House of the Dragon: season 1, episode 2 – The Rogue Prince

“We are the realm’s second sons, Daemon. Our worth is not given. It must be made.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

After the season opener’s rather lengthy scene-setting and exposition, the showrunners of House of the Dragon hit the ground running in the second ep with the beginning of an actual plot. So keen are they to get the plot up and running that we get plunged into it without any explanation, as the opening scene pans across a beach full of carnage, with voracious crabs feasting on the bodies of the dead (and the not-so-dead).

The ep takes a while to get round to actually explaining this, though, as we’re treated yet again to the lengthy deliberations of the Small Council. Shorn of Game of Thrones’ exploitative method of ‘sexposition’ – being told details while the characters engage in rumpy-pumpy – it looks like this will be the rather more cumbersome means the show uses to impart information to its audience. Fair enough, it’s more respectable, but it does run the risk of being rather dull. Particularly at this early stage where we’re not sure who some of these people are.

It does at least give us more information about the imposing Lord Corlys Velaryon, who featured prominently in the opener without much information as to who he was or what he did. Lord Corlys, it seems, is the King’s Master of Ships – aha, so that’s how he ties in to the shipwrecks at the beginning – and he’s not happy. For all sorts of reasons, which put him front and centre of this ep.

Steve Toussaint is a commanding presence as Lord Corlys, dominating every scene he’s in. He’s also, conspicuously, the only non-white person visible in, it seems, the whole of King’s Landing. Apparently there has been something of a Twitter storm about this from the sort of fans who say, “I’m not racist, but…”

And yet, why not? As ever, Westeros is analogous to medieval Europe, and while black people may not have been numerous in medieval Europe, they weren’t entirely absent either. The character’s ethnicity goes some way to addressing the criticisms of racism in the original Game of Thrones, where the only non-whites seen were on Essos and usually portrayed as savages needing a white saviour figure to free them.

The issue of his race may or may not be addressed as the show progresses, but at this point it’s entirely irrelevant. What is relevant is that this ep establishes him as a major dissenting voice against the sometimes cautious King Viserys. The shipwrecks, it seems, are the work of pirates sponsored by shadowy figures from abroad, led by an enigmatic figure known only as ‘the Crabfeeder’.

Masked, and with an apparently bad skin condition (grayscale?), he’s a weird villain, but it looks like the main point of him is to further the dissent against Viserys. Lord Corlys is all for sending ships to hunt him down, but Viserys’ considered decision is to wait. You can see why this might upset Corlys – it’s hard to be Master of Ships if you’ve got none left.

He’s also upset over the issue of Viserys’ remarriage. The ep goes into lengthy, often tedious discussion about the necessity of a King in his position to remarry, along with a great deal of explanation about Royal Duty in the Seven Kingdoms, which Rhaenyra is keen to rebel against. You can see, from her actions in this ep, that she’s very much being shaped as this show’s equivalent to the headstrong, rebellious Daenerys, who’ll be her descendant in a couple of centuries’ time. A lot of the fans having disliked Daenerys’ ultimate plot trajectory, I suspect she won’t, however, turn into a genocidal maniac.

Corlys wants to cement his power by having the King marry his daughter. Who’s twelve years old. Again, this was common in the royal houses of medieval Europe, but you sense a certain discomfort in the show addressing the issue of child brides. It is a tricky subject to portray sensitively, but I think the show just about managed it with Paddy Considine’s obvious discomfort at the idea, and little Lady Laena’s candid admissions about her parents’ advice. I’m not sure a real medieval monarch would have been so discomfited by the idea, but Westeros is a fictional place in a show for a more sensitive 21st century audience.

In any case, Viserys (after taking interminable advice) actually ends up marrying Lady Alicent Hightower. The script spends a while setting this up with some sweet scenes as she has informal chats with him about his life and hobbies, but it’s unclear how calculated that is. Certainly Ser Otto, her father and Hand to the King, doesn’t look entirely unpleased at the turn of events, Rhys Ifans cracking a rare half-smile in his usually dour performance.

Viserys may seem to be (and may actually be) over-cautious in making important decisions about the realm, but there’s a reason for that. Having banished his power-hungry brother Daemon last ep, it seems Daemon has now seized the ancestral Targaryen home of Dragonstone.

It seems likely that, as we go on, Daemon will be the show’s main antagonist. Certainly the ep’s title, The Rogue Prince, is an apt monicker for him, deriving from a separate novella George RR Martin wrote centring on the character. Once again, Matt Smith steals every scene he’s in as Daemon, and it’s notable that his shadow hangs over the whole episode despite him barely appearing in it.

Of course you couldn’t have a show about the Targaryens without dragons, and the ep’s final confrontation at Dragonstone gives us two. Plainly Ser Otto overestimates his persuasive powers in hoping to talk Daemon out of occupying the ancestral seat and marrying his courtesan, as the looming threat of Daemon’s dragon shows. But then, Daemon doesn’t reckon on his niece showing up with a dragon of her own.

We don’t actually see the dragons being used as weapons, but after the devastation they were seen to wreak in the parent show, their threat is very clear. It’s enough for the self-assured Rhaenyra to face down her rebellious uncle, in yet another demonstration of her struggling against the constraints of royal duty and obligation. It’s just a shame that the script had to hammer this home with another interminable lecture from her father on the subject. We get it, guys.

As previously mentioned, this show lacks the Unstoppable Supernatural Menace of Game of Thrones, and so must stand or fall on the political machinations of the characters. There’s the beginnings of that here, as the betrayed Lord Corlys secretly allies Prince Daemon. But so far, it’s still slow-moving stuff. That’s fair enough as it’s only the second ep, but the show’s going to have to put a bit more action in in the near future.

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