This article contains spoilers for season one of House of the Dragon and for all of Game of Thrones.
In a 2018 video released on YouTube by publishers Random House when promoting the release of Fire & Blood (the book HBO’s House of the Dragon is partially based on), George R.R. Martin was asked “Which Targaryen is your favorite?” He said, “I’m notorious for my love of gray characters, and one of the grayest characters in the entire history of Westeros is Daemon Targaryen, the Rogue Prince.” Truer words were never spoken – Daemon Targaryen is an enigma, a highly unpredictable character who seems sometimes to be the villain and sometimes the hero of the show. But we have seen this type of character in Westeros before, in Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister.
There are quite a few superficial similarities between Jaime and Daemon. They are both blonde; they are both charismatic; they both have the hots for a close family member. Both are played by actors (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Matt Smith respectively) who are able to be intensely charismatic and likable while also playing their emotions close to their chest and keeping their characters’ real feelings slightly hidden until the appropriate moment.
Both characters commit an horrific act early on that seems to set them up as an antagonist for the series. The world of Westeros is full of despicable characters we love to hate, like King Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton (formerly Snow), or King Aegon II Targaryen. At first glance, it looks like both Jaime and Daemon are being set up as one of these characters.
The first dramatic act of evil carried out on screen in Game of Thrones is when Jaime Lannister, at the end of the pilot, pushes young Bran Stark out of the window of a tall tower. The man has just pushed a young boy to his presumed death and actual life-changing injury. He’s evil, right? But of course, as the series goes on, the audience realizes that Jaime is more complicated than that. He pushed Bran out of the window because Bran caught him and his sister Cersei having sex; that much, we already know when it happens. But we later find out that Cersei’s three children, who are supposedly the children of King Robert Baratheon and the heirs to the throne of Westeros, are actually Jaime’s children. He is not just protecting his own dirty secret; he is protecting his children from Robert’s rage if he ever finds out the truth.
Another act of Jaime’s that seems to set him up as a villain is the great crime that has hung over him for his entire life, his killing of King Aerys II Targaryen in the war in which Robert Baratheon took the throne, years before the start of the show. All of Westeros hates him for committing the unforgivable act of killing the King he had sworn to protect. But in season 3, Jaime reveals to Brienne of Tarth the reason for this murder; Aerys was about to burn the whole of King’s Landing, and everyone in it, to the ground. Jaime was saving half a million lives by killing one, and no one knows it but himself (and Brienne). Although he is notorious as an oathbreaker, his actual motivation was the desire to do what knights are supposed to do and protect the innocent.
As the series goes on, it becomes clear that Jaime’s one overriding motivation in nearly everything he does is love, with his secondary motivation being a desire to be heroic and to protect people. We should have known from the first, really, but on first viewing his line “the things we do for love” sounds like a throwaway quip, a heartless dismissal of his attempted murder of a small boy. It is not – it is the entire key to his character.
Jaime protects Brienne from no motivation other than a desire not to see her get hurt, and goes back to rescue her when he realizes she will likely be killed (in the TV series motivated entirely by affection for her, and not by a weirwood dream as in the books). He finally abandons Cersei at the end of season 7 when he realizes she is not going to help to fight against the Night King and his army, and he goes back to her after the Battle of Winterfell because he realizes she herself is now in danger from Daenerys, and he still loves her, however cruel she is.
There are a few callous acts of Jaime’s that are harder to explain or excuse this way. He kills his own cousin trying to escape from the Starks in season two, which, as a kinslaying, is another unforgivable crime in the Seven Kingdoms. In episode 1 of season 4, he tells Cersei that he did it to get back to her, which could just about put it under the heading of “killing for love”, but it’s rather excessive. He stabs poor Jory Cassel through the eye while arresting Ned Stark in season 1 episode 5, which might be excused as an act of violence he considered necessary to carry out his duty and is done primarily in the hope of rescuing his brother from Catelyn Stark, but he is a bit too enthusiastic about it. Overall, though, unlike his son Joffrey, Jaime does not carry out acts of evil or violence for the sake of it. He does it to protect the people he loves.
Daemon’s motivations are more complicated and harder to define than Jaime’s, but there are similarities. Daemon is introduced as Master of Laws and Commander of the City Watch in King’s Landing. His methods are brutal and it seems that he is as dangerous and unsuitable to lead as Otto Hightower suggests, as we see his Gold Cloaks ransacking the city and carrying out brutal punishments without trial; castrating rapists, executing murderers and chopping off the hands of thieves. Daemon does, however, have a reason for this action – he claims it was necessary to keep criminal activity to a minimum during the tourney Viserys has arranged, and to bolster the reputation of the Watch. Although brutal, it is not an attack on the innocent, at least not in theory (it is probably best not to think about how many of Daemon’s victims might have been wrongly accused!).
Like Jaime, Daemon also makes a truly poor taste quip early on that makes him appear cruel and heartless. Where Jaime shrugged off throwing a child out of a window, Daemon jokes to the prostitutes in a brothel that his late nephew who died soon after birth was “heir for a day.” In Daemon’s case, his misplaced humor has far more drastic consequences. Bran and Jaime do not meet again for years, and when they do, not only is Bran now largely emotionless and focused on the need for Jaime to join them in the battle, he is also understandably focused far more on the action that accompanied the quip, i.e. throwing him out of the window, than on misplaced humor. Daemon’s words, on the other hand, are brought back to Viserys by his rival at court Otto Hightower and lead directly to Viserys forcing Daemon out of King’s Landing and choosing Rhaenyra as his heir.
Daemon’s other early, brutal act is his murder of his first wife Rhea Royce in episode 5 (something that was more ambiguous in the books, where he may or may not have ordered it to be done). This could perhaps be explained as motivated by “love” if we assume he wants to marry Rhaenyra because he loves her and kills Rhea to enable himself to do so. That is, it has to be said, a bit of a stretch. Although Daemon loves Rhaenyra, marrying her is a political move as well as an act of love; he was the heir to the throne and she is the current heir, so their marriage gives them together a really strong claim. And it is possible to love her without being married to her – unlike Jaime, Daemon is not trying to protect his lover and children, but just trying to get what he wants.
Daemon’s later killing of Vaemond Velaryon is similarly motivated, though it comes across as less cruel and unjustified to the audience. Vaemond had just questioned the legitimacy of Daemon’s stepsons and called his now-wife Rhaenyra a whore. Daemon’s brutal beheading of Vaemond is done for both love and political advantage. Which is the stronger motivator is hard to say, but it is unlike the murder of poor Rhea in that the audience are most likely cheering him on – although Vaemond is completely correct, we feel for Rhaenyra, knowing her mutual arrangement with her first husband Laenor thanks to their sexual incompatibility, and even more for her children, who did not choose their parents. The audience are rooting for Rhaenyra to keep her secret at this point (unlike Cersei and Jaime, for whom the opposite was true, primarily because Joffrey was so awful).
One more positive occasion when Daemon appears to be motivated primarily or even purely by love, without political advantage, is the confrontation between Daemon and Rhaenyra at Dragonstone in episode 2. Daemon has stolen the dragon egg that belonged to the late Prince Baelon and refuses to return it, and it looks like his confrontation with Otto Hightower is going to end badly as he will surely be too proud to step down. But when Rhaenyra places herself between Daemon and Otto, Daemon returns the egg peacefully. It is not entirely clear why he stole the egg in the first place, other than simple stirring, but having done so, his love for Rhaenyra seems to be the main reason he returns it.
Daemon is clearly capable of love and tenderness, as we can see from the way he helps his brother Viserys back to the Iron Throne in episode 8. However, once again, Daemon’s acts of love are nearly always combined with political expediency. Helping Viserys is not only an act of love towards his sick brother – Viserys is the only person in the court holding up Daemon’s wife’s claim to the throne. They need Viserys, and it is his death that rips the family apart and will kick-start the Dance of the Dragons.
In the final episode of season 1 of House of the Dragon, Daemon shows a darker side of himself, grabbing Rhaenyra by the throat and half-choking her when she brings up the prophecy of the Song of Ice and Fire, which Viserys had never told Daemon about (revealing that Viserys never expected nor intended for Daemon to succeed him). This moment is most comparable to the infamous episode of Game of Thrones season 4 in which Jaime rapes Cersei, in a scene which was a consensual sex scene in the books. That change was so poorly received and fit so badly into what was by now clearly a redemption story, that it was more or less brushed under the carpet and not referred to again.
In Daemon’s case, it is likely that this scene is more carefully thought through – he is much less clearly on a path to redemption, and this action may indicate that he is turning towards a darker outcome. Daemon does not go so far as Jaime does, but his abusive and physically violent action towards his wife (and niece) indicates that he is also capable of hurting the woman he loves, and that there is a darkness in him. It may indicate that his political ambition is greater even than his love, since it is a political snub by his now-dead brother that sets off his anger.
This may be the core difference between the two characters. Jaime is motivated by love more than anything else, and occasionally by a desire to be heroic. Political ambition is a quality he leaves to his father, sister, and brother. Jaime is introduced as a literal white (cloaked) knight in shining armor who looks exactly like Prince Charming from the Shrek films. That image is undercut by his actions throughout seasons 1 and 2, but even as his costumes (and hair!) become darker, he inches himself closer and closer back to that knightly ideal. He saves a damsel in distress from a wild animal (“damsel in distress” may not be an epithet we usually associate with Brienne of Tarth, but when she is in that bear pit, it is an accurate description), and he abandons his Queen to fight for all of humanity in the North, despite knowing he is unlikely to be well received by the Starks. Despite the disappointment felt by many when he then runs right back to Cersei in King’s Landing, Brienne was able to view even that as a heroic if misguided act when she recorded that he “died protecting his Queen.”
Daemon is different. He is introduced sitting on the Iron Throne, claiming it, and reminding Rhaenyra that he is (at that time) the heir. In the same scene, he tenderly offers Rhaenyra a necklace that celebrates their shared Valyrian heritage. Daemon is motivated by both love and political ambition in equal measure. After the birth of healthy sons to Viserys and Alicent Hightower, Daemon is too far from the succession to push his own claim without murdering them all (which would be difficult while they live in the castle at King’s Landing) so marriage to Rhaenyra both satisfies his love for her, and puts him in a position to be her consort – and even king if he could bring himself to kill her, or if she were to die in childbirth while the children were all young. It is an act of both love and politics, as most royal marriages are.
The Dance of the Dragons is a family feud. Every political action requires the betrayal of a family member, and every act of love or vengeance has political consequences. At this point, there’s no way of knowing whether Daemon will ultimately be motivated primarily by love, like Jaime, or whether his political ambition will get the better of him. Either way, we’re excited to find out!