Game of Thrones made a tradition of traumatizing us with its seasons’ penultimate episodes. From Ned Stark’s beheading to the Red Wedding (and beyond), “Episode 9” creates a Pavlovian response in the viewers of any show set in Westeros.
But House of the Dragon is Game of Thrones as much as it isn’t. So, how did our psyches fare now that last week’s inciting incident has brough swift responses from those who would seek power?
A Race Against Time
Ding Dong, the King is Dead, and we already feel the weight of King Viserys’ absence. An effective King he was not, though he did rally in his final moments to attempt to mend things between his family. But it was too little too late, and all of the irresponsible choices he made throughout his life have set the stage for treasonous acts and what will be the distruction of the Targaryen dynasty.
Alicent – who truly believes (or makes herself believe) that it was Viserys’ wish for their son Aegon to sit on the Iron Throne – is willing to usurp Rhaenyra’s succession “peacefully” (what a joke). But Otto is willing to go to crueler, more thorough lengths to ensure Hightower supremacy.
It seems odd that even though Viserys was in failing health for many years, the players never got on the same page with a gameplan for when the time comes to name a new heir. Sure, Otto has been speaking to certain members of the Small Council, but not everyone, and certainly not his daughter, who has a troubling amount of authority.
This sloppiness results in the totally unnecessary death of Lord Beesbury with yet another instance of ultraviolence from Ser Criston Cole that for some reason goes completely unpunished. Yet, Ser Harrold Westerling is allowed to resign and leave, despite the order that no one might leave the room until the council has concluded. More sloppiness.
The Hunt for Aegon
Not a single person in the show thinks that Aegon will be a good man or capable king, yet Alicent’s delusion and Otto’s ambition mix with well-tread rules of succession to establish him as the next monarch.
Although their goals are aligned, their motivations are different, so Alicent and Otto both set out to retrieve the child first (from wherever he is). It’s obvious that two of the best fighters in the show Aemond and Criston will win the match against twins Erryk and Arryk Cargyll. (Side note: Really? They really had to be given nearly identical names? In a story where everyone’s name could be confused for another? Seriously?) But, in witnessing the search for Aegon, we learn about his character while enjoying well-done suspense.
It is, of course, Team Alicent who is triumphant in retrieving Aegon first. Not that it particularly matters.
Sordid Whispers from Supporting Players
As the cascade effect of opportunism ripples outward from the Hightowers, some lesser players of the game have come to light in order to try to stake a claim in the new power formation.
Mysaria, the White Worm, has been a spymaster in King’s Landing for years. But now she steps out into the light, choosing to broker a deal with Otto rather than Alicent in an oddly braggadocious manner. Obviously, meeting publicly with the Hand of the King during this delicate power shift is a dangerous choice, and one that will result in her home base being burnt down later by our resident murder-by-arson psychopath, Larys Strong (though she’s certainly too savvy to have died in the fire).
Speaking of Larys…
I have previously complained of the cartoonishly villainous manner in which he (the single disabled person on the show) is portrayed. And even though he literally murdered his father and brother for personal gain earlier in the season, somehow this episode makes him even worse.
You’ll find no kink-shaming from this reviewer, but the scene (you know what scene I’m talking about) is completely unnecessary. Alicent’s hodge-podge of moral makeup is completely cast out the window as she allows Larys to pleasure himself at the sight of her feet (because, get it, he has a clubfoot, so it “makes sense”). I suppose we can presume that Alicent’s general comfort with being used by the men in her life implies an easy surrender of personal power even to Larys. But Alicent has been angrily wearing green and making everyone’s life hell for more than a decade because of her anger revolving Rhaenyra’s sexual exploits, so this act is a wholly hypocritical one (and not in a way that deepens the character). Alicent is a fanatic, and that fact is the only thing justifying her continued actions.
The Alicent Parallels
Many people have drawn comparisons between Alicent Hightower & Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister. Both are largely unlikeable queens who have devoted themselves to living up to their fathers’ expectations. They both had similar moments of desired retribution toward other children in defense of their own (Cersei demanded the death of a Dire Wolf in GoT episode 2, and Alicent demanded an eye from one of Rhaenyra’s children).
But those similarities only extend so far. Cersei values her children above anything, while Alicent is a resentful mother who switches between absentee parenting to straight-up abuse. Meanwhile, Cersei was crafty and ruthless, whereas Alicent has little personal autonomy or sense of self, deferring to others (men) around her and falling back upon her newfound faith as her personal compass.
It has taken some soul searching to figure out the specific emotional responses I experience toward Alicent Hightower. I wondered, are my feelings a form of internalized misogyny?
I now realize that my feelings are similar to my initial disgust toward Sansa Stark. And that helps elucidate.
Both Sansa and Alicent are victims of a patriarchy that abuses them, and both are complicit – not only in their own abuse, but of those around them, as well as upholding the very system that confines and hurts them.
In GoT, Sansa grew over time, shifting from a girl’s perspective of obedience and self-objectification to one of autonomy. Sansa developed her own code and her own desires, and dealt out revenge on those men around her who deserved it.
I fear Alicent likely will not have any such growth. Instead, she perpetuates and deepens the problems that will ultimately tear apart the Targaryen family, bring war upon the Seven Kingdoms, and extend even to the Game of Thrones timeline and beyond.
The entirety of this episode feels gross, wrong. There is no mourning of a good man, no transparency of communication, no honoring of old vows. There is sloppy scheming and wanton violence. Is this the best we can hope for from the Hightowers as they position themselves as rulers?
Aegon is crowned King, which in retrospect will be a very bad decision.
Rhaenys is the sole opposition of any substance. In an episode that feels the absense of Daemon and Rhaenyra potently, Rhaenys gives us a lot with her ever-grounded wits and unwavering personal power.
The conversation between she and Alicent is a good one – these two characters, aside from lamenting the patriarchy, could not be more different.
The Dragon Pit seems an odd place to hold a coronation, but provides Rhaenys with a perfect deus ex machina to retrieve her dragon. Even if it seems out of character that the Queen Who Never Was would burst up through the floor, murdering many a peasant before ultimately just faking out the newly crowned King, it was still devastatingly cool.
Yes, we all wish that Rhaenys would have uttered a simple “Dracarys”, but sadly that would have cut our story short. So instead, she will fly away to alert Rhaenyra and Daemon of the Hightowers’ treachery.
Next week is the season finale, and then we’re only just beginning with a story that is equal parts epic and tragedy.