must do this. You must do this.”
Now Alicent is on her way to becoming a religious fanatic, so she’s all too easily convinced that her interpretation of Viserys’ dying wish is the right one, despite having silenced a victim of her son’s sexual abuse earlier in the episode. But the idea that House Targaryen was so close to reconciling before Viserys’ obsession with dreams once again harmed his family is pitifully ironic, especially since his death differs greatly in the book.
In Martin’s writing, Viserys dies peacefully while napping in the Red Keep. He does not share the meaning of Aegon’s Dream with Alicent, and Rhaenyra has not been in King’s Landing for some time. Alicent, power-hungry and hoping her son will rule, doesn’t inform Rhaenyra of the king’s death, locking his corpse in his room, forbidding the servants from entering, and keeping his demise a secret until she — along with Otto Hightower and Ser Criston Cole — can murder any Targaryen sympathizers before crowning Aegon king in a section of the book known as the Green Council. Her actions are much more malicious, and Rhaenyra’s absence from court is much more important. In changing things, the show softens Alicent, complicating her motives and calling into question whether she’s a player or a pawn in this game for the throne. Likewise, by having Rhaenyra make plans to quickly return to court on dragon back once her family is home, episode eight’s ending calls into question exactly how Alicent and Otto will have time to install Aegon as king without Rhaenyra immediately challenging the move.
Obviously, at some point, The Greens will be successful in usurping the throne, but by rewriting Viserys’ death, the show has made the catalyst for this conflict much more interesting. In stripping Alicent from a bit of the greed and animosity that fueled her power grab in the books, and in having these two women — who are bound so closely to each other — diverge so fundamentally in their perception of Viserys’ wishes, the show is setting up a heart-rending struggle, showing us what we could’ve had before asking us to choose sides in a now clearly unwinnable war.
HBO’s ‘House of the Dragon’ airs on Sundays at 9:00pm EST.