Rhaenys Targaryen Has Never Needed a Crown to Be the Queen of ‘House of the Dragon’
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Rhaenys Targaryen Has Never Needed a Crown to Be the Queen of ‘House of the Dragon’

Spoiler warning

The series premiere of House of the Dragon began with King Jaehaerys I Targaryen convening a Great Council at Harrenhal to choose an heir to the Iron Throne. The only legitimate candidates considered were Viserys Targaryen and his cousin, Princess Rhaenys Targaryen. Despite having the stronger claim, Rhaenys didn’t win the vote, as Viserys was chosen instead to replace King Jaehaerys. For the second time in her life, the princess lost her birthright to rule over the Seven Kingdoms, simply because she was a woman.

A season and a half later, Rhaenys has died fighting for Rhaenyra Targaryen—Viserys’s daughter—and Rhaenyra’s contested claim to the Iron Throne.

In the fourth episode of Season 2, which aired on Sunday, the Dance of the Dragons began in earnest. While Rhaenys and her dragon, Meleys, were defending Rook’s Rest from Ser Criston Cole and his army’s advances, King Aegon II intervened with Sunfyre, and Prince Aemond followed with Vhagar soon after. Rhaenys and Meleys helped severely injure the king and his dragon, assisted by Vhagar after Aemond’s indiscriminate dracarys, but Vhagar got the best of Meleys. After a final, solemn look of understanding between them, Rhaenys and her scaly companion fell from the sky to their demise, as both sides of the royal conflict suffered their greatest blows to date.

With the death of Rhaenys, House of the Dragon loses one of its best, and most tragic, characters. Rhaenys, played by Eve Best, leaves behind a legacy of honor and grace, unlike most people in positions of power in Westeros’s never-ending game of thrones.

The Queen Who Never Was should have been named the heir to the Iron Throne after her father, Aemon, died, and then again when her uncle Baelon died. Yet despite being repeatedly passed over, she continued to perform her duties and remain a faithful servant to the throne, even though others should have been serving her. Although her husband, Corlys Velaryon, never let those slights go, the Lady of Driftmark accepted the injustices against her and moved on. In the seventh episode of Season 1, she told Corlys, “I gave up the idea of wearing a crown a generation ago,” even as he kept grasping for the power that was stolen from them.

Rhaenys and Corlys were the power couple of House of the Dragon, enjoying the most normal and functional royal relationship on the show—especially by the Targaryens’ incestuous and ever-destructive standards. (The bar for contemporary Targaryen couples is so low that even the latest episode’s revelation of Corlys’s infidelity and unacknowledged sons doesn’t affect his and Rhaenys’s relationship ranking.) The princess ruled over Driftmark whenever Corlys left to seek the glory of war, sometimes for years at a time, and still tended to his wounds when he returned. After losing both of her children—including Laenor, who’s probably just hanging out on a beach in Essos right now—Rhaenys held herself and her family together, never letting her grief cloud her judgment. (Though her judgment in her final battle arguably could’ve been better; more on that to come.)

In one of her saddest and most defining scenes, Rhaenys watched yet another deceased family member be prepared for their funeral after her brother-in-law Vaemond’s ambition cost him his life in Season 1, Episode 8—all while Corlys was off at sea again. The Grand Maester warned her it might be bad luck to look upon the face of death, and she replied: “The Stranger has visited me more times than I can count, Grand Maester. I assure you, he cares little whether my eyes are open or closed.”

Although she resigned herself to not ruling, Rhaenys was no pushover. Perhaps her greatest strength was to see people—and their insatiable desire for power—for what they really were, and call them out with no hesitation. Whether it was Alicent high-key committing treason to put her son on the Iron Throne, Daemon forgetting his place, Rhaenyra desperately offering an arrangement that would serve her political agenda, or her husband’s blinding ambitions, Rhaenys always told it like it was—sometimes with extreme, entertaining bluntness.

Rhaenys was rarely wrong, to the point that she almost seemed to possess the clairvoyance of a greenseer. She foresaw the danger that Corlys was putting their children in by marrying them to the likes of Rhaenyra and Daemon. When Vaemond told her that he would attempt to challenge Lucerys’s claim to Driftmark, Rhaenys told him, “my cousin, the king will have your tongue for this.” King Viserys later used those exact words to Vaemond just before Daemon lopped off the Velaryon’s head.

Despite believing that Rhaenyra was complicit in the murder of her son, Rhaenys set her differences with the queen aside and eventually became Rhaenyra’s most trusted and valuable adviser. Even when Rhaenyra was little more than a child, recently named as the heir to the throne that should have belonged to Rhaenys, the Lady of Driftmark dropped knowledge on the would-be ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. In the second episode of the series, she reminded Rhaenyra that, her father’s intentions notwithstanding, the road to the crown would not be easy: “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.”

These words foreshadowed Rhaenyra’s journey and established what is essentially the premise of House of the Dragon. Rhaenys may have been the most fitting ruler of anyone who’s made their claim to the throne in the series. She had Viserys’s wisdom and desire for peace, without his tendency to naively believe the best about people. She never got caught in any scandalous affair, and she stood by her values when others would have wavered.

But in the end, it was Rhaenys’s morals and sense of honor that may have been her downfall.

In last season’s penultimate episode, Rhaenys had the opportunity to end the war before it started. Instead of immediately fleeing King’s Landing after escaping the custody of the greens, she first freed Meleys—the Red Queen—from the Dragonpit and interrupted Aegon’s coronation. Rhaenys could have barbecued the whole royal family in the flames of Meleys’s breath, yet she spared their lives, allowing someone else to make the war’s first move. It was one of the most badass moments in the first season, but it remains one of the most scrutinized decisions in the series—and for good reason.

Rhaenys’s inaction may have cost countless lives across Westeros, including her own, and it doesn’t make much sense that she’d fail to see how preventing the war from starting in the first place would have been better for the realm. Perhaps worse still was her courageous yet foolish choice in the latest episode to remain at Rook’s Rest to fight Aemond and Vhagar when she could have retreated to Dragonstone.

After the combination of Meleys’s attacks and Vhagar’s firebreath, Aegon and Sunfyre appeared to be critically wounded. That alone would have been a win for Rhaenys and Rhaenyra’s campaign for the throne. Yet Rhaenys decided to go after Aemond and Vhagar, too, favoring either her pride or the opportunity to do further damage to the greens over the chance to live to fight another day. Whatever her rationale, Rhaenys and her beloved dragon died for Rhaenyra’s cause.

The House of the Dragon creative team could have done more to focus on Rhaenys in the episodes leading up to her demise—both to better explain her state of mind (and avoid any impression that she threw away her life in a fit of pique at Corlys), and simply because she was one of the best characters the show had to offer. Far too often, Rhaenys would appear in short doses, and her individual perspective would sometimes be sacrificed to focus on her shared experiences with Corlys. Still, Eve Best could steal a scene with a single look and portrayed Rhaenys’s ability to switch between quiet kindness and savage ruthlessness with an understated brilliance that will be sorely missed in the episodes and seasons to come. Targaryens tend not to be especially sympathetic characters, but Rhaenys came close.

With half of the second season remaining, Rhaenyra’s quest to reclaim the throne has grown a lot more difficult. Rhaenys was the one person on her Small Council who could recognize the wisdom of the restraint Rhaenyra was showing by seeking alternatives to siccing her dragons on Aegon’s forces and torching the realm. Rhaenyra won’t find that experience and perspective elsewhere. Nor will she find someone else who can really relate to having the Iron Throne taken away from you based on little more than your gender. And with Meleys gone as well, Rhaenyra has lost one of her most formidable weapons. Another one of her weapons, the Sea Snake, has now lost his daughter, Laena; his son (sort of); his brother; and his wife, and he’ll have to live with the costs of his ambitions and continue to serve Rhaenyra without Rhaenys at his side.

Rhaenys Targaryen deserved more from the great houses of Westeros and from House of the Dragon. She never got to truly make up for her Season 1 decision to spare Aegon and his family. However, it’s fitting for such a star-crossed character to go out with so much left to offer the emergent war effort—and a testament to Eve Best and her performance as Rhaenys that the princess’s death was at the heart of the series’ strongest episode to date.

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