If you’re a fan of House of the Dragon, chances are you’ve got a strong opinion on who should be on the Iron Throne. On one hand, we have Queen Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), chosen heir of King Viserys (Paddy Considine). On the other hand, we have King Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), the second-born child of the King, but first in line by the male primogeniture system that Westeros employs. Thirdly, there’s also the Dowager Queen Alicent (Olivia Coke), who has a fanbase of her own, which primarily supports her son Aegon, even if purely for her sake.
But despite the strong feelings the fandom has about the civil war (and believe me, if you’ve been on Twitter when an episode is airing, you’ll know how hectic things can get), the show itself cautions its viewers against taking sides. Ultimately, the Dance of the Dragons is a petty family conflict blown up to continent-sized proportions.
George R.R. Martin is known for his subversion of fantasy tropes – Game of Thrones was often marketed with its ability to shock audiences, for better or worse – and it’s absolutely clear that he sees monarchy for what it is. At the end of the day, monarchy is based purely on vibes and appearances. If the people see you as their king or queen, then all of your power is based on that belief. It’s not because your bloodline is inherently special, or because you were ordained by God to rule, or because a strange woman lying in a pond handed you a sword. As Varys says in A Clash of Kings, “Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
The ‘right’ of the Targaryens to rule is decided by their dragons, not because they’re actually above the rest of humanity or because of any human-made laws. Does it really matter that Rhaenyra has illegitimate children? At the end of the day, the basis of her rule is dragonfire and the whims of other people. Sure, those whims are based on the knowledge that they’ll be barbecued if they disagree, but as the Dance progresses, viewers are going to learn more about what kind of power the people truly have.
So it’s definitely fascinating to me that we can easily see these same dynamics playing out in real life, even if it’s over a fictional event. Millions of fans are practically flying Rhaenyra or Aegon’s banner as though this were an actual civil war occurring somewhere. It’s as though the dragon Sunfyre is about to roll into their hamlet and with their last, defiant breath before immolation, they’ll shout out, “Long live Queen Rhaenyra!” Instead, they’re more likely to need a breather after arguing with some dude on Twitter with an anime profile pic.
Proverbial battle lines have indeed been drawn on social media. Some of the fans have even taken to styling themselves as ‘the Blacks’ if they support Rhaenyra, while others have taken to calling themselves ‘the Greens’ if they support Aegon or his mother, Alicent, just like in-universe! Ironically, most of the fans’ conflict isn’t (usually) centered around pitting Rhaenyra against Aegon; instead, fans prefer to side with either Rhaenyra or Alicent, whose conflict was made more equal-footed and central to the narrative in House of the Dragon over the original Fire & Blood interpretation.
Whereas some fans choose to attack Alicent for her parenting and treatment of Rhaenyra, others view Alicent as an abused woman who’s grown colder over the years due to her trauma. Some decry Rhaenyra for having illegitimate children in line for the Iron Throne, while others point out that she’s consistently punished for no reason but the basis of her sex.
What’s funny is that the show supports all of these interpretations because they’re all true. Just like in real life, the situation is complicated. Rhaenyra and Alicent used to be best friends – and their relationship might have even developed into more had events transpired differently, once upon a time. But Rhaenyra found herself feeling betrayed by Alicent’s courtship of her recently-widowed father. What Rhaenyra didn’t know was that Alicent was essentially being groomed into this position by her father, Otto (Rhys Ifans), who had coveted the Iron Throne for a while.
I could go into a whole synopsis of the show, honestly. A lot of their falling out is due to outside factors, but the two of them also bear some personal responsibility in the way things fell apart.
I’m digressing a bit. The point is that the Alicent and Rhaenyra conflict is incredibly and deeply personal, but it’s somehow grown to the point where it’s affecting reality. At the end of the day, this is a family that could have resolved their issues had different decisions been made. It could have simply been a sad occurrence – the way people come and go in life, it would have been a mundane event, a blip on the historical radar – had that been the end of it. But what makes it into a full-blown tragedy is that people kept taking sides over which silver-haired royal should sit on the world’s most uncomfortable chair.
I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised that this has bled into actuality – it’s just human nature to form our own tribes and cliques. It’s funny, people don’t think fiction affects reality, but I’d say there’s always a chance to see stan-on-stan violence. The parasocial connection that forms between a fan and the object of their endearment can be a strong one.
It’s easy to look down on all of this from up on my high horse, but it’s so human for our empathy and tribal mentality to extend to the fictional concepts that we grow to love. Maybe television has become the modern form of the gladiatorial arena. A place where, with some distance, the human desire for violence and tribalism is sated. We’re all basically screaming fans in a colosseum, demanding the grand finale.
Humans may have gone from caves to skyscrapers, from the trees to the skies, from stone to steel, but we’re still just apes in fancy clothes. It’s hard to say we’re really above this, but that’s humanity for you. We see ourselves as elevated above all the nonsense, even though we’re some of the silliest and least serious animals around.
But even when we’re indulging our needs, we have to acknowledge when our actions negatively affect someone else. Your rights only extend to the tip of your nose, and much of the active discourse devolves into misogynistic (and often hypocritical) attacks on either Alicent or Rhaenyra. Seriously, who cares if Rhaenyra had sex outside of marriage? Laenor (John MacMillan), her own husband, the only other person who would have been truly affected by that, certainly didn’t – they even had a conversation about opening the relationship that was written in a more healthy and communicative manner than the way some real-life couples speak to each other.
And of course, this bleeds into how Cooke and D’Arcy are treated in real life, too. I understand that both embody their characters wonderfully, but that’s simply because the two are amazing actors. Cooke isn’t actually conspiring to place her son on the throne. The two actually seem to be quite close, having spoken at length about their friendship in the past. A negroni sbagliato, with prosecco in it, anyone? It’s stunning, I hear.
I think George and the cast and crew should be commended – they’ve really crafted a feud for the ages. When people are this invested, you know you’ve done something right.
D’Arcy and Cooke both bring such a layered performance to the table – you can really feel the weight of the last few years straining their relationship. And I haven’t even mentioned Milly Alcock and Emily Carey yet! Their chemistry as younger versions of Rhaenyra and Alicent, respectively, was off the charts. Rewatching the season really gives you a feeling of dread and sadness about their drifting apart.
I’m not here to spoil the rest of the Dance of the Dragons, so I won’t, but suffice it to say – viewers are going to see just how devastating this conflict becomes. There’s a reason the story also refers to the war as the ‘Dying of the Dragons’ – House Targaryen will never be the same after this, and the dragons themselves? Well…
As more and more characters identify themselves as either ‘Black’ or ‘Green’, I also reckon that the real-life situation might become more complicated. Though the Greens haven’t been depicted in the finest light yet, there are some more heroic members that are yet to appear on the show. And don’t keep your eyes off of Rhaenyra’s council – things may yet grow unwieldy.
It’s wonderful that the series has inspired this kind of fervor in people, but there are definitely some people that (and there are some things that just need to be said bluntly) need to take a moment to calm down. The two ideas can even exist simultaneously: just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it’s not real, but it’s still important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Do what you will to bring the story closer to home, so long as you’re not affecting other people by doing so.