Television

This Week’s Worst Person in Westeros: Alicent Hightower

Even if she’s less evil than she is annoying.

Olivia Cooke in House of the Dragon.
Olivia Cooke in House of the Dragon. Ollie Upton/HBO

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, book critic Laura Miller and editorial assistant Nadira Goffe answer the call.

Laura Miller: Nadira! Have you ever been to a family reunion more tense and dismal than the funeral and wake of Laena Velaryon? It seems like the whole first 15 minutes of Episode 7 of House of the Dragon, titled for its setting, Driftmark, the castle of the Velaryon clan, consists of the characters in this extended family staring at each other meaningfully across terraces, full of regret and thwarted yearning and resentment. Literally no one in this bunch is getting what they want, least of all poor old Viserys, who just wants them to stop all the infighting, even though his own actions are at the root of it all. Lots of bad behavior, from Aegon boozing it up and leering at the serving wenches, to Aemond’s dragon-stealing and assault on his cousins, to Alicent’s dreadful reaction in the castle, to Rhaenyra’s extremely cold-hearted ordering of the assassination of the husband who’s just pledged his devotion to her and her reign. Plus, Daemon and Rhaenyra finally consummate whatever the feeling between them can be called, but at least no one gets hurt by that … maybe? If they weren’t so hot for each other, Laenor might not have seemed so expendable to her. On the other hand, Rhaenyra is doing what she has to do to protect herself and her children. It’s not like she hates Laenor. In fact, she cares for him. Maybe a queen’s gotta do what a queen’s gotta do, but still … Is Rhaenyra the worst person in Westeros? What do you think?

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Nadira Goffe: I’ve been to some tense family reunions but this one certainly takes the cake. The oppressive feeling of the tectonic plates of power shifting underneath the Targaryens’ feet certainly didn’t help quell matters of grief nor frustration with each other, though Rhaenyra (and Daemon as her bedfellow) seemed to be the one most willing to take advantage of it all. I completely agree with your comment that, had Daemon and Rhaenyra not been so hot for each other, she might have thought twice about ordering a hit on what was essentially her only true friend and ally. Though that is more than a little shameful, I’m not sure I can award her the crown of Worst Person in Westeros yet again. I’m a little burnt that she tried to kill an innocent man who happened to both recently pledge allegiance to her and also be the only character who brings me joy in the show, but I do think Rhaenyra was placed in a very dire situation when she made this calculated move.

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Once the accusations of Rhaenyra’s sons’ bastard parentage were launched by and in front of the highest-ranked successors to the crown, the cat was officially out of the bag. And though Viserys ordered to quell such “rumors,” he didn’t outright say they were preposterous, either. I mean, how could he? It is obvious and everyone knows it’s true, as Aegon said. Not to mention, her sons’ lives had already been quite openly threatened. It was clear that Laenor couldn’t really do much more for her, especially if he could not father her a son himself. Though that’s no excuse to kill him, I can understand it? And for what it’s worth (which is not much), I do believe she genuinely cared for Laenor as a friend.

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But I can’t say that all the other Westerosi bad apples had as good or dire of reasons for their actions. I was equally annoyed and appalled by Aemond’s behavior this week, especially considering last episode made him seem like such a nonevent. But here he became the event, racking up a list of offenses including dragon stealing and attempted child murder. What did you think of Aemond this episode, Laura?

Miller: What I’m always thinking of Aemond is, “Isn’t that Chloë Sevigny?” The resemblance is startling. Like Aegon, but in a different way, Aemond is a repellent kid, but I did feel sorry for him that his own brother ganged up with his cousins to humiliate him by presenting him with a winged pig in the last episode. And I fully understand his longing for a dragon, both because it would give him stature in a world where he is obviously disregarded and because who wouldn’t want to fly? He also seems better suited to rule (in the Targaryen style) than Aegon, who is just a wastrel. He’s willing to give up a lot—he says he’d willingly marry the insect-obsessed Helaena, a girl as creepy as he is, to do his duty—and he considers the loss of his eye worth it to gain Vhagar, who I believe is the biggest dragon in the known world.

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Aemond is a sneaky devil, though, and is harboring a truly scary rage at pretty much everyone but his mother. Arguably, his filching of Vhagar can be justified as exactly the sort of daring act you’d expect of a dragon rider. These people live in a world where fair play doesn’t really count for much. He’s brave—that dragon is big!—and he’s ruthless, which is what seems to be called for in a Westerosi ruler. Fortune favors the bold, and all that. I sometimes think I’m the only viewer with much sympathy for Viserys, who just wants to rule a peaceful kingdom with a decent family. Most people seem to blame him for the disasters that have befallen his reign because he’s “weak.” But if we’re going to blame Viserys for not being “strong” enough, we can’t also condemn a character like Aemond for fulfilling what constitutes strength in his world. I’m not up on Westerosi history, but he seems like exactly the sort of person who will ultimately end up on the Iron Throne.

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I do want to note that there is a crazy amount of sitting-on-a-guy-and-beating-his-face-in going on in this show, and now even the kids are doing it! That fight was very disturbing, and Aemond was responsible for escalating it by picking up that rock. Still, he’s a child, and acting out of a sense that everyone is against him and everything he wants in life will have to be taken by force. I’d like to propose someone for Worst Person who really ought to know better: Alicent. She literally comes at child with a knife in this episode! Sure, she’s upset about Aemond losing his eye: Who wouldn’t be? But as Rhaenyra points out, mutilating an 8-year-old for vengeance is not exactly Alicent’s brand. “Exhausting, was it?” Rhaenyra hisses at her. “Hiding under the cloak of your own righteousness? But now they see you as you are.” And one of the people who likes what he sees is Otto Hightower, her father, who thinks she’s finally showing the gumption it will take to win at what he admits is an ugly game. In a way, this world is the hardest on people like Alicent, Criston Cole, and Laenor, those who have a code of morality or honor. It makes them far more bitter than the realists like Rhaenyra and Daemon. Alicent really betrays herself by trying to take Luke’s eye, as well as simply behaving with monstrously violent intent. And that does make it worse, at least to my mind. What do you think?

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Goffe: I’m not sure we should let Aemond off the hook so easily. It could be because Game of Thrones has taught me well, or because I’m knee-deep in rewatching Criminal Minds, but sometimes kids—though they be kids—can just be evil. You’re right, it’s not like he wasn’t bullied in the previous episode (which is a likely indication of consistent bullying beforehand), but if he truly was anything other than an agent of chaos, his whole “don’t worry mom, I’m down an eye but up a dragon” statement would have—and should have—come before all the bloodshed and screaming. After all, he really was the antagonizing force that started most of this week’s drama. It’s worth noting that the dragon he stole belonged to Laena, rightfully upsetting her young daughters, especially the one set to inherit Vhagar. And I think some of my distaste of Aemond’s actions is influenced by my feeling of pity for Rhaenyra’s kids. They are doomed to fail and be targeted, though they show great heart (they remind me of the Starks in that way).

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But I definitely take your points in Aemond’s defense to heart: namely that I’m someone who wishes that Viserys would actually do something, and that’s one of the reasons I hesitate to fault Daemon too much (definitely a doer, if anything). So, let it be a reason I hesitate to fault Aemond as well. And here’s where I also admit that, given all of your aforementioned reasons of boldness and bravery, I actually like Aemond. Skirting over the attempted child murder, I like characters who are unafraid to make big moves for big rewards—a character trait the show itself makes its audience desire.

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In lieu of keeping a watchful eye on Aemond as WPiW for the following episodes, I will agree with you that Alicent is the clear worst Westerosi left. One of the most upsetting things about Alicent to me is that she had such potential to be an iconic Big Bad, but I find her to be mostly … annoying? It seems like, though she has plenty of the most cunning and resourceful characters at her disposal, like Larys and Otto, she can’t seem to do anything right. I had such high hopes for her treachery to be interesting and smart, but no, it’s just rash and emotionally broad. She should have had the tact to not call for the mutilation of an 8-year-old, especially since she’s smart enough to know that it truly is her sons who are the antagonizing asshats that start all of the messes she blames Rhaenyra’s sons for. Her grudge against Rhaenyra took her too far this time, and in a crazed attempt to mutilate Luke, she accidentally cuts Rhaenyra—the heir to the throne—instead. Like … in front of everyone!

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Maybe my WPiW is the writers for dashing all of my hopes that a woman, like Cersei in GoT, at least had a chance of winning or being more influential than whoever physically sits on the Iron Throne anyway. I just don’t think Alicent has it in her, making all of her misdeeds for nothing.

Miller: That’s a great point about Alicent. She can’t scheme, and when a schemer like Larys signs on to her cause, she’s scared of him instead of recognizing that he could be useful (although her remarks to him on the ship at the end suggest this could change). She gets absolutely nothing out of trying to harm Luke, just the reputation for being a madwoman. Sometimes the road to hell really is paid with good intentions—or maybe just good inclinations. And that makes Alicent Hightower this week’s worst person in Westeros.

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