House of the Dragon has a big creative advantage over most adaptations. George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood is not a definitive account of events. It’s a history of House Targaryen “written” by a maester that is incomplete or even wrong in certain places. (Though we can’t always know how or where). That’s especially true of the time period the HBO’s prequel series is retelling. That section is based on three biased sources that frequently conflict with one another, often because none of the chroniclers actually witnessed the events they wrote about. Their blindspots and distortions provide House of the Dragon narrative freedom. It also lets the show fill in huge gaps never mentioned. And House the Dragon‘s season two premiere used that storytelling advantage to make Queen Alicent and Ser Criston Cole’s relationship far more troubling, complex, and interesting.

Alicent and Criston Cole stand near one another in profile on House of the Dragon
HBO

In Fire & Blood, Kingsguard member Criston Cole goes from being the sworn sword of Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen to the personal protector of her enemy, Alicent Hightower. No one in Westeros ever hated Rhaenyra more than the man who crowned her brother Aegon king. The Targaryen history provides a very personal reason for the enmity between the two formerly close duo: their relationship turned sexual.

In Fire & Blood, one source claims Cole asked Rhaenyra to run across the Narrow Sea with her, giving up her claim to the Iron Throne. Another says it was Rhaenyra who asked him to forsake his vows to the Kingsguard. What every historian agrees on is that, after that moment, the two despised one another. Criston Cole didn’t just turn his back on her, he worked to destroy her.

HBO

House of the Dragon‘s first season provided a definitive answer as to what happened between them. It’s the one that always made the most sense based on what we knew about each. It was Criston Cole, the worst person ever, who begged Rhaenyra to leave Westeros behind with him. The HBO series also gave us a reason for his request. It wasn’t one driven by love or even lust. Cole felt guilt for having broken his sacred vows in the first place and he wanted Rhaenyra to give up everything to make him feel better about himself. When she refused in House of the Dragon season one, Criston Cole abandoned her and went into the service of Queen Alicent instead.

For everything Fire & Blood says/suggests about Cole and Rhaenyra’s relationship, both explicitly and in subtext, it says almost nothing of his relationship with Alicent. Criston Cole becomes Alicent’s sworn sword and protector, but none of the book’s sources raise even a hint of impropriety between the two. But that doesn’t mean the show created a physical relationship out of thin air, either.

HBO

Westeros remembers Criston Cole for the unethical punk he was. It also knows he almost certainly broke his vows and slept with Rhaenyra. (Who was a drunk teenager the first time they slept together on the show). It’s not a stretch, in any way, to imagine Cole also went on to violate his oaths with a young, beautiful widow like Alicent. Nor it is absurd to think that a woman whose entire life was defined/bound by duty until that point took her handsome knight to bed when she was under the most stress she’d ever know.

While their physical relationship contributed to the show botching Fire & Blood‘s most shocking moment (the other side of the adaptation freedom coin), this expansion of their story is ultimately a good thing for the show. It makes all of their interactions more fraught. Their advice to Aegon, whether they agree or not, is also harder to trust. Alicent and Criston Cole have entangled themselves in a way that has often doomed other duos because personal relationships have a tendency to undermine duty and rational thinking.

HBO

Each character is also more interesting on their own now, too. This evolution of the relationship makes Alicent more complex and, therefore, more compelling. She’s not as “perfect” as she thought. Maybe now she fears/knows Rhaenyra was right about her true nature, especially since Alicent did the very thing she held against Rhaenyra. It’s even possible jealousy of how Rhaenyra got to live her life drove Alicent into Criston Cole’s arms in House of the Dragon season two. And while Alicent’s hypocrisy makes her less righteous, calling her piety into question, it makes her more human and, therefore, possibly more sympathetic. She’s as vulnerable and flawed as anyone. She gave in to her basest desires just like any other human might.

While this relationship twist makes Alicent more dynamic, it also makes Lord Commander Ser Criston Cole an even greater villain. He’s less a knight and more a walking fraud who speaks with a forked tongue. Every awful thing he says about Rhaenyra is projection. He can’t truly protect the King and his family because he’s compromised himself. He’s the amoral, unethical center at the Dance of the Dragons.

HBO

He’s what the show needs just as Game of Thrones needed characters like Joffrey, Ramsay, and Baelish. The handsome Kingsguard member who began his story so nobly and with so much promise is like a reverse Jaime Lannister, someone we hated but grew to love.

No one will ever love Criston Cole… Except apparently Alicent Hightower. And House of the Dragon is better for it.

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist and the original Criston Cole hater. You can follow him on  Twitter and  Bluesky at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.