“We must bear in mind, then, that there is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state. For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things, whilst those who expect to be benefited by the new institutions will be but lukewarm defenders.”
– Niccolo Machiavelli
Fairy tales were once stories of warning, of caution. Their purpose was often to teach children about the dangers of the world they would one day grow old enough to witness and experience. That their lives would not be long made that purpose even more urgent. The magic, the talking animals, and the air of majesty were ultimately the sweets that made the medicine go down more easily. And then, over time, fairy tales changed. The sweet became not just the overwhelming flavor, but also the lesson. The prince would come to save the day. The princess and her handsome lover would escape the bounds of traditions and live in romantic bliss. A wedding in Westeros would end without bloodshed.
Charmaine DeGraté’s script for the fifth episode of House of the Dragon does an excellent job traversing through the journeys of our characters. We learn firsthand what it means for their fairy tales to come to bitter and horrific ends. As the episode comes to a close, a whole score of dreams are lying in tatters and the innocence has been killed. On one hand, the fairy tales they have are ones that they should have known better than to cling to, especially considering who they are and the point they’re at in their lives. But to cling to fairy tales for too long is an unhealthy practice to which many of us can relate. Living in fantasy is one thing. Living is another.
Alicent’s (Emily Carey) reality is so catastrophic she has to cling to a fairy tale where right and wrong is clear as day and night. It’s a fairy tale where propriety will provide clarity in her life, a fairy tale where the Faith of the Seven can tell her what is moral and what is not. But, all alone, she finds herself besieged by opportunists with calculated political manoeuvres who have long ago abandoned such fairy tales (albeit one, but we’ll save that point for later in the series). But when Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) speaks, doubts seep into Alicent’s mind, doubts that are only augmented and exacerbated when Criston (Fabien Frankel) confesses that he did indeed sleep with Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock).
Alicent’s biggest fairy tale was that her relationship with Rhaenyra wouldn’t change after her father’s (Rhys Ifans) machinations bore fruit and she became the queen. It’s relatable–so, so relatable. She was so alone. Her father was never warm and she had no friend except for Rhaenyra. Caught between her father and friend, she did her duty, but duty and propriety did not provide clarity. Instead, it made Alicent’s life worse and the one friendship she had fell apart. And as she clung to it, jealousy seeped in: about the options Rhaenyra had at her disposal and she never did, about the youth of Laenor (Theo Nate), and the decaying Viserys (Paddy Considine).
Rhaenyra lied to her. She believes that Viserys lied to her. Her father’s reputation was ruined on slander to let Rhaenyra continue to flaunt her property. Ever since Rhaenyra accidentally pointed out how horrific her life was, that thought seeped into her mind and deepened with every moment, every day. Her days are filled with tending to her crying children and to Viserys. The tapestries of sex all around her only serve to mock. And to top that off, her father’s dire warning that she needs to prepare Aegon to rule or hope that Rhaenyra (or unspoken, Daemon) would not kill her children as they were threats to her rule. Her feeling deepened that everyone was simply using her to their own ends, their own gains. That no one actually cared about her. And all of it bubbled upwards and snapped. She had to look out for herself. She had to care for herself. And that is the Alicent who walks into the throne room mid-speech and declares, in her deep emerald gown, war.
Rhaenyra’s fairy tale wedding was of a different type, the kind where her and her husband do their duty to the realm and have their own romances on the side. Rhaenyra can have Ser Criston Cole or whomever and Laenor can continue sleeping with men. It’s a quiet and beautiful scene of solidarity but of course, this being the series that it is, that arrangement hits its first major catastrophe at, of course, a wedding. Ramin Djawadi’s phenomenal score builds and builds as the drum shifts from celebration to dread and an evening that was largely going to plan erupts into violence when Criston brutally murders Laenor’s lover Joffrey (Solly McLeod) by bashing his face in.
Criston’s fairy tale was that he and Rhaneyra would run away to Essos and that would be the end of things. It’s a fantasy that even he knew had no chance of coming to life. A part of him felt that it would restore his honour after he broke the Kingsguard oath of chastity. But a larger part of him is responding to a feeling of emasculation, a feeling that by centering her own pleasure, Rhaenyra is treating him the way Westerosi society at large treats women and especially women who are sex workers. It feels to him like an existential threat to the masculinity his Kingsguard armour provides. When Alicent seems to question him about this in her chambers and Joffrey later approaches him, Criston begins to believe that the story of his shame and emasculation has circulated all over the court. And in this climbing anger, shame, and resentment, his toxic masculinity breaks with the expected violent results.
On its own, Joffrey’s death doesn’t have an impact. He was barely a character and outside of him being observational enough to pick up on Criston being Rhaenyra’s lover, he doesn’t have much of a presence. But while the impact of his murder on some of our characters is obvious, the impact on the audience of yet another tragic gay murder deserves consideration.
The image of Joffrey’s tattered face lying open like it was made of Jell-o felt disrespectful. The shot of his hand lying listless on the stone floor made it evident enough that he was dead. This shot seems bizarre after the episode smartly avoided showing Lady Rhea’s (Rachel Redford) final moments. But the worse shot came shortly afterwards, with a bereft Laenor weeping over his lover’s dead body. It’s a shot queer people are quite familiar with, a shot that has in story after story after story made clear that queer people will find love for a brief moment in time and because the world is so hostile to us, that love will only end in tragedy.
At its heart, it’s a matter of respect. Respect for marginalized characters and an understanding that the spectrum of experiences and characterizations afforded to cis, straight characters should be afforded to everyone else. That Joffrey is murdered makes sense for the story and how it will progress and in and of itself is not the issue. But in those two shots, House of the Dragon reveals that it lacks a cultural context for homophobia and queerness in storytelling. And in a series that has explicitly built in conversations around social contexts of gender, those two shots feel particularly galling and heartbreaking.
It’s a failure of George R. R. Martin in Fire and Blood and it’s a failure of House of the Dragon.
+ With this episode, we say goodbye to Milly Alcock and Emily Carey, who brought Rhaenyra and Alicent to beautiful, vivid life. I look forward to seeing them in future projects.
+ Machiavelli was wrong in his assessment of new systems being defended by lukewarm defenders and why he was wrong on this particular count is a question worth thinking about.
+ Shoutout to Rachel Redford, who left such an impression in just one scene.
+ It’s really rich of Otto to talk about the danger Rhaenyra poses to Alicent’s children considering that he pushed Alicent into that position in the first place.
+ Oh Larys, my beloved shit stirrer with botanical knowledge to boot.
+ Charmaine is an icon for using “I prefer roast duck to goose” as a metaphor for sexuality.
+ “I am the crown, Ser Criston.”
+ Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes) is right: what is a song sung about you if your life lacks peace?
+ Great foreshadowing of Criston’s turn in an earlier episode: “Do you want me to kill him?” he asks when Rhaenyra complains about Jason Lannister (Jefferson Hall).