‘House of the Dragon’: Who Is Otto Hightower, and Why Does He Matter?

It’s tempting to read the new characters in HBO’s “House of the Dragon” through a “Game of Thrones” lens, to see the dragon-riding princess Rhaenyra (played as a youth by Milly Alcock) as the new Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). Other parallels between the two shows exist as well, though they are perhaps less obvious.

Take the Hightowers, a minor presence in “Thrones”; based on the Sunday series premiere of “Dragon,” set nearly 200 years earlier, the family was clearly once a major player in Westeros’s innermost sanctums of power. Could they be our new Lannisters?

There’s a lot we can glean already from the first episode of “Dragon,” from “Thrones” and from the books by George R.R. Martin without spoiling the new series. Let’s take a deeper look.

Who are the Hightowers again?

Although House Hightower may not feel familiar, we’re already passingly acquainted with this ancient noble family: In “Thrones,” one of the Kingsguard during Bran Stark’s Tower of Joy flashback was Ser Gerold Hightower (Eddie Eyre), and two of the Tyrells, Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Loras (Finn Jones), shared a Hightower mother.

Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) resembles Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) in many respects. Like Tywin, he is a widower Hand of the King, and just as Tywin used his daughter, Cersei (Lena Headey), Otto is using his daughter, Alicent (played as a youth by Emily Carey), as king bait.

More on ‘House of the Dragon’

HBO’s long-awaited first “Game of Thrones” spinoff debuted on Aug. 21.

  • Off to a Strong Start: The premiere of “House of the Dragon” drew 10 million viewers, HBO said, making it t​he biggest start for a series in the network’s history.
  • A Rogue Prince: Daemon Targaryen, portrayed by Matt Smith, is an agent of chaos. But “he’s got a strange moral compass of his own,” the actor said.
  • The New King: A string of critically acclaimed roles has lifted Paddy Considine, who stars as King Viserys Targaryen, from hardscrabble roots to a seat on the Iron Throne.
  • The Showrunners: In a conversation with The Times, Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik discussed the new series, brothel scenes and domesticated dragons.

But the uptight, opportunistic Otto is more powerful than Tywin ever was. He is wealthier. He has more influence over key Westerosi institutions, in what some call the Oldtown Triad (the Citadel, the Faith and House Hightower). And he has convinced the king that he is an honorable man — “an unwavering and loyal Hand,” as King Viserys (Paddy Considine) calls him.

By the end of the series premiere, Viserys’s brother, Daemon (Matt Smith), appears poised to be the king’s chief antagonist. Daemon is certainly formidable — and sneaky. But the king should probably also keep his eye on his own Hand, who has the superior spy network. To whom does the maester whisper first? When Daemon makes an unwise comment in a brothel, who hears it from three corroborating witnesses?

And what of that mysterious letter Otto sends to Oldtown? From what we’ve seen so far, Otto seems to be our Littlefinger, Varys and Tywin, all rolled into one delightfully devious character.

Otto, however, is not the lord of Hightower. That would be his older brother, Hobert (Steffan Rhodri), first glimpsed swearing fealty to King Viserys’s daughter, Rhaenyra.

Masterminding the maesters?

House Hightower helped found the Citadel, the center of scholarship in Westeros, and provides continuing financial support, earning the head of the family the title “Defender of the Citadel.” It is a honorary title, and the role is more like a patron than a protector. The maesters — who are supposed to disavow family loyalties — are likely to feel some gratitude. Or more.

Like Tywin Lannister in “Game of Thrones,” Otto, right, uses his daughter (Emily Carey) as king bait.Credit…Ollie Upton/HBO

There are already conspiracy theories floating around about Grand Maester Mellos (David Horovitch), suggesting that he, like Grand Maester Pycelle on “Thrones,” would allow or even cause those under his care to die if it furthered the Hightower agenda. A stretch? Perhaps. But as we learn in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books, there might be some corruption at the Citadel. It could be that the maesters, who control much of the information in Westeros and are positioned at noble households throughout, are compromised. Otto might benefit from their eyes and ears.

Have faith

The period of Westerosi history depicted in “House of the Dragon” takes place before the Sept of Baelor, the great cathedral where Cersei began her walk of shame, was built; back then, the Starry Sept was the center of religious power, and the city of Oldtown was considered holy. In addition to the Hightowers having contributed many sons to the clergy’s ranks, they also built the Starry Sept.

The church has a long, fraught history with the Targaryens, who worshiped different gods when they came conquering. In the premiere, Otto warns that Daemon could be a “second Maegor, or worse,” which brings to mind the religious war started by Maegor the Cruel, the third Targaryen king, when a Hightower led the church.

Money talks

Just as the Lannisters and Tyrells were among the wealthiest families of their era, the Hightowers and Velaryons are among the richest in theirs. The Hightowers, who rule over the center of trade in one of the richest agricultural regions, represent old money, however, while the Velaryons wield new wealth. This makes Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) a threat to Otto.

Otto’s alliances are strong, however, among other Small Council members: Mellos, part of the Citadel faction; the master of laws and lord of Harrenhal, Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes), who also studied at the Citadel; and the master of coin and lord of Honeyholt, Lyman Beesbury (Bill Paterson), a sworn vassal of House Hightower.

Heir for a day

In the first episode, Otto seems fixated on removing any candidates for the line of succession whom he can’t control. He dismisses the idea that King Viserys’s cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best) — who is married to Lord Corlys — should become queen, yet he suggests that Rhaenyra be named heir. (Clearly, it’s not just about gender.) He also campaigns against Daemon, who was the presumed heir, a conflict that seems unlikely to subside anytime soon.

But Otto wages war by spilling ink, not blood. It’s the Hightower way. And in a war of words, Otto — like the scheming wedding planner Tywin — could wield the mightier sword.

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