[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Fire & Blood, which, by nature, will spoil later events in House of the Dragon. It also discusses the pilot episode of House in detail. Ye be warned.]
King Viserys, first of his name, isn’t going through the best time when we meet him in HBO’s House of the Dragon. Though he was eagerly anticipating the birth of a new son and heir, he quickly finds himself mourning the newborn’s death alongside that of his wife, who died in childbirth (more on that later). Shortly after that, he believes himself betrayed by his brother, who spoke callously about the queen’s death. When it rains it pours, and Viserys is stuck in a torrent.
Of course, he’s not around for very long. Viserys’ reign ends relatively quickly in Fire & Blood, the prequel book written by George R.R. Martin that House is based on. In a way, Viserys gets the Ned Stark slot: a first-season father hoping to do right by his children, and ultimately leaving behind an incredible mess for both them and the realm.
Paddy Considine, who plays Viserys, is acutely aware that the connection is there, and doesn’t look great for his Targaryen ruler.
“Ned Stark and what Sean [Bean] did was sort of in my head as I played this,” Considine tells Polygon. “It was sort of part of the makeup for me, of Viserys. He’s not a simple man, Viserys, and I think the situations around him create complications for him.”
The fifth ruler from the Targaryen family to sit upon the Iron Throne, Viserys is at once out of touch with what the world needs and acutely aware of how he falls short of providing it. In a series marked by people born into power who only crave more of it, Viserys takes the throne in a time of relative stability — and as a consequence, power is literally nothing but trouble for him. He’s a peacetime king who’s keen to keep it that way, even at the cost of burying growing problems (see: Lord Corlys’ council presentation on the Triarchy). By the time his wife, Aemma, dies in childbirth — along with his newborn son, Baelon — the fissures of the realm have started to crack Viserys’ inner world as well.
“I think all Viserys ever wanted to do was make the right decision. And you can’t do that,” Considine says. “You can’t please everybody, as a person. But especially as a ruler. [...] He’s just somebody who genuinely wants to serve the people as best as he can, but that world just will not allow for it.”
That’s not to say he’s progressive. The best you can say for his actions in the pilot episode of House of the Dragon is that he killed his wife in childbirth because he thought she was going to die anyway, and that he might be able to save his son. Having ascended to power past his cousin Rhaenys sheerly because he was a man and she wasn’t, Viserys has led a life full of privilege because of the patriarchy he lives in and does not question.
“There is a lot of misogyny within that world and in that kingdom, but it’s not — you can’t bring your modern day ideas to a character that lives in an ancient world,” Considine says of his “Father of Daughters.” “That’s the way of the world at that time. And I don’t think Viserys names Rhaenyra his heir for any progressive thinking reasons. It’s not that, it wouldn’t be true of the world.”
While Ned Stark obviously benefitted from the same system, his virtue and strong moral code made him more of a paragon, even when he was acting somewhat stupidly. Whether he was ultimately right or wrong, Ned Stark was resolute and incorruptible. And Viserys is far less secure in himself. Even his grand moment of innovation with declaring Rhaenyra the heir to the throne is something Considine reads as more akin to grief: He loves her, he trusts her, and she’s the last remnant of the “love of his life.”
And so the big get for Westeros feminism becomes something twisted. Rhaenyra gets a target put on her back, and a life she’s not (in one reading of the pilot, at least) all too certain she wants. And Viserys — well, he believes he’s just cursed another person he loves with the ultimate burden, power.
“Having watched [Game of Thrones], that seems to be what drove most people. And it corrupts people,” Considine says. “But it corrupts Viserys in a different way. It doesn’t corrupt his morals, but the burden of it becomes such that he starts to kind of disintegrate. [...] It’s not the power that corrupts him. It’s the responsibility that destroys him.”