House of the Dragon: What’s Going on with House Velaryon and Rhaenys, the Queen Who Never Was?

TV

This article contains mild House of the Dragon episode 1 spoilers.

Is it an insult or compliment? When a young Baratheon lord utters it during a joust in the first episode of House of the Dragon, it lands as both: “The Queen Who Never Was.” Baratheon makes this comment toward Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best), the oldest living grandchild of the long dead King Jaehaerys Targaryen. She once was favored by several households, including the Baratheons and the Starks, to be Jaehaerys’ heir during the Great Council of Harrenhal—she is, after all, the daughter of Jaehaerys’ oldest son and his Baratheon wife.

Yet the patriarchal lords of Westeros felt differently, voting 10-to-1 in favor of Jaehaerys’ oldest living male grandchild, and the progeny of his second son: Viserys (Paddy Considine). The bulk of House of the Dragon’s premiere occurs nine years after that fateful decision, with Rhaenys seemingly content with her current station as cousin to the king and wife of Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), the richest man in Westeros. Yet on the day a Baratheon quips he will joust for the honor of Rhaenys, the Queen Who Never Was, it all comes flooding back. And, perhaps like their characters, actors Best and Toussaint have distinctly different readings of what that unofficial title means.

“Shame,” Best tells Den of Geek. “It’s such a blow. For her it’s absolutely the biggest humiliation that she ever suffered in her life. It’s like a core wound, and it’s horrendous every time it’s brought up.” Indeed, Best notes that Rhaenys has likely heard this phrase uttered privately and across the vast expanse of a throne room many times, and she always must smile and ignore it—to do otherwise risks perceptions of treason and possible death. “But on a personal level, it’s also so painful each time it’s brought up, and so embarrassing dealing with that kind of rejection on a public stage, day after day after day.”

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According to Best, Rhaenys’ shame is even the thematic engine of the series.

Says Best, “Practically the first thing [showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik] said to me when we were meeting was that this was the central drive of this particular story. As I later say to Rhaenyra, ‘Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.’ And you can take the word ‘iron’ from that sentence and you have something that’s completely relevant today, ridiculously relevant.”

While Toussaint agrees that Best’s assessment reflects how Rhaenys construes their daily lives (and perhaps our own), it is not necessarily the truth felt by her husband Corlys, who competes against Lord Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) for status as the second most powerful man in Westeros.

“He’s aware of the humiliation that his wife feels and so he therefore doesn’t bring it up,” Touissant says, “but he doesn’t find it humiliating. I think for him, every time it’s said, it’s a dig at the king. It’s a reminder to the king that someone better qualified is here and should be where you are.”

By playing the head of House Velaryon, Toussaint steps into the role of one of the most intriguing and, for fans who’ve only watched Game of Thrones, most mysterious power players in House of the Dragon. After all, by the time the events of Game of Thrones began, House Velaryon had all but vanished from the board. But during the time of Viserys and Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), House Velaryon is perhaps the most trusted contemporary of the mercurial Targaryen dynasty. Like the Targaryens, the Velaryons originally hail from Old Valyria, settling along the Blackwater on the island of Driftmark at least a generation before the Targaryens took up residency at what became known as Dragonstone. And it was from Velaryon ships that Aegon Targaryen I’s army unloaded on what would become King’s Landing.

House of the Dragon co-creator Condal tells us that Lord Corlys could very well match the power of a familiar menace from Game of Thrones.

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“I’ve long described the Velaryons as the Lannisters of this particular time period,” says Condal. “They’re the richest and most politically influential house other than the crown in this world. So Corlys at this point is kind of our Tywin Lannister.”

By summoning the ghost of Charles Dances’ Tywin on Game of Thrones, Condal is suggesting we’ll see echoes of how every Southron house and lord sought favor from Casterly Rock. However, as Toussaint cautions, such similarities in power and influence do not mean an alignment of temperaments. In fact, throughout much of House of the Dragon’s premiere, Corlys appeared to be the only member of the King’s small council willing to speak his mind candidly.

“Honorable” is one word Toussaint uses to describe Corlys. “There is something to be said of someone [who] made his fortune himself, gone out and earned it. Yes, he’s part of nobility, but his house was on the slide until Corlys went out and did these nine legendary voyages. So I think that gives him a certain nobility. He feels that he, amongst many of his peers, deserves to be there because he worked to be there. Some of these people just were born into it. They were, as he says to Daemon in episode two, ‘They were given their fortunes. You and I had to create ours.’ And I think that’s something he wears like a badge. But it also fuels his resentment.”

That impending connection to Daemon is interesting, too, since Corlys is the only one who defends Daemon’s claim to the right of succession when his rival Ser Otto begins poisoning the king against his brother. However, Toussaint doesn’t fully agree when we suggest Corlys likes defending the unpopular causes.

“He’s a very forthright, almost ramrod-like straight man,” says Toussaint. “This is the law. So at the time that we meet, we’ve never had a woman on the Iron Throne, therefore that’s not a possibility. [Viserys] has no male heir, no children, so the next male heir is Daemon. We all know it; it’s the law. And that’s what his thing is. It doesn’t matter if I like Daemon; whether I think Daemon would be a great king or not; the law is that that’s who it is.” Although Toussaint teases we will see Corlys and Daemon “coming together to fight a common cause” in the coming weeks.

Still, going back to that jousting scene where Corlys and Rhaenys sit from on high and feign they didn’t hear “the Queen Who Never Was” be shouted yet again, there remains a sense aloofness to this power couple—and a self-awareness that might be akin to a Greek chorus in such a luxuriant and decadent context.

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“It speaks to our feeling like outsiders,” Best says, “both of us, even though we’re very much inside because of being of high ranking nobility, and you being the richest man in the world. But we’re also spiritually and temperamentally, and experientially, outsiders.”

She adds, “I think that as a template for this particular incarnation of the Game of Thrones, the Dance of the Dragons, Greek tragedy feels very [apt]. Not only in the content being quite Greek in terms of the scale, and the craziness and intensity that goes on, but also that structural element.”

Hence both actors welcome that in House of the Dragon, their characters take on echoes of a Greek Chorus. Well that “or the two old guys in the Muppets,” Toussaint quips.

House of the Dragon is playing on HBO and HBO Max now.

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