a long talk

House of the Dragon’s Two Queens Would Rather Co-Rule Westeros

Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke relive Rhaenyra and Alicent’s season-one arc.

“To stand up in front of their whole mini-universe and offer the possibility of reconciliation is a radical act,” Emma D’Arcy, right, says of Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Rhaenyra’s brief truce in House of the Dragon episode eight. Photo: HBO
“To stand up in front of their whole mini-universe and offer the possibility of reconciliation is a radical act,” Emma D’Arcy, right, says of Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Rhaenyra’s brief truce in House of the Dragon episode eight. Photo: HBO

“It’s like, ‘Choose your favorite war criminal’ — as I’ve seen from a tweet.” Olivia Cooke is talking about the civil war brewing between her House of the Dragon queen dowager, Alicent Hightower, and the newly crowned Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen, played by Emma D’Arcy. The Game of Thrones spinoff concluded its first season Sunday with the murder of Rhaenyra’s son Lucerys at the hands of Alicent’s son Aemond; Westerosi lore tells us the Dance of Dragons this incites will be a war “unlike any other ever fought in the long history of the Seven Kingdoms.”

“The whole point of the story is people have been forced to pick sides and that’s why a civil war happens,” Cooke continues. “We are imploring the audience not to do that, and to really empathize with every character and see inside their inner workings.”

The season’s ten episodes rush through 20 years of storytelling but primarily center Alicent, Rhaenyra, and the effects of a patriarchy seeking to control them. Their childhood friendship curdles into rivalry after Alicent marries Rhaenyra’s father, the widower King Viserys (Paddy Considine), but Viserys names Rhaenyra his heir, meaning his eldest son with Alicent won’t inherit the Iron Throne. The two women vacillate between enmity and empathy as they grapple for control of the kingdom, their children butt heads, and Viserys nears death. A brief reunion at a grand family dinner suggests their lingering affection could prevail after all, but nepoticide sets the Greens aligned with Alicent and the Blacks standing with Rhaenyra on a path to carnage.

In scenes together, Cooke’s arch line deliveries and holier-than-thou smirks spark against D’Arcy’s regal defensiveness and cool anger. This chemistry seeps into real life, too; during a Zoom call the day after “The Black Queen” airs, the pair speak warmly and easily of the bond they built on set, trading memories and imagining a Westeros in which female co-rule is a possibility — no matter if that scenario is the biggest fantasy of all.

In one word, describe how you feel now that the season is over.
Emma D’Arcy: My word would be “premature,” because me and Liv haven’t watched episodes nine and ten yet. We’re watching them together this evening.

Olivia Cooke: But “relief.” [Laughs.]

What were the first and last scenes you filmed together?
ED: The first scene we filmed together was —

OC: The funeral.

ED: Yeah, episode seven. Last scene was episode eight, dinner.

OC: We started with a big ensemble scene and ended with a big ensemble scene. It was really nice to bookend the experience with all of us together, having aged 20 years in the process. It was like feeling each other’s ribs that are protruding because we’re so weathered from the experience.

Did anything about your relationship — as actors or as friends — change in the space between those two shoots?
ED: Yeah. The funeral was right at the beginning of the process, and so we lived together in a castle for ten months by the time we shot the family dinner. By a stroke of masterful timetabling, the family dinner was the last scene of the whole shoot. It had an air of finality about it.

OC: I felt like I finally knew who my character was, and also in relation to Rhaenyra. I could imbue it with so much more than I could’ve and tried to do at first.

ED: “Trying” is the key word, because the thing I really remember about that dinner is that trying wasn’t required. It’s this amazing thing that happens very rarely and requires a great mixture of people. Everything feels very obvious; nuanced interrelations suddenly feel incredibly obvious. As an actor, those moments are sublime. You have no idea if it’s going to translate, obviously, but it feels great.

What felt obvious about in those moments?
ED: I was thinking specifically of the toast. If I were to read that scene at the very start of the process, maybe I would’ve felt concerned about whether it felt earned or warranted or would feel contrived. My big revelation was that it’s an episode that pivots around death, and death does the job of reorganizing your priorities.

OC: They see each other for the first time [in years]. That’s what the whole series has been about: trying to get back to each other.

Alicent and Rhaenyra’s toasts felt like love letters to me: Rhaenyra admitting that Alicent has done a good job as Viserys’s wife, Alicent saying Rhaenyra will be a good queen. How did you approach that moment of reconciliation? 
OC: I think less of a love letter, more of a “thank you” card. It’s a step in the right direction. But to proclaim love would’ve felt too soon. There is love there, but definitely not at the forefront.

ED: Those toasts are to declare the rift exists and to name it — they start to undo the power of the thing. This game they are locked in, it’s largely a nonverbal one, and it’s bitter and silent and stony. To name it is to begin to disarm the chasm, the trauma, the difficulty, the pain.

OC: We exist in a series of looks and chess pieces and hearsay and ravens. We don’t ever get to see the words in front of us.

And everyone is shocked by what they’re saying — there’s a reaction shot of Rhys Ifans’s Otto Hightower being amazed that his daughter is putting forth this olive branch. So perhaps it’s less outright love and more an acknowledgment of who they are for each other.
ED: It’s also, to an extent, both of them flying in the face of what the system wants them to do. For a patriarchal system, the rift works. To stand up in front of their whole mini-universe and offer the possibility of reconciliation is a radical act.

There’s so few women in this world that I think there’s a feeling of gleefulness when men identify them as special.
OC: They’re not immune to the feeling of a powerful man bestowing his light on them. They live in this society that rewards [them] when that happens.

Did you approach scenes with other female characters, like Eve Best’s Rhaenys, differently than scenes with male characters? 
OC: When I had that scene with Rhaenys, there was an equity that hadn’t been there before. Speaking to a woman who was also fucked by this system and trying to appeal to that was unifying. There’s a different quality to it. You can’t really quantify it until you see the scene on television.

ED: The irony is, we don’t get that many scenes solely with another female character. In Rhaenyra’s scene with Rhaenys, she’s far more intimidated by the conversation she’s about to have than she would be were it a male character, because all of her tools have been built to manipulate and navigate men. She feels transparent. It’s a very revealing and uncomfortable conversation.

That’s the other irony, I suppose: When women do manage to protect some corner of power within a patriarchy, they can become skeptical and fearful of other women with power because their tools are not made specifically to navigate that type of power. And/or, we have the same skill set, and suddenly there’s a rivalry that is very different from the rivalry felt with male colleagues.

What do you remember about filming your introductory scene?
ED: I had a great day. There’s a going-onstage element to big, virtuosic follow shots that go on for five or ten minutes. They deliver an adrenaline that there sometimes isn’t space for on set because things are small and close and you’re there for hours. I remember it feeling very playful because there’s something so intensely theatrical about starting with me on one end and following the string all the way to Liv as a way of introducing how we’re taking over the characters.

OC: We were so aware that it was our reveal as characters. It felt like our debut, like, “Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be.” It was so funny feigning shock that Rhaenyra brought her baby to the queen’s apartments and killing them both with kindness, and then seeing the king’s reaction. What is so frustrating for Alicent is the willful ignorance of the king and his disciples. Nothing Alicent has been through has been easy or her choice; when she sees Rhaenyra living her life as she sees fit, it’s beyond frustrating for Alicent after living her own life of servitude.

ED: I just remember your masterstroke of taking the baby from Paddy. I felt sick.

OC: Did you?

ED: I watched it with someone, and they gasped at the point where you took the baby with that sickly smile. So good.

How did you approach motherhood onscreen?
ED: Rhaenyra has a difficult doorway into motherhood because motherhood becomes reified as this possible object of incapacitation and subordination, and it’s framed by the death of her mother dying in childbirth. There’s this very taut relationship with the possibility that she will be incapacitated in the same way. Simultaneously, the surprise for Rhaenyra is that, as someone who felt like an outsider within her own family, by raising children, she gets to create her own tribe. I don’t know that she sees that coming, and actually, quite surprisingly, she loves it. She gets to build a little family in her own image.

OC: In a similar way, because Alicent’s role within the kingdom is to bear children for the king, she’s hoping to have allies within the court, and she experiences crushing disappointment that they’re not the children she hoped they would be. Because the age gap is so narrow — more narrow in real life — she doesn’t know how to mother them the right way. It’s hard because she loves them unconditionally and she will fall on her sword for her children who — especially Aemond and Aegon — are horrible, horrible people. This causes even more bitterness toward Rhaenyra, who she’s watched take to motherhood so easily.

In episode seven, “Driftmark,” Alicent’s son Aemond and Rhaenyra’s son Lucerys fight after Aemond calls him a bastard. Luke slashes Aemond’s face, causing him to lose an eye. Alicent boils over in that moment and attacks Rhaenyra, but Rhaenyra has to keep her guard up. 
OC: The choreography and the dance with the camera was something we had to figure out; Miguel had to shot-list that scene because it felt like a cobweb in terms of what lines are being crossed and what actors and reactions you’re getting for each line. I was going insane toward the end.

ED: It’s such an interesting scene, right? My sympathy is fully with Alicent. On the page I was like, Well, she’s fucking right.

OC: Someone’s lost an eye.

ED: Someone’s lost an eye! I’m so amazed every time Paddy basically tells you to let it go. Simultaneously, Rhaenyra is playing quite a basic game: Lie hard, do not back down, and weaponize this word “treason.”

OC: Alicent’s being gaslit massively and she fucking explodes. In friendships or relationships, when it gets to the point where you feel you’re going mad, there’s no route out other than complete volcanic annihilation.

ED: There is something resentfully delicious in it for Rhaenyra, in that she so rarely gets definitively the backing of her father. Early on, she loses both her best friend and her father because they get married. These moments where she gets publicly chosen, and chosen instead of you — there’s a really violent quality of vengeance for her.

“My sympathy is fully with Alicent,” says D’Arcy. “On the page I was like, Well, she’s fucking right.” Photo: HBO

Did you imagine what the characters were up to during the six-year gap between episodes seven and eight? 
OC: We discussed with Miguel and Ryan because there is such an absence after the “eye for an eye” scene. With Alicent, because of her public display of violence, she’s taken to religion to repent. She’s a lot more measured, a lot more thoughtful, and a lot more closeted in terms of her emotions. Having had those six years in the castle with very few allies, thinking long and hard about what she did — she wants to be a closed book. She doesn’t interact with many people, and she’s trying to wrangle her children, but the three of them are so explosive and unique, and have such different personalities, that it’s incredibly difficult. The closest relationship she had is probably with Aemond, but she’s watching him grow up into an absolute killer, which is terrifying for her.

ED: The thing that helped me clarify the time jump is that Rhaenyra and her family are in this outpost, this sort of temporary accommodation at Dragonstone. There’s this waiting to be allowed back into the family home, and there is space within that gap, and via that self-built tribe, for her to claim an identity. Then the question becomes one of whether or not she can look after that identity when she goes back to Daddy’s house, which I think is really relevant. Even we as adults who leave the family home and go away and start careers and build lives can still struggle to protect those fragile identities when we move back to the place we grew up.

If we were in a version of this show where Alicent and Rhaenyra could co-rule, what do you think that partnership would look like? 
ED: This is the ultimate scenario. Rhaenyra brings that quite masculine leadership and fiery decisive thing people seem to like. But Alicent actually has the skill set required to manage and plan ahead.

OC: Patience, and a bit more methodical. It’d be yin and yang. It’d be so good.

Do each of you have a favorite scene of the other’s from this season? 
OC: Emma, I know you’re probably sick to death of birthing people, but your first birth scene was mesmeric. I have never seen someone pull off a more realistic portrayal of birth. It was so insular, like you were about to set off a rocket inside you. Then just the relief, and the pain as well — you perform pain so fucking well. It’s really hard to do, but you don’t overegg it.

ED: I feel this is an annoying question, because I obviously haven’t seen episode nine yet.

OC: You’re like, “I love the performance of your feet.” [Laughs.]

ED: Watching you speak to Paddy in the “eye for an eye” scene, I’ve watched it actually quite a lot of times, just getting some tips —

OC: Shut up.

ED: Your eyes speak in full sentences. Living, not showing. There are not that many people who can actually do that. I’m amazed at the rigor with which your whole body lives that painful, undermining relationship. I’m really moved by characters who are so cornered.

OC: I’d love to do a comedy next.

When I interviewed other members of the cast, they spoke about deleted scenes they wish had made it in. Were there any scenes you two shot that didn’t make it into the final cut?
OC: Ours were all so good that they all made it in, didn’t they? [Both laugh.] I’m joking, I’m joking! In the dinner scene, episode eight, I have an aside to Fabien. I snipped at him quite callously, like, “You’ve been dismissed.” He stutters and I’m just like, “You can go now,” and then he walks away. I loved doing that.

Olivia, you’ve said that after the show premieres that on some level, it’s not yours anymore. Is there anything about the experience of working on House of the Dragon that you’ll cherish in a way that’s untouched by public reaction?
OC: On a really, really basic level, all of us going for dinner and breaking bread with each other and going out and having a dance. We can’t really do that anymore.

ED: No, don’t say that. Is that true?

OC: I don’t know how it’s been for you, but this week especially, you feel a heightened awareness. Then you start to get paranoid that everyone’s looking at you — I did on the tube the other day. There was a lovely halcyon period where we could do all that stuff and also make an amazing TV show, but having a popular television show and a successful career, unfortunately, some of that does get sacrificed. We’ll just have to have house parties instead.

ED: Because we were making this during the pandemic and this was the first series, there was a small amount of expectation, but essentially, we were making this in secret. There was a strange duality in knowing on the one hand that supposedly, we were working on one of the biggest TV shows in the world, and simultaneously, it felt really small and private, and it belonged to us. Some days we knew it: We knew that it was very specific and that it wouldn’t happen again because there would be noise and expectation on series two. But there was a vacuum briefly, and that was really special.

OC: You can attempt to have an understanding of what it’s going to be like when the show comes out. But we still didn’t believe it. That’s not going to happen to us.

ED: You were saying that two weeks ago, mate.

OC: I was saying that two weeks ago.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

House of the Dragon production built the set of the Red Keep at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, in Watford, England. Milly Alcock and Emily Carey played younger versions of Rhaenyra and Alicent, respectively, in the first five episodes of the season. Episode six opens with D’Arcy’s Rhaenyra giving birth to her third child, and Cooke’s Alicent requesting to see the newborn so she can confirm his paternity. Miguel Sapochnik, a season-one showrunner along with Ryan Condal. Frankel, who plays Ser Criston Cole.
House of the Dragon’s Queens Would Rather Co-Rule Westeros