May 6, 2021

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Happy 10th anniversary to Game of Thrones’ best villain

5 min read

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the premiere of Game of Thrones, a fact that both makes me feel very old and very tired. Old, because I can’t believe it’s been that long since a friend first put the series on my radar by complaining to me about “HBO’s elf and dragon show,” and tired, because we somehow still haven’t given Viserys Targaryen actor Harry Lloyd the respect he deserves for being the one to make the entire show.

That might sound like a bold claim about a character who totals only about half an hour of screen time in the nearly three days worth of material the show amassed over its eight-season run. In total, Viserys appears in just five Game of Thrones episodes, all of which are in the first season, before he is brutally killed off. Nevertheless, a decade on, it’s clear that Viserys was the quintessential Game of Thrones villain — and the show lived and died by how far its other bad guys strayed from his mold.

For those who haven’t committed the entire Game of Thrones character map to memory, Viserys Targaryen was the brother of Daenerys, and the son of the “Mad King” who was killed by Lord Robert Baratheon in the civil war that takes place 17 years before the series begins. We first meet Viserys when he is living in exile in Pentos, and plotting feverishly to retake the Iron Throne.

Still lost? You probably best remember him by his white-blonde wig:


Yes, I’m talking about the worm who, in literally his first scene on camera, undresses and fondles his younger sister. Viserys is icky; he’s whiny and needling; he’s deluded and obsessed with his birthright. Often, he’s openly ruthless and cruel: “I would let [Khal Drogo’s] whole tribe f— you, all 40,000 men and their horses too, if that’s what it took,” he tells Daenerys when she protests at being married off in exchange for an army. When Viserys gets annoyed with his sister, he further threatens her by warning, “You don’t want to wake the dragon, do you?”

Viserys checks all of the boxes of the classic Game of Thrones villain: He’s power hungry, possibly insane, incestuous (why not!), really fun to hate — plus he’s given one of the most gruesome deaths on the show when he finally gets his comeuppance. But what makes him a brilliant and lasting character on screen specifically is all thanks to the delivery by Harry Lloyd.

The British actor was a Game of Thrones fan going into the series, so he knew ahead of time that his stint on the show wasn’t going to last more than a season. But Lloyd also invested in understanding Viserys beyond his being a mere paper tiger to move Daenerys’ plot forward: “…I had to rewrite the story so that my guy was the main character,” Lloyd explained to Vulture of his thinking. “He’s the rightful king and he’s got all these problems … No one is just being bad for the hell of it. There are no one-dimensional characters.” Specifically, Lloyd brought to his acting a nervous desperation informed by Viserys’ backstory, much of which never makes it materially into the Game of Thrones script. But “he absolutely has a point,” Lloyd went on about Viserys. “… I absolutely sympathized with his plight in terms of what he’s been doing since his parents were slaughtered and the rest of his family was killed. He had to try to find his way, despite being a completely unqualified young man, to represent his whole family’s dynasty. There’s a lot of pressure on him!”

That nuance was always meant to be Game of Thrones’ primary aim; the books’ author, George R.R. Martin, has repeatedly discussed in interviews how his interest is in writing fantasy series where the battle between good and evil is played out not between dueling physical forces, but “chiefly in the individual human heart.” Yes, Viserys is so smarmy and terrible that he was permanently seared into Game of Thrones‘ fans brains after just five episodes — to the point that when his older brother, Rhaegar Targaryen, appears in a late-season flashback, people mistakenly thought it was Lloyd playing a Targaryen again. But that Lloyd approaches playing Viserys with such fond understanding also makes him, on screen, a terrific character to watch; when he begs “Dany” to save him in his final scene on camera, you almost, almost feel sorry for the guy.

Game of Thrones never quite found its footing as skillfully again. In the later seasons, the bad guys all become, well, too bad. Joffrey is also whiny and entitled, but without a similar sense of desperation, his character is more grating than anything else. Euron Greyjoy doesn’t really have a personality other than just being “bad,” and then there’s also Ramsay Bolton, who literally spends a whole season sadistically tormenting Theon, then brutally rapes Sansa Stark, all while being devoid of qualities that might explain his actions as something other than pointless torture porn. The show’s original supervillain, the Night King, has been described as “one of the worst villains of all time,” and has zero internal life or comprehensive motivation at all. Then with Daenerys, the show pulled too sharply in the opposite direction; that is, by trying to make her the most sympathetic antihero of all, the Game of Thrones writers completely gave up on crafting a character arc that satisfactorily justified to the audience how she becomes a mad and bloodthirsty queen.

But Lloyd didn’t take his role so seriously that there wasn’t also humor in his portrayal as well. Let’s face it: Game of Thrones is mostly ridiculous and silly. Viserys is an amusing character, and Lloyd gets that. He has fun with it; watching him re-watch his most famous scene, Lloyd even pokes fun at the way it doesn’t really make much sense. “I’m pretty sure I raided my hotel minibar and kept pumping up my tea with a little bit of whiskey, because it was a long day and it put the taste of alcohol in your mouth,” he even admitted to Entertainment Weekly of his preparation for the moment. “Pretending to be drunk at 9 in the morning, that was my little secret…”

It’s fitting, then, that the future of Game of Thrones rests with Viserys Targaryen. Not the third of his name, who gets so memorably scalded to death by Khal Drogo, but with that Viserys’ ancestor, King Viserys I Targaryen, who will be a character in the forthcoming prequel series House of the Dragon, expected sometime next year. “A warm, kind, and decent man, Viserys only wishes to carry forward his grandfather’s legacy,” reads his character description.

Let’s hope he’s not too good or too kind, though. Ideally, deviousness and desperation and temper tantrums run in the family. Because, though Harry Lloyd’s Viserys might not have been able to save Game of Thrones from its own worst tendencies in the long run, he showed us how much more fun it could’ve been.

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