After each episode of House of the Dragon, HBO’s prequel to Game of Thrones, Slate writers gather to answer an age-old question: Who is the worst person in Westeros? This week, senior editors Sam Adams and Rebecca Onion answer the call.
Sam Adams: Welcome back, Rebecca! Or maybe I should be the one getting welcomed. For various reasons, I’d ended up taking a little break from House of the Dragon, leaving off about halfway through Episode 6, and I found I didn’t miss it at all, which in pre-professional times was traditionally my cue to drop a show altogether. But a strange thing seems to have happened while I was away—this show is awesome now? Or at least this episode is. Apparently all it took was the death of poor old one-eyed King Viserys to kick things into gear and start the Dance of the Dragons in earnest. It’s not the superlative we dole out here at WPiW, but this was the most satisfying hour of the season for me by far. And while we’re doling those out, I suppose you could argue that the climax of this episode, where Rhaenys Targaryen busts her dragon Meleys out of the dragon pit and kills a slew of innocent people in order to make a statement could make her the Worst, but does it also make her the Best?*
Rebecca Onion: Hi, Sam! And yes—welcome, welcome back to the twisted world of the Targaryens. I really liked this episode, too. I liked that it took place entirely in King’s Landing, following the Greens (the supporters of Alicent Hightower and her son Aegon) as they react to the death of Viserys, putting Ser Otto Hightower’s long-laid plans in motion. I kept expecting to be whisked to Dragonstone, to some parallel B plot taking place in Rhaenyra’s household, but I was really glad I wasn’t; it was much better this way. Speaking of whisking, the move by Rhaenys that you mentioned was spectacular, and for once I felt like the CGI dragon truly earned its keep. I’m not sure I quite understand why Viserys’ cousin is sticking by Rhaenyra, rejecting Alicent’s offer of allyship, but I presume she is acting out of loyalty to Daemon, and to her absent-and-wounded husband Corlys Velaryon—who told her over and over that he wanted to see Rhaenyra’s sons succeed to the throne, even if they’re only (as we all know) Velaryons in theory.*
Another good person in the mix this week is Alicent, who truly seems to be grieving over Viserys’ death, and to be conflicted about ordering the murder of Rhaenyra and her family. I also think—and I wonder if you agree—that she misunderstood Viserys’ last words, which she interpreted to mean that he desired Aegon to be king. There are a whole lot of other people who don’t believe this really happened but are happy to use her report as a cover story, but I think she really believes it.
Those good (relatively!) people aside, let’s get to the matter at hand. Who is the Worst Person in Westeros this week? There are a few people who do obviously bad things. We have Prince Aegon, who apparently has been patronizing these places in Flea Bottom where children with sharpened teeth and nails fight one another to the death for the amusement of onlookers. And we have Ser Arryk Cargyll, who betrays his twin brother, Ser Erryk Cargyll, and leaves him to battle Ser Criston Cole solo, as the two factions fight over possession of Aegon. And we have Criston Cole himself, who, when the master of coin, Lyman Beesbury, speaks up to defend Rhaenyra’s interests in the Small Council, simply smashes the man’s head into the table, killing him. Do any of these people appeal to you, as candidates?
Adams: I was so glad the show decided not to run with Alicent’s misunderstanding of Viserys’ dying declaration—which was meant to refer to Aegon the Conqueror and not her son Aegon the Dirtbag, and he further thought he was addressing to his daughter and not his wife—as the primary impetus behind Rhaenyra’s usurpation. (For one thing, The Rings of Power used the bit where the dying king doesn’t know who he’s talking to on Friday, and that’s a lot for one week.) Alicent does move to make her Aegon king, but when she drops what she thinks is a bombshell on the Small Council, it turns out the wheels have already been turning in that direction for some time, thanks to the machinations of her father, Otto Hightower. Poor Lord Lyman speaks up on behalf of Viserys, and for his troubles gets his head split by Criston Cole. (If you didn’t hate Ser Criston already, cracking poor Bill Paterson open like an egg ought to be enough to do it.) Ser Criston also leads one of two missions into the seedier portions of King’s Landing to try and locate the incipient king Aegon—who we learn in the process is somehow even worse than we already thought. House of the Dragon’s attempts to out-Thrones its predecessor in terms of violence and spectacle haven’t really impressed me, but 10-year-olds with sharpened nails and teeth fighting one another for sport while a debauched prince looks on? Now you have my attention
—and my visceral distaste.
Criston and Aegon are both past WPiW winners, and we are always reluctant to repeat ourselves. But what about it? Given that Daemon doesn’t even show up this week, do we have a choice but to double-dip?
Onion: The familiar meanness of Criston and Aegon—and the grossness of Lord Larys Strong masturbating to Alicent’s feet, which, oh God—aside, I really think our WPiW has to be Otto Hightower. This whole time, he’s let Alicent think that he is allowing her to develop her own plans for handling the succession; she even wished for him to become the hand, when he was out of the office, because she wanted an ally at court. But behind the scenes, he’s been working with most of the Small Council to war-game what they’ll do when Viserys dies. He’s perfectly willing to kill Rhaenyra, Alicent’s onetime friend, and her whole family, to get what he wants. And the worst of it is that he is doing all of this to put the dipshit Aegon—a fool of a boy, and cruel besides—on the throne. I think that he prefers this sort of king, by far, to someone interested in ruling, like second son Aemond (who, we learn in this episode, has been busy studying history and philosophy; we stan an appreciator of the liberal arts!). You just know that with Aegon in power, Otto is thinking that Otto will be the one to truly control what happens from here on out. And, this is small beans compared with everything else, but do you think Otto is going to do what Lady Mysaria asks him to do, and investigate the child fighting pits in Flea Bottom? (A phenomenon that, by the way, doesn’t seem to have existed when Mysaria and Daemon ruled the underworld.) I don’t believe it for a second.
No, I think Otto makes a very good WPiW. Do you cosign?
Adams: So glad (?) you brought up Larys’ foot fetish, which must be discussed, but I had already scoured from my mind. Given that we also see that Aegon’s trips to the child-fighting pits has produced an untold number of tow-headed toddlers, quite a week for sexual perversion, King’s Landing–style.
A few people are at their best this week, including Harrold Westerling, who resigns his position in the Kingsguard rather than back the Hightowers’ palace coup. But standing up to them, particularly Otto, has a price: The two lords who fail to immediately swear fealty to Aegon are apparently bundled off to the dungeons, and a third who tries to sneak past the gates to warn Rhaenyra is hung in the castle courtyard. So it seems unwise to oppose Otto’s claim to any title, even if it’s just for the Worst.
I do love the way Rhys Ifans plays Otto Hightower, not as a gleeful manipulator like Littlefinger or a scurrilous sneak like Larys, but as an utterly calm and practical sort who simply sees executing Rhaenyra and Daemon and all their progeny as the only way to protect his daughter and grandchildren. Sorry, folks: You win or you die, and you have not won. One of my favorite character types is the middle manager-as-villain, and I think Otto fills the bill. (Note how Larys looks on admiringly as Otto whips the lords of Westeros’ great houses into line, as if he’s taking notes for future villainy.) So congrats, Otto Hightower, you are the Worst Person in Westeros. Can I go now?
Correction, Oct. 17, 2022: This post originally misidentified Rhaenys’ dragon as Dreamfyre. The dragon’s name is Meleys. It also misidentified Rhaenys as Viserys’ sister. She is his cousin.