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Rhaenyra and Alicent are House of the Dragon’s most compelling but underserved relationship

In trying to deepen the pair’s dynamic, the writers have muddled it

Alicent and Rhaenyra standing close to each other in front of an empty dinner table Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

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In just nine episodes, the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon has covered a ton of ground, spanning decades. Some characters have aged up multiple times, half a dozen children have been born, and heir to the throne Rhaenyra has gotten married, fake widowed, and remarried all in a few hours of TV. To depict such large swaths of time and quickly lay the groundwork for the impending Targaryen succession struggle, the showrunners have made strategic choices about when to focus on character and relationship development.

As a result, Alicent and Rhaenyra — perhaps the central relationship of the show — have precious few scenes together after the first episode, making the reasons for their falling-out-turned-civil-war at times maddeningly unclear: What was Alicent’s deal with Rhaenyra? Why was she so mad about her former friend’s sexual exploits? Why didn’t Rhaenyra just tell Alicent the truth about sleeping with Ser Criston Cole? Are they in love? House of the Dragon succeeds in bringing the rote history of George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood to life, but it falls short in fleshing out the motivations of the two women at the center of the conflict.

The importance of this relationship and the intimacy between the young women is hammered home in the first 10 minutes of the show. We see Rhaenyra dismount from her dragon and walk to a carriage where Alicent waits to accompany her. Later, they stroll casually through the Red Keep arm in arm, and Rhaenyra fantasizes about flying together on dragonback while lying in Alicent’s lap under a weirwood tree. We come to clearly understand this relationship as more than one of just duty between handmaiden and princess. But as the season progresses and the next fight for the crown begins, things get muddled.

In Fire & Blood, Alicent and Rhaenyra’s relationship sours on the basis of politics. They’re both vying for the Iron Throne and, therefore, become enemies — simple. There’s likely more to the story, beyond the purview of the in-book narrators who can only observe so much. But at its core, the fissure is straightforward: It’s about power. In House of the Dragon, showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal elaborate on that source material by imagining what the pair’s intimate relationship was like, inserting an array of personal clashes into the story. The first of these blows to the friendship is Alicent’s marriage to Rhaenyra’s father, King Viserys. Prompted by her own father and Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, Alicent consoles the king as he grieves his wife’s death, winning his favor. But she simultaneously acts as Rhaenyra’s main confidante as the latter worries about challenges to her claim on the throne. (Seems like a conflict of interest!) Rhaenyra is blindsided by the engagement and, understandably, hurt.

Alicent and Rhaenyra walking and talking Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Over the next few episodes, their relationship clearly changes, warmth and closeness replaced by iciness and distance. But because of the time jumps, we don’t get to see how. What’s more, after the first three episodes aired, Greg Yaitanes, director of “The Rogue Prince” and “Second of His Name,” revealed that a few key moments between Alicent and Rhaenyra had been cut. The slashed scenes include a blowout fight between the two after Viserys announces his intention to marry Alicent, and Rhaenyra helping her former friend get dressed for her wedding. This seems like pretty crucial content to ax: We don’t know how Rhaenyra feels after her father’s declaration of marriage or what of those feelings she shared with Alicent. We don’t know what terms they were on during the wedding. We’re also ignorant of how Alicent responded to Rhaenyra’s confrontation and how she felt about her own engagement. The story can continue without these omissions, certainly. But these gaps diminish our insight into the pair’s dynamic as it evolves.

In episode 4, Rhaenyra and Alicent nearly make amends, telling each other how they’ve missed one another, but it’s just a blip (one of many). The next nail in the coffin for their relationship is Rhaenyra’s night of sexual escapades, first in a brothel with her uncle, and later sleeping with Ser Criston. When Alicent catches wind of the rumor, she’s furious... for reasons the audience is never fully given. And when she later learns Rhaenyra didn’t sleep with Daemon (Matt Smith), but with Ser Criston, Alicent seems devastated.

Part of her anger can be explained by her father Otto’s (Rhys Ifans) dismissal as Hand as a result of bringing the rumors to the king. However, her rage is directed at Rhaenyra, not her husband, and seems to be more about her friend’s actions themselves, rather than their ramifications. By the fifth episode, viewers understand that Alicent is pious, dutiful, and trapped in a marriage where sex is an obligation, not a pleasure — which is juxtaposed starkly with Rhaenyra’s brothel antics. But without additional context about Alicent’s values, and joint screen time to develop the women’s relationship as it shifts and crumbles, the Green Queen’s level of indignation doesn’t land: Is Alicent really declaring war because her friend had sex?

Later, and with additional pushing from her power-hungry father, placing her son Aegon on the Iron Throne becomes Alicent’s driving force. But when taken at face value, her anger seems to be more of a reaction to Rhaenyra’s exploration of her sexuality, ultimately amounting to slut-shamey pearl clutching. Compared to the princess’ response when Alicent marries her dad — arguably a bigger, more pointed slight than having sex before marriage — the degree of Alicent’s distress feels disproportionate to the complaint, court politics or no.

Milly Alcock as Young Rhaenyra and Emily Carey as Young Alicent in a still from Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Alicent and Rhaenyra standing and looking tensely at each other Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

In multiple interviews, Milly Alcock and Emily Carey, who portray Rhaenyra and Alicent in the first five episodes of the season, have confirmed that they played their characters as having a romantic connection, not just a close, platonic one. In a conversation with the New York Times, Carey said, “As a queer person myself, I read an undertone in the script that I knew could be played.”

Alicent and Rhaenyra in love? That would explain a lot, particularly Alicent’s rage. The problem is that this was a choice the actors made and a theory fueled by fans, not an underpinning the writers and creators intentionally inserted. As Carey clarified in the interview: “I don’t think Ryan Condal sat there writing a Sapphic drama.” Maybe he should have! The performers and viewers are inventing the context the show should have included to make sense of and strengthen the basis of House of the Dragon’s core conflict. Without this backstory, Alicent’s motives feel insufficient, and her anger rings hollow.

By injecting Martin’s record of Targaryen ancestry with a deeper humanity — relationships, disputes, untold secrets — the showrunners have created interesting characters out of one-dimensional historical figures. However, the canonical succession struggle and these new interpersonal dynamics don’t always mesh. And time and time again, it’s Alicent who bears the brunt of such imperfect changes. In the context of a larger fight over who will rule Westeros, Alicent cutting off a childhood friend because she slept with someone seems petty and vindictive, and the narrative doesn’t make space to explore this further.

When the characters age up in episode 6, viewers are once more left to fill in the gaps themselves to understand how Alicent and Rhaenyra’s relationship has changed. And it seems clear from the writing of Alicent’s early scenes that the wound of their division has calcified at least partially because she still has a problem with Rhaenyra’s sex life. Speaking to Ser Criston, the co-president of the “I hate Rhaenyra because she fucks” club, Alicent says, “I have to believe that in the end, honor and decency will prevail,” referring to her former friend’s extramarital affair and resulting children with Ser Harwin Strong.

An episode later, Alicent’s anger comes to a head when she slashes Rhaenyra with the infamous Catspaw Dagger after a brawl between their sons results in one of them losing an eye. “What have I done but what was expected of me?” Alicent yells. “Forever upholding the kingdom, the family, the law, while you flout all to do as you please. Where is duty? Where is sacrifice? It’s trampled under your pretty foot again.” With these lines, the writers finally offer viewers a glimpse into Alicent’s feelings: envy, nostalgia, bitterness. But it comes too late.

After yet another time jump in episode 8, Alicent and Rhaenyra are once again on the precipice of reconciling — it’s enough to give you whiplash — but the brief truce undercuts Alicent all the more. She comes off as fickle, her convictions liable to change on a whim. It reinforces the insubstantial nature of her anger and the additional development that needed to happen to make her motives less flimsy.

It’s episode 9, “The Green Council,” where the inconsistency of Alicent’s characterization is most obvious. The time has come to put her money where her mouth is — the king is dead, and she believes that his last wish is for their son, Aegon, not Rhaenyra, to succeed him. But when Otto reveals a violent plot to do just that, she’s shocked, apparently unaware of the consequences of her yearslong efforts to undermine Rhaenyra’s claim to the throne and cast her as a whore. What happened to “honor and decency will prevail”? Like the men in her life, the writers seem to use Alicent as they see fit to move the plot forward. She’s a powerful, scheming queen one moment and an ignorant pawn the next.

Rhaenyra and Alicent’s relationship is the most compelling part of House of the Dragon and the most annoying. The series relies on these two women — the disintegration of their friendship directly precedes the war between their houses — but it also neglects them. The showrunners plowed through the first season at warp speed to set up a battle that, as of episode 9, is just getting underway, while deepening a new backstory in the process. But in doing so, they sidelined the heart of the show, building the central conflict of the season on shaky ground. Who are Alicent and Rhaenyra to each other, and what do they want? The writers don’t always seem to know, and neither do we.

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