Television

House of the Dragon Isn’t Just a Game of Thrones Spinoff Anymore

A thrilling episode marks the moment when the show’s change of perspective actually starts making a difference.

Two women in medieval dress stand face to face.
A queen v. Queen-That-Never-Was standoff. HBO

When I leave a show for dead and it actually starts to get good, I’m happy to eat my words. This is what’s happened with House of the Dragon, the Targaryen prequel that limped along like a soggy Renaissance Faire version of Game of Thrones until this week’s episode, “The Green Council.” For the first time, the show crackled into life, finding its voice and delivering on its premise as a women-centered story set in the Thrones universe that actually breaks new ground.

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The shift began with last week’s episode, when King Viserys forced his loved ones into the dramatic crucible known as family dinner. While the meal begins in rancor, by the end his wife, Queen Alicent, and his daughter and heir Rhaenyra are working to mend their relationship, as are Rhaenyra’s sons and their cousins (though one-eyed Aemond, the most terrifying screen presence since Alex in A Clockwork Orange, is having none of it). Viserys, played by the excellent Paddy Considine, loves his family more than the throne, and his vulnerability, the pathos of his horrific wasting disease, becomes a forcing mechanism. It’s genuinely moving, but when he dies, it all goes to hell.

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“The Green Council” is paced like a thriller and focuses solely on the events in King’s Landing following the king’s death, a gutsy decision that pays off. And as fans of the Thrones universe know, the penultimate episode of the season usually goes big, whether it’s Ned Stark getting his head chopped off, or the Battle of the Bastards, or the absolute devastation of the Red Wedding.

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But beyond its white-knuckle execution, “The Green Council” takes the core tension of Thrones—how do you use power justly in a brutal world?—and turns it on its head. As Alicent and her father Otto Hightower battle over what to do about Rhaenyra and her husband, Daemon—he wants them eliminated to pave the way for his grandson, Aegon, to be King; she doesn’t want them killed—he calls her squeamish for putting friendship before security. She responds, “Resisting murder is not weakness.”

It’s the closest House of the Dragon has come to an animating principle. What’s so refreshing, and frankly almost subversive in the Thrones world as we know it, is that neither Alicent’s nor Rhaenyra’s reluctance to proactively kill their enemies is portrayed as weak or foolish. This was not Ned spilling the beans to Cersei that he knew the truth about her and Jaime in order to spare her children Robert’s wrath; or telling Renly he wouldn’t spill blood during Robert’s last hours as Cersei sharpened her knives. Those actions might have been honorable, but they were foolish, and they came with terrible costs. What I loved about “The Green Council” is that it rejects Otto’s exhausting ends-justify-the-means logic while refusing to frame the alternatives as naïve or weak. Sometimes courage is the courage not to act.

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I’m admittedly more of a Team Rhaenyra gal—she has a Dany/Arya warrior vibe I like—but Alicent comes into her own here. As Otto moves to dispatch all threats to Aegon’s coronation, Alicent works both to stop him from his murder spree and keep control over the succession. Unlike Cersei, who always justified her murderous plotting by saying that she was protecting her sons, Alicent would rather roll the dice than commit cold-blooded murder. She rejects the notion that anything is justified in the name of family—and not because she’s squeamish, but because she still has a moral center and the guts to play it as it lays. She refuses, after all these years, to be her father’s pawn, moved around like a piece on the board.

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After Viserys’ death, Alicent has Rhaenys imprisoned so she cannot warn Rhaenyra, and the scene between them is like a Bechdel test on steroids. Alicent acknowledges that Rhaenys—the Queen Who Never Was, because her father named his nephew Viserys heir to the Iron Throne instead of her—would have made a better ruler than Viserys, then makes her an offer. Ally herself with the Hightowers, and she will give her Driftmark, the powerful seat of House Velaryon, to pass onto her granddaughters as she sees fit. Rhaenys makes Alicent a counter-offer: Has she considered the possibility of a Queen Alicent on the Iron Throne? Alicent demurs—perhaps still thinking of her sons, and working against Otto’s machinations rather than forging her own strategy.

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When Rhaenys escapes from her room and blends in among the throng at Aegon’s coronation, it’s still not completely clear what her decision will be. Siding with the Hightowers, after all, is the safer bet. But when she sees Aegon—a nasty piece of work who gives even Joffrey a run for his money—elevated to the most powerful position in the land, something in her shifts. As she ducks into a passageway, you can almost hear her thinking, enough.

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What follows is one of the most astonishing sequences of television I’ve seen. Aegon, shocked to see people cheering for him (even he seems to understand what a terrible person he is), brandishes Aegon the Conqueror’s sword Blackfyre like a child with a toy. Then, as the crowd goes wild, Rhaenys explodes out of the floor on her dragon Meleys. It’s a shocking display of perceived power versus actual power, and as people scream and run, the Hightowers stand rooted to the spot. Rhaenys turns to face them as Meleys roars, and locks eyes with Alicent, who is shielding her grown son—King of the Andals, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms—behind her. It reminded me of the moment when Cersei runs to Joffrey after he is poisoned—Aegon and Joffrey are horrific, but they still have mothers who love them. Then the Queen Who Never Was, at her full power, makes the choice not to kill them.

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Why does this one act of restraint matter? This is Westeros, which eventually grinds all moral intentions into dust—and even if you haven’t read Fire & Blood or the relevant Wiki, we know this is a series about the end of the Targaryen dynasty. But I love how the show depicts these choices as strength, not folly. Of course you can argue that by sparing the Hightowers, Rhaenys is opening the door to more bloodshed, but that’s the same logic Otto uses. And after all, what did all of Tywin’s and Cersei’s and Littlefinger’s murderous plotting get them but death and the dust heap of history?

On Game of Thrones, it wasn’t clear until the final episode if Ned Stark’ was simply a cautionary tale, or if, in some ways, he was right. Ned made grave mistakes, but his worldview—that trust and mercy are part of the wise use of power—was validated by Thrones’ ending, no matter how shaky the landing.

After an endless parade of shows like The Walking Dead that take ends-justify-the-means thinking to its most gruesome extremes, there is strength in saying, simply, no. When Rhaenys looks Alicent in the eye as Aegon cowers behind her, we are confronted with something that, in this world, is as rare as it is breathtaking: the power of mercy.

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