Sep 12, 2022
By Stephen Danay
Photography by Ollie Upton / HBO
We’re only four episodes into House of the Dragon and we’ve already got two that are named for Daemon Targaryen. This episode begins a year after his defeat of Craghas the Crabfeeder last episode and finds Daemon returning to the Red Keep sporting a short haircut and a makeshift crown, having crowned himself King in the Stepstones and the Narrow Sea. What could be an explosive conflict with his brother King Viserys is halted when Daemon kneels before Viserys and offers up his crown, declaring that there is only one true king in Westeros. The sons of Baelon the Brave, reunited again! That should last, right?
Although Daemon has quite the role to play in this sexy, shocking episode, the true star of the hour is Rhaenyra, who begins the episode cutting short a tour of the Seven Kingdoms that is in truth a medieval version of The Bachelorette. Bored with the young boys and old men who crave her power and titles, the princess returns to King’s Landing and has a series of reunions with far reaching consequences.
One of my biggest gripes about House of the Dragon so far is that we’ll only be spending about half a season with Milly Alcock, the terrific actress playing the young version of Rhaenyra. It’s hard to overstate how much her performance – the twitch of a lip, the glint of an eye, the rise of an eyebrow – adds to what might otherwise be an R-rated riff on the Disney princess; a girl with a destiny who wants to make her own way. Alcock never lets you forget that beneath Rhaenyra’s ambition and stoicism, there’s a young woman with all the desires, fears and wonder a girl her age would have. The sequence where she and Daemon are exploring the slums of King’s Landing in disguise is fueled by her infectious enthusiasm. The scene where she gleefully exclaims that someone called her a boy is heartwarming.
The rest of that sequence…well, it might be warming something, but probably not your heart. The Game of Thrones universe is no stranger to incest; between Jon Snow and Daenerys being nephew and aunt and the twincest of Cersei and Jaime Lannister, it’s sort of baked into the cake, as it was among actual medieval nobility. But whereas real-life incest mostly just gives you hemophilia and physical deformities, Targaryen incest nets you dragon-controlling powers, refined physical beauty and the occasional skosh of homicidal sociopathy. Win some, lose some. The creepiness of the makeout scene between Rhaenyra and Daemon has multiple levels, between the incest and their age difference. But it’s pretty hard to deny the heat of the scene itself or the chemistry of the actors. Complicated further by the fact that Daemon both initiates the encounter and ends it, although whether the latter is out of regret or manipulation remains to be seen.
Regardless of Daemon’s motivations, Rhaenyra is left confused and frustrated, which results in her returning to the Red Keep and sleeping with Criston Cole, the dashing young Kingsguard who now serves as her personal sworn shield. Like the previous love scene with Daemon, this sequence succeeds in being both erotically intense and emotionally layered. Criston’s hesitation over betraying his vows is visible in actor Fabian Frankel’s face and body language, but the montage of Rhaenyra stripping him of his armor indicates that he had plenty of time to think about it and still went through with it. The situation evokes the scene between Daemon and Mysaria at the end of the second episode. Both Targaryens see these relationships as desires to be taken, but the “lower class” people they’re involved with could face deadly consequences for being involved with royalty in such an unbecoming manner.
The final, and in some ways most heartbreaking, reunion had by Rhaenyra this episode is with her best friend turned step-mother and Queen, Alicent Hightower. Following a reconciliation at the start of the episode – similar to the one between Viserys and Daemon – their second scene together comes at the end of the episode in the Red Keep’s godswood, where Alicent confronts Rhaenyra about the rumors of her dalliance with Daemon. The convoluted path the information took – from a street urchin to whore-turned-spymaster Mysaria to Otto Hightower to Viserys to Alicent spying from behind the bed canopy – does an excellent job of explaining why the historical accounts of Rhaenyra’s relationships with Daemon and Criston Cole in Fire & Blood are so contradictory. In general the show has been very attentive to presenting the conflicting arms-length information we receive in the source material as a plausible misreading of actual events. Little of that matters in the moment to Alicent and Rhaenyra; a queen and a princess in name, but two hurt, frightened teen girls in reality. Rhaenyra’s (mostly) truthful denial of her affair with Daemon belies her obfuscation of her affair with Cole, and Alicent’s angry accusations come across as simultaneously uncharitable and made out of genuine concern for the girl she once considered her best friend. It will be a real shame to see Milly Alcock and Emily Carey step aside for new actresses in the coming weeks. But centering their relationship in these early episodes is a smart and affecting choice.
For an episode that’s mostly sex and table-setting, there are some far-reaching political consequences, including Daemon once again being exiled by his brother – this time to the Vale to spend time with his thus far unseen wife Rhea Royce – and Otto Hightower being dismissed as Hand of the King. There’s some power vacuums in King’s Landing. Tune in next week to see who fills them.
Bonus: Connections and Foreshadowing
– A close look at Viserys reveals some gruesome sores on his back and continued rot on his fingers. Legend tells that the Iron Throne injures those who are unworthy of it…
– The secret passages in the Red Keep that Daemon and Rhaenyra use to sneak out are the same ones used by Tyrion, Varys and Arya at various points in the original show.
– Speaking of mirrored moments in the Red Keep, the godswood where Alicent confronts Rhaenyra about her affair with Daemon is the same place where Ned tells Cersei that he knows her children are products of incest with Jaime in season one of Game of Thrones. Apparently incest cannot hide in the presence of the Old Gods.
– The gold cloak who stops a disguised Rhaenyra before letting her go is Harwin Strong, the eldest son of Master of Laws Lyonel Strong, and the guy who was giving a blood-soaked Rhaenyra googly eyes when she returned from the hunt last week. Keep him in mind.
– Speaking of potential suitors, Rhaenyra’s opening scene of speed dating is attended by members of Houses Dondarrion, Frey, Mudd and Mooton; mostly Riverland houses, which is odd considering they’re at Storm’s End. Most entertaining of all is the conflict between her hilariously young Blackwood suitor and a trash-talking Bracken, which ends in bloodshed. The Blackwoods and the Brackens were absent from the original series and play supporting roles in the books. They’re the Hatfields and the McCoys of Westeros, locked in an endless, bloody feud that goes back so many centuries, no one can remember how it started. The two characters are credited as Willem Blackwood and Jerrel Bracken, both names original to the show. However, Fire & Blood features a colorful supporting character named Bloody Ben Blackwood, whom Willem very much resembles. Perhaps they are father and son in the show or perhaps they just changed Ben’s name. Either way, it’s a fun shoutout to a recurring bit of Westeros history.
Author rating: 7/10
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