For more than an hour House of the Dragon‘s eighth episode, “The Lord of Tides,” was the show’s best yet. Full of incredible performances, moving moments, complex familial and political relationships, and the specter of danger to come, it was the very best of what we’ve come to expect from HBO’s Game of Thrones universe. But unfortunately the episode’s final scene will stand as its ultimate legacy, because King Viserys’s deathbed confusion completely reframed Queen Alicent’s story going forward, and not for the better.
House of the Dragon‘s premiere introduced Aegon the Conqueror’s prophetic dream to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. That revelation changes everything we know about House Targaryen’s time in Westeros in ways we don’t fully understand yet. But it’s immediate ramifications for the spinoff series were clear. In the war of succession to come, Rhaenyra will fight for more than the Iron Throne. She’ll be fighting to save the entire world.
That makes her own story considerably more interesting and complex than the version told in Martin’s Fire & Blood. The responsibility of Aegon’s dream makes how hard Rhaenyra will soon fight more understandable and human. That also makes her a more sympathetic and compelling character. But what Aegon’s dream has not done is absolve her of the many mistakes she has made and will make. In fact, the onus of her responsibility magnifies her selfishness.
Rhaenyra mistreated and insulted the lords of Westeros, the very people her father tasked her with uniting. She let personal animosity trump smart and helpful politicking in King’s Landing. She let her actions in Flea Bottom sully her name and honor, all while knowing her claim to the Iron Throne was destined to be contested by some looking for any reason to bypass her. Rhaenyra allowed people to question her morality by “killing” her husband and immediately marrying her detested uncle.
And, most importantly, she had three children out of wedlock. That calls not only her own claim into question, but her heir’s. Her “strong” boys represent the single biggest threat to her ascension. But they also represent the single biggest obstacle to fulfilling the purpose of Aegon’s Conquest, a mission he undertook to save humanity from darkness.
Knowing the secret responsibility Rhaenyra inherited from her father made her both more and less likable. That’s masterful storytelling, especially for an adaptation. But that’s the complete opposite of what knowing about Aegon’s prophecy has done for Alicent’s own story.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, but you wanted to know if I believe it to be true. Don’t you remember? Aegon. His Dream, the Song of Ice and Fire. It is true, what he saw in the North. The Prince That Was Promised. The Prince. To unite the Realm against the cold and the dark. It is you. You are the one, you must do this. You must do this.”
We know a confused Viserys thought he was talking to his daughter Rhaenyra on his deathbed. He was answering her question from earlier in the episode about Aegon the Conqueror’s dream and whether Viserys believed in it. In his final moments the King reaffirmed his daughter as heir to both the Iron Throne and to the most important task in the world.
But as far as Alicent knew, her dying husband was finally professing his desire for their son Aegon to become King. She didn’t fully understand what Viserys was saying, but she knew he was speaking of a responsibility far more important than simply ruling over Westeros. And, as far as Alicent is concerned, she is the one who “must do this” to unite the Realm. Viserys seemingly tasked her with assuring Aegon sit on the Iron Throne and not Rhaenyra.
As a result, a sad misunderstanding will now bear the blame for what she does in the future. Her desire to place her son on the Iron Throne won’t be one she makes entirely of her own accord. It will be because of an unfortunate misunderstanding. Viserys, and by extension House of the Dragon, just gave Alicent an “out.” It gave her an offramp to excuse her actions.
While that doesn’t absolve her of two decades of scheming and bad behavior, this episode did set her up to atone for her ambition, right before it guaranteed she can’t. Alicent’s story is no longer her own the way Rhaenyra’s is still hers. Rhaenyra will still be defined by her actions, which are far less defensible because of what she knows to be true. Alicent’s will be far more defensible because of what she falsely thinks she knows.
We can’t even give the show the benefit of the doubt that this moment isn’t clear cut and maybe Alicent heard what she wanted to hear. The context of her husband’s deathbed “confession” makes it impossible to assign malice to Alicent’s interpretation. Viserys’s drunken rant at the royal hunt explains why Alicent would interpret this conversation how she did. That night at the bonfire Viserys talked about prophetic dreams and how he might have made a mistake naming Rhaenyra heir. He questioned if he had made a terrible mistake in denying their son’s ascension. When you watch his death scene in that context, it’s hard to fault Alicent for connecting those dots.
But Alicent Hightower’s story has always been interesting because she made decisions of her own volition for her own reasons and then had to deal with the consequences of her choices. She helped put in motion a war that did not need to happen, then lived with the results of that war. And until her last conversation with Viserys, that’s the path she was taking on House of the Dragon. Now she has less agency and less responsibility over her own fate. She’s more of a victim of circumstances than a Queen conflicted by love, hate, regret, and ambition. For all the ways Aegon the Conqueror’s Song of Ice and Fire made Rhaenyra’s story better, it made Alicent’s worse.
“I understand, my King,” was the last thing Alicent ever said to her husband. But it’s hard to understand why House of the Dragon thought that scene made for a better show.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.