This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon episode 4.
It’s rare when an author concedes that a change made by an adaptation has improved on their work. And George R.R. Martin has all the more reason to be cagey after some questionable decisions made during the final seasons of Game of Thrones—back when that series ran out of books to adapt.
Nonetheless, Martin has been effusive in his praise for Thrones’ new prequel series, House of the Dragon. Admittedly, the author had a hand in turning his fictional history of the Targaryen family, Fire & Blood, into the television show, which he co-created with writer Ryan Condal. But it is Condal and producer/director Miguel Sapochnik who are running this first season, and working with a larger pool of writers. It is also a new cast of actors who has given some of Martin’s most notorious creations life.
And in at least one specific case, Martin has admitted a performance improved on what he wrote in the book.
“King Viserys Targaryen I, as portrayed by Paddy Considine on the show, is better than the way I wrote King Viserys in Fire & Blood,” Martin said while answering fan questions on social media last month. “He’s stronger, he’s still conflicted, but he’s more of a tragic figure.”
Four episodes into House of the Dragon, Martin’s reasoning has become clear thanks to a consistently melancholic and multifaceted performance by Considine as the well-intentioned king who seems almost damned to make things worse. After all, his reign is destined to act as prelude to the greatest of Targaryen civil wars (hence this show), but unlike his literary counterpart, Considine’s Viserys is doing his best to avoid the coming storm. He vaguely sees it on the horizon, but no matter his plans or precautions, his House’s great ship is drifting headfirst into the tempest.
That became most apparent in the latest House of the Dragon episode, “King of the Narrow Sea.” In this chapter, the best intentions of mending broken fences among his family once more fall to seed. The return of the younger brother he exiled, Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), proves a disaster after Daemon seduces his niece, and Viserys’ daughter, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock). Of course it’s worth noting the grotesque double standards of a king who takes what he wants, including a barely consenting bride who is the same age as his daughter, and a princess who is chided for pursuing a far more passionate affair or two. The show even makes this hypocrisy explicit by juxtaposing a night between Viserys and Queen Alicent (Emily Carey) with Rhaenyra’s more charged moments with Daemon and later Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel).
However, in this patriarchal society Rhaenyra is playing a precarious game with Daemon—and one which chills for reasons beyond the repulsiveness of incest (a fact only her father seems to mind). Her liaison threatens to ruin everything she and her father are trying to build with a clean succession. While Rhaenyra deserved to be Viserys’ heir from the day she was born, Viserys (and many of the great lords) only accepted that truth because they wanted to prevent her callow and pernicious uncle from seizing power. The prospect of Daemon wedding Rhaenyra, or just warming her bed, would moot the reason the kingdom aligned behind Rhaenyra in the first place, and could be used as a weapon by Rhaenyra’s enemies.
One such foe made the threat he posed clear, even to Viserys, when Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) used circumstantial evidence of a Daemon-Rhaenyra rendezvous in an attempt to poison the king against his daughter and, implicitly, to make the ascension of Viserys’ son by Alicent, and thereby Otto’s grandchild, all the more likely.
Considine’s Viserys saw through this manipulation and much else about his Hand.
“In just five days, you went from being another man in Jaehaerys’ court to being the second most powerful man in the realm,” Viserys tells Otto at the end of Sunday night’s episode. “I wonder, how long did it take you to choose yourself over your king? I will never recover over Aemma’s death, but Alicent? She took me through the worst of my grief. She was a calculated distraction. I only now realize how well calculated it was.”
This was Viserys’ wind up to stripping Ser Otto of his title as Hand of the King, and Viserys’ first real attempt to listen—truly listen—to his daughter’s plight and perspective. For it was she who lifted the scales from Viserys’ eyes by telling him to set Hightower’s whispering counsel aside in exchange for her obedience.
Otto’s political demise is a powerful scene, particularly for Considine who carries both contempt and love in equal measures across his countenance. Viserys cannot fully begrudge the man who has been by his side since he ascended the Iron Throne, nor the manipulation that caused him to marry a young wife he nevertheless loves (although it’s doubtful that ardor is reciprocal). Otto is still his friend, but he’s also a threat.
The literary Viserys never thought so clearly or planned this strategically. To be sure, on the page, Martin acknowledges that Viserys dismissed Otto Hightower from his services for similar reasons. “Loudest among [Alicent’s] supporters was her father, Ser Otto Hightower, Hand of the King” George R.R. Martin’s maester-historian writes in Fire & Blood. “Pushed too far on the matter in 109 AC, Viserys stripped Ser Otto of his chain of office.”
Ostensibly, it’s the same action but the details, and how Considine fills them out, makes a world of ice and fire difference. In the book, Viserys removes Otto not because he has made an open attack on Rhaenyra’s claim (and virtue)—tracking her with his spies in hopes of finding evidence to shame her. Rather Viserys removes Otto rather nonchalantly because the Hand is “hectoring” him and boring the ever-distracted king.
This is not to say that literary Viserys is a repeat of King Robert Baratheon from Game of Thrones, although Viserys is also stout of frame on the page. Both versions of Viserys genuinely care about being king (unlike Robert), but to the book interpretation, this means enjoying the hunting parties and feasts we see Considine’s Viserys brooding over during last week’s third episode.
“Viserys I Targaryen had a generous, amiable nature, and was well loved by his lords and smallfolk alike,” Fire & Blood describes elsewhere. “The reign of the Young King, as the commons called him upon his ascent, was peaceful and prosperous. His Grace’s open-handedness was legendary, and the Red Keep became a place of song and splendor. King Viserys and Queen Aemma hosted many a feast and lavished gold, offices, and honors on their favorites.”
The literary Viserys is an eager to please, well-meaning pushover who never gave much thought to the big picture. Technically, he is stronger in some respects to modern eyes since after he selected Rhaenyra as his heir to supplant Daemon, he never changed it. He simply considered it a settled matter.
By contrast, Considine’s Viserys vacillates, spending most of the third episode of House of the Dragon brooding into his cups and ruing the prospect of replacing Rhaenyra with her half-brother, the wee baby Aegon, as his heir. “I wavered,” he later confesses to his daughter in the same episode. However, this weakness adds dimension to the character because he is thinking ahead and about the challenge of convincing a sexist patriarchy—which directly benefited him when he was chosen as monarch over his cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best)—to bend the knee to a woman when a man (or even a boy) remains an option.
Notably on the page, Ser Otto’s dismissal also occurs before Daemon and Rhaenyra’s dalliance is discovered in Fire & Blood. Spared the urgency of television, the literary Daemon and Rhaenyra spend half-a-year together, with it being ambiguous as to how twisted their relationship became. Whatever the actual transgressions, Daemon was banished and Rhaenyra eventually was forced to marry Laenor Valeryon.
And yet, there is a heavy sense of rudimentary thinking, and even cowardice, to the book’s Viserys in even these actions. He is wrathful with Daemon, which is a nice surprise since he didn’t banish Daemon for the “heir for a day” jape like Considine’s version of the character did in House of the Dragon. In the book, Viserys surprised Daemon by naming Rhaenyra his heir and cravenly hoping that little brother would take a hint. In House of the Dragon, however, Daemon is concerned with more than just hypocritical need to protect his daughter’s “honor.” Instead he is constantly concerned with history, prophecy, and the stability of the family line.
In one of the most intriguing scenes of last night’s episode, Viserys again reminds Rhaenyra of Aegon the Conqueror’s secret vision of another Long Night, and the need to keep a Targaryen on the throne in Westeros. He does this by revealing that the so-called catspaw dagger—the same one Arya Stark would eventually use to slew the Night King on Game of Thrones—has the hidden prophecy of “The Prince Who Was Promised” engraved across the blade.
“The responsibility I have handed to you, the burden of this knowledge, is larger than the throne,” Viserys says while reprimanding his daughter. The knowledge is also an invention by the House of the Dragon showrunners. Ryan Condal previously told us that it was his and Miguel Sapochnik’s idea to have this secret passed down from one generation of Targaryen rulers to the next.
The information torments Viserys, who in Considine’s hands has a scholarly disposition. He alone seems to care about the stories of Old Valyria, spending his days playing with his giant model of the lost civilization and ruminating on its secrets. He also views those secrets as vital to protecting the world from an apocalypse. The succession, and his family’s need to endure, haunts this king whereas his literary counterpart cared only for his festivities and maintaining good vibes.
So when Alcock’s Rhaenyra accuses her father of using the Daemon dalliance as an excuse to strip her of her inheritance and raise up baby Aegon, Viserys hisses, “I would, but it is mine to hold the realm together, not sow it with further division.”
He is aware that if he changes the line of succession to Aegon being first, he would not only displace and estrange a daughter; he would also create a precedent by which supporters of Rhaenyra’s original claim would remember they bent the knee and swore an oath to the “Realm’s Delight.” And bannermen like the Starks take their oaths very, very seriously.
Viserys knows a potential conflict could be brewing between Rhaenyra and Aegon’s claims. Probably Daemon’s too. And he is attempting to bury the hatchets before they’re used to decapitate the realm in civil war. He sees the threat, but despite his best efforts he will be unable to stop it.
“With the combined strength of our dragons and naval, no one would dare to stand against us,” Viserys tells his heir. “The House of the Dragon will stand as one for a further generation.” Viserys is obsessed with passing his family’s power to the next century untarnished. His tragedy is that his children, brother, and probably wife and father-in-law, all have their own ambitions and visions for the future.
Going back to Martin’s own summation of Considine’s Viserys, the author said last month that “he has King Lear aspects to him, if I may dare that.” Like Shakespeare’s Lear, Viserys can’t help but seem to make the wrong choices while evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of his progeny. He dooms himself and his kingdom.
Considine carries an awareness of that ill-fate on his face in most of his scenes. You cannot look away; but you may feel a pang of pity as he digs the realm’s grave deeper with each misstep.