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House of the Dragon never lets you forget the ways men objectify women

“The Green Council” gives us fights, flights, a fetish, a fire, and feminism.

Alicent (Olivia Cooke) is stuck between a rock (Rhys Ifans) and a hard place (Fabien Frankel) on the latest episode of HBO’s House of the Dragon.
Ollie Upton/HBO
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

After decades of preparation for this moment, the denizens of the Red Keep were somehow largely unprepared for the events of House of the Dragon’s ninth episode, following the death of King Viserys. “The Green Council” shows Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke) realizing, to her horror, that her father Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) has spent years plotting with members of the king’s council to enact a coup the moment her husband died — without letting her in on any of it.

House of the Dragon has but one episode remaining in its first season, and thus it had a lot to accomplish in its penultimate offering. It might seem an odd narrative choice, then, for the episode to take as much time as it does simply trying to find one character (Aegon, Alicent’s son and the would-be rival to Rhaenyra’s throne, after it becomes apparent no one knows where he is). But much like other episodes this season, a lot is happening when it seems like very little is happening onscreen. Here we see the factions that have long been developing now spring into action — but with unexpected friction between that allied father and daughter, as it becomes clear how very different their ethical lines are.

This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon, episode nine, “The Green Council.”

An episode full of narrative non sequiturs

Episode nine opens with the king’s small council meeting in secret to discuss the death of Viserys — at which point, to the shock and horror of several of the council members including Alicent, other council members, including Alicent’s father, openly begin to map out the logistics of their well-planned coup. Forget Princess Rhaenyra’s claim; it’s Aegon time.

When one member of the council, Lord Beesbury (Bill Paterson), protests, he’s immediately horrifically dispatched by Ser Criston (Fabien Frankel). Ser Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish), the head of the King’s Watch, objects as well but is allowed to leave. The remaining council members move forward with their plans to capture Dragonstone and imprison Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and Daemon (Matt Smith) there, over Alicent’s outraged objections.

This episode takes a lot of peculiar narrative leaps. One of the oddest is that for this coup to even work, Rhaenyra and Daemon have to be completely out of the city and well-ensconced at Dragonstone, even though they were just at the castle the night before. Rhaenyra told Alicent in the previous episode that she planned to leave immediately, see the kids home, and then fly right back again. But did they really hop on dragons and fly away just after dinner, with their three kids and an entire entourage? Even if we assume an easy trip, it seems a stretch that Rhaenyra wouldn’t wait around till the morning at least, to say goodbye to her father. However odd, Rhaenyra and Daemon are suddenly conveniently without any way of hearing that Viserys has died.

Still, their proximity means time is not on the side of the coup, so when it becomes clear Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) isn’t in the castle, both Otto and Alicent send their best men to discreetly look for him in the disreputable parts of town. Alicent sends Criston and her far more capable second son Aemond (Ewan Mitchell); Otto sends Arryk and Erryk Cargyll (Luke and Elliott Tittensor), two identical twins whose musings about Aegon’s debauchery give us a view from the trenches of the battle for the throne. Ultimately, after they all swordfight about it, Criston and Aemond haul a resisting, tantrum-throwing Aegon back to Alicent.

Here again, is another weird leap: It’s unclear why it matters which of them finds Aegon first, since they both want to make him king. The answer ultimately seems to be that whoever finds Aegon will be able to control him, specifically what he’ll do to Rhaenyra and Daemon. Or at least, that’s what Alicent seems to think — that once her terrible son is on the throne, he’ll follow her advice and do whatever she suggests. For Alicent, that means making a peaceful treaty with Rhaenyra and Daemon and not doing anything rash like imprisoning his half sister or worse.

This is a completely delusional idea.

But then, perhaps the biggest narrative leap of all is that Alicent is so shocked and unprepared for the coup her father has been planning. We’ve joked repeatedly about how this show is literally Succession with Dragons, but that’s because the question of who will succeed Viserys truly is the entire show. The time jumps have covered a period of 15–20 years or so. With the exception of rousting the Crab Feeder, which took a grand total of two episodes, during that entire time, nothing else has happened except people debating who should rule Westeros while maneuvering themselves into position for this very moment.

Alicent has had years to think about what would happen now, and what kind of violence would have to occur in order for her ickle son to sit on the Iron Throne. Yet she reacts with blank astonishment to the unfolding playbook that she must, on some level, have surely known was coming.

The question of how much Alicent knew and when she knew it carries over to another strange part of this episode — the subplot involving Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), an underworld figure also known as the White Worm. In episode eight, we saw Alicent’s lady-in-waiting visiting Mysaria right before a scene of Alicent nursing the weak Viserys on his deathbed, offering him tea. Earlier in the episode, we saw the same maid deliver another type of tea to her — an abortifacient she served to a girl who’d been sexually assaulted by Aegon. So Alicent’s maid knows where to get illicit potions, and Alicent’s maid is also in touch with Mysaria, King’s Landing superspy. In this week’s episode, pre-bludgeoning, Beesbury accused the other members of the council of conspiring to poison Viserys. Granted, Viserys could easily have died naturally, but the implication is that Alicent’s maid is working for someone who wanted Viserys dead, and Mysaria may or may not know who that someone is.

But other events in this episode call all of that into question. One of them is that when Mysaria hears Otto is looking for Aegon, she arranges a meeting, and the two seem to have never met one another before. Is that a carefully arranged public charade, or are they truly strangers?

Mysaria uses this meeting to negotiate Aegon’s handover to Otto in exchange for freedom for an enclave of orphans who, we learn, are being bred as fighters for gladiator-style death matches. Aegon, it seems, not only attends these barbaric matches but has been secretly breeding kids of his own to use as dogs in the fight. Mysaria extracts a vague politician’s promise from Otto to look into the problem. (He won’t.)

But Mysaria has bigger problems on her hands thanks to Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), who’s somehow only gotten creepier and more pathological since we last saw him burning his father and brother alive. Informing Alicent that he has choice information for her, he makes her remove her stockings down to her bare feet. In a repulsive session that’s apparently a whole Thing between the two of them, the queen of Westeros subjects herself to her own Master of Whispers — or whatever you call it when a dude is extorting you for fetish material — jerking off in front of her feet.

Larys’s information is bafflingly anticlimactic: He reveals to Alicent that her maid is working for Mysaria, but shares nothing about the role she might have played in Viserys’s death. Alicent is once again shocked that there’s palace intrigue in this palace, but (perhaps because she’s in the middle of being sexually violated) doesn’t really link any connection between Mysaria, her maid, and Viserys’s death. Instead, she lets Larys handle it his way. Later, we see Mysaria’s swanky downtown establishment, her spy command center masked as a brothel, going up in flames.

Again, we’re forced to ask: Did Alicent really have no idea? If she didn’t, then was her maid’s visit to Mysaria just a giant red herring?

If Alicent were a more reliable narrator, we might be on firmer ground when it came to parsing this new information. But Alicent isn’t really in control of her own story. Even when she’s trying to exert control, she’s inevitably limited by the men around her and the way they perceive her.

Men (okay, these four specific men) are monsters

Every episode of this show contains a different thesis about the ways misogyny undermines society, and this week that thesis is “look how misogyny turns love toxic.” Each of the men in Alicent’s life objectify her, and at every point in this episode, her efforts to rule and dictate her own fate get hampered, either subtly or overtly, by their profound inability to recognize her as their equal.

The most obvious instance of this occurs when Alicent finally confronts her father about his plans for Rhaenyra. We’ve previously discussed Alicent’s inconsistent sense of morality, but in this episode she acknowledges, for the first time, that her father has used her all along to enact his own amoral agenda. “I wanted whatever you impressed upon me to want,” she tells him, “and now the debt comes to you.”

Otto, however, seems incapable of truly processing that Alicent is declaring her wish to act without him, and if necessary against him. After repeatedly condescending to her, implying she’s weak for being unwilling to murder the entire Velaryon clan — an act he minimizes as “unsavory” — he drops the ultimate patronizing insult: “You look so much like your mother.” This isn’t sentiment, but Otto’s way of reminding Alicent that her role is to be charming, sexy, and produce children, not get in the way of political rebellions.

Alicent could feasibly counter this sexism by using her son as her mouthpiece — but Aegon, a drunk lecherous manbaby who literally says “I want my mum” when he’s finally dragged out of his hiding place, seems even less likely to listen to his mom than Otto. This is a man who seems to have never properly considered for a single second that he could wind up ruling the throne, despite Alicent repeatedly warning him of this very possibility. While she’s in the middle of trying to tell him how she wants him to deal with Rhaenyra, he cuts her off with a plaintive, “Do you love me?”

To Aegon, Alicent can only ever be his mother — which means in this context that she provides, protects, pampers him, and shelters him from the consequences of his own actions. Her horrified “you are no son of mine” in response to finding out that he raped a young servant clearly fazed him not at all; instead of rethinking his ways, he’s been personally siring an orphan-fighting ring. The sheer fact that Alicent wants him to rule Westeros validates all of Aegon’s worst character traits while ironically giving him the best reason of all to question his mom’s judgment. He expects her to do what she’s always done — come running when he needs her, and look on, helpless but loving, when he doesn’t.

How much control can she possibly exert over him?

She runs into this problem of control, even with men who ostensibly serve her. Both Larys and Ser Criston objectify her in completely opposite but still grossly reductive ways that ultimately trap her into a performance for them, at her expense. Since his one-time dalliance with Rhaenyra, Criston seems to have doubled down on his vow of virginity and replaced his childhood love affair with total veneration of Alicent. “Every woman is an image of the mother, to be spoken of with reverence,” he tells Aemond when they’re out searching brothels for Aegon — forgetting he’s called Rhaenyra every kind of sexist slur. Alicent is able to transmute Criston’s loyalty into service, just as she’s able to use Larys’s lust to barter info, but she can do that only as long as she stays on the Madonna side of Criston’s giant Madonna/whore complex.

Given the “unsavory” things she’ll likely have to do to secure her son’s path to the throne, how long will she be able to do that?

Then again, this is a woman who tells Rhaenys (Eve Best) with a straight face that supporting her imbecilic serial rapist son will bring peace to the realm. For all Rhaenys calls her wise, Alicent compartmentalizes just as much as Viserys did. She should know that if she can’t even keep the castle’s creeper from masturbating to her feet, or get her own father to treat her like an equal, she’s not going to be able to keep her newly crowned son from laying waste to Westeros.

Aemond knows this; he spends the time hunting for Aegon muttering about how much better a king he’d be. But Aemond, while he might be smarter and stronger and braver, is also vengeful and violent. Alicent might have spent the last 20 years trying to instill better values in her children, but it’s not clear if any of them have ever really listened to her. “There’s a beast beneath the boards!” her daughter Helaena (Phia Saban) tells her urgently, just as she did earlier. Aegon’s sister/wife could be referring to Rhaenys’s dragon, who later explodes out of the keep through the middle of the castle, demolishing part of the great hall during Aegon’s coronation, letting Alicent and her children go with a warning.

But it seems more likely Helaena is referring both to this specific event and to something larger and more metaphorical — something rotten in the state of Westeros that began when Viserys placed his son ahead of his wife, forcing her to become a brutal sacrifice.

Alicent, consequently, has spent her whole life putting men ahead of her — the Westerosi equivalent of leaning in. If she’s ever to really be free of her royal prison, she might have to take a lesson from Rhaenys: Bust through the (stone) ceiling.

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