After each episode of House of the Dragon, Slate writers will gather to answer a crucial question: Who is the worst person in Westeros? This week: senior editor Sam Adams and editorial assistant Nadira Goffe answer the call.
Sam Adams: And we’re back! A mere 39 months after Game of Thrones wound down with one of the most-watched and most-hated series finales in recent memory, George R.R. Martin and co. have transported us back to Westeros for the premiere of the prequel series House of the Dragon. The series will tell the story of what Martin’s readers know as the Dance of the Dragons, the battle for the throne that grew into a bloody civil war and recast the Targaryens from benevolent monarchs to power-mad—and eventually, just-plain-mad—tyrants. But in the first episode, things start relatively calmly, with the aging king Jaehaerys Targaryen declaring his successor. (Reentering Martin’s fictional world means rehabituating one’s typing fingers to his eccentric spellings, but at least Jaehaerys won’t be around for long.) Although Jaehaerys is apparently a wise and benevolent king, he’s also a wee bit sexist, enough to skip over his eldest descendent-who-happens-to-be-a-woman, Rhaenys, to name his eldest male descendent, Viserys, the heir to the throne instead. It’s not clear there’s any tradition of women ruling in Westeros, but the stink-eye coming off Lady Rhaenys in the series’ opening scene indicates the choice causes plenty of bad blood. And indeed, as the narrator—the voice of Viserys’ daughter, Rhaenyra, who we won’t meet in her adult form until the show’s sixth episode—warns us, “the only thing that could tear down the House of the Dragon … was itself.”
But enough mansplaining from me. Nadira, welcome to the Worst Person in Westeros. The first few minutes of the series might be too early to start naming candidates, but I have to ask: Is Jaehaerys the Worst?
Nadira Goffe: Thanks for the welcome, Sam. To answer your question: It’s never too early to name a candidate for the Worst Person in Westeros, but I don’t think Jaehaerys earns it this round. Listen, I do not dream of labor and so I do not dream of running an entire realm, but apparently Rhaenys did when she saw the opportunity present itself. To be deprived of that simply because you’re a woman, as we’re led to believe, is upsetting. To take it further, this decision made by “all the lords” of Jaehaerys’ time (though I’m sure Jaehaerys likely had final say) also labeled Rhaenys as “the Queen Who Never Was” from then on, which simply adds salt to the wound.
But as horrible as it is, it’s not unexpected of a king in Westeros to uphold precedent, so I’m not sure I can fault Jaehaerys alone. (I do want to fault the voice-over narration from adult Rhaenyra, who attempts to make us appalled at the decision as if it wasn’t expected and typical.) Even then, I think the real reason why the worst person isn’t Jaehaerys is because, while he may have made a harmful choice, it’s not nearly as brutal as some choices made by other characters throughout the episode.
Adams: Speaking of brutality—as the Game of Thrones–verse requires we must—the heavy in this first episode is Viserys’ brother, Daemon, an ambitious and bloodthirsty schemer whose naked lust for the throne threatens to destabilize the entire realm. After failed stints in various government offices, he’s been named commander of the city watch—basically King’s Landing’s police force—which seemed like a nice out-of-the-way place to park him. But he’s turned them into a finely honed and vicious fighting force who make their new incarnation known by rampaging through the streets and delivering justice to alleged offenders on the spot, lopping off hands, heads, and, in the case of one rapist, what I think are supposed to be his balls. (There’s a lengthy close-up of the severed body part for further examination.) He’s vicious and cruel, though not unbeatable—after brutalizing his way to the finals of a jousting tournament, he has to yield rather than get his head smashed by his opponent’s mace—and he does seem awfully fond of his niece, Rhaenyra. Maybe too fond, in fact: When he can’t climax in a whorehouse, the prostitute offers to bring in a woman with the Targaryen family’s trademark “silver hair.”
Daemon’s a loose cannon, for sure. But surely a garden-variety psycho is not the most odious this series has to offer. What do you think, Nadira. Could Daemon be the worst?
Goffe: Here’s where I mention that I really love when Matt Smith gets to dive into some villainy. And villain-out he does as the tempestuous, quick-to-fisticuffs Daemon Targaryen. When he “brutalized his way” to the jousting finals, as you noted, he did so by injuring the horse his opponent was riding, causing them both to go down. Though the horse ended up walking away all right (I think), I still cringed: What did the horse do to deserve that?! And yeah, I definitely got some weird incestuous-attraction vibes from him in his scene with Rhaenyra (incest being yet another thing the GoT-verse requires us to ponder). But you’re right, when it comes to violent psychopaths, the GoT-verse has enough that it can be difficult for one to stand out. Beyond his physical brutality, he’s emotionally brutal as well, referring to Viserys’ son, who died hours after being born, as “King for a Day.” This comment, which he makes in a brothel no less, leads to Daemon being rejected as heir to the throne and practically exiled from court.
But, as horrible as that all is, I don’t think it tops the questionable decision-making of Viserys this episode. Viserys spends most of the episode ignoring Rhaenyra as a solid candidate for heir, instead impatiently awaiting the imminent birth of his next child, whom Viserys is convinced will be a son. Early on, Viserys’ wife, Aemma, explains that she has mourned the loss of five children either during pregnancy or directly after their birth, claiming that she cannot mourn another. But things take a very tragic turn when they realize during labor that the baby is breech, forcing Viserys to choose between saving his child by way of C-section, which would kill Aemma, or letting it remain in the hands of the gods, likely saving Aemma but resulting in a stillborn baby. He chooses the C-section without Aemma’s consent, resulting in what ends up being a very traumatic and rather violent scene. What did you think of Viserys’ choices throughout the episode, Sam?
Adams: They’re pretty bad! Basic narrative sense (not to mention a quick browse through the Dance of the Dragons wiki) suggests that the spineless Viserys is only going to get worse, but he’s not starting in a good place here. For one thing, there’s the heedless rush to schedule a tournament celebrating the birth of his male heir before the child is even born, let alone before he’s confirmed its sex, and then there’s the flat-out awful decision he makes to sacrifice his wife’s life—to, let’s not mince words, have her killed—to save the life of their son. Womp womp, he loses them both, and is stuck with Rhaenyra as his only living child, one who now knows just how low a value her father places on her.
The problem, if it is one, is that Paddy Considine, who plays Viserys, is a very good actor, and he makes Viserys’ inability to rise above his own fear at least a little sympathetic. There’s such tenderness in his eyes when he tells Aemma he loves her, right before he orders her arms held down so the maesters can slice open her belly and leave her to bleed out. He’s buried beneath the weight of tradition and prophecy, namely a dream he had about a male child born wearing his crown. And as he confides to his daughter after Aemma’s death, he’s further crushed by knowing that winter is coming, and that (or so he believes) only a strong Targaryen leader will be able to save the race of men from being wiped out entirely. He’s a terrible king making terrible decisions, but the episode takes pains to remind us, he’s doomed from the start. The locations in House of the Dragon’s premiere are chosen not just as Easter eggs for Game of Thrones fans but as reminders of the series’ great tragedies: a dragon swooping over King’s Landing, the window from which Tommen Baratheon jumped to his death, and the throne room where Daenerys, first of her name, took her last breath. Impoverished in both body and spirit, Viserys doesn’t feel like he stands a chance.
It’s hard to do worse than murdering your own wife in the name of patriarchy—although it’s worth a quick mention that Otto Hightower’s apparent willingness to pimp out his own daughter to soothe the grieving king also seems pretty bad. But let me advance a more macro proposition. What if the worst person in House of the Dragon is … all of them? Even as the beginning to a story about a dynasty that eventually consumes itself, this first episode is notably lacking in characters who aren’t simply out for themselves. There’s some mumbling about the strength of the realm, but it just feels like boilerplate, the way you invoke god and country while sticking your hand in the till. Rhaenyra and Alicent might be too young to be fully corrupt, but they’re also not interesting enough to care about. What do you think, Nadira? Too much?
Goffe: Man, I truly do love Paddy Considine, and you’re right: His acting makes you understand Viserys a little more, though I think the history of Game of Thrones has cautioned me well enough against actually feeling sympathy toward these men in power—or anyone in power, for that matter. And speaking of echoes of the flagship series: I want to commend your ability to even remember all of these important locations. But now that you’ve reminded me of the ways in which House of Dragons is cinematically enforcing its thematic ties to Game of Thrones, I think the only logical conclusion with Viserys is as you stated: The main guy in the beginning likely doesn’t stand a chance.
In that way, I’m inclined to agree with you that the Worst Person in Westeros is, actually, all of them. But I maybe put the onus of that on the show as a whole, which, as you remarked in your review, doesn’t seem to understand that showcasing all of these horrible men who commit horrific violence against women isn’t merely justified because “it was like that back in the day.” I’m sure that back in the day there weren’t young Black people with platinum-blond hair sitting courtside, either. Or dragons, believe it or not. And so far the show fails, like its predecessor, to strike a balance between showing examples of violence in order to further the plot, but not over-exemplifying violence, understanding that the audience already knows this wasn’t the Best Time in History™: Women were mistreated! The patriarchy sucks! We get it!
And in that pursuit to capitalize on brutality, they’ve made a whole bunch of horrible Westerosians, sparing maybe only the women and children, who instead are forced to become victims (Aemma, Rhaenys, Rhaenyra, and Alicent all suffer such a fate during this episode). I’m interested to see where this goes, and I should reserve some judgement considering this is just the first episode, but I am missing the nuance of complex characters like Tyrion and Sandor Clegane. Or even just the downright nice ones like Samwell Tarly or Ser Davos.
Adams: You are so right. What House of the Dragon needs is more Onion Knights. Get on it, showrunners.