HOUSE OF THE DRAGON’s Major Duel Showed Why Criston Cole Is an All-Time Great Westeros Villain

House of the Dragon‘s second episode of season two delivered another iconic moment from George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood. Identical twins Erryk and Arryk Cargyll, two members of the late Viserys’ Kingsguard who split over which of his children to support, fought to the death on Dragonstone. The show’s emotional, intense duel answered some major question raised by the book. But the tale of that heinous assassination attempt was bigger than just the two dead knights. It’s also a major part of the story about the cretin responsible for the reprehensible plan, Ser Criston Cole. The reason he sent Ser Arryk has firmly established that unaccountable, dishonorable monster is one of Westeros’ all-time great villains.

Criston Cole in his Kingsguard armor before a map on House of the Dragon
Ollie Upton/HBO

After making fundamental changes to “Blood and Cheese,” House of the Dragon opted for a more faithful take on the infamous Cargyll duel. Just as all historians agree, Ser Arryk, member of Aegon’s Kingsguard, snuck onto Dragonstone to pose as his own brother, Erryk, member of Rhaenyra’s Queensguard. Fire & Blood‘s sources never agreed whether Arryk was there to kill the Queen or one of her children, only that the plot was a response to the murder of Prince Jaehaerys. The show made clear Rhaenyra was always his target.

The prequel also added a new wrinkle by having Mysaria play a role in preventing Rhaenyra’s death. On House of the Dragon the White Worm was on Dragonstone at the time, rather than in King’s Landing like in Fire & Blood. That made it possible for Mysaria to see a Cargyll twin walking up from the shore’s of Dragonstone. She knew that knight couldn’t be the same man she’d just see inside the castle protecting the Queen. Without the spymaster’s keen eye, Arryk very likely would have cut down the Queen in her bed.

(Fire & Blood says he never reached Rhaenyra’s bedchamber, but it’s easy to see why the Queen’s supporters would hide that fact. It makes her look weak and vulnerable. Aegon didn’t want people to know what happened to Jaehaerys for the same reason.)

House of the dragon season two episode two new images rhaenyra
Theo Whitman/HBO

The show then took full creative advantage of the conflicting historical sources the series is based on to give us an incredible adaptation. One source, Grand Maester Munkun, said the two brothers fought for nearly an hour. No one could intervene because it was impossible to tell which brother was which. (Something the show also included.) Munkun says the two then died crying in each other’s arms. Another source, the ribald Mushroom, said the fight was quick, brutal, and filled with hate. The victorious Ser Erryk then died four days later “screaming in horrible pain and cursing his traitorous brother all the while.”

Fire & Blood makes clear neither account is likely definitive. (The third, from Septon Eustace, only says the twins slew each other.) What history does make clear is which version people came to accept. The book says after the war “the singers and storytellers” showed a “marked preference for the tale as told by Munkun.” Why wouldn’t they? It makes for a better, more tragic song. That makes people cry and willing to pay coin. What House of the Dragon delivered, though, was a far more emotional and honest duel than anything described in Fire & Blood.

The prequel’s duel had both professions of both love and anger. The two brothers, who were essentially once one, fought violently. Each tried uphold their sacred vows even against the person they actually cared about most in the world. They still loved each other and hated what they were doing, but as Cregan Stark said, “Duty is sacrifice.” In the end, Ser Erryk did protect his Queen from her would-be assassin as Mushroom wrote, but he didn’t die from his wounds days later. Killing his brother was too much for Erryk to live with. In his final moment he apologized to his Queen before falling on his own sword.

The identical Cargyll Twins hold each other after a fatal duel on House of the Dragon

It was a truly heartbreaking sequence, one of the show’s best yet. It’s also a scene that captures the personal tragedy that defines the Dance of the Dragons.

And it was all Criston Cole’s fault.

Fire & Blood says the Lord Commander concocted the plan, just as he did on the show. (One slight HBO change is that Aegon had already named Ser Criston Hand of the King before Cole put his assassination scheme in motion.) What House of the Dragon expanded on was the real reason Cole sent Ser Arryk on his ill-fated mission. Into wasn’t just to “pay the princess back in her own bloody coin” after Blood and Cheese. It wasn’t to end a war before it started. It was to make Criston Cole feel less guilty.

At the episode’s start, for a brief moment, Criston Cole showed a tiny shred of humanity. He felt remorse for his role in little Prince Jaehaerys’ death. Rather than doing his sworn duty to protect the Royal family, the Lord Commander was violating it by sharing a bed with Alicent Hightower.

A naked Criston Cole starts to dress while a shocked Alicent covers up with the blanket on House of the Dragon

The Dowager Queen could see Cole was troubled by what had happened. The unimaginable murder of a child had shaken the arrogant Cole. Alicent then asked if he’d told anyone about what they’d been doing. When Cole wondered what kind of idiot she took him for, she said, “One who seeks absolution.” Cole answered, “There is none for what I’ve done.”

That correct acknowledgement was as close as Cole would come to taking any accountability for his unforgivable, dishonorable transgressions. Instead of reflecting on his failures and holding himself responsible for his own sins, Cole turned his self-anger and failures onto another, just as he did in season one. He shamelessly begged young Rhaenyra to run off with him not out of love but so he could he could restore his self-worth. That emotional manipulation didn’t work on her. It did work on Ser Arryk. And the way Cole manipulated a knight of actual nobility showed the full, monstrous depths of the craven Lord Commander.

Ser Criston Cole speaks to Rhaenyra about his lost honor on House of the Dragon

“The white cloak is a symbol of our purity, our fidelity,” Cole said to Arryk about a cloak Ser Cargyll got dirty during a funeral for a child. The audaciousness of that statement would have been laughable if it wasn’t so disgusting. Cole then kept piling on as blatant, knowing hypocrisy poured out of his mouth like a waterfall of sewage. “Kingsguard are a sacred trust. Will you so easily sully our ancient honor?” he said.

The way the righteously indignant Arryk responsed also showed why Cole was even more responsible for Jaehaerys’ death than it seemed. When Cole questioned where Arryk was during the assassination (protecting the King), Arryk answered, ““Where were you, Lord Commander? And why has Helaena the Queen been granted no sworn protector? Surely once she ascended she should have…”

Helaena had no sworn protector because Cole is breaking his vows with the old Queen. If he were not, he would have rightfully had a Kingsguard protecting the new Queen instead. If Cole wasn’t sleeping with Aegon’s mother, his son would still be alive.

Kingsguard members Criston Cole and Arryk Cargyll in profile stare at one another on House of the Dragon
Ollie Upton/HBO

The despicable Cole couldn’t actually respond to an accurate asessement without admitting his heonous wrongs. So instead he changed the subject and attacked Arryle’s integrity, something Cole lacks entirely. Ser Criston said since Erryk is a traitor and a thief no one could trust Arryk completely. That is unless Arryk went on this shameful scheme, one no respectable member of the Kingsguard would ever ask another to do. Arryk knew he shouldn’t go. He knew this was a vile scheme unbecoming of their order. But he also wanted to keep his vows and prove his loyalty. So he went. And he died. As did his brother.

When a heartbroken Ser Erryk fell on his sword, he ended his life. Ser Criston Cole, named Hand of the King as reward for his treachery, responded by returning to Alicent’s bed, once and forever sullying his white cloak and all that it stands for.

Criston Cole and Alicent Hightower in an intimate moment on House of the Dragon

The reason that tragic duel on Dragonstone happened ensured Criston Cole’s true place in Game of Thrones‘ infamy. The Lord Commander knows deep in his black green heart he has “brought disgrace” upon his sacred ranks. But it’s not that he he just doesn’t care and refuses to take personaly responsibility that makes him so vile. It’s that he makes his failings, dishonor, and guilt everyone else’s problem, a problem they pay for with their lives. That’s why he’s truly one of the greatest, most hatable villains in the history of the Seven Kingdoms.

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

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