Spoilers follow for House of the Dragon episode five, "We Light the Day."
When it comes to the constantly shifting personal and political alliances in King's Landing, it's perfectly understandable for your most loved and hated people to change with each new installment of House of the Dragon. But no other character in the show has catapulted from hero to villain so rapidly and unexpectedly as Ser Criston Cole, played by Fabien Frankel.
Initially introduced a prospective love interest for Princess Rhaenyra, viewers were invited to see Ser Criston through the lens of traditional chivalric fantasy tropes, and once he joined the Kingsguard and took on the role of her sworn protector, it looked like we were heading in the direction of a forbidden romance storyline in the vein of Lancelot and Guinevere.
Their arc certainly began that way, with them sharing their respective views on love, marriage and duty in "Second of His Name." But because this is all based on the works of George R.R. Martin, we know those genre expectations are going to be subverted. And it didn't take long for Ser Criston to fall spectacularly from grace.
After spending the night with Rhaenyra in "King of the Narrow Sea," Ser Criston is looking increasingly moony-eyed over the princess when we next see him in "We Light the Day." While his talk of freedom and marrying for love previously painted him as a romantic, his conversation with Rhaenyra on the ship indicates that he might just be painfully naive: he envisions the two of them running away to backpack through Essos together, and fully expects her to be into the idea of relinquishing not just her future as queen, but also her family and her wealth.
Naturally, Rhaenyra is not convinced, and instead tries to get Criston to go along with her and Laenor's more pragmatic solution of an open lavender marriage. It is in this scene that we see just how much of a problem Criston is going to be for Rhaenyra: while she is proving adept at manoeuvering through court, he still sees things very much in black and white. That means taking the moral high ground, blaming Rhaenyra for making him break his vow of celibacy, and demanding that she wife him to make it all better.
It's a bad look, and you can almost see in Rhaenyra's eyes that she is already deeply regretting shitting where she eats. And she's right to think that, because shortly after Criston blurts out the truth of his tryst with Rhaenyra to the worst possible person: Queen Alicent. When she doesn't punish him as he deems necessary, it becomes clear to Criston that nobody else in the palace is playing by the same strict rules of honor which he has applied to himself, and he feels doubly betrayed.
Things only get worse from there, and Criston does what many toxic men do: he takes all of the frustration and anger he is feeling at himself, and he turns it outwards. By the time the wedding festivities start, he is a twitchy mess, and all it takes is a single remark from Ser Joffrey Lonmouth about how they're both royal sidepieces to set him off, going from zero to 100 and literally beating Laenor's lover to death in a scene so gory that the Knight of Kisses will definitely be needing a closed casket.
The violent end of Ser Joffrey has led some viewers to claim the show is guilty of the "Bury Your Gays" trope, a pernicious trend in pop culture where LGBTQ+ characters, already underrepresented in media, are disproportionately killed off, frequently in ways which can be perceived as "punishment" for their queerness. The Game of Thrones universe has been accused of this before, with the deaths of Renly, Loras, and most infamously, Prince Oberyn, whose brutal demise at the hands of the Mountain is echoed in Criston's murder of Joffrey.
"But this is Westeros," you might protest. "Everyone runs the risk of dying in horrible ways." And that is certainly true. But at the same time, queer characters very rarely even show up in this franchise (even a lot of the queer subtext seems to be unintentional), and with the exception of the sex worker Olyvar in Game of Thrones and some unnamed background extras, they have all met ugly deaths.
It doesn't help that in the case of "We Light the Day," Criston's anger wasn't even really directed at Joffrey, but rather at Rhaenyra; the gay character just happened to be caught in the crossfire. (Given the tediously preachy way that Criston has been acting, though, it wouldn't be shocking if he were indeed a massive homophobe.)
The fact that Criston makes it to the end of episode five unpunished is not just an indicator of how messed-up things are becoming in the Red Keep: it's an intentional upending of the noble knight figure who has existed in literature for centuries. So many of those classic stories were about chivalry and courtly love, the idea that princesses exist in purity alone in their towers, waiting for their virtue to be "won" by the right man. Ser Criston Cole could have walked right off the page of one of these tales, but his view of courtly love presents a more honest, uncomfortable reality: male entitlement, and the anger that swiftly comes when a woman steps off her pedestal and tries to exert her own will.
This is more than simply another incident of hate-criming in King's Landing: it also signals a pivotal moment for Criston as a character, and for how we relate to him as viewers. Up until now, he has perceived himself to be an upstanding, honorable person, and we, for the most part, agreed. Moving forward, the scales have fallen from our eyes—but it is possible that with his shift in loyalty from Rhaenyra to Alicent, Criston will manage to convince himself that he is on the side of right once more.
In Fire & Blood, the book on which the series is based, Ser Criston is said to be Queen Alicent's staunchest defender, rising through the ranks to become Lord Commander of the Kingsguard and eventually even Hand of the King. If House of the Dragon stays true to that source material, it will be pretty hard for many fans to stomach Criston's ascent.
I know I, for one, will be yelling "dracarys!" next time I see him on screen.
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