The Western literary tradition of the novel, as embodied by works such as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, often rests upon three elements. The character arcs are clearly defined by the end of the their respective journeys. The foreshadowing in acts one and two pays off in act three. And the ending must be definitive. These elements can, and often do, come together to deliver a satisfying approach to a story. But this approach isn’t always satisfying or the right approach to begin with and this is explored brilliant through the brilliance of House of the Dragon’s Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke).
In George R. R. Martin’s Fire and Blood, Alicent is largely a one-note, power-hungry evil stepmother who usurps the throne for her rapist son Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney). She detests Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and is perceived to be in lockstep with her conniving father Otto (Rhys Ifans). Here, the writers have wisely chosen to go against the clearly defined character arc. They instead give us a version of Alicent whose contradictions unravel rapidly.
Everyone on House of the Dragon believes in a system and the institutions that inhabit said system. Alicent’s life has been shaped by the particulars of Westerosi patriarchy and aristocracy. As she understands, there are a set of obligations she to fulfill as a woman within that system, which she upholds. She obeys her father, her husband, and the society that confirms her belief only men could sit on the Iron Throne. However, over the course of episodes seven and eight, her assumption of this system’s stability shattered.
The exhaustion first truly broke through in last week’s last supper. She was sincere in her toast to Rhaenyra for her being a good queen. Then came the deteriorating condition of Viserys (Paddy Considine). She endured the beheading of her eldest Vaemond (Wil Johnson), whom she had touted as king not that long ago before losing her favor as a serial rapist. “You’re no son of mine,” she had breathed and toasted Rhaenyra upon accepting her fate. Viserys then mistook Alicent for Rhaenyra, so her underlying internalized misogyny came roaring back to the forefront.
In an instant, everything that Alicent had assumed to be true prior to her cracking a bit clicked back into place. She found a certain reassurance that what she had been taught for so long, what she had acquiesced to for so long, what she had lived her life by for so long, was not completely wrong and false. But then, right at the beginning of the episode, Alicent had to confront the violence that is inherent to protecting a patriarchal society. She therefore starts to unravel again.
Zealots have a contradictory relationship to violence and one that, to many reasonable people, can read as being utterly asinine. On one hand, zealots so strongly believe in a particular idea of what a society should look like that they simply cannot fathom a price that is too high to pay for such a society to exist. On the other hand, some zealots cling to the purity of their ideals so strongly that anything that would be seen as anathema to social norms. Propriety is, to them, abhorrent. You can’t have both.
Alicent has wanted to install her rapist son as King of the Seven Kingdoms for quite some time–Rhaenyra’s claim be damned. But how she thought that would happen falls within that contradiction. It’s a naïveté that is born from a lack of self-awareness that zealotry needs to breathe and sustain itself. After the thawing of enmity in last week’s episode, the thought of murdering Rhaenyra and her family rightfully bothers Alicent. At the same time, she recognizes that the likelihood of Rhaenyra and Daemon bending the knee to her rapist son are negative at best. It bothers her, how to proceed in all of this, as it should. But then what did she think would happen?
Rhaenys (Eve Best), who possesses a key ability to read people, realizes this internal conflict eating Alicent up on the inside. So she points out, firmly as if hiding a smile beneath her face, that Alicent sacrifices and toils away for men and not herself. That she, in spite of possessing political intelligence, is using it only in service of her husband, her father, her son. “Have you ever imagined yourself on the Iron Throne?” Asks the Queen Who Never Was. You can feel her triumph as she sees her question burrow into Alicent’s mind.
Alicent, free from her belief in her father’s propriety, executes her power and secures Aegon before he does. But she still is servicing the patriarchy by putting her rapist son on the throne. There’s a hint of tragedy that even now her agency isn’t serving her. And to what end? The grand triumph of Aegon’s crowning lasts for about two seconds before Rhaenys comes crashing through the floor of the Dragonpit, killing at least a thousand civilians and causing a mass panic and stampede to boot. So carefully Alicent planned to provide Aegon with every symbol of soft power in order to build his legitimacy through symbolic imagery. And the hard power of a dragon destroys it all.
+ There is a curious running theme in the show where people say what they believe needs to be said but make the mistake of going one step further than they should.
+ “Do you love me?” / “You imbecile.” What an exchange.
+ Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) and Halaena (Phia Saban) are both disgusted when Aegon is crowned and, well, same.
+ Alicent telling Aegon that he should ignore Otto’s advice to assassinate Rhaenyra because “we should not rule with cruelty or callousness.”
+ Otto is so smug before Rhaenys’s entrance, but it is worth noting that a lot of his power plays are extremely short-sighted.
+ Rhaenys’s decision to not Dracarys the Greens doesn’t bother me because kinslaying is a serious moral crime, but maybe giving Eve Best some dialogue on that would have made that clearer to the audience because it easily comes across as a bombastic tv scene where the spectacle overtakes the logic.
+ The central thrust of tension between Alicent and Otto to find Aegon isn’t there, in large part because the show did such a poor job of establishing the Cargyll twins (Luke Tittensor and Elliott Tittensor) as recognizable, tangible characters before this episode.
+ I appreciate the complexity of all the layers between Alicent and Larys (Matthew Needham) in the now infamous foot scene, but unless Larys becomes more of a character, it felt, well, uncomfortable and not in the right ways.
+ Sonoya Mizuno’s Mysaria had a great week, but more on her in a separate piece.
+ “It is our fate, l I think, to crave always what is given to another.” More prophetic words from Halaena and no mistake that they are spoken while Alicent is on the screen.
+ “You desire not to be free, but to make a window in the wall of your prison.” It doesn’t get better than this, folks.
+ “There is no power but what the people allow you to take.”
+ “Reluctance to murder is not a weakness!”