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House of the Dragon continues to expose the misogyny of Westeros

House of the Dragon’s second episode makes it clear you ignore women at your own peril.

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Emily Carey as Alicent Hightower, treading a precarious path to the throne in 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.

Throughout “The Rogue Prince,” the second episode of House of the Dragon, the writers are showing us their hand — and it’s not the one holding the dragon egg.

Note: This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon, “The Rogue Prince.”

The story of the troubled Targaryen dynasty so far has focused primarily on the issue of succession and who will be the next heir to King Viserys (Paddy Considine). This episode moves further afield from the throne, drawing our attention toward nascent political and military squabbles arising along the borders of Westeros and the Free Cities of Essos. Still, although the titular “rogue prince” in question, Daemon (Matt Smith), does a lot of saber-rattling (and egg-tossing), thematically the focus remains firmly on the women of the royal court and their relationship to the king’s quest for a successor.

So far, House of the Dragon has kept this central conflict from becoming boring and predictable mainly by pinpointing different horrifying aspects of its inherent misogyny. In the first episode, Viserys’s desperation for an heir led him to knowingly sacrifice his wife’s life in a brutal childbirth scene, in the vain hope of saving her unborn son. Since that gamble didn’t pay off, his episode finds him considering — albeit not without a degree of horror — marrying a 12-year-old girl at the behest of his political allies.

The central issue with all of these ploys is that Viserys already has an heir — his teenage daughter, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock). We’ve unpacked that plenty already, but suffice it to say that nobody really believes that Rhaenyra is the heir, and without the support of the court to back her, she has a long, hard fight ahead of her.

This dilemma is currently the series’s central animating conflict, but plenty pops up in this episode to distract us from it: Cool dragons, cool dragon eggs, Daemon trolling everyone by randomly stealing a cool dragon egg from the castle, the 50-something Viserys trying to have a serious conversation with said 12-year-old about marriage, and a mysterious new goth villain called the Crabfeeder for some reasoh my god are those crabs eating people while they’re alive?!?!

Still, despite serving us this intriguing cornucopia of stuff, the writers never take their eye off the question of successorship and how that issue is impacting the women of the royal court. What’s more, nearly every scene reminds us that the men of the court view the women around them as tools first and people second. By the end of the episode, the only non-transactional relationship onscreen — that of Rhaenyra and her best friend at court, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey) — will be forever altered.

The women of the royal court are all pawns

Throughout “The Rogue Prince,” all of the male characters have moments where they give the whole game away — where they reveal that the women around them are valuable primarily as chess pieces for them to maneuver. Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) and his wife Rhaenys (Eve Best) offer Viserys a marriage to their 12-year-old daughter Laena, coaching her into trying to entice the king during a painfully awkward conversation. (It’s okay, she assures him, because she won’t have to sleep with him until she’s 14.) Viserys is mortified by the prospect of taking such a young girl as his bride, but politically speaking, if there were any non-abhorrent way to ally with the powerful Velaryons, this would clearly be the optimal choice.

Meanwhile, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) has been steadily grooming his 18-year-old daughter Alicent to be the queen’s replacement. To be clear, both marriages are unconscionable; neither Laena nor Alicent are being given any choices here, and coercing an 18-year-old into marrying a 50-year-old man is only nominally less morally reprehensible than trafficking a 12-year-old. The special parenting style that sees Otto dressing his daughter in her dead mother’s clothes in order to pimp her out to the king has apparently driven Alicent to bite her nails to the quick, leaving them bloody. “Why do you destroy yourself?” Otto asks her at one point — then immediately follows up by asking her if she’ll see the king tonight, because his primary concern is that her self-harming is a hindrance to her capturing the king.

Even Daemon, far removed from the court’s machinations, tries to exert control over women. As a pretext for his somewhat quixotic quest to steal an egg from his brother for funsies, he creates a fake pregnancy for his lover Mysaria, without telling her. The men view women primarily as bodies, and those bodies are primarily at their disposal. “You are my only heir — you could have been killed!” Viserys tells Rhaenyra after she retrieves the dragon egg from Daemon. Note the order of these two sentences. Rhaenyra is Viserys’s successor first and his daughter second. As with her mother before her, his priority is protecting the heir before the woman.

But if his priority is protecting his heir, no one else prioritizes the heir at all. At the end of the last episode, we saw men from across the realm swear fealty to Rhaenyra. But again and again through this episode, we see that not only does the king’s small council completely reject the idea that Rhaenyra will actually be the next heir, but Viserys barely seems to believe it himself. If he did, surely he’d be more concerned about actually training her rather than finding a replacement for his wife. Instead, he repeatedly allows his council members to dismiss Rhaenyra and her opinions, allows them to send her away on busywork when she tries to offer up her own suggestions for problem-solving, and treats her primarily as a recalcitrant child when she solves problems in her own way.

Rhaenyra’s not dumb — she knows the king would choose a male heir if he could. “He didn’t choose me, he spurned Daemon,” she says to Alicent at one point. Still, Rhaenyra seems to believe she can Field of Dreams her way to a harmonious rulership even with people who have prematurely rejected her as their leader.

Rhaenys, best positioned to understand the truth about Rhaenyra’s role as heir given her own thwarted chances at the crown, attempts to warn her about what’s coming and tries to level with her. But in the context of pimping out her own daughter, it comes across to Rhaenyra as a condescending power play.

“I understand the order of things. I’m not sure you do,” Rhaenys tells her, having learned to lean all the way out.

“When I’m queen, I will create a new order,” Rhaenyra responds. She doesn’t yet get it; she will.

Viserys just isn’t good at making decisions or understanding his fracturing court

The fact Viserys is wife-hunting at all should tell Rhaenyra exactly how precarious her situation at court is. Her father is trapped in the past, more focused on reconstructing a huge model of Old Valyria rather than on looking forward and preparing her to rule. It’s quite possible that the Iron Throne itself is losing metaphorical respect for Viserys, by way of trying to kill him: In the first episode, we saw Viserys with a wound on his back; now he has a rotting finger. In the book, this is a wound he receives after slipping and cutting himself on the throne. Could the throne be trying to hasten the end of this weak-willed king’s reign?

Viserys also has no idea how close he’s come to completely alienating his most powerful ally in Corlys. By continually refusing to quash the growing border skirmishes between Westeros and Essos in the seas southwest of the country, Viserys has rendered Corlys’s home territory and his powerful merchant fleet vulnerable to attack. His reluctance also undermines Corlys’s ability to fight back on his own, and suggests that Corlys’s great wealth, land, and military strength have only bought him a superficial level of power and respect at court rather than the real deal.

Simultaneously, Viserys clearly has no clue how much quiet resentment Otto has stored up for him over the years. According to Fire and Blood, the Song of Ice and Fire novel upon which this show is based, Otto effectively spent two years as the de facto ruler of Westeros while the question of the previous king’s successorship was being decided. So his position as King’s Hand is effectively a demotion that rankles to this day. Rhys Ifans fills every room with barely constrained contempt and it’s a wonder to behold; “I do not envy you,” he tactfully tells the king at one point, while positively bleeding envy.

As for Alicent, she’s as difficult to read as her father. The internet has cheered the sapphic overtones of Rhanyra’s friendship with Alicent, though this could easily just be Swiftian vibes. Emily Carey plays Alicent with such tactful aplomb that it’s not entirely clear whether Rhaenyra’s clear feelings of loyalty and love are mutual, or whether Alicent has just learned to be the consummate diplomat Rhaenyra will likely never be — able to be quietly pleasing and affirmative to everyone around her while giving very little of herself away. It’s disappointing that in a show so determined to tell us that women are property, the one non-transactional relationship feels woefully underwritten; but perhaps such friendships are always ephemeral.

After getting Rhaenyra’s blessing to hunt for a wife, Viserys is baffled when he announces plans to marry Alicent only to see a shocked and devastated Rhaenyra storm out of the room. Viserys has no idea why Rhaenyra would be shocked because in order to consider what marrying his daughter’s best friend would do to her psychologically, and what the ramifications of destroying that friendship might be, he’d have to see these women as full-fledged humans with independent lives outside of their relationship to himself.

If Viserys could have conceptualized Rhaenyra and Alicent as people rather than pawns, perhaps he’d also have grasped how unscrupulous it is of Otto Hightower to offer his teenage daughter to the king on a platter, and avoided mistaking Otto’s solicitousness for goodness. Instead, Viserys’s inability to read Otto makes him view marrying Alicent as the “safe” choice when nothing could be further from the truth — and ironically makes him the biggest pawn of all.

No wonder Rhaenyra — young, bold, fiery, and eager to learn how to lead — feels to all these men like a swing too far in the other direction from the pliable Viserys. She may not understand the order of things, but those concerned with keeping that order already understand clearly what she is: a threat.