also “A sign of intelligence is an awareness of one’s own ignorance.” – Niccolo Machiavelli
Viserys (Paddy Considine) is a fool. But he is a fool with power and isn’t aware that he is a fool with power. I don’t expect him to think of himself as a fool, but I do expect him to assess the situations he is in with some sense of what he does and doesn’t know. I expect him to assess the options laid out before him and have an understanding of the potential consequences before making a decision. That he should do so flawlessly is not the expectation. That he should be able to foresee whether he made the right decision or not is not the expectation. But he needs to make a fucking decision.
Viserys lacks genuine self-awareness of his shortcomings as a leader and so when he does make a decision, it usually comes from a haphazard point of view. He named Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) as heir to the Iron Throne, but as she correctly notes, he didn’t do so out of genuine support for her, or out of strategy for that matter. He did so because he wanted to spurn Daemon (Matt Smith). And then, then what? He never followed through on what it actually meant to name Rhaenyra as his heir. He never followed through with any political machinations that would make the first female heir a more palatable political proposition in this patriarchal society. He treated his daughter like a servant and then married her best friend (Emily Carey) and still, made no contingency plan for what would happen if he had a male heir.
At heart, Viserys hates having to make difficult decisions or have difficult conversations, which would usually suggest that kingship is probably not the job he is suited for. And even here, when he stood at the Great Council of Harrenhal with his wife Aemma (Sian Brooke), he had the choice to say no. He had the choice to say that he didn’t want to be king, that he wasn’t suited for that position, that it should go to Rhaenys (Eve Best). But that, ah, that would have been a difficult conversation and he couldn’t have that. So here we are, with Viserys going on a royal hunt and not wanting to do any of the actual job that he, to some degree, chose.
There are moments where Viserys breaks through. He admits that it was his obsession with having a male heir that killed Aemma. He also admits that he married Alicent because he cared for her, even though it was politically the less rational choice. He holds steadfast that Rhaenyra is his heir. He begins, after multiple years, to mend his relationship with his daughter and heir but declarations alone do not win the game of thrones. And that, in spite of the spectacle that closes the episode out, is where the series truly, deeply shines.
The Targaryen court goes on a royal hunt and this hunt is structured around three elements. The first is Viserys’s drunken frustration at his reign spiraling out of control around him. The second is Rhaenyra’s isolation and pent up frustration that she is being tossed to the side without so much as a second glance because she now has a step-brother. The third, and less immediately notable one, is the political maneuverings happening all around the political center of the dragon. Each of those three elements is firing on all cylinders and this segment of the episode is an absolute banger. The character moments, the glances, the missed opportunities where some strike when the iron is hot and others forget to strike at all.
The moments that don’t work are the entire battle sequences in the Stepstones. The whole concept of a guerrilla warfare holding out more established armies has a pretty lengthy history in our world and in Westeros, most famously with the Dornish resistance to Targaryen conquest. But the concept of a guerrilla warfare holding out on a single island when being assaulted by an offensive force that includes dragons makes less sense, especially over a time period of multiple years. The action here is hollow and bombastic and save for some key relationships that will build in the future, comes across as an insignificant distraction from the more interesting episode elsewhere.
House of the Dragon has a tension between the political scenes that are its true backbones and the spectacle that Game of Thrones (largely for the worse) became known for. Outside of some logistical questions, the Stepstones sequences don’t work because the Crabfeeder (Daniel Scott-Smith) and the other Lysene pirates aren’t really characters. They’re actors in costume and there’s nothing about them that creates a sense of investment. There’s going to be a number of battle sequences in this series going forward, so spectacle will not be in short supply, but it should be spectacle that the audience cares about because the characters involved them are, well, characters.
What doesn’t help is the Orientalism on display here. The “we are being attacked by men from the East over there” trope is common to white, Western fantasy and has been for quite some time. Think of the Calormen (look at the name for a strong second) in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy. Or the wildly racist “evil brown men in turbans fighting with elephants” in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. The orientalism and exoticization of the East is a part of George R. R. Martin’s world and if that isn’t the author’s intent (I don’t think it is) then it doesn’t present itself as any sort of critique because the perspective of Eastern characters is nonexistent or, at best, minimal.
The Crabfeeder is a villain who does truly awful things to his victims but other than a cool face helmet design, he is not real, let alone a grounded, tangible threat. None of his men are characters either. They’re just a replication of a simpler threat who wear turbans and know how to shoot arrows. That’s it. If more Lysene characters are added down the road, that’ll be great because otherwise, so far, this just seems like a recreation of an old trope for no other reason than to have a little bit of action for the audience members, including some critics, who want more spectacle than conversation.
But the conversations are so good. It’s why I feel such a strong sense of who these characters are, even characters who are on screen so little they could snap away in a heartbeat if you’re not paying attention. The dialogue can be poetic or simple, but what matters is the essence it retains, the weight. When Rhaenyra asks Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) if the realm would accept her as queen, he responds with a simple “They’ll have no choice but to.” It conveys his mindset as it concerns his relationship with royalty. It also conveys his ability to understand the nature of what Rhaenyra’s position means and how lonely she is in having people with whom she can be honest. It communicates her trust in him that she would even consider asking him such a question.
The scene when Criston stabs the boar attacking Rhaenyra and she finishes the job with an unrestrained fury. When she returns to the hunting party, blood-soaked, with the dead boar rolled on a cart behind her. This sequence had a more thrilling effect than any moment of the War for the Stepstones. For the most part, the writers seem to understand the importance of characters over empty spectacle and this feels like more of an attempt to broaden the appeal for those who find the conversations dull. If the occasional shallow spectacle punctures this depth, that’s fine, but they would be wise to not make that a habit.
+ The shot of the hunting party returning to King’s Landing had a digital sheen to it that was distracting from the capital city as being a real place
+ That Westerosi sailor screaming for Ceraxes to save him right before he gets crushed by the dragon’s foot is fantastic. What a great little detail.
+ The War for the Stepstone is absolute nonsense, but Laenor (Theo Nate) on Seasmoke was great
+ No man has offered to kill a man who was annoying me to win my favor and I think that’s kind of rude, actually
+ “That man’s pride has pride.”
+ Hearing Alicent call Viserys “my love” is so uncomfortable
+ Viserys failing to kill the stag even when others were holding it down was reminiscent of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) failing to behead a man.
+ The chorus score accompanying Rhaenyra’s return to the hunting party is fantastic.