House of the Dragon: That Aemond and Vhagar Change Was a Mistake

House of the Dragon had a fantastic first season, but its finale repeats a familiar mistake that could grow into a larger problem.

Aemond at Storm's End in House of the Dragon Finale
Photo: HBO

This article contains House of the Dragon episode 10 spoilers.

To call it David versus Goliath would be an understatement. When the mighty and ancient Vhagar, ridden by Prince Aemond (Ewan Mitchell), flew above young Prince Lucerys Velaryon (Elliot Grihault) and his mount, the baby dragon Arrax, it was like Goliath towering over a puppy. This will be over quickly. Luke and Arrax valiantly strafed and soared, zigged and zagged, but in the end it was inevitable that Lucerys would find a new home in Vhagar’s belly.

Casual viewers likely had a premonition about this grisly fate from the moment Luke saw the shadow of Vhagar roaring in the distance beneath the dark clouds of Storm’s End. But for fans of George R.R. Martin’s source material novel, Fire & Blood, it was the moment they both dreaded and greatly anticipated. Poor sweet Luke has gone to see his father, and in the aftermath, any hopes of this simply being a war of words and alliance-building has vanished. To quote Martin in the corresponding chapter, “Then the storm broke, and the dragons danced.”

And yet, even book readers were surprised by House of the Dragon, a series which has cannily—and largely intelligently—made subtle changes and shifts to Martin’s story to heighten the dramatic and thematic appeal. But in the case of last night’s episode, “The Black Queen,” the changes made to Aemond’s murder of Lucerys had the opposite effect. The ending of the episode muddied the dramatic and thematic power of the story for the slightly, yet tangible, worse.

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For in the series, it turned out to not be murder at all when Aemond led his dragon to the beheading of Arrax; it was bullying game gone awry—a mistake and misunderstanding that forces the realm into war. Once again the writers room of House of the Dragon has shifted what was on the page cold, calculated actions by its characters into a tragi-comedy of errors. This is a mistake.

In the book, Aemond Targaryen knew exactly what he was doing when he sought Lord Baratheon’s leave to chase his nephew to the skies with the largest dragon in the world—even as the book is a historical text (so technically no one was up there but the two Targaryens), Aemond never makes excuses or begs pardon for a bit of horseplay. Aemond still thirsted for revenge over the eye that was taken from him, and if his sweet, strong nephew would not acquiesce and remove his own eye on the floor of Storm End’s great hall, then he would have them both fed to his dragon and the waters of Shipbreaker Bay.

For the record, this is entirely in keeping with how young adult Aemond has been sharply drawn by Mitchell in only three episodes. Leaning into the melodramatic imagery of his eye-patched appearance, the TV show’s Aemond is the ultimate distillation of what Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) said in the very first episode: “It’s been 70 years since King Maegor’s end. These knights are as green as summer grass. None of them have known real war.”

One generation further removed from even that, Aemond is the final  culmination of this callow outgrowth of privilege and a false sense of invulnerability. He hungers for war, even telling Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) in his first scene as an adult that he doesn’t give a damn about jousting or tourneys; he wants to put real blood on his sword. And the contempt with which his one eye burrows into his “STRONG nephews” later in that same episode tells us exactly whose blood he wants to wet the blade.

The House of the Dragon creators even heighten this fact by having Aemond literally pattern his entire style and hair after Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), a boyish rogue’s copy of a rogue. Although at least Daemon knows what it is to go to war and leave the safety of his castle, and even his dragon, along the Stepstones. Aemond never has, and so when the opportunity to murder the target of his fury arises, he takes it with callous disregard of the consequences.

… But that is not how it plays out on the show. Instead Aemond is revealed to only be just joshing with Lucerys, presumably in an intended echo of Lucerys participating in the prank of gifting young Aemond a pig and calling it the Pink Dread. When Vhagar gets red in her eye because Arrax tagged her, we hear Aemond repeatedly cry, “No, no, noooo, Vhagar!” as she pursues and slaughters his nephew.

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This is a weak change from the source material that would perhaps not be so egregious if it didn’t echo a growing trend in House of the Dragon’s final two episodes. Because as of right now, it seems this show has an unwillingness to let characters show their true colors or for anyone but Otto Hightower to own their mistakes and vanities. On paper, I can understand the reason for the choice: It reminds the viewer that Aemond is still a boy, and indeed he is playing at war. It also reminds us of a chilling truth that King Viserys (Paddy Considine) said in the show’s first episode. The Targaryens’ control over the dragons is somewhat an illusion.

Mayhaps. But characters should be in control of their actions, and the choices to tear asunder the family that old King Viserys attempted to keep together during a fateful feast should not be treated as sitcom plotting. Nevertheless, the pivotal decisions by Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Aemond have now been contextualized as a couple of whoopsies. Misunderstandings and miscommunications that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Three’s Company if not for the body count.

All her life, or certainly since Rhaenyra’s wedding, Alicent has prepared herself and her sons for usurping Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and stealing the Iron Throne. We see her drive that message into Aegon’s head as a boy, and her unwillingness to see Aegon for the pitiful rapist he’s become, even as she calls him her king. The hypocrisy of the character is cornerstone to who she is; it is her tragedy that she will use her children as political tools, just as her father did her.

And yet, House of the Dragon wants to have us believe that after decades of positioning her family to usurp Rhaenyra that she was so moved by Viserys and Rhaenyra’s words that she was ready to bend the knee, and would have, too, if not for the silly misunderstanding of hearing an old, dying, and drugged up man mutter something about “Aegon” and the “prince who was promised.”

If the show wanted to lean into Alicent willfully deluding herself because this gives her exactly what she wanted, it could be a curious choice. However, House of the Dragon would seem to suggest that she really, really did not want to betray Rhaenyra, but she’s just doing what she thinks Viserys wants—even though it obviously isn’t what he wanted since just hours beforehand he was still defending his daughter’s claim.

Frankly, it’s bad writing that attempts to excuse Alicent for her avarice and treason. She knew exactly what she was doing in the book, and in fact, had all of her husband’s servants ordered to tell her the minute Viserys was dead—she then let him rot in his bed for a week as her family prepared the ascent. Alicent’s hand is just as bloody as her father’s, or Daemon for that matter, in escalating this tension to the point of civil war.

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And Aemond’s is bloodier still since he crushed any hope of this war ending without a large amount of family members dead (plus the tens of thousands they each command). After the death of Lucerys, there is no peace between Rhaenyra and Aegon where one bends the knee to the other. Only fire and blood is left to them. For such a monumental moment, the change to it being an accident feels small and chintzy. It is beneath the moral complexity of this world.

When Ned Stark was beheaded, Joffrey Baratheon did not say, “No, Ser Illyn, noooo!” Nor did Tywin Lannister reveal he only asked Lord Walder Frey to play “The Rains of Castaemere” at Edmure Tully’s wedding as a prank, but then that rascal Walder took it too far and added crossbows.

Let the characters own their actions, and if it reveals them to be villains, then the show is stronger for it because Aemond’s motivations for villainy come from a completely understandable place. It stems from his general sense of aggrievement when his nephew took his eye and his father did nothing about it afterward, as well as his own twisted sense of self-righteousness while palling around with “decent men” like Criston Cole.

Bending over backward to prevent anyone from being the villain, and thereby robbing them of their agency, stains what is otherwise an intricate and still dazzling tapestry that’s being weaved. At the moment this problem is not a dealbreaker, either for the series or what was otherwise a compelling season finale. But we’ve seen in the past how small mistakes and changes can grow into massive, gaping holes, and the tapestry that House of the Dragon is building is too precious a thing for that.