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 editor Rebecca Onion and pop critic Jack Hamilton answer the call.
Rebecca Onion: Whew, Jack! That was one of the most melancholy episodes of a GoT show I’ve ever seen. Last week, Alicent Hightower won the WPiW belt, thanks to the tense scene in which she threatens to mutilate Lucerys Valeryon, a literal child, to repay him for the loss of her second son Aemond’s eye—an eye Aemond lost fair and square, in my opinion, after picking a fight with his nephews. When Alicent made this demand, the entire room was like “You’ve gone too far”—even Criston Cole, who seems like he would do almost anything to stick it to Luke’s mother Rhaenyra—and Alicent takes out her anger on Rhaenyra instead, slashing her on the arm. Honestly, this action seemed more “mother who lost her mind” than “truly bad” to me, but I think often, in these WPiW deliberations, the people who do actual bad things get a bit of a pass, because it’s so boring to constantly give the crown to Larys Strong or Daemon Targaryen!
That said, let’s consider Daemon for this week’s WPiW, at least for a minute. We’ve had another time jump—six years—and Daemon and Rhaenyra have two children, with another one on the way. Corlys Velaryon has been, we learn at the beginning of the episode, badly wounded in battle, and is not expected to survive. His brother, Veymond, reacts to this news by deciding to formally challenge the succession plan Corlys has repeatedly confirmed he will follow: Driftmark, the Velaryon family seat, will pass to the children of Rhaenyra and the now-dead-and-departed Laenor Velayron. Because everyone with even one eye knows that Rhaenyra’s children are actually half Harwin Strong’s, Veymond is upset by this idea—even when Rhaenys mentions Rhaenyra’s plan to marry her children with Daemon’s, who are half-Velayron through their mother—and wants Driftmark for himself.
When the whole family assembles in King’s Landing to debate the matter, with the Hightowers ready to help Veymond along, Veymond stands in the throne room and says to the walking husk of Viserys, who has left his bed in great pain to be the one to make this decision, that Rhaenyra’s sons are “bastards” and Rhaenyra is a “whore.” Right away, before anyone has much of a chance to register what’s been said, Daemon whips out his sword and beheads Veymond in front of the assembled group. It’s so disgusting, as always! I guess Veymond “deserved it,” in the cosmology of Westeros, but—doesn’t fileting your daughters’ great-uncle in front of their faces qualify Daemon as “the worst”? Even a bit?
Jack Hamilton: Great to be back in the Seven Kingdoms with you, Rebecca. I have to say, maybe it’s just Matt Smith’s performance but I’m starting to find Daemon one of the most likable, or at least charismatic, characters on this otherwise relentlessly dour show. (And I don’t mean that negatively—I’ve found myself enjoying House of the Dragon more and more with each passing week.) I let out an extremely satisfied “oh shit!” when he fruit-ninja’d Veymond’s dome in the throne room, and I loved his menacing little smirk after Aemond trolled his own nephews’ legitimacy at the most awkward family meal since Rhaenyra’s rehearsal dinner. Daemon may have a permanent weekly case for the Worst Person in Westeros, but he’s also got a permanent weekly case for the Best Person in Westeros, I guess is what I’m saying here.
I would instead nominate a true rising star of awfulness: the alternative heir to the Iron Throne, Aegon Targaryen, now played by Tom Glynn-Carney. One of the things that’s interesting about this show is how deliberately some of the characters seem to mirror our faves from Game of Thrones. I am increasingly struck by how much Alicent Targaryen née Hightower resembles Cersei Lannister, right down to Olivia Cooke’s performance, which at times seems to borrow whole postures and facial expressions from Lena Headey’s turn as Cersei. This resemblance includes having to deal with a son who is an abject piece of shit, in young Aegon Targaryen, whose preening dickishness and penchant for sexual violence carry strong whiffs of short-lived King Joffery Baratheon. Aegon sucks so much that he makes his younger brother, who just last week stole the dragon of his dead aunt from his grieving cousin, seem like a paragon of virtue in comparison. I want this guy to get killed so badly I’m a few weeks away from climbing into my tv to do it myself! What’s your take on Lil’ Aegon, and what do you make of the way the kids on this show are growing into adults more generally? Aside from the rather stunning deterioration of Viserys and the (offscreen) health woes of Corlys, the maturation (or lack thereof) of the younger generation seems to be the most significant development of lo these past six years.
Rebecca: Despite my opening salvo, I totally agree that Daemon is the best thing on this show—and, emergently, as our viewerly sympathies shift ever-more toward Rhaenyra, also the one who can be depended on to do the right thing, in HotD terms. I argued a few weeks ago that HotD needed to lean into the incest, both because Daenyra are the only couple on the show with chemistry and because HotD needed to figure out a way to truly illustrate how the Targaryens are different from other Westerosi. Since they got together, Daemon and Rhaeynra have become the People You Like and Hope to See Win. I can’t say that’s a great feeling (I remember Rhaenyra’s line in episode 7—“I need you, Uncle”—with the opposite of fondness), but here we are.
As for the kids, that’s a topic that’s deeply related to the above: Aegon is an entitled little jerk and also very Joffrey Baratheon. Last week, our WPiW team identified the fact that Rhaenyra’s older kids (Jace, Luke, and Joffrey Velayron) are starting to feel more and more like the Stark children in the original GoT—a likable team of scrappers who bands together—and that seems quite true to me. I think the way these two families are growing up is really tipping the show’s hand when it comes to who you’re supposed to think is in the right, in the battle between Alicent and Rhaenyra. Sure, Jace and Luke are half-Strong bastards, but so far they seem like good kids, who are (despite being the ones technically in line for the Iron Throne) somewhat sane. At least, they are loyal to one another and to their father (until he died) and mother, and they’re not oversexed threats to every serving girl in the castle, or psychopathic freaks with chips on their shoulders. More and more, I think their contrasting chestnut-brown hair in a sea of silver-heads is a visual code for “relatable”—and the more relatable they are, especially in contrast to their disastrous young uncles, the more Rhaenyra seems to be in the right.
I’d like to dwell a bit more on Aegon’s younger brother, Aemond, who lost his eye in the last episode and has been replaced by a new actor, Ewan Mitchell, whose chin is an absolute slab. He might be another WPiW candidate! Aemond had my sympathy previously, as the second son who got bullied for not riding a dragon, and who seemed kinder to his sister than his evil brother Aegon. But since he successfully stole Laena Velaryon’s huge dragon after she died, he seems to have gotten drunk on power, like a classic batshit Targaryen. The camera’s little look at Aemond, right after Daemon sliced through Veymond’s head in the throne room, was super telling: Aemond really, really liked what he saw. Then, after Viserys basically forces his family, by dint of utter pathos, to get along at the dinner that night, Aemond ruins everything by giving that toast, where he uses the word “strong” over and over again to describe his nephews. The delight on his face at throwing this bomb into the fragile happiness of this group made me think that we have a candidate for the “new Daemon,” and for the WPiW this week. (I also think, given the way Daemon and Aemond squared off in the aftermath of the toast, that these two are going to meet in battle, sooner rather than later.) What do you think of Aemond’s potential to become the Worst—in this week, or in future?
Jack: I’m glad you brought up Aemond, because I think he’s emerging as a really fascinating character. He has no real claim to the Iron Throne as long as Aegon is alive (again: happy to help with that), and yet I think it’s very clear that he’s a far more impressive specimen of … something than his older brother is of anything. For starters, he seems to be a lot taller and more physically imposing, and the first time we see him in this episode he’s proving himself to be a pretty formidable swordsman. Visually he bears a striking resemblance to Daemon, and I don’t think that’s an accident, since they clearly share some similar qualities. I detected a perverse admiration in Daemon’s face after Aemond’s deliberately incendiary toast. And that toast itself is pretty revealing, since Aegon has been sitting there making a bunch of sotto voce lewd comments to Jace, tormenting his nephew in a manner that shows he’s still fundamentally a coward who’s desperate to avoid his parents’ opprobrium. But Aemond really just goes for it, saying out loud what his older brother won’t and seemingly establishing himself as the most dangerous member of this younger generation of Targaryen–Hightower–Velaryons. I definitely think he’s one to watch for future WPiW consideration, in large part because he seems to have a lot more ambition and cunning and charisma than his older brother, who frankly seems pretty uninterested in being king! But I do think those qualities also make him a more compelling and weirdly admirable figure than Aegon, who seems pretty irredeemable and thus holds on to my vote this week.
We haven’t yet touched on the big ending, in which a milk-of-the-poppy-addled Viserys mistakes Alicent for Rhaenyra (kinda gross) and mutters some stuff about the Prince Who Was Promised and Aegon the Conqueror’s dream, which Alicent seems to (understandably) mistake for being about her own son’s potential claim to the Throne. Then Viserys dies? I think? (I await a flood of hangover-related memes featuring a bed-ridden Viserys looking like warmed-over death yet wearing a spectacularly flamboyant golden shirt for some reason.) Knowing what I know of this story, things are about to start happening pretty fast, and I’d bet it’s going to be a while before we get another big chronological jump-ahead, which should be beneficial to this show’s pacing, the real Achilles’ heel of this first season so far. I’ll miss Paddy Considine, though, whom I love in everything and who gets a pretty memorable death (again, I think?) scene here. What did you make of the ending, and more importantly, have I won you to the side of Aegon for this week’s WPiW?
Rebecca: For the Gods’ sake, please! Let Viserys die with the memory of that last dinner, where he actually got to see his family happy, lingering in his drug-addled mind. Let that be the end of it! And honestly, I think it might be. Near the end of this episode, Rhaenyra touchingly offered to Alicent, who has taken on the burden of caregiver for a suffering and horrifically dying man, that she would come back to King’s Landing by dragon after getting her family settled home, and that’s the part of the episode that really made me cry, because there’s no way that’s happening. Plot-wise, I think Viserys dies, and the next episode is when the fight really starts. (Also, practically speaking, there is no way to make Paddy Considine look any worse, even with such talented makeup artists as HotD boasts.)
That being said, I am happy to cosign Aegon as WPiW, for the sole sake of that serving girl who had to die to cover up his assault at the beginning of the episode. His bad deeds are sniveling, cowardly ones, and I’ve never seen him do anything kind! He deserves this week’s crown—and more. Hopefully, that’s coming.