And with that, the Dance of the Dragons has begun.
The first season of House of the Dragon ended with a point of no return, the death of Rhaenyra Targaryen’s 13-year-old son Lucerys at the hands of his uncle Aemond. From the first episode to the last, the show’s characters have stressed the need for peace in the realm, and even as her husband and advisers are gearing up for battle and practically baying for blood, Rhaenyra pushes back. She may be mad as hell that her former best friend Alicent has placed her own son on the throne of Westeros, contravening Viserys’ declared intent to have Rhaenyra follow him on the throne. But she’s sufficiently noble to consider that it might be worth giving up her claim in order to stave off a bloody—or, more to the point, fiery—battle for succession. (Ironically, it’s the closest anyone on the show has come to showing they have the temperament of a true ruler.) Once word of her son’s death arrives, though, all hope of a peaceful resolution is lost. You don’t need to have read the script to know that, as showrunner Ryan Condal put it, “war is in her eyes.”
The staging of this pivotal moment differs from its depiction in George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, the show’s source material, in a crucial respect, which is that it’s a tragic accident rather than an intentional killing. Martin’s book is framed as a collection of historical accounts, some conflicting and some incomplete, but they apparently agree that Aemond set out to kill Lucerys as revenge for the loss of his eye, which Lucerys accidentally took out with a dagger during a childhood fight. (In one version of the story, he tracks down the boy’s corpse and plucks out both eyes.) On the show, Aemond tries to frighten Lucerys, who has come to the castle of Storm’s End to persuade House Baratheon to back his mother’s claim to the throne, into gouging out one of his own eyes by way of repayment. Lucerys fails his mission but stands his ground, preparing to fight his much larger and more skilled uncle until Lord Borros orders them both to stand down. Lucerys heads for the exit and mounts his dragon Arrax to return home and bring his mother the bad news, but he’s ambushed by Aemond and his much, much larger dragon, Vhagar.
On the show, it seems as if Aemond just wants to scare Lucerys, although he’s certainly pushing it to the point where his nephew could easily be hurt or worse. He’s a bully, but he’s also a coward, and he’d rather goad Lucerys into making a potentially fatal mistake than face the consequences of doing the deed himself. But while Aemond may be older and more imposing, they’re both boys, unable to fully control the deadly weapons of war that have been placed under their control. After being goaded by Vhagar, Arrax unleashes a torrent of flame in the larger dragon’s direction, even as Lucerys screams for him to stop. Aemond does the same with his own dragon, but he’s helpless to stop an enraged Vhagar as the beast swoops back and bites Arrax in two, sending both dragon and rider plummeting into the sea. Aemond instantly knows what he’s done, and the look on his face is not one of satisfaction but panic—he fucked up, and he knows it.
The change from Martin’s book alters Aemond’s character, but what seems more significant is what it won’t change, which is anything that happens next. The show takes place in the realm of history, and not just because that’s how Martin wrote it—its ending has already been spoiled by Game of Thrones, in which the Dance of the Dragons was related as a children’s story. But it also feels like a history because of the way the characters’ motivations keep being obliterated by their actions. The why ends up irrelevant to the how. Viserys wanted peace, but his weakness and indecision ended up setting the stage for a civil war that will ultimately spell the end of his line. With his dying breath, he tries to remind his daughter Rhaenyra of her ancestor Aegon’s prophetic dream, and of the need for her to hold the kingdom together and prepare for a battle against a great evil. (Winter, you see, is coming.) But he’s so addled he doesn’t realize he’s talking to his wife Alicent instead, and she mistakes his words to mean that he wants their son Aegon to take Rhaenyra’s place on the throne. His final attempt to hold the realm together ends up dooming it to war.
Alicent’s misunderstanding is sincere, but that doesn’t matter either. It turns out her father, the king’s closest adviser, has already been plotting Rhaenyra’s usurpation, and the fact that she now has a legitimate pretext for their illegitimate plan doesn’t seem to affect that strategy at all. Alicent’s attempt to persuade Rhaenys, who was likewise denied her rightful chance to rule, to join her cause in the name of “peace” only backfires, prompting Rhaenys to cause the deaths of untold bystanders as she breaks her dragon out of captivity, and when Rhaenys arrives at Dragonstone to tell Rhaenyra she’s been usurped, she presents the entire coup as Alicent’s doing. She even stands by when Rhaenyra’s husband Daemon, who is also Viserys’ brother, wrongly jumps to the conclusion that the terminally ill king must have been murdered. It’s hard to know whether Rhaenys believes that regicide is a real possibility or if she’s just mad enough at Aegon’s coronation to allow Daemon to jump to the most bellicose of conclusions. But her motivations make no difference. Given the bare facts of history—Viserys’ death, Aegon’s ascension—each side adopts a belief in the surrounding circumstances that best fits their prior understanding of the world, and no amount of post hoc rationalization is likely to sway them.
On Game of Thrones, there were idealists and there were realists, and the former’s destinies were set the moment Ned Stark’s head was separated from his shoulders. On House of the Dragon, the split seems subtly different. There are the usual gangs of schemers and warmongers, and there are Rhaenyra and Alicent, trying to keep the peace while everyone around them is battering away at it. They’re not starry-eyed enough to think that good intentions matter in themselves, but they do believe that honor is what holds the world together—that a lord should keep his oath, that a queen might give up her claim to save untold lives, that a wife is bound to her husband’s dying words no matter the cost. The trouble is that deeds travel fast and words travel slow, and in the gap between one and the other grow stories that, once they take hold, may prove impossible to uproot.