[This story contains spoilers for House of the Dragon’s ninth episode.]
House of the Dragon‘s ninth episode chronicled the fallout of Viserys’ death in King’s Landing as Queen Alicent Hightower and her scheming father Otto scrambled to consolidate their power and deny the king’s daughter Rhaenyra her claim to the Iron Throne. And all climaxed with one of the greatest exits the franchise has ever seen: Eve Best’s long-suffering “Queen that Never Was” Rhaenys Targaryen, on her dragon Meleys, exploding through the floor of Aegon’s coronation. Below, the episode’s writer-producer Sara Hess and director Clare Kilner talk about some of its burning questions, including: Why Rhaenys didn’t just “dracarys” the whole lot of them.
The consensus online is the show keeps getting better as it goes. I’m wondering why you guys think that is. Was it the difficultly of pulling off early episodes which had to cover so many years in such a short stretch? Or the whole team generally improving as they learned the show? Adding increasingly older and more experienced actors in key roles? Or all or none of the above?
SARA HESS The first half of the season is, by its nature, scene-setting. There is some really good stuff in there, but it is a windup. When we finally arrive in episode eight, that’s when we finally have the whole cast together for the first time. I would love to say it’s because we’re all so brilliant — and of course we are! — but I think to a large extent that’s when we all arrive by the nature of how it’s set up. It’s a ball that gains momentum as it rolls.
CLARE KILNER And also, people are starting to get to know these characters. You get to see inside their hearts and minds and what they fear and what they love. You more and more are attached to them and start to understand them, and then you start anticipating what they might do, and you engage with them.
HESS By this time, the actors have also settled into their roles. We shot episode seven first, and then went back and shot the first six. By the time you get to nine, Olivia Cooke had been playing Alicent for [a while].
Speaking of Alicent, one question that kept occurring to me watching this episode: Does Alicent want this? Yes, she misunderstood the king’s dying words. But was that what she wanted to hear anyway?
HESS I know what my feeling is, and I later talked to Olivia about it and she had the same feeling: When she misunderstood him and hears him saying “I want Aegon to be king” — which is not what he’s saying, but what she sincerely understands him to be saying — that her thought at the moment was, “Oh, fucking Christ.” She was genuinely ready to let it go. She was like: “You know what? Rhaenyra is going to be the queen. It’s fine. I’m tired of being angry all the time. I’m done. This is the end.” Then he says that and she’s super annoyed.
KILNER I felt that as well. Then she goes and tells her dad, Otto thinks: “Oh, she’s pretending she didn’t really know what he said, but she knows exactly what she’s doing and going up in my estimation because she’s playing this game now.” He can’t let go of the idea that she’s lying.
Right, because that’s what he would have done. It sometimes feels like the show is trying to keep the audience on Alicent’s side while her story arc demands that she’s basically a villain. Like in a situation like in this episode — where they’re hanging all these nobles who don’t bend the knee quick enough — she’s complicit in this murder spree, right? She has power and agency in this situation that she’s either exercising or choosing not to exercise.
KILNER But she wants to save her friend’s life.
HESS I think in her mind, all this was a necessary evil. She’s focused on: “We’re not going to kill Rhaenyra, that’s ridiculous, she’s Viserys’ daughter, he would never have wanted this, I’m not gonna let that happen.” And as far as the sympathetic thing goes, in [George R.R. Martin’s Targaryen history book Fire & Blood] the history was written by these unreliable narrators and nobody really knows what happened in those rooms. They know the big events that happened historically, but they don’t know what anyone’s intention was. And history is often written by men who write off women as crazy or hysterical or evil and conniving or gold-digging or sexpots. Like in the [book], it says Rhaenyra had kids and got fat. Well, who wrote that? We were able to step back and go: The history tellers want to believe Alicent is an evil conniving bitch. But is that true? Who exactly is saying that? That’s part of the thing we’re playing with in this and in season two.
So I’m curious then: Alicent was holding Rhaenys captive and asking her to bend the knee. She gave her time to think about it and then Rhaenys escaped. But what if she hadn’t escaped and refused to bend the knee? If you were tasked with writing what happens next, Sara, what would Alicent have chosen to do to Rhaenys in that situation?
HESS I feel like she just keeps on being a prisoner. Alicent’s not going to chop her head off. She’s more passive. She tends to let the men steamroll her in most cases. So I don’t know what would have happened, but Alicent was clearly OK with just keeping here there. I don’t think she would have let her get murdered, but I don’t think she necessarily would have set her free, either.
KILNER I think Alicent believes that she is trying to keep peace and stop war, but she’s just working within the patriarchy.
HESS She believes: “If we can just get the men to do the right thing!”
A lot of time was spent looking for Aegon, who was found wallowing in self-pity. I spoke to Tom Glynn-Carney about his character and he expressed concern that once you introduce a character as a child rapist that it’s tough to figure out where to go from there. There are moments you watch him in the episode — like when he asks his mom if she loves him — where it seems like we’re really supposed to feel for Aegon. But can his character be sympathetic? Is there something even wrong-ish about trying for that? I’m not hinting there’s some correct answer here, as I’m not sure myself.
KILNER When I’m directing a character, I’m always on the side of the character. You just see this boy who has been neglected and cannot ever see a future for himself outside of what everyone has told him his life is gonna be. He’s railing against that. In the real world, I don’t have sympathy for rapists. But for character, we are very sympathetic towards him because we were very conscious that we didn’t want him to be Joffrey [Baratheon from Game of Thrones]. He’s not a sadist.
HESS He’s the only firstborn son in the history of Westeros, and in the Targaryen family, who was not named his father’s heir. What does that do to you? He tosses it off by pretending he doesn’t give a shit, that it’s stupid anyway. But he deeply cares and he’s deeply crushed by it. His father’s lack of trust in him eats away at his soul. He needs validation in whatever ways he can get it.
It’s a little hard to talk about this in a way that’s … I think just because somebody has committed this act that it’s not a reason that we can’t have a more nuanced discussion — or to even feel sympathy for him — while acknowledging that what he did was indefensible. It’s simplistic to say: “He raped someone, he’s horrible and evil and we can never find anything likable or interesting in him.” I worked on a story about this in Orange Is the New Black where we had a character who was raped and then we dealt with the feelings of her rapist who, at the time, did not understand he was raping this woman because he thought like, “Oh, she’s my girl, I love her and she’s just not into it.” I think there are many otherwise fairly decent, upstanding men walking around this world who possibly committed some kind of unwanted sexual advance in college and have no idea what kind of effect it had on the person and genuinely think of themselves as a good person. While for the person in the room with them, it was received in a completely different way. Nobody’s ever taught Aegon about consent or what a relationship is supposed to look like and his mother married his father when she was 16. So this is a very long way of saying: It’s more complicated than, “You raped somebody, this is the end of your story.” And, actually, we improvised [the “do you love me?” line] on set.
KILNER We did the scene and I sometimes like to do a bit of improvisation. I said [to the actors], “OK, if you could say whatever you wanted to each other’s character, what would you say?” And Sara rushed in [with the idea].
So from the beginning, we have been waiting for Rhaenys to do something badass and you gave us this incredible moment. It’s very cool, but does it did make me wonder: Does it make sense that she doesn’t kill them? She murders a bunch of civilians by busting out anyway …
HESS It’s Game of Thrones — civilians don’t count!
So why not pull the “dracarys” trigger and save countless lives — possibly including her own — by preventing war? Why just turn around and fly away?
HESS I think she just can’t do it. It’s not her war. The fight is between these two sides and she’s kind of not in it. She doesn’t feel like she’s the one to come in and do that. But you’re right. If she had just incinerated everybody, it’s game over, Rhaenyra wins and we’re done here. But the cost is huge. I also feel like that moment, she looks Alicent in the eye and Alicent walks in front of her kid to shield him. It’s one mother to another. Rhaenys is angry, but in her previous scene with Alicent, she respected her, even if she doesn’t agree with her. So she’s not going to kill another woman like that.
KILNER We talked to Eve Best about this, and in the previous scene she felt that Alicent really saw, Rhaenys for the first time in a long time. In that moment, they’re mothers in this terrible world created by men and she can’t do it.
Finally, Sara, this is a production question for your executive producer side, and, Clare, perhaps you’ll want to take this from a director’s perspective: Are you guys happy with the volume LED wall? I feel like when Dragon first started production, it was this shiny new toy [used to replicate exterior backgrounds on a studio stage, popularized by Disney+ shows like The Mandalorian]. And over the last year, every producer I’ve spoken to about it says they hate the way it makes content look. Some fans are starting to notice too and complain about it. There have been some shots (like the Dragonstone bridge meeting scene in episode two) that are great. But there are others that are similar to shots in Thrones where the Dragon version looks flat and fuzzy by comparison. Have there been conversations about using the volume wall less, or differently, in season two?
HESS Yes. (Long pause.)
So, just “yes” then a period?
HESS I don’t know that I’m allowed to elaborate. I don’t know what I’m allowed to say. We all walked in there blind. No one had ever used it before. It was like, “Here’s this thing.” From the get-go, everybody was trying to figure out how to use it and how to use it best. It’s a good tool to have. What was your experience of working with it, Clare?
KILNER It was a big learning curve and I think it worked really well for some moments and less well for others. It’s especially good for never-ending sunrises and sunsets, for example. But for exteriors, like I wanted to add leaves blowing into a scene — you want some matter in the air when shooting an exterior [scene on a stage] because otherwise you miss that. But then you have trouble with wind machines and protecting the screen.
HESS And audiences are getting more sophisticated, too.
KILNER There are other things when building the set. You can’t have the furniture too close to the screens and that can be limiting. And then there are doors — you obviously can’t have entrances and exits. So when we’re in the grand set and the twins and Aegon run out, you can’t actually have them leave. I think that can maybe make it a bit less believable for the viewer. We’re all evolving, and [the technology is] evolving, as we progress.
‘House of the Dragon’ Episode 9 Writer, Director Break Down Eve Best’s Epic Scene