When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die…So what happens to a man who’s won and refuses to keep playing?
Can a “good man” be a good ruler upon the Iron Throne? It seems like an unusual question, but one House of the Dragon posits from the outset. It has now spent eight, glorious, hours of story so far showing the result (and ramifications) of it happening.
While political intrigue is the norm in any Game of Thrones centered story, House of the Dragon sets itself apart by focusing on the family drama…making it all the more emotional for it. While the amount of characters abound in the series, one of the constants in the series so far, has been King Viserys (portrayed by Paddy Considine). He’s a character who doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest, which has managed to make him one of the most interesting characters we’ve ever gotten in Westeros on screen.
Episode eight of HBO’s House of the Dragon finally saw Viserys pass away, after dealing with several years of illness that left him bedridden and in constant pain. Seriously, the man has been at death’s door for several episodes now, and just about every time-jump that happened, I couldn’t believe he was still hanging on!
Anyway, with the King’s passing things on the show are about to GET REAL, ultimately leading to a bloody civil war for the crown known as the Dance of the Dragons. For many, this is the meat of the story in House of the Dragon. After all, the stage for this division has been set and teased for a while now. However, the first eight episodes of this season makes the case for why Viserys is among the most important characters we’ve seen on screen and how his overall arc exemplifies the larger themes central to the franchise overall.
[Note: This article will only (mostly) be focused on the depiction of events from the ON SCREEN events. Yes, I’ve read the books, even Fire & Blood, but this is about how the show portrayed these characters and events.]
What Makes a King
From the show’s opening sequence, we see that Viserys’ reign is on a very different path than what we’ve seen before. He wasn’t the intended heir to the Iron Throne, but was chosen by the Great Council to rule after the previous King passed away with no clear line of succession in place. Viserys inherited a kingdom at peace and with the goodwill carried over from the legacy of his grandfather.
He isn’t your typical King, especially in the context of Game of Thrones, in that he’s generally very amiable, generous, and seemingly eager to please. He wanted to be a good King in a world that encourages people in power to be pretty awful. It’s something we haven’t seen attempted before in this world and makes the story all the more compelling for it.
Viserys is flawed, to be sure, but he’s also incredibly loving and genuine to a fault. He is a man who doesn’t couch his words, play in subtlety, and tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. Pretty much all the things the typically don’t make a good King in the context of this world. In many ways, however, that feels like the overall point of Viserys’ character arc in House of the Dragon.
Fans of Game of Thrones and the world George R.R. Martin has created, have never really had the chance to see a monarch rule during a (relative) time of peace. We’re used to seeing the constant vying for leverage and backhanded deals used to get people ever closer and closer to the highest seat in the land. Even in Game of Thrones, we come into the story shortly after a massive upheaval in the land, as Robert Baratheon’s rebellion saw him take the throne by force. After his death, we see years and years of chaos ensue.
With Viserys, however, we don’t see that. Sure, there’s plenty of plotting and scheming going on behind his back for what happens AFTER he’s gone. His actual tenure as King, however, isn’t marred by such things.
Ruling With Heart
What makes Viserys so engaging (and ultimately likeable) is how he rules and makes decisions. More often than not, Viserys makes big decisions based on his feelings and heart, rather than his head. Obviously, this has lead to a host of issues to be dealt with, but there’s an earnestness to his style of rule that makes him endearing.
By and large, he’s a family man and cares deeply about them. He often struggles to balance this against the needs of the realm, but there’s always the sense Viserys is genuinely trying to do what is best, and right, in all that he does.
Something I don’t feel enough people give him credit for, is the fact he’s prepared to change things up once he knows how he fucked things up. Unlike other monarch’s we’ve seen in the franchise (even in real history), Viserys shows the ability to re-evaluate past decisions and course correct when necessary/possible. Even on stuff beyond his control, he’s willing to “bury the hatchet” and move forward; letting the past be the past. It’s an admirable quality and one we don’t see enough of in stories or real life.
Some, however, mistake this quality for weakness. I can see how that case can be argued, but it feels like an important distinction isn’t being made in those conversations. Those around Viserys, even among his own family, are well aware of his general good nature. The problem is, they’re more than willing to take advantage of it and use it for their own ends.
We saw this expert manipulation on the part of Otto Hightower; using his daughter Alicent to comfort the king during his most dire/vulnerable of moments. The result is Viserys choosing her as Queen over Lady Laena Velaryon, the daughter of Corlys Velaryon…which would have made more sense strategically speaking.
Even in this, however, we see how Viserys believes he is making the right choice. Feeling awkward at the age gap between them, coupled with his growing feelings for Alicent in general, made the choice fairly straightforward for him.
Then there are Daemon and Rhaenyra, both of whom know they can get away with just about anything and still have Viserys’ support. Hell, I’d argue that much of Daemon’s behavior stems from jealousy of his brother’s loving nature…but that’s a whole ‘nother article worth of unpacking.
Regardless, we see others are playing the “game of thrones,” while Viserys himself remains disinterested. Instead, he remains focused on the one thing that truly matters to him: family. In that regard, the man is made of pure Valyrian steel, and even his most staunch manipulators dare not go against him in those moments.
We see this clearly—triumphantly really—during the eighth episode. He ascends to the throne, hobbling and huffing the whole way, specifically to defend his family and try to set things straight. It’s an amazing moment, and one I’ll look back on frequently as a highlight of the season in general, but other such showcases of determination are present throughout the season. Truly, the only time we really see Viserys as unsure or weak-willed is when he’s backed into a corner and forced to choose other things over his family.
A Different Kind of Legacy
Earlier in the series, in a moment of introspection Viserys comes to understand there are no “great feats” he’s accomplished. No stunning victories/conquests, or heroic acts that will have bards singing his praises in the decades to come.
In many ways, this moment represents a turning point for Viserys. Where other monarchs would prefer to drum up some sort of excitement at the cost of many lives and peace, Viserys remains committed to protecting the realm. Something Daemon specifically struggled to understand and come to grips with. Instead, we see Viserys shift his focus to a different kind of legacy he’ll leave behind: that of his family.
While the realm continues to run successfully and in relative peace (even as smaller forces stir trouble), Viserys turns his attention to repairing the familial bonds that have been frayed. It’s what sends him sailing to the Lord of the Tides in order to propose a new marriage to make amends for the one he rebuked years earlier. It’s what sees him continue to reach out to Daemon, extending patience and understanding, no matter how many times it bites him in the ass. It’s what keeps him uncaring about his daughter’s dalliances and the reality of parentage for his grandchildren.
I wanna harp on this real quick, as I think it’s important. Of COURSE Viserys knows Rhaenyra’s children aren’t from her husband, Laenor Velaryon, but rather “low-born” bastards from Ser Harwin Strong. While others are quick to call him blind to the situation, or even going so far to insinuate he’s too dumb to understand, the truth is much simpler:
Viserys doesn’t give a shit.
Not a single one. He loves those grandbabies and they’re his family regardless of the circumstances. Where others are more concerned with bloodlines, Viserys only cares for his family and ensuring they’re loved, taken care of, and protected from those who would make such things an issue.
Hell, even in his final day(s), his body wracked with pain, mind foggy from copious amounts of milk-of-the-poppy, Viserys’ driving thought is of his family. With them all back under the same roof, regardless of the circumstances bringing them together, he wishes to have a family dinner. A last, perhaps desperate, attempt at bringing everyone together while he still had breath in his body.
In my mind, there’s nothing more indicative of a good person, or at least a person trying to do good, than the unfettered acceptance Viserys shows in this regard.
Too Good For this Westerosi World
In many respects, the way in which other characters in the show—and even those of us watching—view Viserys’ life is central to the core concepts presented in Game of Thrones overall. We’re accustomed to this being a harsh world, filled with conniving schemers intent on furthering their own power, rather than caring about others (or the greater kingdom). As such, it’s hard not to look upon Viserys’ choices/actions as being naive or dumb.
In this revelation, however, we see the real problem isn’t Viserys, but the system in general. It’s a theme that popped up throughout Game of Thrones during it’s run quite frequently, and even alluded to plenty of times in the books/reference material. In the end, people’s desire for power nearly leads to the downfall of all civilization.
In their quest for the throne, all else becomes secondary (even the massive undead army intent on wiping out all life). It no longer matters whether a decision is right or wrong, only if it gets you closer to the Iron Throne, or more secure upon it. Even Daenerys, with all her good intentions, ultimately fell prey to the lure of the throne; consumed by her rage and sense of entitlement.
The history of the Iron Throne itself is built on the idea of conquest, being forged from the swords of those defeated during Aegon the Conqueror’s war to unify the kingdoms. While the idea, ostensibly, was that the throne would be difficult to sit upon, serving as a stark reminder that ruling should never be taken lightly, or carelessly, it became more than that.
There arose the idea that the rulers must be hard, unyielding, and tough enough to sit upon such a pointed/dangerous throne. Any softness was viewed as weakness, or even the Throne itself rejecting the ruler who sat upon it…Which is, unfortunately, what happened to Viserys. The cuts he incurred from sitting upon the Iron Throne led to the many physical ailments that besotted him throughout his life.
Yet, Viserys was anything but weak. Rather, it’s the idea of the Throne, and the system that continues to hold it up, that’s the problem. This is why Drogon’s melting of the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones is so important. The idea that the dragon understands the fate of his “mother” is due to the circumstances arising from the Throne itself, and everything it represents.
In this way, Viserys is very much a tragic figure within the larger story of Westeros and the A Song of Ice and Fire. He wouldn’t live to see a world in which the Iron Throne wasn’t as important as the leaders who sat upon it. He isn’t around to see how his true legacy turned out to be the path towards brutal civil war that divided the kingdom.
Perhaps that is a blessing. While audiences (and his ancestors) know what comes next in the bloody history of Westeros, ther’s some comfort in the idea that Viserys’ final moments were filled by seeing the disparate members of his family joined together in happiness. Sure, there was still tension, and strain from the years of distrust…but for just a few moments, Viserys got to see what a united, and happy family, could be.
Flawed though he was, and subject to the foibles inherent to his station and era, Viserys was very much ahead of his time. It’s easy to sit back and say he deserved better, and perhaps in another period of time, he would be renowned for his compassion and heart. As it stands, Viserys has managed to become one of the most intriguing characters in the entire franchise, despite the tragedy that follows his passing…
As we head into the final two episodes of the season for House of the Dragon, be sure to raise your cups to Viserys Targaryen, first of his name. King of the Andals, and the Rhoynar, and the First Men. Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm.