How House of the Dragon Can Redeem Alicent Hightower in Season 2

TV

This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon season 1.

The first season of the Game of Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon had to cover a lot of ground. From introducing several dozen new characters—entirely too many of which either shared the same name or looked confusingly like one another—to laying the groundwork for the intra-family civil war that will eventually make dragons extinct, the story spans over two decades of Targaryen history. And, limited to a scant 10 episodes, this means that its narrative is often forced to skip from major event to major event, with little time or space to flesh out the emotional fallout in between 

The repeated use of multi-year time jumps didn’t really do any of the show’s characters any favors: flattening arcs, blurring motivations, and barely acknowledging entire relationships to an almost laughable degree at various points in season 1. But almost no single character on its canvas is as consistently ill-served by its determination to plow through decades’ worth of narrative material at breakneck speed as Alicent Hightower (played by Emily Carey and then Olivia Cooke) has been. 

The childhood best friend of Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (played by Milly Alcock and then Emma D’Arcy) who is forced to marry a man twice her age by her scheming father and leads a coup to put her son Aegon on the throne after her husband’s death, she is a figure who more than belongs at the center of this tale. But somehow, she’s also a character whose motivations and goals remain frustratingly unclear, and if House of the Dragon wants its central conflict to be a compelling one, that’s something the drama’s second season will definitely have to address in order for its central war to have any real emotional depth or complexity beyond cool dragon fights. The Greens versus the Blacks is no Starks vs. Lannisters vs. Targaryens vs. Baratheons, is what I’m saying. At least not yet. But it’s not too late for the show to fix this problem, and give us an Alicent who has the depth and agency necessary to balance the scales of this epic battle.

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Because the thing is, House of the Dragon clearly wants viewers to see Alicent as Rhaenyra’s equal, a cunning strategist and bold decision-maker willing to make hard choices for the advancement of her family. They just haven’t done the work to get her there yet. Because the show skips over so many of the moments that might have given us a clearer insight into who Alicent is or what she wants, we know relatively little about her as a person, especially when compared to her ex-BFF. 

The narrative jumps ahead just as she’s set to wed Viserys (Paddy Considine), which means we never see the fallout from the announcement of that union or how she feels about becoming queen. The story skips ahead again shortly thereafter, speeding through a decade of life that included the birth of her children, the initial decline of her husband, and the apparent birth of the festering resentment she feels toward the stepdaughter who is allowed repeatedly to break the same rules that have bound her all her life. How have her feelings changed over this time? How does she feel about essentially ruling in her husband’s stead? Where has her sudden interest in religion come from? That’s the stuff viewers deserve to see onscreen. 

Season 2 could fix so many of the show’s issues simply by giving Alicent a consistent point of view and a real voice within the story, rather than having her actions and motivations default to whatever the story needs them to be at any given moment. Let us see her play the game of thrones on her own terms, rather than simply reacting to the actions of her father and the other council members.

If she thinks her son’s a sociopathic rapist, let’s see her work more aggressively to influence him or encourage him to cede some of his duties to her. If we have to watch her indulge Larys’ foot fetish onscreen, at least show her cagily using the information he provides to her own advantage. And let’s stop pretending she believes her own bullshit about Viserys’ poppy-addled final words confirming Aegon’s rule is somehow cosmically destined. She wanted her son on the throne, so she helped him take it. Let her unapologetically claim her power and her choices, the same way Rhaenyra has

Because on paper Alicent is one of House of the Dragon’s most interesting and compelling figures. A non-royal with little political training, she’s a woman who’s learned to survive and thrive in a world that’s shaped largely by and for men. Without a dragon or a title of her own, she’s had to learn to wield power and influence in more subtle and indirect ways than women like Rhanerya or even Rhaenys (Eve Best). Her first true moment of triumph—appearing at her husband’s court blazing in Hightower green—comes because she uses the symbolism inherent in things like clothing and heraldry to her advantage. 

Her destabilization of Rhaenyra’s claim is possible only because she understands that the populace can be swayed by rumors and gossip as easily as by the point of a sword. She gathers secrets and reads people better than (almost) anyone in King’s Landing, playing on the emotions of both those who’ve been wronged by Rhaenerya and Daemon (Matt Smith) and those who desire a more traditional style of rulership. She leans into the imagery of a devout wife when it suits her, and embraces a specifically performative style of religion. She’s not just a supporting player in the game of thrones that’s happening here, she’s running it. Or at least she should be.

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In truth, that version of Alicent would be almost unstoppable. And that’s who we deserve to see on our screens in season 2: Someone who can convincingly go toe to toe with a woman like Rhaenyra because simply she’s built her base of power and influence completely differently. In a more nuanced version of season 1, we would have seen an Alicent who learned to fight in other ways than on dragonback, and who came to rely on soft, more traditionally feminine skills to survive. We’d have known what her dreams were and what it cost her to change them and whether she actually wants power in her own right for once and what she might like to do with it if she had it. 

It’s not too late for season 2 to do this, either—Aegon is clearly ill-suited for the throne, and the kingdom will likely be better off if Alicent does the bulk of his ruling for him, regardless of all the dragon fighting going on. There’s still time to show us that this woman is something more than a pawn of the men around her, that she has goals and plans of her own, and is as capable a leader from the throne as the show wants me to believe she has already been behind the scenes. And, for goodness’ sake, let her be angry—as angry as Rhaenyra is—-for all the ways her life and her choices have been stolen from her. Let’s see these women face off as equals in season 2, not just two women on opposite sides.

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