This discussion of Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen (and as Doctor Who and a few other characters, actually) contains spoilers for episode 1 of House of the Dragon.
Matt Smith’s Daemon Targaryen made quite an impression on last weekend’s House of the Dragon premiere.
At The Ringer, Ben Lindbergh described Daemon as “your new problematic Targaryen fave.” While praising the show as a whole, Joanna Robinson was more excited about Daemon, explaining that Matt Smith “is d-o-i-n-g it.” Viewer response was similarly enthusiastic, with the Rogue Prince becoming the source of “thirsty memes.” While some of this is likely down to the fact that Smith’s co-leads Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke have yet to debut, Daemon feels like the premiere’s breakout character.
What’s particularly interesting about this is that Daemon is not a pleasant character. “The Heirs of the Dragon” makes this quite clear, with Daemon immediately established as the unreliable and untrustworthy younger sibling of King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine). Many of Viserys’ advisors, such as Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), are openly skeptical of Daemon, seeing him as a potential challenger. Even Viserys treats Daemon like his screw-up kid brother.
Over the course of “The Heirs of the Dragon,” Daemon leads his private police force on a night of violence and brutality through King’s Landing. He skips a Small Council meeting to lounge on the Iron Throne and flirt with his niece Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock). He proves a bad loser at the tournament held in honor of the birth of Viserys’ son, particularly when bested by Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). He smirks in the shadows, eavesdropping as Viserys dismisses his ambition for the throne.
However, “The Heirs of the Dragon” maintains a fascinating ambiguity around Daemon. Late in the episode, Viserys loses his wife Aemma (Sian Brooke) in childbirth, producing a male heir. The child, named Baelon, dies shortly afterwards. This causes a number of succession problems for the Targaryen line. Given that the Lords of Westeros will never accept Viserys’ daughter Rhaenyra as ruler, the death of Baelon seems to move Daemon closer to the Iron Throne.
Late in the episode, Hightower confronts Viserys with reports about Daemon’s behavior in the aftermath of the tragedy. According to Hightower’s informants, Daemon addressed his loyalists in a brothel, raising a toast to his deceased nephew, sarcastically saluting “the heir for a day.” Viserys is understandably outraged at the possibility that his younger brother would turn his loss into a joke. He confronts Daemon about the allegations, and Daemon refuses to outright deny them.
There is a fascinating tension here. “The Heirs of the Dragon” confirms at least some of Hightower’s account. The audience sees Daemon at the brothel. He stands up, to raise a toast. However, the episode doesn’t actually show Daemon’s toast. Daemon has already been established as irreverent and even reckless, so it’s hardly out of character for Daemon to be so brash. However, there is an ambiguity in play. All that the viewer has to go on is Hightower’s account of events.
Given that Hightower appears to have his own ambitions for the Iron Throne, maneuvering his daughter Alicent (Emily Carey) into Viserys’ orbit, he certainly has his reasons to lie about a potential challenger to succession. It is an interesting nod to the show’s source material, George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, which is built around three competing histories of the dynasty, often unverifiable and contradictory. Did Daemon make that offensive toast? The viewer is left to form their own opinion.
Another interesting aspect about Daemon Targaryen is the extent to which the character exists firmly within Matt Smith’s comfort zone as an actor. Smith broke out playing the lead role on Doctor Who, a benign goofball on a piece of family television, but has largely been cast in villainous roles since his departure. He was the skinhead bully in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, and the anthropomorphic personification of Skynet in Terminator: Genisys.
To be fair, it’s fairly routine for actors to make a conscious break with iconic roles, to try to separate themselves from earlier performances before they become typecast. Smith’s predecessor, David Tennant, followed up his work on Doctor Who by taking the role of Kilgrave on Jessica Jones, the embodiment of toxic masculinity. However, Tennant’s work has been considerably more varied than that of Smith, across projects like Broadchurch, Fright Night, Good Omens, DuckTales, and Staged.
In contrast, Smith has honed in on a particular archetype that he plays remarkably well. Even when Smith isn’t playing outright villains, the actor seems drawn to a specific kind of masculine role. These are characters who frequently hold significant amounts of social power, who are defined to a certain extent by their pride and their self-image, but who are layered with a deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability that can often manifest through childish sulking and tantrums.
It makes sense that Matt Smith would end up in these sorts of roles. Smith is a very attractive man, but his features (while easy to draw) aren’t the kind likely to convince American casting agents to place him in conventionally heroic leading man roles. It’s a cliché that British actors are frequently cast as villains in Hollywood, but there is some truth to it. However, Smith isn’t just drawn to villainous roles, but to this more complicated and specific archetype.
Daemon Targaryen is the latest in a long line of these sorts of roles and is perhaps closest to Smith’s performance as Prince Philip on The Crown. Like Daemon, Philip is presented as a somewhat irreverent figure positioned close to the throne but outside the direct line of succession. Like with Daemon, Philip’s behaviors have been the subject of gossip and insinuations. Like with Daemon, Philip’s boisterous outgoing personality masks a host of seething resentment and frustration.
The Crown parallels nicely with House of the Dragon. House of the Dragon is arguably closer in structure to The Crown than it is to Game of Thrones, with time jumps between individual episodes that are often built around minor crises in the ruling dynasty’s histories. Both are stories about a female succession, with Martin drawing from “the Anarchy” to inform the plot of House of the Dragon as it relates to Rhaenyra’s ascent. So Daemon and Philip embody a similar masculine anxiety.
Smith’s filmography is filled with powerful, alluring, and yet fragile men. He played Charles Manson in Charlie Says. Last Night in Soho casts Smith as Jack, who appears to be a smooth and sophisticated operator but is eventually exposed as a failed businessman and a pimp. He even played Patrick Bateman in a musical adaptation of American Psycho. All of these characters, including Daemon and Philip, exist in an ambiguous space between dangerous and pathetic, pitiable and terrifying.
This is also evident in Smith’s performance in Morbius. To be clear, Morbius is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it comes closest to working as a queer tragedy. Smith plays the villainous Milo, the oldest friend of Michael Morbius (Jared Leto). Like Daemon and Philip, Milo is a rich young man who lives quite apart from the world. His descent into villainy is driven by Michael’s rejection of him. Milo yearns desperately for Michael’s acceptance and validation.
With all of this in mind, it is perhaps worth reconsidering Smith’s breakout role on Doctor Who. The Doctor is obviously a much more heroic figure than any of the aforementioned examples, and Smith brings a goofy childlike energy to his performance that is quite different from his work on projects like The Crown or House of the Dragon. Showrunner Steven Moffat has described Smith’s tenure as a “dark fairy tale.” There is an edge to it. Most fairy tales are also horror stories, after all.
Belying his childlike exterior, the Smith’s Doctor certainly has a darker edge. In “A Good Man Goes to War,” Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) taunts the Doctor that he has too many rules to be a threat. He warns her, “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.” The climax of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” finds the Doctor mercilessly turning Solomon’s (David Bradley) weapons back on the pirate. “Enjoy your bounty,” he taunts.
However, Smith’s interpretation of the character was particularly complex when it came to his relationships with the female characters around him. His early adventures with companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) are built on lies and half-truths, with the Doctor drawn to the mysteries around them. It is particularly obvious in his relationship with his wife, River Song (Alex Kingston), who often finds herself having to manage her husband’s emotions.
“The Angels Take Manhattan” is built around the Doctor’s insecurity with the idea of the women in his life aging, particularly Amy’s recent need for glasses. When River conceals a broken wrist from him, he wonders why she lied. “When one’s in love with an ageless god who insists on the face of a twelve-year-old, one does one’s best to hide the damage,” she explains. Later, she warns Amy, “Never let him see the damage. And never, ever, let him see you age.”
Moffat’s Doctor Who is a fascinating study of masculinity, through the lens of the show’s main character. The character arc of Smith’s successor, Peter Capaldi, is built around the question of what it means to be “a good man.” Smith’s take on the character plays into that, a more family-friendly exploration of the same fragility and neuroses that inform a lot of the actor’s later work on projects like The Crown, Last Night in Soho, Morbius, and House of the Dragon.
Daemon Targaryen is a similar bundle of contradictions, a mess of self-confidence and insecurity. Smith has talked about recognizing “a deep fragility” in the Rogue Prince. It’s a juicy character and a great performance. It’s also a role that plays very firmly to Smith’s strengths as an actor, as well as his ability to realize these compelling and competing facets of these complicated men.