Sep 27, 2022
By Stephen Danay
Photography by Ollie Upton/HBO
As one of the biggest and most ambitious shows in the history of television, Game of Thrones was always in danger of collapsing under its own epic weight. Although some fans would argue that the final season of the original show did collapse – I’m not one of them – there was always a sense that the show was racing toward a cliff, mostly borne out of the fact that it was adapting unfinished source material.
House of the Dragon has the opposite problem. The source material is finished – albeit far less detailed, but the scope of the story is in some ways bigger, telling a multi-generational tale of war, betrayal and the ways that parents pass their sins on through their children. The show has done an excellent job of staying true to, and even improving upon Martin’s work, this latest episode is shows signs of narrative strain, even as the performances and character work remain excellent.
“The Princess and the Queen” picks up ten years after the previous episode, during which time the rivalry between the two titular women has grown more fraught and bitter. I’ve spent the last few reviews lamenting the fact that Milly Alcock and Emily Carey would be departing the show as Rhaenyra and Alicent became adults and were played by new actors. The groundwork they laid in the first half of the season makes the transition seamless, with Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke conveying the simmering resentment and escalating tensions that defined the decade we missed.
Introduced in close-up in the opening shot of the episode, a sweating, straining Rhaenyra gives birth to her third son, only to immediately be summoned by Alicent, who notes that once again, the baby doesn’t look like Rhaenyra’s husband Laenor. The long tracking shots of Rhaenyra giving birth and making her way through the castle to Alicent – baby in hand and trailing blood – are reminiscent of director Miguel Sapochnik’s long tracking shots in the battle episodes he directed for the original show. One of the emerging themes of House of the Dragon is that childbirth is a battlefield all its own, with potentially lethal consequences for all involved.
While Emily Carey played young Alicent as an open-hearted, nervous people-pleaser, Olivia Cooke lets you feel the decade of resentment that’s built up in Alicent as she watches the entire court, including her husband, pretend that Rhaenyra’s children are legitimate. The mania in Cooke’s voice as she tells her eldest son that his very existence is a threat to Rhaenyra is as jarring as it is revealing. Meanwhile, the impish rebelliousness with which Milly Alcock played Rhaenyra gives way to a more guarded, cerebral performance from Emma D’Arcy. It would seem that years of deception and scrutiny have hardened Rhaenyra into a cannier, but no less self-destructive version of her father; unable to escape from the political mess she’s gotten herself into, but also unable to lie to herself about it the way Viserys does.
Because, of course, Rhaenyra’s white-skinned, brown-haired sons are not the children of her husband Laenor, but those of Harwin Strong, last seen spiriting Rhaenyra away from chaos at her wedding. He is now Lord Commander of the Gold Cloaks and not-so-subtly doting on [his children] Jacaerys, Lucerys and baby Joffrey. It’s here that some of the aforementioned narrative strain comes into play. Although Emma D’Arcy and Ryan Corr do excellent work communicating a decade of stolen moments with just a few glances, the relationship with Rhaenyra and Harwin takes place almost entirely offscreen. Ultimately his relationship with his oblivious sons is more impactful, although the lack of attention given to Rhaenyra’s emotional response to his death at the end of the episode makes their entire relationship feel more like a plot mechanic and less like a character dynamic.
A similar issue arises with the relationship between Daemon and his wife Laena Velaryon, last seen flirting on the dance floor. Ten years of marriage, two daughters: Baela and Rhaena, and one trip across the Narrow Sea later, the pair find themselves guests of the Prince of Pentos, entertaining an offer to fritter away their days in the Free Cities. Laena–now played by Nanna Blondell, the third actress to portray her in as many episodes–and Daemon seem like they’re on the downslope of what has otherwise been a pleasant and loving relationship, both realizing that they have very different visions of what their futures should be. Daemon seems to have mellowed considerably as a husband and father, spending his nights with glasses of wine and old books–a far cry from the murderous, ambitious thrillseeker we met at the beginning of the show. Daemon knows that politics and scheming are his weakness and seems to be trying to force himself into a quieter life. His wife knows it’s a lie but he doesn’t seem to realize it yet.
Although they are able to have the open conversations that Rhaenyra and Harwin cannot, Daemon and Laena’s relationship feels more like a beat in Daemon’s overall character arc than a relationship the audience is meant to be invested in. Not that there’s much time for that anyway. Paralleling both Rhaenyra’s successful labor at the beginning of this episode and Queen Aemma’s fatal C-section in the premiere, Laena ends the episode in childbirth, with a baby that won’t come out and a husband who–unlike his kingly brother–isn’t willing to see his wife be cut open on the off chance the baby will live. She commits suicide via her dragon Vhagar, whose craggy face seems almost regretful as he burns her alive.
Speaking of being burned alive, the curse of Harrenhal strikes again as Lyonel Strong and his son Harwin die in a fire, leaving Viserys without a Hand and Rhaenyra with no reason to stay in King’s Landing. The fiery deaths of the Strongs are left a mystery in Fire & Blood, with the book postulating numerous potential culprits as well as causes both natural and supernatural. The show is far more explicit, revealing the killer to be none other than Larys Strong, Queen Alicent’s confidant and unofficial Master of Whisperers.
Larys is one of the more enigmatic characters in the book, a man whose actions and motivations seem random if not outright contradictory. The show maintains that mystery while still giving the character the specificity necessary to separate him from schemers like Littlefinger and Varys. Whereas Littlefinger’s treachery was a lifelong “fuck you” to a world he felt wronged him, and Varys’ heinous crimes were committed in the name of what he perceived as the greater good, Larys thus far seems a bit murkier than either of them. A simpler man would have killed his father and brother in order to inherit Harrenhal, but Larys claims to have done it in service to Alicent, clearing the way for her father Otto to reclaim his office as Hand. In the episode’s closing monologue, delivered by a captivating Matthew Needham to a horrified Olivia Cooke, Larys waxes philosophical about children existing as desperate attempts by their parents to achieve some kind of misguided immortality. It’s a terrific scene that reveals one of the first true villains of the series and cuts to the heart of both Alicent and Rhaenyra. Their children are their future, but at what cost?
Connections and Foreshadowing:
– I barely got to the new generation of characters – Rhaenyra’s aforementioned Strong sons and teen versions of Alicent’s sons Aegon and Aemond – but I wanted to draw attention to Alicent’s sole daughter, Helaena. Not much of a character in the book, Helaena has only one scene in the episode but proves to be an intriguing character. A spacey, quiet girl with an interest in insects, the show has reimagined her as one of the numerous Targaryens gifted with dragon dreams. At least one of her strange throwaway comments is direct foreshadowing of events to come.
– Speaking of events to come, Laena’s death and the fire at Harrenhal are the first two of four tragedies that earned the Year of the Red Spring its grim name in the book. The final two tragedies will likely happen next week.
– This week we revisit two locations that are new to House of the Dragon but familiar to viewers of the original series. The cursed castle of Harrenhal is where Arya spent much of season two of Game of Thrones disguised as Tywin Lannister’s cupbearer, while the Free City of Pentos is where Daenerys began her journey in the pilot.
– Although only a few have appeared so far with many more to come, the dragons feel very distinct from each other. Jacaerys’ Vermax has the sleek head and eyes of a Jurassic Park velociraptor, while Laena’s Vhagar, the only surviving dragon of Aegon’s conquest of Westeros, looks like a sunken ship crusted with barnacles, gnarled and misshapen with age.
– I’ve seen people criticize this show for not being as funny as its predecessor, but I have to disagree. While it’s true there are no characters as consistently humorous as Tyrion, Arya or Sam Tarly, there are some fun moments scattered through this episode, particularly a drunken Laenor Velaryon and Viserys’ exasperated reaction to Alicent’s frustrations.
Author rating: 6.5/10
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