***Warning: This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon***
A palpable sense of loss runs through each episode of HBO’s House of the Dragon. In the opening narration, we learn this series takes place a century before the events of Game of Thrones. The Targaryen dynasty is at its peak and the Seven Kingdoms are enjoying an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, dragons—which hold a near mythical status in Game of Thrones—fly freely through the skies of Westeros. It’s a beautiful sight to witness, but we know it’s all going to come crashing down, destroyed in a sea of fire and blood.
It begins with a succession crisis. The ruling King, Viserys Targaryen, has no male heir. So, breaking with long held tradition, he selects his daughter Rhaenyra to succeed him as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Things get complicated however when Viserys takes a second wife, Rhaenyra’s childhood friend Alicent Hightower, who then gives birth to a son whom many feel has a better claim to the Iron Throne. The ensuing power struggle results in “The Dance of the Dragons,” a bloody civil war in which the dragons die, the kingdom burns, and the fate of House Targaryen is sealed forever.
Like most prequels, House of the Dragon isn’t interested in telling viewers what happens. We already know how the story ends. Instead, the series chooses to focus on why it happens. Each week, audiences are carefully shown how the hatred of a few individuals dooms the lives of many. It’s an old and tragic parable, but one which carries deep significance for Christian viewers.
Above everything else in scripture, Christians are commanded to love. We are told to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). Lastly, we are told to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). In doing so, we share God’s presence with those around us while becoming more like him in mind and spirit. But what happens when we fail to live out Christ’s final command? What price do Christians pay when we choose to hate our enemies?
House of the Dragon provides us with an answer.
Hatred Makes Us Less
Great tragedies often have small beginnings and House of the Dragon is no exception. Nearly all conflict in the series can be traced back to two characters: Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, the Heir Apparent, and Alicent Hightower, the New Queen. Initially, the two girls live as friends, and both demonstrate considerable talent and virtue. Rhaenyra is clever, bold, and strong-willed. Alicent, meanwhile, is patient, loyal, and selfless. Each girl possesses the potential to become a great queen, and their friendship allows them to bring out the best in one another.
Unfortunately, a series of painful mistakes causes their friendship to end abruptly, and each girl starts to nurse a sullen hatred for the other. As their animosity grows, their promise and potential gradually shrinks. Both still possess notable qualities, but now they’re motivated by their worst instincts. Rhaenyra becomes selfish and reckless, a slave to her own appetites, while Alicent’s kindness is smothered by her jealousy, resentment, and rage. Hatred diminishes them both, and the Seven Kingdoms are lesser for it.
The ugly truth about hatred is that its first casualty is usually ourselves. 1st Corinthians 13 warns Christians that without love, even our greatest gifts will be rendered useless. Love is required to build and sustain the things of God, and while some Christians have tried to argue that it’s possible to mock our enemies and still love them, their excuses fall apart almost instantly. Jesus may have called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34-36), but he died for their sins as well as ours. Love can be stern, even angry, but love never rejoices in petty malice or gleeful ridicule. These things only lessen us while giving the seeds of hatred room to grow. And make no mistake, they do grow.
Hatred Makes Us Compromise
As time passes, the rivalry between the two women continues to escalate, and each seeks out allies to help consolidate their power. For Alicent, this means allying herself with the royal spymaster, Larys Strong. Larys’ diminutive appearance masks a cold and sadistic nature. When the New Queen angrily remarks that she wishes her father would be reinstated as Hand of the King, Larys grants her request by murdering the office’s current occupant: his own father. Later, after Alicent’s son loses an eye in a fight with another boy, Larys casually offers to secure an eye from the offending child as recompense. Alicent knows that Larys is evil, but she chooses to keep him close anyway. He’s an evil that she can use.
As for Rhaenyra, she opts to bind herself to her uncle Daemon. Played by Matt Smith, Daemon has quickly become a favorite character among House of the Dragon fans, and it’s easy to see why: he’s dashing, charismatic, and a bit of a rebel. But Daemon’s magnetic personality allows Rhaenyra (and viewers) to ignore just how dangerous he really is. In the first episode, we witness him slaughter a crowd of alleged criminals to enforce order throughout the city. Later, he brutally murders his own wife to free himself from an unhappy marriage. For all his glamor, Daemon is still a monster, and even Rhaenyra isn’t safe from his wrath.
It doesn’t take much self-awareness to recognize how frequently Christians make these same mistakes. Life provides us with an abundance of perceived enemies—in politics, in culture, even within the Church itself. So, in the name of protecting the greater good, we join forces with individuals who embody everything that Christianity should be against. We compromise the gospel to protect bullies or empower tyrants. As with Larys and Daemon, these alliances may deliver us power in the short term, but they always come back to haunt us. Cooperating with evil only creates more evil and any bond forged in hatred inevitably becomes just another chain for our own self-made prisons.
Hatred Spills Over
Above everything else, the worst aspect of hatred is how it spreads. We see this truth play out in House of the Dragon’s most tragic scene, a dinner party. During his last night alive, King Viserys brings his family together for one final meal and implores them to make peace with one another. He reminds them that they are all of one house and that the Crown cannot stand strong while they remain divided. Miraculously, his words seem to take root. Rhaenyra makes a toast to Alicent, thanking her for her tireless devotion to the old King and apologizing for her part in their estrangement. In return, Alicent toasts to Rhaenyra, acknowledging her as their future queen.
For a brief moment it appears as if peace is possible. The table is surrounded by music and laughter. One of Rhaenyra’s sons asks Alicent’s daughter to dance. The night is going well. Then Alicent’s son makes an insulting toast toward the other boys. Voices are raised, blows are exchanged, and everyone in the room instantly falls back to their side of the conflict.
Whether they realized it or not, the private war between Alicent and Rhaenyra has spilled over onto their children. Even if the two choose to make peace now, things have gone beyond their control. The next generation was raised with their hatred and has adopted it as their own. As a result, both women are doomed to watch their children fight and die while the Seven Kingdoms burn around them. Hatred hasn’t just taken their peace; it’s stolen their future.
These same consequences await us if we choose to reject Christ’s command to love our enemies. When we cling to hatred, it eventually spreads to the people we’re closest to. Children, friends, siblings, and even strangers can become infected if they’re within our circle of influence. This malignancy also limits our ability to repent and forgive, since we can only apologize for our own mistakes. In this way, hatred manages to persist long after we’re gone, exacting its toll on each new generation.
Choosing to Love
House of the Dragon gives us a glimpse of a world without grace. It shows us how easily things that are good and beautiful can become lost in the fires of pride and recrimination. At the same time, we’re reminded that we have a choice. This doesn’t have to be our story.
The Dutch priest Henri Nouwen once wrote,
I have noticed in my own life that people I don’t like have power over me because I am always thinking about them. They preoccupy me and have control over my thinking. I find myself jealous, resentful, and vengeful. I lose peace. I am holding on to these people as my enemies. Loving our enemies is the way of becoming free of our enemies. We free ourselves by letting go, by loving them, by caring for them.
Henri Nouwen, Following Jesus, Pg. 69 Convergent Books, 2019
Loving our enemies is never easy. We often feel entitled to our bitterness and hurt. Choosing to let go of it can feel like an act of surrender—probably because it is. But it’s through acts of love and surrender that God ultimately brings about our liberation. When Jesus died on the cross, he wasn’t submitting to the will of the Pharisees or the power of Rome, he was surrendering to the love of God (Matthew 26:39). In following his example, we allow God to take the ugliness we carry and set us free.
Hatred tempts us to an iron throne that will always leave us wounded and bleeding while Christ invites us to his table where we are asked to love and forgive for his sake. All we must decide is which seat we choose to claim.