On House of the Dragon, Kings Aren’t Made, They’re Coerced

On House of the Dragon, Kings Aren’t Made, They’re Coerced

The king is dead. Now the question is, long live who? Or maybe this is the better question: Does there needs to be a king regardless of his unfitness — or if someone who everyone agrees would be far superior should rule, even if they’re female? It’s a question that divides virtually all the characters after last week’s death of Viserys in tonight’s excellent episode.

On House of the Dragon, Kings Aren’t Made, They’re Coerced

First off, it’s worth saying that “The Green Council” is masterfully directed by Clare Kilner, who also helmed the excellent “King of the Narrow Sea” and “We Light the Way.” When the show is over, three seasons and an episode from now, it’s likely I’ll still remember the haunting, melancholy opening scene of a dark and empty Red Keep, its inhabitants still asleep, not knowing their lives and the entirety of the Seven Kingdoms have been irrevocably changed with Viserys’ death during the night. That’s until a young page who checked on the king tells a handmaiden, the handmaiden tells Alicent, and Alicent tells her father Otto Hightower, who summons the Small Council to break the news.

Although Alicent already said many times she thought Rhaenyra shouldn’t become the queen, it’s clear Al took their reconciliation at the previous night’s dinner seriously, at least seriously enough to be appalled when she realises that the council had never been planning on elevating Viserys’ stated heir. Well, most of the council; when Lyman Beesbury, who doesn’t believe Alicent, angrily points out this is treason, Criston Cole coldbloodedly slams his head on the table, killing him. As if anyone (including the audience) needed a grim reminder this is a coup that will lead to violence and bloodshed, the rest of the meeting takes place with Beesbury’s corpse still at the table.

Alicent is also appalled when she realises, despite his words to the contrary, her father Otto plans to have Rhaenyra and her family killed to take out the obvious challenger to Aegon’s throne, preventing other Houses from rallying around her, waging war, and thus protecting the realm. And while it’s true that spilling a small amount of blood now would prevent a torrent of blood from cascading through the Seven Kingdoms later, Alicent truly wants to follow her late husband’s wishes. While she believes that means putting Aegon on the throne, she knows he wouldn’t want his beloved first daughter murdered in the process.

Whoever can get to Aegon first and convince him what should be done will likely have their way, so father and daughter race to find the prince first — only to discover he’s missing from the palace. No one knows where he is or what he’s doing, although based on his previous reprehensible actions, everyone knows it’s likely somewhere depraved. Otto sends out the twin brothers and members of the Kingsguard Arryk and Erryk Cargyll (who I will each refer to as Ærryk from this point on, which is confusing but adequately represents my complete inability to know which is which at any given time) to find the king-to-be and bring him directly to Otto. Alicent orders Criston Cole to bring her son to her instead, and Aemond tags along.

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

“The Green Council” is a fascinating character study for Alicent, who finds herself in the strange position of fighting the patriarchy in her attempts to uphold the patriarchy. She doesn’t realise it — rather, she chooses not to acknowledge it, even after she confronts Rhaenys, who’s been imprisoned in her room to prevent her from escaping by her dragon to inform Rhaenyra of the coup. As Alicent tells the Queen Who Wasn’t, “[Women] do not rule, but we guide the men who do.”

“And yet, you toil still in service to men,” says Rhaenys wryly, but cuttingly. “You desire not to be free, but to make a window in the wall of your prison. Have you never imagined yourself on the Iron Throne?” Watching the thoughts and emotions cross Alicent’s face as she realises she has wished to be in charge herself and then forcibly pushes those thoughts out of her mind is a wonderful bit of acting from Olivia Cooke, who kills it just as much as Paddy Considine did last week.

Meanwhile, the search for Aegon takes Criston, Aemond, Ærryk, and Ærryk to the seediest parts of King’s Landing, including the whorehouse where Aegon took his 13-year-old brother and a place that stages kid fights, a horrible scene made more horrible when the Ærryks realise Aegon has abandoned at least one bastard there. Eventually, a minion of the White Worm, who’s given Otto information before (about Daemon and Rhaenyra’s tryst back in episode four), finds the Ærryks and arranges a meeting between Otto and the Worm herself. Given how she’s been seen meeting with spies from the palace already, it should surprise no one the White Worm is Daemon’s former lover Mysaria, who gives Otto Aegon’s location for a promise he’ll shut down the kid-fighting rings.

As it turns out, Aegon is hiding in a sept (the Westerosi equivalent of a church, if you don’t recall), because he truly has no desire to be king. He just wants to live his life of debauchery and assault, and when Ærryk and Ærryk drag him out, he even tries to run away from them and his future. And when Criston and Aemond intercept the Ærryks, Aegon tries to run away again, only to be tackled by his little brother and dragged back to their mother. This gives Alicent the son-to-be-crowned king’s ear, and thus the opportunity to tell him to send terms telling Rhaenyra to abandon her claim to the throne and rule at Dragonstone instead of having goons kill her and her entire family, as Otto wants.

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Alicent is fully aware she’s battling her father and confronts him once Aegon is safely secured. It’s another fabulous scene for Cooke, who angrily tells him she’s now in charge — kind of — and she’s no longer his pawn. When Otto asks that surely she wanted to be queen, she allows herself the self-awareness to reply tartly, “How could I know? I wanted whatever you impressed upon me to want.” But the other moment that will stick with me from “The Green Council,” even more so than the epic ending, is when Otto tells Alicent, “You look so much like your mother.” It’s such an obvious, condescending attempt to play on Alicent’s emotions, to siphon away the small amount of agency she’s taken for herself, Alicent leaves in disgust. It’s a moment that epitomizes so much of what House of the Dragon wants to examine, and it’s perfect.

Early that morning, unwilling to support the terrible Aegon as king, Ærryk frees Rhaenys and spirits her out of the castle, only for them both to get caught up in the crowds of King’s Landing as they’re herded into the castle above the Dragonpit to witness the coronation. It’s a moment of spectacle that must have delighted George R.R. Martin with its utter grandiosity; the building seems a hundred times larger than the Great Sept of Baelor shown in Game of Thrones, and it appears a crowd of tens of thousands of commoners fit inside. Dozens upon dozens of knights precede Aegon as he walks to the stage, their swords falling ceremonially behind him as if to block his escape. The pageantry is incredible, and more than enough distraction for Rhaenys to slip away downstairs to retrieve her dragon Meleys.

Criston Cole places the crown on Aegon, who has tears in his eyes at his unhappy fate. But as he turns to face the crowd, and the smallfolk begin cheering, he suddenly feels the approval he never received from anyone, including his mother. He raises his sword in triumph… which is when Mereys bursts through the stone floor, Rhaenys atop it.

If House of the Dragon had been squirrelling away part of its VFX budget for this scene, with its destruction and chaos and immensity, I’d say it was worth it. It’s absolute chaos until the dragon and Rhaenys stare stonily at the usurpers on stage, who can only wonder if they’ll be killed with a single dragon breath. I think Rhaenys wonders as well, for a moment, but instead the pair fly off, ending the episode. Why didn’t Rhaenys melt these traitors when she had the chance? Eve Best’s enigmatic gaze leaves it tantalizingly open to interpretation. Did she know that an attack in front of the entirety of King’s Landing might galvanize the smallfolk against Rhaenyra? Did she feel pity for Alicent as a mother, or empathy for a woman who also voluntarily stayed trapped in her cell?

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

But that’s hardly the most fascinating aspect of “The Green Council,” which is this: Everyone knows Aegon is a terrible person who will make a terrible king, and that includes Aegon himself, which forces characters to pick sides. Discovering their motivations — or rather, wondering about their motivations — is what makes the episode immensely rich. Are they for the patriarchy or not? Are they seeking opportunity, or do they believe they’re making the right decision?

How much bloodshed does Otto truly believe he’ll be averting if Aegon becomes king when Rhaenyra and her allies will undoubtedly wage war over her claim to the throne, and how much does he simply want his bloodline to rule Westeros? How much is Rhaenys siding with Rhaenyra to maintain the illusion her kids are Laenor’s, following her husband Corlys’ wishes, and how much does she still resent being passed over for the Iron Throne herself all those years ago? How much does Alicent unconsciously believe Aegon needs to be king to justify the unhappiness she’s endured and the futility of her self-sacrifice over the years?

Some of these answers are obvious, but for many characters, the answers are tantalizingly unknown, which is what has made House of the Dragon so great and one of the elements that made the original Game of Thrones such a hit. It’s a testament to HotD that “The Green Council” makes Alicent so wonderfully understandable and sympathetic in the episode even as she calls her son an imbecile when he asks if she loves him. She’s trying to do the right thing by her husband, the realm, and even Rhaenyra, she’s finally resisting her father, and yet still forcing herself to continually propagate the social system that imprisoned her through duty. She’s hardly a hero, but she’s trying to do better for the friend she once had and just reconnected with, and the husband she had affection for and likely never loved.

It won’t last, of course. Rhaenyra will feel incredibly betrayed by her former friend, especially after they just made up. She’ll fight for her throne, and both she and Alicent will suffer for it, which will make them angrier and more determined to destroy the other, no matter the cost. Next week is the first season finale of House of the Dragon, but whatever happens, it’s only just begun — and it’s unlikely any heroes will emerge from it unscathed.

Pictured, left to right: Ærryk ad Ærryk. (Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO)
Pictured, left to right: Ærryk ad Ærryk. (Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO)

Assorted Musings:

  • Just FYI, HBO has announced it won’t be giving out screeners ahead of next week’s season one finale — although I can imagine a couple of sites that might get a “sneak peek” — so I’ll be watching along with you guys and writing it that night. Expect it sometime Monday morning.
  • God, I don’t want to talk about Larys’ foot fetish or how Alicent has clearly gotten into the habit of allowing him to jerk off to her feet in return for his various nefarious services. It’s as gratuitous as it is gross, and it’s a testament to how good the episode is otherwise that I still loved it.
  • Aemond gets some wonderful character work when he takes Criston to the whorehouse. He purposefully offends Criston on the way there, but when alone with the madam, who taunts him about his visit, awkwardly freezes up.
  • By the end of the episode, Ærryk chooses to leave King’s Landing to presumably fight for Rhaenyra, while Ærryk stays behind. I’m sure an Ærryk fight is in House of the Dragon’s future, which feels so George R.R. Martin it makes my teeth hurt.
  • The creepy Helaena sewing a cross-stitch of a spider made me genuinely laugh out loud. She’s such an unapologetic weirdo! The girl is dying to shop at a Hot Topic and she doesn’t even know it.

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