A Song of Ice and Fire has never lacked for compelling villains. While the most memorable tend to be the cruel and unrepentant monsters like Joffrey Baratheon or Ramsay Bolton, the ones that make the series special are its ambitious and complex schemers — a broad range that makes up everyone from Littlefinger and Cersei, to Tywin Lannister.
House of the Dragon adds great characters to the series’ legacy on both fronts. But its most interesting addition is Aemond Targaryen, whose mix of cleverness, impulsiveness, and a sapphire eye makes the show’s version of him one of A Song of Ice and Fire’s best and most tragic characters.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for House of the Dragon episode 10.]
A Song of Ice and Fire is a series that rarely trades in pure villainy, at least among its most prominent cast. Instead, it gives us self-interested characters who are villainous only insofar as their ambitions toward power outweigh their morality, and when those ambitions often conflict with the story’s main characters. But they’re always well-reasoned and understandable, and outright violence is rarely their prefered method.
The stories of the series’ best schemers, like Littlefinger or Varys, are almost revenge tales, as they grasp for power that they, in their minds, deserve, but from which they’ve been unjustly deprived by the world. Even when, in the case of Tywin and Cersei, they are the most powerful people in Westeros, they crave the recognition and title that their power, intelligence, and influence should come with, but rarely does.
When the series does choose to make a main character truly awful, on the other hand, it tends to do so by highlighting their violence. These monstrous characters are the opposite of the schemers in that they have power and they recognize it, but they have no ambitions beyond cruelty. Characters like Joffrey and Ramsay understand the power they have only as the ability to wield violence against those weaker than themselves. Such brutality is rarely ever retaliatory or even motivated beyond sadistic desire and a needy expression of superiority. The game of thrones is less interesting to them than the sport of sadism.
House of the Dragon’s Aemond Targaryen comes in somewhere in between these two extremes. He is deeply ambitious, highly motivated, intelligent, and skilled, but also driven by a sense of revenge that (especially in episode 10) is fundamentally violent. Much like House of the Dragon’s other malcontent second-son, Daemon Targaryen, Aemond feels that he is deeply deserving of more than his careless and weak brother — particularly after a childhood that we’ve seen was full of bullying from that same brother and his (possibly) bastard cousins. Daemon found that power in his penchant for violence and the strength of his dragon, and because Aemond seems to have modeled his life after his uncle, that’s where tries to find it too. But like most intergenerational relationships in A Song of Ice and Fire, Aemond’s youthful view of his uncle’s heroics led to an amplified version of Daemon that exists only in Aemond’s mind, and only tells half of Daemon’s story.
Aemond pulled Daemon’s princely bluster, cleverness, and haughty pride, but he ended up with the also-ran inferiority that drives Daemon’s more destructive impulses. The result is a teenager who’s clever enough to win over a house to his mother’s cause, smart enough to study more than his brother and train harder than him, but also one that’s impulsive enough to grab a rock in a fist fight against his little cousins and threaten to kill them.
But the tragedy of Aemond’s place in the center of the series’ villains means that, like the schemers, he is unable to fully recognize the power he actually wields, but like the monsters, that power is limited to violence. By the time Luke arrives at Storm’s End, Aemond has already won the prize. The Baratheons will support Aegon as the king, instead of Rhaenyra. But for Aemond, this is also a chance for revenge — an eye for an eye. It may be violent, but in a strictly biblical sense, it’s also fair.
When Luke rejects his offer to settle the score, Aemond decides that some price must be paid, even if he doesn’t intend for that price to be death. When Aemond loses control of Vhagar during their mid-air duel with Luke and Arrax, and the dragon eats them both, Aemond becomes one of the few characters in A Song of Ice and Fire to drastically underestimate his own capacity for enacting harm, and the consequences his impulses might include.
“The Black Queen” is very intentional about its portrayal of Luke’s death: Both boys struggle to get their dragons under control, and unfortunately neither understands what it means to bring such a beast to a war. In the moment, Aemond’s cool resolve gives way to desperate cries to get the biggest and oldest dragon to listen to him. Lucerys’ death isn’t a case of spoiled princely sadism like Joffrey, or a coldly calculated move up power’s invisible rungs. It’s a tragic accident at the hands of a teenager who, after a lifetime of being bullied, didn’t understand how the stakes had changed. After a lifetime of feeling inferior — including during the crowning of his own unworthy brother as king — Aemond now wields the power to end lives and start wars. He is an anime villain, if an anime villain was the one responsible for inciting World War I. And unfortunately, with all of Westeros headed toward war, doubling down on his worst instincts may be the only way for him to thrive.