One thing about me is that I will absolutely have beef with fictional characters if a show’s actors have the talent to make their characters detestable enough. Olivia Cooke as Queen Alicent Hightower in House of the Dragon really got the job done this week.
Since starting the show as Princess Rhaenyra’s best and only friend, a young girl thrust into power by her overbearing and conniving father Otto, Alicent underwent something of a transformation shortly after learning Rhaenyra had lied to her about losing her virginity. Alicent’s obsession with policing her former friend and current stepdaughter’s sexuality has only grown through the show’s recent 10-year time-jump, taking a turn for the dangerous when she suspects Rhaenyra’s three children with her not-so-secretly gay husband Laenor Velaryon are actually bastards fathered by the late knight Harwin Strong.
In this week’s episode, as the Velaryons and Targaryens are gathered for Laena Velaryon’s funeral, Alicent’s aggressive rumor-mongering about the parentage of Rhaenyra’s children finally comes to a head when a dog-fight among Rhaenyra’s and Alicent’s kids leads to Aemond very publicly calling Rhaenyra’s children illegitimate in front of everyone. Awkward!
The aforementioned fight also resulted in Aemond quite deservedly losing an eye (the kid literally stole Laena’s dragon from her daughters and proceeded to assault both them and Rhaenyra’s toddler sons Jace and Luke—who had the good sense to bring a knife!). Shortly after, the whole family convenes for something akin to a high-stakes Red Table Talk session, in which King Viserys—finally forced to parent—issues a stern warning to his family to not speak ill of Rhaenyra’s kids. The lecture leaves Alicent predictably outraged that nothing is being done about her son’s lost eye, prompting her to call for Luke, a literal baby, to have his eye removed, too, a la Hammurabi’s Code. She goes so far as to command her sworn shield Criston Cole—who gleefully readies his knife—to perform the act. When Viserys shuts down the idea, Alicent grabs a dagger, lunges, and attacks Rhaenyra instead of Luke, sparking a medieval girl fight.
The dialogue the women share, all while Alicent holds a knife roughly an inch from Rhaenyra’s eye, is highly revealing of the roots of Alicent’s almost pathological hatred of Rhaenyra. “What have I done except but what was expected of me, forever upholding the kingdom, the family, the law, while you flout your duty? ... And now, you take my sons eye and to even that you feel entitled,” Alicent tells her ex-best friend.
In a burn for the ages, Rhaenyra responds: “Exhausting wasn’t it? Hiding beneath the cloak of your own righteousness? But now they see you as you are.”
It’s clear at this point that Alicent doesn’t just despise Rhaenyra because she’s convinced that Rhaenyra’s ascent to the throne would be the death of her two sons. Having followed exhausting, dehumanizing patriarchal traditions to a tee all her life, Alicent is transparently jealous of Rhaenyra for living on her own terms—including experiencing sexual freedom—and still retaining the royal power for which Alicent had to sacrifice her youth and every semblance of her identity. Alicent isn’t even aware that, hilariously enough, Rhaenyra has arrived on the scene just moments after getting railed by her uncle Daemon on the beach; rather, the knowledge of all Rhaenyra’s other affairs is enough to infuriate her.
Alicent’s zealous obsession with tradition and, in her words, “forever upholding the kingdom, the family, the law,” are as obvious a reminder as any that Cooke was told to portray Alicent as a “woman for Trump.” Cooke told Entertainment Weekly last month of her conversations with the show’s directors, “I could see what they were saying, with this complete indoctrination and denial of her own autonomy and rights.” To Cooke’s point, Alicent has been fully indoctrinated into her father’s endless preachings about women’s duty to do anything to advance their family’s interests; to see the tedious and miserable life that was chosen for her as an honor; and—like today’s conservative women—perceive all women who live their lives differently as a threat to her way of life, deserving of punishment that she’s more than happy to dole out.
By almost taking a knife to Rhaenyra’s eye, the mask is fully off: Alicent is as violent and dangerous as the throngs of powerful men opposing Rhaenyra’s succession. Where the inevitable conflict between Rhaenyra and her male enemies is solely political, Alicent’s opposition to her is also deeply personal. Whatever comes next, I will continually be thinking about Cooke’s “woman for Trump” descriptor of Alicent, and its chilling message that women can be—and frequently are—the most menacing upholders of patriarchy, because they genuinely believe that life should be as miserable for all women as it has been for them. That’s one hell of a motivation to ruin other women’s lives.
Next week will surely be interesting, now that Rhaenyra and Daemon are married, after staging her husband’s death and allowing him to flee the country with his lover Qarl. (Daemon, apparently, can excuse killing his first wife, but I almost respect that he draws the line at homophobia!) Methinks quite a few people will be displeased with this news—and Alicent sits atop this list.