Otto Hightower is right and Alicent Hightower is smart.
Two things I thought I would never say with regard to HBO’s House of the Dragon (specifically Season 1, Episode 5). It’s so incredibly well-done, honestly, that the way we see the events of the show can turn completely on one scene and even have us rooting for different characters in the space of an episode. And House of the Dragon did that. Let’s take a moment to breathe and pretend my Alicent disliking days never happened.
Okay, much better. Now, let’s get into it.
Please keep in mind as you read that at the time of her marriage, Alicent is a 15-year-old girl—a child. All of this is happening to her as a child who has nobody around her who is interested in anything but exploiting her, and this state of being is all she has known for the entirety of her life.
Alicent Hightower’s Path to the Throne
There are a few important facts to remember here. Firstly, recall that Otto intentionally put Alicent in the King’s path with hopes he would choose to marry her. It was gross and grimy with the explicit goal of self and family advancement, but hey, that’s Westeros. Did he care how Alicent felt about things? We don’t have any evidence to suggest that. He even admonished her for her nervous tic of picking her cuticles, saying she’d be the most comely girl at court if she’d just quit that. To me, that indicates a full awareness of how she feels, and since he doesn’t react to her obvious unhappiness apart from this, we can determine that he doesn’t care.
Secondly, it’s important to note that we have seen plenty of evidence to suggest Alicent was not a party to this plan and did not want this life. Based on her reaction when the King announced his intention to marry her, it seemed that Alicent knew what her father was doing. She did not seem surprised by the announcement and never had doubts about the fact that she had no choice. Her kindness towards Viserys being labeled by fans as her flirting with him honestly just makes me angry. She saw a man who was hurt and kind. That’s the extent of it, which I feel we can say with certainty based on all of her behavior since becoming Queen. She does not seem to revel in it at all. Her demeanor is always somber, and her eyes are a little dead every time she is wrangling one of her Targaryen offspring.
This brings me to my third point: she absolutely had no choice. Her father offered her up to the King. What would have happened to her if she had been disobedient and rude to Viserys instead of kind? (Knowing Otto, probably something worse than having to marry her best friend’s father.) Her father decided her future for her, despite knowing she was unhappy, and her husband decided her future after that. She tried to make her own decisions in regard to some things. For example, she could have let her position destroy the one thing that was her choice: her friendship with Rhaenyra. But she didn’t. In the last episode, we saw them mending things, bonded by the fact that neither of them has choices regarding their fates. They are both bound to what their fathers want for them and, after that, what their husbands want.
I think, though, the most important thing to remember about Alicent Hightower is that she truly seems to support Rhaenyra’s accession to the throne over that of her own children. She trusts Rhaenyra and takes her at her word in the last episode that the rumors about her were untrue. Why would Rhaenyra lie to her, after all? They had somewhat mended their friendship. Alicent was too naive to realize that Rhaenyra would have to lie to her because Alicent’s role as Queen is impossible to separate from her role as friend to Rhaenyra. Would Rhaenyra have told her best friend Alicent about what really happened? Maybe. But she can’t tell her Queen the truth without her King finding out. Before talking to Otto, Alicent trusts Rhaenyra and sees things more through the lens of being Rhaenyra’s friend. She just isn’t looking at the hard realities of what will happen if Rhaenyra becomes Queen because she trusts and loves Rhaenyra.
Otto’s Parting Words to Alicent
Here’s where things get even messier.
Otto has been dismissed by the King. Alicent Hightower points out in this scene that it was because of his obvious self-advancement agenda, and she’s right. He has been pushing the King to revisit the succession and name Aegon heir, which would directly benefit himself and his family. So Alicent is right.
The problem here is that Alicent seems to be looking at things more from Viserys’s point of view. She says that Otto was too relentless in pushing Aegon as heir, but I say she’s looking at this more from Viserys’s point of view because she can’t see the real reason why her father may be doing this. She sees it as Viserys does—as self-advancement.
Despite loving to hate Otto and reveling in Daemon and Rhaenyra, often putting him in his place, I am willing to admit when he’s right, and here, he is right.
Otto: “Listen to me, daughter. The King will die. It may be months or years, but he’ll not live to be an old man. And if Rhaenyra succeeds him, war will follow, do you understand? The realm will not accept her. And to secure her claim, she’ll have to put your children to the sword. She’ll have no choice. You know it. You’re no fool, and yet you choose not to see it. The time is coming, Alicent. Either you prepare Aegon to rule, or you cleave to Rhaenyra and pray for her mercy.”
The part that bears emphasis here is “she’ll have no choice”.
Alicent Hightower knows exactly what this feels like because she has been living it since birth. She knows Rhaenyra knows, too. That is something they bonded over.
When Alicent is angry later in the episode at being lied to by Rhaenyra, I don’t think the consensus I saw on Twitter last night—that Alicent was jealous of Rhaenyra for getting to be with someone intimately that she actually liked—did the complexity of Alicent’s character any justice whatsoever. Alicent isn’t angry because of what Rhaenyra did. She’s angry because Rhaenyra lied.
Otto has just told her, in no uncertain terms, that if Rhaenyra succeeds instead of Aegon, Alicent and her children’s lives are all in grave danger. (Especially if Rhaenyra is not accepted due to there being other male heirs.) Otto said to Alicent that she’d be reliant on Rhaenyra’s mercy. How is Alicent supposed to rely on Rhaenyra in this climate? She just found out Rhaenyra lied to her. How is she supposed to trust her own life and the lives of her children to Rhaenyra’s mercy when Rhaenyra has lied? Sure, Alicent could ask Rhaenyra for assurance, but what if Rhaenyra lies again? What happens if Rhaenyra has no choice?
Alicent did not choose to marry the King or to have his children. She did not choose to be Queen or be in this position between Rhaenyra and her father. Otto set her up for all these things, expecting that Viserys would change his mind about his heir but not knowing that he would for sure. Otto is the one who chose to send Alicent Hightower into this danger to gamble with the lives of her children.
So forgive me for cheering when Alicent walks into the wedding celebration clad in Hightower green, making her position known. She’s going to defend her children no matter what. Finally, after years of being captive to the choices of the men around her, she is making her own choice to no longer be a passive pawn caught up between the machinations of Rhaenyra, Viserys, Daemon, the Velaryons, or anyone else. She is here to fight for the lives of her children, and she’s not going to let Viserys’s naïveté or Rhaenyra’s supposed friendship get in the way of what she wants, which is safety for herself and her children.
Alicent Hightower is finally playing the game of thrones and doing it intelligently. (Just as a note on her intelligence: in the preview for the next episode, it shows her children claiming dragons—remember that she made sure to get them dragons later because it will be important.)
So people should probably stop unfairly hating her for the position she has found herself in and instead commend her for finding her strength and taking matters into her own hands despite the fate she was dealt. Is she going to have to take the fight straight to Rhaenyra because of this? Yes. But who else could go toe to toe with Rhaenyra and not be afraid? Not even the man himself, Daemon Targaryen.
Honestly, good for Alicent. She took her agency back and made the best out of an absolutely impossible situation. I’ll be rooting for her (in a “can’t we all just get along” sort of way).
House of the Dragon Episode 5 is now streaming on HBO Max.