Those in a position of power would rather burn everything to the ground than cede their power. That is often true, as a jaded Rhaenys (Eve Best) states bluntly to Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), men would rather torch the realm than allow a woman to ascend the Iron Throne. Whiteness would rather torch the realm than allow People of Color equity in wealth and rights. It is a paradox that ultimately results in people in a socially beneficial position of power torching the very society that gave them that power.
That’s partially why the trope of the reluctant leader, the reluctant hero, is such abject nonsense. Presenting power in a binary is an easy way to establish morality in simple tales but more often than not is a wild misunderstanding of what power actually is. If you don’t want power, that makes you a paragon of morality and even if that morality costs you your head (cough, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), cough), it is still the righteous path to choose. If you want power, if you crave it, then you have already harkened towards the pathway of darkness and you are essentially fucked.
That understanding of power belongs to (a) children and (b) adults who benefit from structural and social power. It’s why, in large part, the ending to Game of Thrones was such a catastrophe. It abandoned a more complex and nuanced understanding of power in favor of an exceedingly boring and politically dim-witted protagonist who was the good guy because he didn’t want to be king. And the woman who did want power ended up committing genocide cause some bells went off or something.
In House of the Dragon, its more centralized focus on House Targaryen and its family dynamics have allowed for that theme to become much more focused. Power here is not merely a function of either wanting it or not wanting it and therefore being bad and good, respectively. Desiring power is a function of survival. Molding power is a function of survival. Maintaining power is a function of autonomy.
Rhaenys understands this. Allowing Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) to climb the ladder uninterrupted threatens her survival, the survival of her husband (Steve Toussaint), and House Velaryon as a whole. She’s not an idiot – she knows exactly why Otto refuses to accept Corlys’s demands for the Crown to defend the shipping lanes that are key to House Velaryon’s wealth. If their shipping lines and trade routes collapse, their House collapses and no matter how much talk there is of noble blood, their power would be finished. Once their House has collapsed, the Crown can swoop in and build diamonds out of the rubble.
Corlys knows that Otto sees him as a threat to his own power. He knows that Otto is rankled that Corlys, a man who made his wealth by actually working for it and not just accumulating it through inheritance, is sitting on the Small Council as his equal. I wouldn’t be surprised if Otto is rankled at the mere suggestion that Corlys, a Black man from the East, is considered in Westeros to be his equal. Corlys did not build his house into the wealthiest in the realm only for a man like Otto to swoop in and destroy it. Either he obtains power or he dies. It really is either or. Cersei’s (Lena Headey) famous line from Game of Thrones comes to mind: when you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die.
One would then ask about the point of playing such a game in the first place. It’s a valid question but for most people, there isn’t even the opportunity to play a game that can determine so many futures with the blink of an eye. But there are always going to be people who love playing that game and for reasons that are best morally reprehensible. So where does that leave people who find themselves with such an opportunity or crave the chance to create such an opportunity?
The binary theory of power would say that well, sucks to suck. You’re just screwed so make the best of it without wanting power. But you can’t do that. When Rhaenys spells out the patriarchy that is the status quo, it’s partially out of love for Rhaenyra, caution for a young girl about to become a woman of considerable political power, and bitterness at being removed from the line of succession all on account of her gender. Rhaenyra refuses to simply accept the status quo and in Rhaenys’s advice recognizes an opportunity to display some power of her own.
What Otto was thinking of accomplishing with yet another short-sighted plan, who knows. But Rhaenyra is able to talk Daemon (Matt Smith) down without a single drop of blood and not even Viserys (Paddy Considine) could downplay the significance of that achievement. But he does manage to completely crash all of the effort Rhaenyra had made to salvage their relationship by announcing a completely politically boneheaded move, one that is arguably going to be the biggest mistake of his reign. He will not wed Laena Velaryon (Nova Foueillis-Mosé) because she’s twelve but he will marry Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), who is fifteen. In one fell swoop, he shatters his bond with Rhaenyra and the one between his daughter and the person who seemed to be her only friend.
Viserys doesn’t have to think about power in the way that Rhaenyra does, in the way that Rhaenys does, in the way Corlys does. He’s at the top of the hierarchy and while he knows that he is far too incompetent to be anywhere near a position that allows him to dictate decisions affecting millions of people, he doesn’t truly question it. Westerosi society allows him to believe that it is only natural that he as a white man sit atop the Iron Throne and who is he to say otherwise. It’s why he can’t think more than the step he is taking in that moment and allows his two most powerful antagonists to combine forces into one. Corlys has been insulted for the last time.
- Milly Alcock is truly exceptional in this episode and while I’m eager for Emma D’Arcy’s Rhaenyra to launch this story into larger fireworks, I will truly miss her phenomenal embodiment of this character. When she looked at Alicent at the end of the episode, you could see their friendship shattering in her eyes. Great, great stuff.
- It is kind of astonishing to see someone make so many irresponsibly wrong-headed decisions in a row, but Viserys is truly making a strong case for the most incomprehensibly pig-headed ruler in all of on screen Westerosi kings so far.
- Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) displays an apt understanding of power where Daemon does not: where Daemon was trying to get his brother’s attention, he lied about his wedding to Mysaria and also about her being pregnant. As she notes in a sharp rebuke, he can afford to play games with Viserys as a valuable a member of House Targaryen but she, having spent so much time being sold off as a slave and running in terror, cannot. As the King’s brother and uncle to the named Heir to the Iron Throne, he is valuable to the power structure. She is not.
- The visuals are just chef’s kiss. That ripple through the clouds before Syrax reveals herself above Dragonstone is the stuff dreams are made of.
- That conversation where Laena talks about not having to bed the King until she was fourteen was so uncomfortable. Seven hells.