Alicent Hightower is not a good person; almost nobody in House of the Dragon is. She has done despicable things, will do more, and experiences ugly human emotions. Obviously.
The gift bestowed on her by Game of Thrones’ warring fandom, though, is that she is afforded none of the room Viserys, Daemon, or even Rhaenyra are to be messy, cruel, and complicated. Context clues are ignored, the subtext that should be picked up on by immersed viewers is missed, and what is there in black and white is rejected by swaths of a fanbase that partakes in draining a female character of all color to label her a Disney villain — even if it’s detrimental to the fantasy series’ story.
With a fictional universe that panders to audiences’ bloodthirst, you’d expect fans to be primed for morally grey characters. But one needs only look at the myriad of ways its characters, Alicent in particular, are boiled down to realize this is not the case.
And it’s not that people are dumb (Game of Thrones is not exactly simple with its blurred lineages, lore, and political chess), it’s that they don’t wish to extend the grace they give to bad boy wife-choker Daemon or child-bride Viserys to Alicent.
When other characters roll around in the muck, they’re cast as anti-heroes in fan discussions — Daemon is troubled and years for his brother’s admiration, Viserys is bumbling and lovably ineffective — but when Alicent falters, people wipe out canon so they can score a viral ‘#HOTD’ moment with a logic-defying assessment of her. Where other characters are lapped up as deliciously incalculable, Alicent is evil, annoying, or simple.
Black-and-white (or black-and-green) characters can lack the flavor unpredictable ones have, but maybe simplicity is what people want. They might not think they do, but they say it by stripping characters of their nuance. If mustache-twirling instead of grounded human melodrama makes for worse TV, why do House of the Dragon fans actively misrepresent one of the series’ best-written tragedies?
If you’re engaging with the intended messages — war is the result of ego and blunders, patriarchy puts you in a cage match with other women and submitting to it is thankless — a frustrating wrinkle is how the prelude to adult Alicent’s life seems wasted on some viewers. For six episodes, Emily Carey stepped into the shoes of a girl who is thrown like a bone at the aging Viserys and told that the way to make the world safer for herself and her family is to fulfill her womanly duties. Sacrifice girlhood, body, and the relationship with her best friend.
The gripping moment where Milly Alcock’s Rhaenyra realizes Alicent is betrothed to her father was the first time wild takes on Alicent flew across social media’s skies like monsters in the night. The way people discussed the scene, you’d think that the teenager was being exposed for her devilish machinations and conquest for power, and not that she was standing sheepishly in the corner self-harming as the men in the room decided her fate.
Rhaenyra doesn’t fully comprehend the pervasiveness of the oppression she, in some ways but not others, skirts around, nor does she understand the vulnerability of not being part of a royal family. She’s a hurt child largely protected from her mistakes, while the people around her are held to the fire for theirs.
The first six episodes are fantastic in how they set up the interpersonal war between the future feuding queens, and they give palpable insight into the swirling cocktail of friendship, jealousy, power imbalance, and romantic subtext that fuels the delicious drama later.
The way people talk about Olivia Cooke’s Alicent (who serves c***, by the way) — after she’s gone all vengeful and conservative — you’d think the opening chapters didn’t do any of that, and that we just sat around watching the king die slowly for six hours instead of taking in crucial character drama. Like Otto Hightower’s gossiping spies, many fans seem to have come away with the broad strokes and none of the detail, rolling embarrassingly low on their insight checks.
The flashbacks are visceral… Her father made her believe her children would be murdered = ‘Well, she doesn’t actually believe that.’ Semi-canon undertones to the rich tapestry that is Rhaenyra and Alicent’s relationship = ‘The cast and writers are just making that up.’ She’s seething over Rhaenyra’s sex life because the Targaryen gets to break the rules while she is trapped in a passionless marriage = ‘She’s jealous she didn’t get to sleep with Cristen Cole herself.’ For the love of God.
Rhaenyra sleeping with Cole with no consequences (from Alicent’s perspective, anyway) is indicative of the ways the black queen has succeeded to an extent in escaping the confines of their bird cages. Rhaenyra, unwed, sleeps with a hot knight, and Alicent breastfeeds her screaming baby. Rhaenyra parties with her uncle in a brothel, and Alicent sits ineffectually on the sidelines of her own life. Rhaenyra devises a plan with Leanor to allow them both freedom, and Alicent tolerates the thrusting body of a man decades her senior.
There’s the power imbalance too. Rhaenyra has her name. If Alicent does not tie herself to power, she’s disposable. Alicent watches her former bestie skip around the prison bars she has locked herself into, mistaking them for safety. They’re the perfect yin and yang, both fruitlessly trying to escape their confines. These wrinkles are not there to justify what Alicent becomes, but they do indicate why she joins the chess board and why she will lash out to protect herself.
House of the Dragon is critical, though omission, of some of the things that turned some viewers off of Game of Thrones: excessive sexual violence, nudity, and cruelty. There has been debate over the years as to whether it’s a feminist showcase or deeply misogynistic. The prequel, while still Thrones through and through, has a less stomach-churning personality.
Considering how many people hated the ending of Game of Thrones and how it went pedal to the metal with Daenerys, the writers perhaps thought there was room for a more level-headed and human story grounded in interpersonal drama. How wrong they were.
Rhaenyra doesn’t escape it either, even if she’s generally sided with when the fandom willfully plays the ‘green or black’ game the characters have disastrously created. Her actions, motivations, and moments of compassion are often woefully misunderstood, with her emotional vulnerabilities framed as irritating traits instead of features belonging to the sole person in the room eager to avoid war.
Dragons is entirely about conflict, but instead of seeing things through the lens of two women trying desperately to prevent casualties, large portions of its audience see things through Daemon’s trigger-happy eyes. There were those who were loudly upset Alicent wasn’t killed by Rhaenys during the latter’s escape, and didn’t understand why she couldn’t give the dragon command (of course they didn’t understand, they’re missing sensitivity chips and can’t relate to choices not made with cold hard logic), as if the show wouldn’t simply be over if that happened.
Has our desire for things to be neat and tidy and for humans to be digestible become so ravenous that we now complain about story beats that allow the series to continue? Let’s rewind; Alicent dies, the greens unravel, the blacks win! Congratulations, there’s no show!
The people expressing that didn’t see it that way because the depth given to Alicent in the material does not exist in their eyes. I imagine this makes the series a lot blunter, lacking in emotional stakes, but maybe season 2 will give them everything they want: more blood and cheese, less diplomacy and squishy hand-holding. We’re allergic to feelings, and diplomacy is not valued because problem-solving using empathy and communication is typically written as a female trait.
Poor analysis of women in media is not new, but it’s unfortunate to see it happen with a series that has done a fantastic job at writing twisted, entertaining, well-performed, and diverse characters who grow the more you reflect on them.
Season 2 will surely be more brutal, as war has now kicked off, but I fear it’ll be met with cheers instead of thematic heft that it should have. People are raring to go, and ultimately the idea that war should be avoided at all costs was met with hushed rooms who’d much rather see some blood spilled.
There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. If you love Game of Thrones because of butts, decapitation, and its lack of mushy content, power to you. But someone needs to tell the writers that so they can stop pouring effort into themes few care to engage with.
It’s worth asking though, if Daemon can still be entertaining and likable after wrapping his pale hands around his groomed wife’s throat, but Alicent’s manipulations and betrayals (which she can’t even really commit to, by the way) make her a demon you need off your screen, like, yesterday, why is that?
All of Alicent’s pivotal moments across the season have been twisted beyond recognition before being spat out into hot takes online, and it made the experience of fan discussion, theorizing, or general social media fun a grating one.
Misogyny and heteronormativity (I agree with the cast and Sarah Hess’ well-established takes, sorry) favor these readings over ones that imbue characters like Alicent with ambiguity, and ultimately a lot of folks played into every bit of the bias and misunderstanding the show warns against. But hey, team blacks! Or something…
We have lots of folks here at The Digital Fix who love Game of Thrones and have written fun guides instead of complaining, so take a peek at our list of the best Game of Thrones characters, our detailed Game of Thrones cast deep-dive, or everything we know about House of the Dragon season 2. We also got an AI to write the Jon Snow spin-off, and it went as expected.