This article contains House of the Dragon spoilers through episode 8 and some light spoilers for Fire & Blood.
In House of the Dragon‘s fifth episode “We Light the Way,” the beleaguered king of the Seven Kingdoms Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) poses a question to his Lord Hand Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes).
“Will I be remembered as a good king, Lyonel?” Viserys asks.
The time to answer that question is perhaps not in that moment. Viserys is sickly and tired after his journey back to King’s Landing from Driftmark. Lyonel, ever the faithful friend and confidante, seems to recognize as such and deflects the query. The quality of any given monarch cannot be properly assessed until their reign is over and the various maesters and historians get their learned hands around their story. No one will know if you’re a good king until you’re dead and gone.
Now, at the conclusion of episode eight “The Lord of the Tides,” King Viserys is both dead and gone. That means the time has officially come to assess the ruling legacy of Viserys, First of His Name – the fifth king in the Targaryen dynasty that ruled over Westeros. Though we all love and respect the kindly man (mostly due to Considine’s achingly empathetic portrayal of him) we suspect that Westeros’s historians won’t look too favorably upon his time on the Iron Throne. Here are some reasons why.
Viserys and the Other Targaryen Kings
First, it might be helpful to have some historical context for how the other Targaryen kings performed in the nearly 300-year dynasty presented in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga. By the time Robert Baratheon and his fellow conspirators deposed the Mad King Aerys II in 283 AC, the Iron Throne had played host to 17 total Targaryen rulers. And most of those rulers were, quite frankly: terrible.
As far as the conversation for “Worst Targaryen King” goes, a handful of names always come up: Aenys I, Maegor I, Aegon IV, and Aerys II. Aenys I and Maegor I were both sons of Aegon the Conqueror (by his two different sister-wives) and ascended the throne after Aegon I in back-to back fashion. The former nearly ended the Targaryen dynasty before it began by acting far too weakly and the second nearly finished the job his brother started by acting far too cruelly. Targaryen king number four Jaehaerys had an immense reconstructive mission to undertake and the fact that he held the realm together at all makes him the consensus best Targaryen king ever.
Aegon IV and Aerys II arrive much later on in the Song of Ice and Fire continuity. Aegon IV, known as the “Unworthy” was hilariously lazy, thoughtless, and corrupt. He legitimatized all of his bastards upon his death – a decision would haunt the Targaryen bloodline through the rest of its existence. Mad King Aerys II, who you might remember from Game of Thrones flashbacks, was cuckoo bananas and his paranoia and avarice eventually led to the end of his House’s 300-year reign. Hard to do a much worse job than that.
We should remember, however, that at the time of Viserys’s death in 129 AC, there are only four other Targaryen monarchs to compare him to: Aegon I, Aenys I, Maegor I, and Jaehaerys I. Of those four, he is undoubtedly a better king than Aenys and Maegor and undoubtedly a worse king than Jaehaerys and Aegon.
Viserys Maintained the Status Quo
The fact that Viserys is so firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack when it comes to his predecessors by the end of his reign is quite fitting. For any chance that Viserys has at being remembered fondly is through his ability to maintain the status quo. Viserys inherited quite a healthy, productive kingdom from his grandfather Jaehaerys and did everything he could to not rock the boat.
In that same conversation with Lyonel Strong in episode 5, Viserys opines that he was never truly tested as king. There was no major conflicts between houses in the realm (beside the usual House Bracken and House Blackwood bullshit), nor were there any real threats from without (beside the minor temper tantrum thrown by The Triarchy in the Stepstones). Lyonel wisely points out that Viserys may not have liked it if his military mettle was tested. Keeping the realm in a place of relative peace and stability is a huge part of governing.
Lyonel is certainly correct that keeping the King’s peace is a major aspect of being a king, and to that end Viserys did a superb job. But Lyonel neglects to mention that it isn’t the only part of the job for a king. Jaehaerys isn’t remembered as one of Westeros’s best-ever rulers solely because he kept the peace. He actually did good stuff too! Under Jaehaerys, the crown oversaw numerous building projects including the establishment of the Kingsroad to connect many disparate regions. He, along with his Hand Septon Barth, helped create the Seven Kingdoms’ first codified book of laws. He and his queen embarked on numerous royal processions across the continent, building relationships between many houses that would last for generations.
To his credit, Viserys maintained much of the goodwill and general peaceful environment that Jaehaerys established but he didn’t do much to improve upon it. As far as we’re aware from the canon of both Fire & Blood and House of the Dragon, Viserys built no roads, reformed no laws, nor won any major political victories. As promised, he never rocked the boat but he also never moved it one way or another. Westeros didn’t stagnate under Viserys’s rule, but it didn’t grow either.
And at the end of the day, Viserys’s greatest accomplishment of maintaining peace wouldn’t survive long after he was gone anyway.
Viserys and the Dance of the Dragons
Let’s talk about the dragon-winged elephant in the room now. The coming Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons is King Viserys’s real legacy. Whether it’s the ruler’s fault or not, history is not a big fan of commanders-in-chief who were unable to avoid civil conflict. James Buchanan, the U.S. President who preceded Abraham Lincoln (America’s Jaehaerys), frequently finds himself on “Worst U.S. Presidents of All Time” lists largely because of his inability to slow down the march to the American Civil War.
According to the fictional maesters writing the fictional history of Fire & Blood, King Viserys did very little to stop the conflict between his wife Queen Alicent and his daughter Princess Rhaenyra. House of the Dragon offers up a much kinder interpretation and in episode 8 we see the sickly king make one final Hail Mary to stop the incoming war…and he almost succeeds before Aemond and milk of the poppy have other ideas.
Still, regardless of how sincere of an attempt he made to avoid it, King Viserys’s actions directly led to one of the bloodiest conflicts ever in Westerosi history – and one that forever impeded the power and influence of House Taragrayen. The house of the dragon was at its height under Jaehaerys Targaryen and it began its slow descent under Viserys. That fact cannot be avoided or mitigated in any way when addressing his legacy.
Viserys was not the worst Targaryen king by a long shot. In fact, so many Targaryen kings run the gamut from “meh” to “breathtakingly, apocalyptically awful” that he may actually sneak into the top half on the list of 17 kings. He was also seemingly a good man, which at least counts for something in this terrifying amoral fantasy universe. But neither of those two facts make him a good king.
Viserys I Targaryen was a bad king. An unlucky king mayhaps, but a bad king all the same.
New episodes of House of the Dragon premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max in the U.S. and Sky Atlantic in the U.K.