Neither Alicent Nor Rhaenyra Is the Villain on "House of the Dragon"

Every editorial product is independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our links, we may earn commission.

In the first episode of "House of the Dragon," I fell head over heels for the friendship between Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and Alicent (Emily Carey). They were sweet, affectionate, and funny. There was a little competitive streak between them, and their closeness bordered on romance. I cried with them in episode two when Alicent related her grief over the loss of her mother to Rhaenyra's more recent loss of hers. But the whole season that's followed has been an exercise in how things can fall apart, culminating in Alicent's grand arrival at Rhaenyra's wedding feast in a green dress, proudly declaring what side she stands on. When Alicent called her "stepdaughter," I gasped. All affection is gone, seemingly for good.

In the aftermath of episode five, there's a lot of blame being thrown around by fans. It's all Alicent's fault, some say. She seduced the king. She should have forgiven Rhaenyra, or at least not been so harsh in her judgement. But neither Alicent nor Rhaenyra is the villain. They're two young girls in an impossible situation, made worse by the patriarchy. In the Red Keep, they're the only two women around the vast majority of the time. They have no mothers or mentors to talk to or confide in about their friendship, jealousy, or fears. They're trying to thrive in a system that doesn't want them to thrive because they're women.

Alicent doesn't have good choices available to her. Her father, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), ordered her to comfort King Viserys (Paddy Considine). The king ordered her to marry him. Now he orders her to his bed chamber so she can keep having children and continue the royal line. It's not "right" that Alicent is jealous of Rhaenyra, but it is understandable and relatable (who wants characters who are right all the time, anyway?). Alicent is jealous that Rhaenyra can seemingly pick any man to be her husband. She's jealous Rhaenyra gets to sneak out of the castle, go on adventures, and kiss handsome men. She's jealous Rhaenyra had people to defend her against allegations that she slept with her uncle; if Alicent had been revealed not to be a virgin before her marriage to the king, she would be done for.

And it has to be said that — despite Viserys's major flaws as a husband, father, and king — he loves Rhaenyra in a way Alicent's father doesn't love her. Otto sees Alicent only as a pawn; her worth is in her connection to the crown. Viserys, on the other hand, tries hard not to use his daughter in the same way (though he doesn't always succeed). That's what Alicent sees and resents. Otto is, however, her main ally, and when she chooses Rhaenyra over her father, she seemingly loses him completely, making the fact that Rhaenyra misled her even more painful.

The story is just as brutal from Rhaenyra's perspective. She's the heir in name only, knowing basically no one wants her to take the crown. Her father says he does, but he does nothing to back up her claim with actions. He wants to marry her off to men she doesn't know, and she has to trust that those men will do right by her. But why should she trust that when her own father murdered her mother in the birthing bed? Plus, as she tells her father, if she was a male heir, she would be considered strange for not sleeping with every person she could get her hands on. And when she does think she's found someone who gets her and loves her in Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), he turns his back on her almost immediately. The whole realm is waiting for her to lose all her status and power, and her own father took away her best friend when he decided to marry her. Woof.

Neither perspective is completely the truth, but they're both understandable. The tragedy is that if Alicent and Rhaenyra could have found a way to speak openly to each other about these feelings and what was going on, maybe the dissolution of their friendship could have been avoided.

"House of the Dragon" is concerned with the patriarchy and how it takes power from women and keeps them from gaining it. Aemma's brutal death in the first episode is a big and bold example. The end of Rhaenyra and Alicent's friendship is a less splashy illustration of the same thing. In a world where women are property — chess pieces in a larger power struggle and broodmares for the men around them — it's almost impossible for them to come together. Rhaenyra and Alicent will bear the brunt of their fathers' choices forever.

In the preview for episode six, which will air Sept. 25, viewers learn that there will be a massive time jump, and teenage Alicent and Rhaenyra are left behind. Their relationship seems to have only deteriorated further. It'll be sadder because of the friendship they did have and cherished so long ago.

Sign up for HBO Max now to watch "House of the Dragon."