The Prince That’s a Problem: Daemon Targaryen’s Murderous, Magical Grayness

A cold-blooded killer, a hotheaded dragonrider, and one of George R.R. Martin’s favorite “gray characters,” Daemon is back for another season of ‘House of the Dragon.’ And actor Matt Smith is ensuring he’s as impetuous (and incestuous) as ever.

HBO/Ringer illustration

The golden crown was not supposed to fall off King Viserys Targaryen’s rapidly disintegrating head. But when it did, in the midst of a rehearsal three years ago for the HBO series House of the Dragon, it was like a light bulb turned on. In the emotionally and physically arduous Episode 8 scene, the ailing Viserys, played by Paddy Considine, staggers from the threshold of death’s door toward the cold, hard Iron Throne one last time. And during a run-through of this moment, down came that crown—and in came Matt Smith, who plays the king’s mercurial little brother, Daemon Targaryen.

Smith didn’t miss a beat, according to a bit of HotD lore that’s had a level of canonical dissemination that would please any maester. Daemon retrieved the golden adornment and placed it back on the king’s dome, and absolutely no one on set dared to stop rolling. Later, when Smith and Considine got together with director Geeta Patel to discuss how things went, “They were like, ‘We felt this,’” Patel told Entertainment Weekly in 2022. “‘This felt like the turning point in our relationship.’” When they shot the scene officially, they did so two ways: one in which the crown stays put, as originally planned, and one in which Daemon does his best you dropped this impression—which is what made the final cut.

And for good reason. The result is a steely, moving little salute of a scene, understated yet alive with fraternal and courtly devotion. It is also a callback to an earlier moment in the series when Daemon patches things up with his brother by relinquishing to him some super-meaningful driftwood. (This would absolutely work on me.) Almost no words are spoken during the exchange, yet the visual impact of the hale Daemon aiding and honoring the ghostlike husk of his older brother speaks volumes about recurring House of the Dragon motifs such as mortality and rivalry and family-first loyalty.

And then, less than five minutes later in the episode, we got another memorable, if totally tonally different, Daemon-crowning-someone-in-the-throne-room performance. So to speak.

In that scene, a disagreement over the line of succession for the maritime lands of Driftmark devolves into a passionate airing of grievances from Vaemond Velaryon, Daemon’s cousin’s brother-in-law, and/or Daemon’s daughters’ great-uncle, and so on. (This family tree is more like kudzu.) Vaemond shouts that the sons of Princess Rhaenyra, the heir to the Iron Throne, are “bastards” (fact check: true) and that the princess herself is “a whore.” (Well, now you’ve gone and done it, guy.) It’s enough to make Viserys summon enough dad strength to slowly rise to his feet, draw his blade, and shout: “I’ll have your tongue for that!”

Once again, Daemon is there to assist. It takes only one visceral swipe of his Valyrian steel sword to leave Vaemond resting in pieces right there on the throne room floor, silenced forever. “He can keep his tongue,” Daemon says as jaws hit the ground all around him, figuratively and literally.

In just a few minutes, these two fell swoops give a glimpse into the totality of Daemon Targaryen, from his savage, gruesome methods of showing and earning respect to his occasional flashes of humor and even grace. And they demonstrate why Daemon, for all his many, many problems, is such an electric guy to watch in House of the Dragon.

As Season 2 begins later this week, we know there will once again be crowns and bastards and killing, because this is Westeros, and there always are. We know that Daemon will loom large, both within the universe of the show and in real-world conversation. But what we don’t yet know—and what we may never learn—is what Daemon is truly thinking and wanting and feeling. When it comes to him, those sorts of things have never been black-and-white.

In the aftermath of Episode 8 last season, some of the minds behind House of the Dragon suddenly found themselves busy describing all of the people Daemon Targaryen is not. “He ain’t Paul Rudd,” one of the show’s writer-producers, Sara Hess, told The Hollywood Reporter, adding that the character had “become ‘Internet Boyfriend’” in a way that baffled her. Clare Kilner, a director, chimed in that Daemon is not “particularly a good father or a good brother,” either. “He’s not Ned Stark,” showrunner Ryan Condal told The New York Times as part of a minor rant about how it confused him to see so many viewers stan Daemon.

“I see Daemon as having heroic aspects to him, and I understand why people would,” Condal said. “I mean, he’s incredibly charismatic, he’s handsome, he looks great in that wig, he rides a dragon, he has a cool sword. I totally get it. But if you’re looking for Han Solo, who’s always going to do the right thing in the end, you’re in the wrong franchise, folks.”

Not Paul Rudd, Ned Stark, or Han Solo—OK, so then who is he? In 2018, when the author and general mastermind of Westeros, George R.R. Martin, was making the rounds to promote Fire & Blood—the book that House of the Dragon is based on—he was asked in a virtual Q&A to name his favorite person in the ancient, silver-haired, tight-knit Targaryen family.

“I’m notorious for my love of gray characters,” Martin responded, “and one of the grayest characters in the entire story of Westeros is Daemon Targaryen, the Rogue Prince.”

Murderous and magnetic, Daemon loves to party, though you rarely see him belly laugh. He rides a dragon nicknamed “Blood Wyrm,” carries a sword called “Dark Sister,” was knighted as a teenager, and is not above pulling stunts like absconding with a dragon egg and holding it hostage for a while. In Fire & Blood, one passage reads:

Over the centuries, House Targaryen has produced both great men and monsters. Prince Daemon was both. In his day there was not a man so admired, so beloved, and so reviled in all Westeros. He was made of light and darkness in equal parts. To some he was a hero, to others the blackest of villains.

Throughout Season 1 of House of the Dragon, we see all of these dualities at play. Daemon is, first and foremost, an unquestionably brave defender of the realm, fighting doggedly in all sorts of miserable locales—it has to smell foul in that Crabfeeder cave!—to help shore up and maintain his family’s material interests and its powerful name. And, in his own way, he’s also a worthy guardian of his brother—that is, when he’s not annoying or insulting Viserys to the point of getting exiled. (Hey, who among us hasn’t gotten kicked off a sibling’s turf at some point?) Daemon routinely seeks to protect the king from enemies, from allies (“I will speak of my brother as I wish,” he tells Corlys “the Sea Snake” Velaryon near the beginning of the show; “You will not”), and even from the king himself. “You’re weak, Viserys,” Daemon explains in the pilot episode. And he does have a point.

Like it or not, throughout much of the first season, Daemon is what peak performance in Westeros looks like. He has an aura that enables him to pull off both badass suits of armor and sketchy hooded cloaks. His glower is unrivaled; his bars are exquisite. He rules at lurking off to the side of places, smirking and observing like he’s Jared Catalano leaning up against a locker. He is a man of the people who sure does seem committed to ensuring that the Flea Bottom economy is always strong. Whatta guy, right?

But that’s only the half of it, the good half. There’s also the part of Daemon whose civic engagement in Flea Bottom involves, you know, bringing his teenaged niece Rhaenyra to a brothel where he seduces and then abandons her. Daemon is a dark dude who mocks his brother’s dead son, riles up a bunch of sadistic gold-cloaked vigilantes, ignores his own children, and pummels some poor, innocent courier for simply delivering a message. He is a boy who breaks his favorite toys—and all the other toys, for good measure.

Daemon does appear to genuinely live his values. It’s just that his values revolve around the Targaryen supremacist idea that, as a man possessing the blood of the dragon, he has not just the right but the duty to act like a fantastical, uncaged, fire-breathing monster whenever he wants, no matter whom it hurts.

I had thought it was pretty unkind that he referred to his first wife, Rhea Royce, as “the Bronze Bitch,” but that turned out to be nothing compared to the time he showed up unannounced in the Vale dressed like Evil Kermit just to bludgeon her to death with that divorce rock. And I’ll admit that—despite witnessing all of these behaviors, and despite having been informed that, in the books, Daemon is actually even more of a nightmare—I had still assumed that Rhaenyra, Daemon’s proud wife, stubborn niece, and High Valyrian–speaking buddy, would be spared from his icy-hot wrath. I was very, very wrong.

Of all the harrowing scenes in House of the Dragon’s Season 1 finale—Rhaenyra’s miscarriage, the dragons at war in the skies—it’s the moment when Daemon reaches out and grabs Rhaenyra by her throat that felt hardest to watch. “I think he has a sense of duty to his family, weirdly,” Smith once told the Los Angeles Times about Daemon. “I think he’d lie on his sword for his brother or Rhaenyra.” And yet. By the end of the first season, Viserys is dead, and Rhaenyra is being threatened by Daemon’s own hand. Without some sort of renewed gravitational force in his life, the Rogue Prince may risk spiraling out—and away into his own limitless darkness.

When Smith was cast as Daemon, he already had experience playing roles whose reputations far preceded his own. “Dr. Who?!” was a common early reaction to his 2009 selection, at the age of 26, as the 11th Doctor in that storied, high-pressure franchise. When the ambitious historical drama The Crown debuted in 2016, Smith spent the first two seasons defining and refining a portrait of a young Prince Philip in all his prickly, handsome, second-banana glory—a performance that also helped Smith establish himself in the zeitgeist. (According to Smith, the real Prince Harry once shook his hand at a polo match and called him “granddad.”)

As a teenager, Smith had looked down on acting as “girly” and focused his time and energy on playing high-level soccer until a back injury forced him out of the game. Now, all these years later, he plays at being some of the world’s most well-known men—including ones who could not be less like Smith in real life.

In interviews, Smith exhibits a personality that’s so affable and cheeky and non-Daemon that I almost find myself needing to stop watching so as not to ruin House of the Dragon’s moody vibe. He has said that Daemon is probably a Scorpio, that Daemon would make a great vampire, and that Caraxes, Rhaenyra, and “a good night out on the town” are what keep his character grounded.

He has talked about how he slipped a disc in his neck and got a cut on his head during the filming of the show’s first season. And Jimmy Fallon asked him who would win in a fight: Daemon or Jon Snow? “Come on” was Smith’s response. “Mate, I have a dragon. Listen, I have a lot of respect for Jon Snow. Jon Snow is a bad boy, don’t get me wrong. … But don’t get it twisted: I would fuck those brothers up.”

For all his merry whimsy, though, Smith is also quite comfortable harnessing the unsavory side of Daemon and the world in which he lives. Ever since he accepted the role, he has been all in—like, really all in, willing to not only perform Daemon with unsettling aplomb on-screen, but also publicly make peace with the character’s often violent existence. “He’s got a weird moral compass—perverse and strange,” Smith told the Los Angeles Times about Daemon in 2022. “But nevertheless, there is a set of laws that he’s guided by.” During one press conference last week, Smith remarked, “I admire his conviction, his mistakes, and his actions. He’s like, ‘Fuck them all, man, this is how I’m gonna roll!’”

So how might Daemon be rolling when Season 2 begins this week? One profile of Smith in Variety describes a “much weaker” character whose ostensibly shady attempts to look out for himself wind up drawing scrutiny and sowing distrust—especially with Rhaenyra. Interviewed on a CBS morning show recently, Smith hinted that audiences may notice Daemon vibrating at a rather different frequency from last season. “Softer, lazier, fatter, slower” is how Smith described Daemon’s upcoming arc, sounding a bit like a Daft Punk fan designing a wine mom T-shirt. (Who can mock that up as a new house sigil?)

As for why Daemon might be rounding into his goblin era? “He’s sort of haunted by his demons, really, by ghosts, by apparitions,” Smith told CBS. “The weight of all the bad deeds that he’s done really comes home to roost, so to speak.” This is interesting to contemplate, considering that in the Season 1 finale—as he grips Rhaenyra by her throat—Daemon straight up scoffs at all things spectral.

When Rhaenyra tries to tell him about the Song of Ice and Fire that Viserys had impressed upon her before his death, Daemon is exasperated—and, in his grief, jealous that Viserys never mentioned it to him. “My brother was a slave to his omens and portents,” Daemon snaps. “Anything to make his feckless reign appear to have purpose.”

Viserys may have focused on the fantastical, but Daemon? He prefers things that are real, man. “Dreams didn’t make us kings,” he tells his wife. “Dragons did.” He has a point, but those king-making dragons taketh just as much as they giveth. In Season 1’s closing scene, Daemon has to deliver the news to Rhaenyra that her sweet son Lucerys and his dragon, Arrax, have both been mortally torn asunder in midair by another flying beast.

That beast would be Vhagar—the oh lawd he comin’–sized dragon that Aemond Targaryen claimed as a child, losing an eye in the process. “Do not mourn me, mother,” a wounded Aemond says to the understandably horrified Queen Alicent after he’s been stitched up in Episode 7. “It was a fair exchange. I may have lost an eye, but I gained a dragon.” This is some real Targaryen math through and through, which explains why it sounds so much like Daemon logic as well.

That brings us to maybe the biggest open question about Daemon heading into this new season: How will he handle the rise of Aemond, a possibly more sinister, potentially less humane version of himself? Even their names suggest an ouroboric relationship between these silver-coiffed, second-born royal sons: You can’t spell one without the other, and maybe you can’t delete one without erasing the other, too. Aemond may not have intended to kill Lucerys, but if he’s anything like Daemon—and he is—there’s a good chance that, far from apologizing or repenting, he’ll dig in and double down and do what is needed to make those dragons dance.

“Prince Daemon had been the wonder and the terror of his age,” reads one of George R.R. Martin’s lines about the Rogue Prince. As House of the Dragon unfolds, not only can you see the scope of what this means, but you can also watch the other characters as they start to see and process what Daemon is capable of, too. When Rhaenyra looks at her husband in the finale, not so much with anger or fear but with pity, it opens up a new world of possibilities for their relationship going forward.

Or when the camera cuts to Aemond, seconds after his uncle Daemon has just coolly sliced Vaemond like a strawberry, and for once, the normally salty, scowling scion looks … impressed by his cool uncle’s style? Amused? Almost as if he might, for once in his life, be having a nice time?

For a split second, this scanned to me as a sweet moment, a mentor passing the torch to the next generation. And then I snapped to and remembered that this is Westeros, and these people are bad news and great liars and unrepentant sinners, and Aemond’s look of wonder is because he is striving to be a young terror himself.

Whether he is validating his brother’s reign or vivisecting his rival, Daemon’s motivations throughout the first season of House of the Dragon feel straightforward: He wants to consolidate and preserve his family’s dragon bloodline, and thus the source of his family’s power, whatever the optics or costs. But as Season 2 approaches and those costs keep piling up, will his motivations or his methods start changing?

For now, the answer to that remains murky, which feels right. Daemon is, after all, one of the grayest guys that this realm has ever seen. That much has always been clear.

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