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In House of the Dragon, the king’s weakness is everyone’s loss

White harts, Aegon Targaryen, family squabbles, and why it matters that Viserys can’t kill a deer.

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Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen can’t wait to be queen in 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.

House of the Dragon understands perhaps even better than its predecessor that the pleasures of a good family drama come not from the explosive moments but from watching small slights and hurts deepen into unshakeable rifts over time, until the explosive moments are cathartic. Thus the show’s third episode, “Second of His Name,” spends most of its time treating the Targaryen clan less like the royal family of Westeros and more like a clan of squabbling Kardashians.

Note: This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon, “Second of His Name.”

Daemon (Matt Smith) is furious because his brother ignored him and left him to fight Westeros’s battles alone; the king eventually stops ignoring him and sends help, but in classic younger brother psychology, that stings even worse. Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) is furious because her father can’t seem to wrap his head around her becoming queen, let alone to support her through the constant undermining of her position at court. Viserys (Paddy Considine) is mad at them both for being entitled brats, mad at Rhaenyra for no longer being his happy little girl, and mad at himself for being unable to shake his vision of a strapping young son on the Iron Throne.

Sounds like the perfect time for a party!

It’s a party, but no one’s celebrating

Paddy Considine shines in roles of this type — the well-meaning but willfully obtuse patriarch, hoping in vain to stave off calamity through goodwill and conflict avoidance. Considine turns Viserys’s weakness into a flaw that’s frustrating but highly entertaining; it’s easy to relate to every single person who wants to throttle him, from the high-strung Rhaenyra to the long-suffering Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans, still a droll villainous delight).

As we discussed last week, Viserys’s hesitancy to commit to a firm course of action frequently leaves those around him in limbo. But with this episode’s time jump — we’ve skipped ahead two years — the stakes of an indecisive king have only increased. During that time, Viserys has fathered a son, Aegon, with his new wife Alicent (Emily Carey), and all the people who were reluctant to welcome Rhaenyra as the next ruler have embraced the baby with open arms and royal nicknames. Rhaenyra, seeing the writing on the wall well before her father, has withdrawn from him emotionally in the way of all rebellious teenagers, which has only increased his doubts about naming her as his heir.

Meanwhile, Daemon and Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) have been off fighting in the thankless channel islands known as the Stepstones, trying to defeat an encroaching alliance from Essos led by a scary dude who feeds people to crabs. As we saw in last week’s episode, the pair allied to begin this war without Viserys’s explicit permission; he’s retaliated by passive-aggressively refusing to send them any aid or military assistance. Over the past two years, their forces, mainly supplied by Corlys’s wealth and bolstered by Daemon’s loyal armies, have been depleted. Since Daemon still refuses to ask for help, Corlys’s son Laenor (Theo Nate) takes the initiative to write to the king himself.

That letter arrives during a mini-festival commemorating Aegon’s second birthday. The court is in full party mode, and the king initially shoves aside all talk of politics, including Laenor’s request. He’s here to party and hunt, and a rare white hart (an albino stag) has reportedly been spotted in the King’s Wood — a good omen for Aegon’s anticipated reign, which everyone except Viserys fully expects him to have. Their certainty irritates Viserys, but not enough for him to decisively quash it. He’s encouraging Rhaenyra to marry and go be some landed gentry’s wife — completely the opposite of training her to rule in his stead, allowing her to have a role in the small council or as a military leader, or anything that would scream “here’s my heir, show some respect.” When a Lannister fuckboy tries to court her, she storms out of the festivities and rides off into the woods on an all-day quest to nowhere.

In response, Otto floats the most obscene proposal we’ve had on a show that’s already crammed in a litany of obscene proposals: Why not marry Rhaenyra, the 16-year-old, to her half-brother, Aegon, the 2-year-old?

Viserys rightly recoils at this; he may be morally reprehensible enough to murder his wife in order to get an heir out of her womb faster, but he’s not this morally reprehensible. Given that Targaryens will be Targaryens, the “half-brother” part doesn’t bother Viserys as much as the age of the babe being proffered up for marriage. Perhaps it should. This particular half-brother, after all, is Otto’s key to controlling the king and his throne.

The king has always placed complete trust in Otto, who has maneuvered his teen daughter into the royal marital bed and actively encouraged the widening rift between Daemon and Viserys. The conversation about marrying Rhaenyra to Aegon occurs immediately after Viserys opines sincerely that he wants to see Rhaenyra happy rather than see her be forced to marry for duty. Otto, a man completely fixated on power, quadruples down on weaponizing his progeny.

One might think that seeing Otto shamelessly and unflinchingly offer up his grandson like this might finally snap Viserys out of the hold Otto has over him. Instead, Viserys halts the whole conversation, eager to change the subject rather than contemplate the full ramifications of what Otto is proposing. (A much saner proposal arrives later, when council member Lyonel Strong suggests Laenor as a match for Rhaenyra — a theoretically ideal union.)

Later, discussing Laenor’s request for military aid, Alicent has to remind Viserys to consider the good of the realm above what will simply make the most people around him happy. This, of course, should be the king’s foremost priority; but Viserys, wholly focused on people-pleasing and peace-keeping among his immediate courtiers, has to be guided and tugged toward even blatantly obvious courses of action.

To fully drive this point home, the episode treats us to a difficult scene in which the king goes on his “hunt” — that is, he’s handed a spear and told to stab a magnificent stag that’s already been captured for him. It isn’t the white hart he was promised, but he’s still expected to show his kingly prowess and slaughter it in front of the assembled crowds. Viserys, whether from inexperience, his trademark hesitation, horror, or all three, fails to strike the killing blow. As they awkwardly wait for the tortured deer to die from his ineffective stab, one of the courtiers has to tell him how to put the animal out of its misery. Viserys, clearly nauseated by this whole ritual, manages to kill the stag when prompted, but his image as a weak-willed king incapable of decisive action has been fortified.

Out on her all-night jaunt in the forest, Rhaenyra peacefully encounters the fabled white hart herself; that might be a good omen, sure, but an even better symbol of her fitness for the crown arrives when she’s attacked by a wild boar. Though at first she freezes, she jumps to it and finishes the kill, slaughtering it without hesitation. She emerges from the woods like Carrie from the prom, drenched in blood but newly awakened.

Meanwhile, in the Stepstones, Daemon receives his brother’s offer of aid and flies into a rage about it. In a delirium, he single-handedly carries out a Hail Mary attack, pretending to surrender in order to lure the Crabfeeder and his armies out into the open. Veteran director Greg Yaitanes stages a short but thrilling rout; it’s painfully easy for the Westerosi soldiers once Laenor arrives riding the dragon Seasmoke, who appears to torch everyone in sight. The slaughter of countless Essos minions, however, pales beside Daemon surfacing from the carnage, carrying the top third or so of a dismembered, disemboweled Crabfeeder. He was a short-lived but effective villain; possibly replaced by Daemon himself.

The parallels between Daemon and Rhaenyra here carry a fittingly over-the-top symbolism. If there’s anyone to teach Rhaenyra about battles, politics, and stratagems, it’s Daemon, not Viserys. When Viserys finally tells her that he not only supports her as his heir but wants her to choose her own husband, her reaction is wary optimism instead of the gratitude and love for which he clearly yearns. After years of treating her as his heir first and his daughter second, Viserys has sabotaged himself: She’s come to view him, inevitably, as less her father and more the unpredictable king upon whose whims she cannot rely.

In this, of course, she’s entirely correct.

Westeros has been incepted

How do you solve a problem like Rhaenyra?
Ollie Upton/HBO

The episode’s title, “Second of His Name,” refers to the name Viserys gives his first surviving son: Aegon. Those familiar with the Targaryen family tree will recognize this as the name of the original Targaryen ruler, Aegon the Conqueror, who united Westeros under one rule and established the family dynasty (by now about two centuries old). The name Aegon, all by itself, suggests leadership, suggests that the bearer is a successor to the crown; indeed, members of court are already calling the toddler “Aegon the Conqueror.”

Why would Viserys name his son “Aegon,” with all the attached connotations, if he intends to keep Rhaenyra as his heir? Viserys himself can’t answer this question. We learned in the first episode that Viserys had a vision of a son on the Iron Throne. Now he confides to Alicent that this longstanding obsession has kept him from fully committing to Rhaenyra as heir. Ever passive, he blames the obsession, rather than his actions, for killing his former wife, Aemma. Current wife Alicent impressively holds her tongue. (Incidentally, Alicent’s effortless at maneuvering the king and evading her own father’s scheming, and while her relationship with Rhaenyra has deteriorated rapidly, she’s still supportive of her without denying her own son’s right to the throne. So far, she hasn’t missed a beat.)

During last week’s episode, I kept thinking about the power of an idea. House of the Dragon was showing us that power in the inverse: Rhaenyra’s vow to “create a new order” in which women can rule is built on a pipe dream with nothing and no one behind it except her own ample qualifications to lead.

By contrast, the lure of another Aegon Targaryen on the throne is so powerful that the kingdom is already responding to it, despite an utter lack of rationale. (Ironically, the only person who seems to grasp this clearly is Otto, who deadpans that the would-be ruler still eats with his hands.) By choosing the name “Aegon,” the king on some level has already chosen his successor: He’s already tapped into the power of a myth of national glory passed down through generations and handed that power to his son. Rhaenyra may have her own mythical visit from the fabled white hart, her dragon-riding and prowess in the hunt. But what are they next to a narrative two centuries in the making?

If Rhaenyra wants to compete with that, she only has one real option: Play the game of thrones better than anyone else ever has. Her encounters with first the hart and then the boar suggest she can and she will. She’s finally gotten a chance to take an active role in her own survival.

Now, she’s baptized in blood and ready for more.

Correction, September 5, 12:30 pm: An earlier version of this article misidentified the dragon Seasmoke (ridden by Laenor Velaryon) as the dragon Vaghar.

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