House of the Dragon couldn’t tell the exact same story found in George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood even if wanted to. Numerous events in the author’s history feature multiple versions told by unreliable sources with agendas and biases. Those, combined with inaccuracies found in many historical retellings, make Fire & Blood‘s account of the Targaryen civil war far from definitive. That’s the Game of Thrones prequel’s biggest advantage. It has the freedom to explore the Dance of the Dragons in ways not even book readers might expect. But after the season one finale and the accidental death of Prince Lucerys Velaryon, it’s clear House of the Dragon is not just answering lingering questions and reconciling differences in the official record. The series is fundamentally changing events and character motivations in ways that make the story a lot less interesting.
Fire & Blood‘s Alicent Hightower is the leader of the “greens” and the driving force behind crowning her son king. House of the Dragon‘s Alicent was about to abandon that long-held goal before Viserys’s final scene. The dying king’s confusion altered both the Queen’s plans and reason for wanting Aegon seated on the Iron Throne. An honest misunderstanding will now frame her entire story going forward, rather than her own desires and wants. As a result she’s more sympathetic. Less of a villain than she is in the book, but also less compelling. Rather than a complicated mother driven by resentment, lust for power, and a deep yearning to keep her children safe from a woman she doesn’t trust, live-action Alicent is a victim of circumstance. That’s the same exact ill-conceived change House of the Dragon opted for in its season one finale with another major character.
Prince Aemond’s murder of his nephew high over Storm’s End is a seminal moment in the Dance of the Dragons. It destroys any remaining chance at a peaceful resolution and ensures a gruesome war. In Fire & Blood there’s no question Aemond meant to kill Prince Lucerys Velaryon. It’s an incredible moment rife with personal animosity, questionable decision-making, and tragic consequences. Aemond wants revenge against Lucerys because the young prince took his uncle’s eye years earlier. But in that moment Aemond, a great warrior known for flying off the handle, also recognizes an opportunity. Rhaenyra’s side has a dragon advantage. Killing Luce and Arrax weakens her and strengthens the greens’ cause. It’s not necessarily a great decision by Aemond, but it is a defensible one whether you believe that makes him an unlikeable figure or not.
House of the Dragon took Aemond’s agency and culpability away from him when it made Luce’s death an accident. After Prince Lucerys couldn’t control Arrax, an angry Vhagar disobeyed Aemond and killed the younger dragon and his rider, all while a helpless Aemond screamed “Nooo!” Was Aemond responsible for trying to frighten his nephew and using a Westerosi weapon of mass destruction in such a reckless way? Yes, but that’s a far cry from owning the responsibility of intentionally killing a scared kid and launching a continent-wide war.
This change, which now makes Aemond a victim of circumstances like his mother before him, is one House of the Dragon opted to make not out of necessity but desire. Lucerys’s death is not one of Fire & Blood‘s conflicting or unreliable reports. Not everything in that history comes from questionable sources. The specifics around major events at significant locations (like Storm’s End) are more trustworthy in the official account because countless people witnessed them and maester’s present for them recorded what happened. That includes what pushed Aemond to murder his nephew.
In the book version, Aemond ultimately hunts down Lucerys after one of Lord Boros Baratheon’s daughters taunts his manhood. After Lucerys refuses to fight, she says to Aemond, “Was it one of your eyes he took, or one of your balls? I am so glad you chose my sister. I want a husband with all his parts.” Had the show included that amazing moment, witnessed by many, it couldn’t have made Lucerys’s death an accident. To make such a major moment chance shows the series clearly wants to tell a different kind of story. Its version is one where events beyond people’s control move the plot rather than their own decisions. And stories where things happen to people rather than them doing things is less engaging.
We don’t need to travel far from Westeros to understand why, either. Imagine for a moment if Game of Thrones had changed the scene between Jaime, Cersei, and Bran. What if, instead of intentionally pushing Bran out of the window to protect their deadly incestuous secret, Jaime accidentally knocked Bran out of that tower? Would that have been more interesting? Was it more compelling watching Jaime spend his life dealing with the fallout of that decision than it would have been watching him deal with an oopsie doopsie? Would the Kingslayer’s arc to redemption, which took him from grand villain to beloved character, have been better or worse? The answer seems obvious. Just as it does when you consider any of the major events of the original show. And yet that’s what House of the Dragon just did to Aemond and his story, same as it did with Alicent.
Sometimes accidents we have no control over change the entire course of our lives. There is value and entertainment in seeing characters deal with moments like that. But not when it keeps happening over and over again, and not when it happens to characters who are interesting because of what they do and why. It’s powerful when characters own responsibility for their own actions and their consequences. Especially in the Dance of the Dragons. This is a family civil war, where personal failings, personal ambition, and personal animosity influence so much of the story. It’s why this era of House Targaryen was worthy of adapting in the first place.
House of the Dragon had—and still has—more creative freedom than most adaptations do. It can flesh out characters and add a level of depth and understanding of their actions frequently absent from Fire & Blood. It can also surprise book readers and newcomers alike. But the decision to radically change this story so it’s playing out more like the “Accidental Dance of the Dragons” is undermining so much of what makes this story engaging. House of the Dragon is showing us why Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been as good if characters like Tywin and Cersei weren’t so ruthless. And that Realm just isn’t as much fun. Who’s more fun to watch: an opportunistic, violent, vengeful, hot-tempered warrior with family issues? Or a helpless bystander who couldn’t control his own dragon?
We don’t need to feel bad for every character any more than we need to hate all of them. It’s better when we hate some people because we understand why they did the terrible thing they did. Just as it’s more interesting watching them deal with the consequences of their flawed choices. Taking away their agency is no accident, it’s a big mistake
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.