Character Analysis: Viserys I (House of The Dragon)
[Heavy spoilers for House of the Dragon will follow]
I’m glad Paddy Constantine got a leading role and found him not only a surprising choice, but knew he would be both the most divergent character from the source material and one of the better actors of the cast. Viserys was nothing in the books, let’s be honest. A simplistic king, a cypher and archetype of the inattentive overweight monarch, and part of the new House of the Dragon series appeal was clearly for another author or the team to take a different direction with what is the figurehead of the era. It may have been because a fat king being amiable is something Hollywood is loathe to cast for. It may be that they seized opportunity, or Constantine’s personal ability to inject his own nuances and creative flair gave more substance to a performance that needs dialogue, expression and emotion presented before the audience rather than written expository behaviour. It’s still proof that, while being the usual ‘we faithfully followed the source material and the author is involved’ marketeering nonsense, was backed by creative ideas that do not exist elsewhere, in both mediums covering Westeros.
“I have never fought, nor conquered, nor suffered great defeat”.
The torment for a Targaryen is that of mundanity. Worse, while it is rather sad, and it’s easy to empathise with the sentiment, Viserys, ‘First of his Name, King of the Andals and the First Men’, but more accurately the plain man ‘Viserys’ speaks of great trials and opportunities missed, viewing a reign as tempestuously as the customs, assumptions and literal and philosophical bloodlust of his lineage translate into either glorious achievement or glorious ruin.
His deeper observations, most of his character is melancholy at his own nature, when like his predecessor Aenys I does not realise it is all in his choices. One can do more than conquer or lose. And this is not about the supposedly grim world of Westeros. It’s a fact. He could have built roads, bridges, shored up his succession. His greatest trial is that of any king, preparing his heir. In a probably deliberate artistic choice, the preference for spectacle or violence over logistical efficiency and conciliation renders the most powerful dynasty as blind to their success as the mild-mannered monarch.
In many ways, Viserys did not simply inherit the same kingdom and government from Jaehaerys, ‘the Wise’, ‘the Conciliator’, but the transition from the fires of bloodshed and the first construction of their great Keep and city, their roads and symbols of legitimacy granted the essentials of rule. The greatest Targaryen monarch is presented as such, and Viserys ruling the height of Targaryen power because the dragons and the nobility were sustained by good governance. Jaeharys possessed empathy, diplomacy, and the societal skill to win over his subjects. Evidentially Viserys did too, one of the rare elected monarchs and only one of two Targaryens ever to be so, the suggestion of this shy but earned likeability is presented in his first scene, shuffling and smiling nervously to be proclaimed future king. Viserys is a person, a ‘bloke’, a mundane and ‘common’ seeming sort which works to his favour and quickly to his detriment. Constantine presents a character you see laughing over a snack, appreciating a good book, who possesses at his tournament a physically weaker, but undoubtedly more well-intentioned and less selfish picture than Robert Baratheon’s amusing outbursts.
The naturalistic acting works for two reasons. One, because it’s rare in a show, particularly any kind of fantasy show to feature a person who eats an egg, discusses things half drunk, and acts as honestly we all have. He is no dragonlord, not a knight or a magic wielder. He is a king, but the tragedy of circumstance, or the cause for others underestimating and antagonising him is Viserys is a person. Probably the most ‘modern’ character in all of an already quite contemporary low-fantasy series. I can see Viserys in a pub, and that’s a good quality to illustrate both his relatable and mundane qualities, but also turn them against him as our pragmatism and moral fibre lends itself to reading a lesson from it. It is one thing to say ‘kill the boy’, or a good man is not a good ruler. House Of the Dragon shows it. It shows how an affable man who drinks too much and is too free to grab women on hand becomes accidentally and unthinkingly revolting.
Rather than show it through corpulence and ignorance, the choice to give Viserys what I assumed to be greyscale, but seems like some kind of leprosy or necrotic disease is a good metaphor for both ‘unworthiness’ (caused by the cuts on the throne made carelessly is an out-of-left-field decision I like that they made), and also represents the disease of excessive comfort. And I mean comfort of the mind. Again, as with Robert Baratheon, Viserys is a very different looking, separate personality illustrating one lesson about ruler archetypes and using the fantasy genre when the audience conflates ‘kingship’ in fantasy with authority, or rule.
There are even subtle visual touches that have tricked myself and a few other audience members: his loss of an arm being realistically not commented upon as people would in polite society, and the impressive spectacle of seeing Viserys talk to Rhaeneyra at the shrine of Balerion’s skull somehow made me realise later he actually rose that living symbol of imperial might. At a closer glance, corpse, skeletal, and blood imagery is woven carefully all around Viserys I through his life. I find the rats to be an on-the-nose, but viscerally effective touch. But the lack of an arm, his progressing leprosy, its realism is a shock only hitting home when his younger brother Daemon acerbically remarks that the Gods were clearly cruel to him. The character is eaten away, in a different manner every single episode we see him in. While his manner never changes, and a game is played of us questioning perspective and the appropriateness of a given personality facing timely circumstances.
The continuity of authority is there, the prophecy idea makes sense and in new context, there would naturally be wisdom passed down from Jaehaerys to Viserys, as Jaehaerys was a wise king. But the ease of duty, not citing it being present or commanding others means that as he is a poor successor, his succession erodes the purpose and intelligence of the dynasty. Picking a bride is hard, but let us be realistic. It’s not what Aegon was thinking or anyone does when it comes to the Long Night. Rule over others begins with rule over the self, and too much passivity when gifted with responsibility makes it laxity. Of an unforgivable sort, because there is too much at stake, too much riches, too much power and too much practical need for laxity to be anything but disastrous in a monarch. Viserys will order people to do many things, but he orders nothing of himself besides a half-reluctant marriage sealing his own primal desires. A kingdom can survive cruelty, lunacy, all kinds of personalities and work. But if it doesn’t crush you, inattention will certainly make more challenge for your heir. Inattention will make a strong willed and neglected wife and daughter disdainful. Inattention will rot away your body, in an ugly and slow deterioration as much as it does the rodent infested halls and the literally darkening landscapes you visit.
It must be restated that the ambitious and power hungry Targaryens fell themselves, and Viserys is a fascinating example of this tempestuous nature but with perfectly mundane behaviours. His dithering is as dangerous as dragonfire, the ineffective shouting the indirect cause of Rhea Royce’s death, the maiming of his son, and the enmity of two essentially cadet Houses of the Greens and Blacks. The crucible of his time is the sulks and avoidance of his daughter.
Given the somewhat soap opera nature of sex and relationships in earlier episodes, it’s worth noting the critical importance of his choices. A brusque and shy parent is a danger to the realm, this tragedy reaching the audience on a greater and smaller level. After all, poor parenting is a problem for every human being in life, with the ability to do great harm to parent and child. But applied to a feudal society, where your family possess the equivalent of nuclear devices and military deterrents? The crucible, the great battle happens around him, before his eyes. The succession is no less serious than Maegor’s wars or Robert’s Rebellion, than a horrible beast. And his refusal to fight it means that it carries on anyway, in House of the Dragon this essentially creates a Cold War under his nose, waiting to burst when his feeble complaints come to an end.
His aggression actually has more bite I think not because he is a dragon; but because he is like the average man. He is liable to insult when drunk. While tactically a mistake Viserys’s bellowing that “my wife and son are dead!” is brilliant, because it’s exactly what all of us were thinking watching at the time. his aggression, especially when he takes command are ugly because as with the whole idea of civil war both parties are at fault while possessing points.
He is hands off in command, lax with decisions. But no one in the history of the world likes being told that, let alone spoken over. And it’s especially true that a lax person who likes their creature comforts really dislikes realising they’re not being listened to. His reactions are a problem because they are just that, reactionary. He is not wrong in his sentiments, his admonishments and his right to command Otto and Daemon. But they are done after, long after. And in a personal argument the sting for both parties is worse, because a man who was happy to accept your council and be happy with you declaring your insidiousness and falseness so bluntly can’t help but hurt. It would have hurt less if he checked these flaws himself. There is little likeable about Otto Hightower as a personality; but you are encouraged to feel empathy for him despite his presence until this point because ‘dear Otto’ being called such a manipulator only really lands if he is wholly evil, and this show hasn’t painted him as a Ramsey Snow.
I find it amusing that Viserys is into modelling, and I think that was chosen to illustrate and associate a point modelling community members can see which I hope doesn’t offend them. He’s meticulous, furtive, the detail of the miniatures is art. But like modelling fans, he can also be very fastidious, furtive, perhaps brusque at times without meaning to be. I think that there was intention and the writers thought that more than it being an (obvious) merchandising opportunity. I think that if you look at 40K fans for example, they know what I mean. I’m not disrespecting them at all. It’s clever. It’s tying in the hobby and showing a hobbyist, like someone who in our age buy a Hornby model and that’s a direct visual association intended to make Viserys relatable, or at least like someone we know/know of in the real world.
His devotion to lore, Valyrian architecture, art, their language is not just expository, but shows he knows more of it than any Targaryen to date. Viserys is not a stupid man. He is not even an overspecialised man than Robert. But his sad ability to charm and convey likability, yet sway and be uncommittable hurts genuinely well-intentioned relationships. He is on-screen by far the most sympathetic character, kinder and all the more so for meaning his well wishes. He is a fantastic negotiator and social organiser, no flaw in that whatsoever. And he needn’t be a great warrior as the series shows so well I won’t mention it here.
But Viserys avoids sharing that lore. He chokes himself by sharing his affections, but not inquiring more about his wife when it would have mattered, and their early relationship not sealed into its latter form. Arranged marriages, the discomfort of the situation in many cases can, has, always should be a thing considered and improved upon. Long lasting love is something often noted to contain many phases. Love is an act of devotion, and willpower. Gratification and obligation are not enough in a co-operative and deep connection, and by that inattention Viserys warps and twists Alicent as much as he adds to his own misery. It fuels her more callous attitude to him, her removal of the lascivious tapestries and paintings in her own room, eventually her open violence born of replacing lovelessness with a brooding and forceful familial obsession where both parents do not share kind words or affection with their children, but will readily manhandle them or give them shouted commands.
Viserys’s reluctance and hesitance around his daughter create easy resentment, when that bonds is the most important to a dynasty he berates her about, the duties he accepts a little reciprocal advice about, but reduces simplistically to women’s material duties and male conquest. His heir, political themes and gender aside is basically a gigantic vessel to ensure continuity. He should be tutoring her, not marrying her off. His appeasing behaviour needs to bear fruit, to be effective. There is a role, and a virtue in being a somewhat soft spoken, hedonistic, party organising man. But one needs to be a Charles II with a meticulous focus on elaborate pageantry, and frankly concealing and ignoring your personal beliefs to succeed, or to go the whole way. Vacillation in any discipline is weakness, and it’s not kindness, not even ignorance that hamper Viserys’s ability. It’s not fully sitting upon a chair you claim. If you are to command, command. If you rely upon one’s council, back them and do not turn upon them after a drama. Prepare for prophecy with the strength you say you have.
I think in arguing with Daemon another modernistic flaw, which is tragically a relatable virtue but applied in the wrong setting is reluctance to break custom or fully wield power. This will differ based on world view, but Viserys is at the core more firmly a believer in not wielding the power of the dragons (symbolising in the show Chaos closely enough to make me think there was Moorecock inspiration), he is fascinated, but academically fascinated by the grandeur of sorcerers. He will not countenance pairings that are not commonplace, his relatable and obvious disgust at the idea of Rhaenyra’s betrothal to Daemon or Aegon flashing that glint of a reasonable and decisive authority figure ruining the scheming. He will not ride a dragon.
It’s not so much shying from power, he sits the throne and carries the sword even if it’s used like a prop or a cane. Viserys I is not weak, not at all. But he is stupid, hesitant, or conveniently for the writers an individual who hasn’t realised he can tell all these ridiculous courtiers and fops, the Lannisters and Hightowers of this era that he calls the shots, and his daughter, his brother, his Hand or any haughty lord do what he bloody well says if Viserys, his Kingsguard, and his dragons say so. But then, what interests me about Viserys, and another tragedy is that maybe that is the point. After all; sadly many, many people including myself at times have meant well, but not done what was to so many something very obvious.
Viserys laments not being tested in his own crucible; but I would retort that for one he is, and in ignoring and living benignly he uniquely gets to avoid the conquests of his forebears. He is gnawn away, physically damaged and atrophied to a hideous and pitiable degree, more than most suffer in war, losing limbs. But he also passes a cup, he refuses war, refuses to lead, chooses and impressively enforces his static tendencies so well, whereas Aegon, Maegor and Jaehaerys had no choice but to conquer and suffer circumstance, or Aenys who was harried unto an early death for trying the amiable life.
I enjoy that at least Viserys I has one moment of agency in his life, although it comes when he is so terribly frail and eaten away. The kingship within him, and his fatherly calling raise him up and keep him moving to make a judgment he could not make when hale and hearty. It’s a glimmer of sense that happens often, very late yes; but it shows the capacity is there. The look of the crown and fake gold mask is at its most gaudy and unfitting, yet his shambling ascent to the throne is matched by his brother giving him the most tender assistance seen on screen. Regardless of faction, the affection held back in a tumult of ambitions and resentments fades with the authority and potential of power Viserys hold. It becomes increasingly apparent that Constantine was chosen due to his willingness to mar his beauty and appearance. Like the aged dragons, Viserys is not above life that does thin hair, bring disease, and melt the flesh and strength of voice away.
I wouldn’t say I have finished feelings about the show, or like it very much as it goes on. But I do like changes made that weren’t for the sake of change. Viserys was an original character essentially intended not to be reductive but a person, as is Emily Carey’s Alicent Hightower (the elder iteration appearing to be more of a direct parallel to the Alicent in Fire and Blood). I found them understated and probably the draws of the show. After all, it’s not about dragons.
This story more than the last is about the nature of societal decay, how cynical and nihilistic worlds impact connection and meaning in life, that sex and love are powerful, separate and terrifying powers akin to dragonfire and with inattention their use creates insidious and subtle damage. Viserys isn’t a warrior king gone to seed. He’s someone failing just enough, pleasant but just too callous to spoil the mixture. He is the ideal catalyst for great peace and a power vacuum, and as with many Westerosi characters, one who has much to teach us about self-acceptance and the tragedy of miscommunication as much as any other. While it is tragic to see suffering and human frailty, this series has equally portrayed the grey morality, or even mundane evil that comes from people accepting timidity and choosing wilful blindness over retaliatory measures or shock used for mass benefit, rather than allowing the use of force and violence to seep through and root itself from parent to child, faction to faction; and ultimately from dragonlord and to innocent.
All the best,