Saturday, June 15, 2024

House of the Dragon Failed Alicent Hightower

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Back when I gave my glowing first impressions of House of the Dragon, one of my highest sources of praise was the changes to Alicent Hightower. Fire and Blood’s one-dimensional evil stepmother was transformed into a compelling, sympathetic figure whose friendship with Rhaenyra Targaryen, and subsequent falling out, formed the core of this adaptation’s story. Emily Carey’s portrayal as a young Alicent upset pretty much every expectation of who the character was and pulled people over to the side of the Greens who never considered their side in the books.

I was worried about the time skip. For the most part, House of the Dragon has handled it as well as they can. When it comes to Alicent Hightower, though, I think they failed to connect who she was before and after the time skip, and have done a disservice to the character in the process.

Alicent Hightower in disbelief

Don’t get me wrong, Alicent is still an excellent character. Olivia Cooke is terrific and the fractured relationship with Rhaenyra remains the most compelling aspect of House of the Dragon. The problem is that the story did not do enough to draw a through line from the girl we see in the fifth episode to the woman we see in episodes six and seven. It is a jarring jump that needed more to connect these two portrayals.

When we last see Carey as Alicent Hightower, she has just learned of Rhaenyra’s affair with Criston Cole after the two girls almost repaired their friendship. This causes her to make a statement of loyalty towards her House and her own interests by wearing her green dress to Rhaenyra’s wedding to Laenor Velaryon. It is a powerful moment signaling the seeming end of the friendship between the two girls. Alicent has drawn a line in the sand between them.

The problem is that this does not erase the young woman we had seen Alicent Hightower to be, which makes the crueler, outright vicious woman we see after the time skip feel too jarring.

This was a concern I had about adapting the girl we saw to begin with into the person Alicent Hightower becomes in Fire and Blood. The Dance of Dragons is a story of awful people who just do increasingly awful things, so the transformation of Emily Carey’s Alicent into that person seemed like a hard task. Unfortunately, House of the Dragon skipped right over the story that needed to be told to sell this transformation effectively. How do you reconcile the kind, empathetic person we see in one episode with the woman who was ready to stab a child’s eye out two episodes later?

This issue kind of existed even in the early episodes. While I understood the tensions that grew between Alicent and Rhaenyra, there was still a bit much of a jump between how close they were one moment and how distant they were in the next, because we were missing months or years of time. It usually felt like two people so close would have had some kind of conversation in the period that passed. I could buy the reasons why they didn’t, but it was still a bit of a stretch.

The ten-year skip didn’t just stretch, it ripped the fabric in half. Current Alicent’s driving belief that Rhaenyra poses a mortal threat to her children is based in…nothing, really. It’s not based in any of their interactions before the time skip or her thoughts beforehand. Nothing Rhaenyra is doing now supports this belief. If anything, Rhaenyra shows only a motivation to make peace with her former friend. She tries to unite their division by marrying one of her children to one of Alicent’s. And, yes, there are self-serving reasons behind Rhaenyra’s offer. That doesn’t change that she has tried to make amends.

I can understand why Alicent feels so bitter. They are the same reasons why she was so tragic and compelling during those younger days of her life. Alicent was robbed of choice early in her life when her father married her off to Viserys. Instead of a passionate marriage with someone she loves, Alicent has lived her life as a baby machine for a rotting man three times her age. I can absolutely understand why she would resent the way Rhaenyra can flaunt the Westerosi traditions that imprisoned Alicent Hightower so early in life.

It’s just not enough to convincingly erase the friendship they once had, especially since it was not Alicent’s choice to grow so distant in the first place. House of the Dragon is not giving us enough dots to connect.

Alicent and Rhaenyra in the godswood

Remember, it was Alicent who worked so hard to repair the damage done by her marriage to Viserys. She wanted to make peace with Rhaenyra. She tried where Rhaenyra would not. I recognize how Criston Cole’s admission changes things, and how the years and three obvious bastard children would only compound upon Alicent’s existing resentment. But that does not explain Alicent’s naked ambition that drives her rivalry with Rhaenyra, especially when Rhaenyra has shown exactly zero intention to harm her children. I could buy this more if any such implication was shown, but none has.

And that’s where the portrayal of younger Alicent Hightower does damage to the portrayal of current Alicent. Younger Alicent showed no ambition for these things. She did what she did because of what her father expected of her. It was a duty to fulfill to her family. When did that turn to ambition? What turned it to ambition? There are so many unanswered questions that presumably occurred in those lost years of the time gap, which creates a continuity problem for this character.

If I got the sense that Alicent was still only pushing for her children out of obligation, just as she was obligated to marry Viserys, then I wouldn’t have as much of a problem. However, that is no longer how things appear. Alicent is acting of her own accord, her own ambition, and her own hatred, that feels like too jarring a change from the person we saw before. She is pushing and warping her children towards ambition they do not naturally feel.

We need an inciting event here, and finding out about Criston Cole is not it. Especially considering Alicent is now besties with Cole. If it was some moral issue, she should have the same resentment and anger towards Cole that she does with Rhaenyra.

(This is where we bring up the unconfirmed romantic interpretations of Alicent and Rhaenyra’s relationship but I digress)

This, of course, is always a risk with time skips. Even jumps of a few months can make the audience feel like they lost something, that important events and character change occurred that we missed. House of the Dragon went for a ten year skip. Practically a lifetime in storytelling. It’s so easy to feel like we missed everything. It’s easy to feel as if characters are entirely different people that we don’t know anymore.

Most characters handled this time skip easier than others. I would have liked to see why Rhaenyra and Harwin had a relationship worth risking three bastard children over. It would have been nice to know why Daemon married Laena and why they left for Pentos. Seeing more of the relationship between all the children would have helped understand how the tensions of their parents seeped into the way they were raised.

Alicent Hightower feels like the biggest misstep of the bunch to me, which is a shame. It makes me wonder if House of the Dragon will lose the traits that make the audience relate to these characters as the story devolves into the series of gruesome, shocking, water cooler moments that the series is heading towards.

I suppose we will see.

Images Courtesy of HBO

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