Welcome to House of the Dragon MVP, our series highlighting each episode’s Most Valuable Player in the game before the Game of Thrones.
All things considered, the first episode of House of the Dragon, "The Heirs of the Dragon," does an admirable job of setting up the Targaryen family conflicts that will eventually explode into the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons. King Viserys (Paddy Considine) has scooped the throne out from under his older cousin Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) by right of being a male heir. Then, after not having a male heir himself, King Viserys pisses off a lot of powerful and occasionally dragon-riding people with his decision to name his daughter, Princess Rhaenyra, the heir to the Iron Throne.
The Dance of the Dragons story focuses a lot on those conflicts and the people who survive to see them. However, the first episode of this Game of Thrones' spinoff packs a punch with a lesser-known and shorter-lived character. She stakes her claim as the season’s first MVP: Queen Aemma Arryn.
Even in Fire and Blood, the source material upon which House of the Dragon is based, Aemma Arryn is treated as an afterthought. Her entire contribution to the approaching upheaval is her failure to produce a male heir for Viserys. After she dies during childbirth, she’s hardly mentioned again.
However, House of the Dragon gives Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke) a voice and emphasizes her importance both in the world of the show and in her family. Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) visits her mother immediately after the opening sequence and quickly points out that all of the queen’s attendants are focused on the potential male heir inside Aemma as opposed to the queen herself.
Aemma’s response — that “royal wombs” are meant to produce Targaryen heirs — comes with an awareness of her role that could come across as naive and complacent. But her later scenes prove that her awareness is deeper than she lets on.
Despite her soothing words to her daughter, Aemma doesn’t waste time telling Viserys that this "miserable" pregnancy will be her last. She keenly feels the perceived failure in not producing a male heir but also refuses to be put in a position to fail again. She's betting on Viserys’s love for his wife and queen to preserve her life and what remains of her bodily autonomy. That turns out to be, very notably, a huge mistake.
A desperate and cowardly king, Viserys betrays Aemma, allowing the maesters to perform surgery on her without anesthesia in order to extract the presumed heir. His decision doesn't just kill her; it also fills her last moments with unbelievable agony. As she realizes what’s about to happen, Aemma's confusion transforms into terror and anger. She fights against her husband’s grip until she literally lacks the blood to keep fighting, lest Viserys ever forget his culpability for the rest of his miserable life.
In the episode’s final moments, Aemma’s memory haunts King Viserys when he confers the title of heir to Princess Rhaenyra.
“You are the very best of your mother,” he says, “and I believe it, I know she did, that you could be a great ruling queen.”
RIP Queen Aemma, the first casualty of House of the Dragon, though certainly not the last.