House of the Dragon Had One Great Idea

Too bad the show has squandered it.

Two women, one with brown hair and one with blond, both dressed in medieval dresses, stare at each other in front of a tree
Emily Carey as Alicent Hightower and Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon (Ollie Upton / HBO)

This story contains spoilers for Season 1, Episode 4 of House of the Dragon.

Like a court musician ordered to strum a princess’s favorite tunes under a Weirwood tree, HBO’s House of the Dragon knows how to play all the hits that satisfy Game of Thrones fans. The small-council meetings crackle with passive-aggressive tension. The sets look eye-popping, the dragons only more so. The battle sequences appear to spill enough blood to fill the Narrow Sea. Little can feel truly fresh about a show that takes place in such a familiar setting, with such familiar politicking at play.

The one thing keeping this sense of déjà vu from being completely overwhelming has been the childhood friendship between Rhaenyra Targaryen (played by Milly Alcock), the first female heir to the Iron Throne, and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), the daughter of the Hand of the King. In Fire & Blood, the book on which the series is based, no such intimacy exists between the characters. The pair have the cordial rapport expected of noblewomen—that is, until Alicent bears the king, Viserys, a son who threatens to supplant Rhaenyra in the line of succession. From that point on, the two become political rivals. But the TV series at first seemed to give these characters a fascinating dynamic that the franchise has rarely explored: a true female friendship.

The small-screen adaptation of the author George R. R. Martin’s work has certainly been lacking when it comes to such relationships. Daenerys Targaryen and her handmaiden Missandei’s camaraderie was predicated on the latter being a subordinate; the same went for Sansa Stark and her handmaiden, Shae. Though Alicent is one of Rhaenyra’s ladies-in-waiting when they are young, they are both nobles and thus on slightly more equal footing. They both have close ties to power, but no expectations of wielding it in adulthood. Their distinct personalities in the pilot suggested they would make good foils for each other: Alicent is dutiful and restrained; Rhaenyra, plucky and unruly. Especially once Rhaenyra was unexpectedly named her father’s heir, House of the Dragon seemed poised to show how their relationship would evolve as a consequence of growing up in a system that prioritizes power above all else, and that treats friendships as nothing but currency.

Yet the series has squandered much of that potential. In Episode 3, the show’s timeline skips ahead two to three years from where Episode 2 left off—when Viserys (Paddy Considine) chooses Alicent as his second wife. The period it glosses over could have shed light on how Alicent and Rhaenyra’s bond shapes their lives in court after their surprising rises to power. Instead, the show doesn’t explicitly make clear what happened between the two after Alicent becomes Rhaenyra’s stepmother. (Which is certainly salacious, but such twisted ties are common among Westerosi, and particularly Targaryen, royalty.) The few scenes between them have been awkward, suggesting the two stopped being as warm as they once were toward each other, but never examine the emotional stakes of their altered relationship. Scrutinizing the women’s conflicting ideas of duty and love as the source of their strain would have made the show far more interesting.

Tonight’s episode, which attempted to draw connections between Alicent and Rhaenyra’s romantic relationships, was particularly frustrating to watch. One scene cuts between shots of Alicent obediently going to bed with Viserys and shots of Rhaenyra being seduced by her uncle, Daemon (Matt Smith), in a sweaty brothel. The parallel—that the women both have unfulfilling sexual encounters—is vague and rather cheap, considering the two have barely spoken of love on the show. Later, when Alicent confronts Rhaenyra about the rumors of her night with Daemon, the encounter makes little sense. Why would Alicent be so concerned about Rhaenyra, and Rhaenyra so hurt by Alicent’s accusation? It’s been years since they spent time reading together in the godswood. Viewers have seen nothing but iciness in between.

Some of this ambiguity is because the show has failed to give Alicent’s character much depth at all. Yes, she’s in plenty of scenes, discussing succession with Viserys and her father, Otto (Rhys Ifans), but all we know is she’s an obedient wife and mother who watches closely from the sidelines of every set piece. In Fire & Blood, Martin describes how Alicent’s betrothal to Viserys is plagued by rumors that she seduced the king, or that she’d been deflowered by Daemon. Martin suggests that Alicent came to devote her life to her duties as queen, partly to ensure that her reputation never becomes sullied. The TV adaptation’s rush to speed through the plot blows past her evolution.

That’s a shame, too, for the show’s depiction of Westeros. If these early episodes had paid more attention to Rhaenyra and Alicent’s friendship during their younger years, their rift could have deepened the audience’s appreciation of the brutality of this medieval world, beyond the routine bloodshed. For women, such a setting is dangerous not only when it comes to childbirth or sexual violence; it is also a place where the most innocent of friendships can be torn apart by societal notions of responsibility and purity. Rhaenyra and Alicent are two of the most protected women in Westeros, and yet they’re not free of the burdens of reputation. Seeing them as confidantes—true confidantes, not just characters standing close to each other in a handful of scenes—would have given viewers a new angle through which to view the world of ice and fire.

I understand House of the Dragon’s need to prioritize plot and focus on showing the Targaryens’ progression toward their eventual demise. But for a show that, according to its producers, aimed to focus on “the patriarchy’s perception of women” and how characters such as Rhaenyra get “boxed out of a man’s world,” the limited imagination for their friendship is disappointing. Soon, a new cast will take over the roles to portray the pair in older age, helping the story barrel toward the civil war that leads to the end of a dynasty. By then, Rhaenyra and Alicent’s original friendship will probably be nothing more than a footnote. Westeros’s leadership may not respect women, but no one is disrespecting these characters more than the writers of House of the Dragon themselves.