House of the Dragon: season 1, episode 3 – Second of His Name

“You’re not only Rhaenyra’s father, you’re the King. She’ll do as you command.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

After the relatively talky first two episodes, this time House of the Dragon delivers on the action, with several storming battle scenes as the war with the piratical, mysterious Crabfeeder continues. Dragonfire rains down on his beleaguered forces, driving them to scurry, Bin Laden-like, into the cover of some handy caves. Director Greg Yaitanes continues a tradition established in Game of Thrones by directors like Neil Marshall, directing the action with a sure hand that provides compelling vistas, while also plunging the viewer nearly first hand into the action.

It’s three years on from the last ep, which is an interesting deviation from the pretty much continuous narrative of the parent show. Apparently Martin’s source material, the history of the Targaryens entitled Fire & Blood, spans at least two centuries, so this show may have the same problem as the recent adaptation of Asimov’s Foundation – how do you maintain viewer interest in a story when the characters keep dying and being replaced by newer generations?

For the time being at least, it seems focused on the ensemble we met in ep 1, but the advancing years will certainly mean a recasting, in a few eps, of the show’s younger characters. That’s a shame, as Milly Alcock’s Princess Rhaenyra continues to be excellent. While Daemon and Corlys continue to wage their unprofitable war, the focus of the political plotting in King’s Landing this ep is squarely on Rhaenyra, and her much-resented royal duties – in this case, to find a suitable husband.

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Thankfully, this ep dials down the lectures on royal duty that took up so much of the previous one, showing rather than telling us of Rhaenyra’s obligations and her efforts to avoid them. We get our first proper look at some Lannisters, as the oily Lord Jason makes his pitch to be Rhaenyra’s spouse. Jason, portrayed by Jefferson Hall, is a transparent, unskilled political manipulator compared to his descendant Lord Tywin, but given the history of the Lannisters he presumably gains in skill later – or is supplanted by someone better at it. He does have a twin brother, Ser Tyland (also played by Hall) on the Small Council, but he seems even more ineffectual than Jason. Time will tell, I suppose.

This effective auction of Rhaenyra’s hand takes place against the backdrop of a royal hunt for the elusive ‘white hart’, an albino stag whose slaughter is believed to bring great luck. In the event, the stag brought down by the King (with so much help that effectively all he does is deliver the coup de grace) is a perfectly normal one; while Rhaenyra herself encounters the white one, and saves its life by cautioning Ser Criston against killing it.

Given that the stag is the banner animal of House Baratheon, who will bring down the whole Targaryen dynasty in a couple of centuries’ time, it’s hard not to see all this is a deliberate bit of foreshadowing. Whatever, the hunt shows us many new players in the political machinations of Westeros, while the increasingly despairing Viserys turns to drink – a lot of drink – in the face of it all. It’s increasingly seeming that Viserys is ill-suited to being King, something Daemon mentioned last ep.

And suitability for the throne is much on the minds of the characters in this ep, as Viserys now has a son, courtesy of young wife Alicent. The feting of young Aegon, second of his name, is the pretext for the party/hunt/husband audition that forms the backdrop of this part of the ep. Aegon being a boy, everyone believes that he will supplant Rhaenyra is designated successor to the throne. Including Rhaenyra herself, whose latest rebellious act is to scarper from the regal tents to spend a night in the forest with dishy Ser Criston.

Their scenes together by the campfire at night are quiet, sensitive bits of drama in an otherwise bombastic episode. Each learns more about the background of the other, and it’s beginning to look like the beginning of a burgeoning romance. Knowing Westeros, that won’t end well. We do, at least, see more of Rhaenyra’s tough side, as she takes on, and kills, a fearsome wild boar while Ser Criston lies dazed by the fire. After her dragon standoff last time, it’s clear that, girl or not, Rhaenyra is a force to be reckoned with.

If you wanted real action (and of course violent death) though, the ep’s other main plot is the ongoing, apparently none too successful, struggle of Daemon and Corlys’ forces against the elusive Crabfeeder. At last we get to see the dragons being used in anger, as Daemon rains fire on the pirate’s beachbound forces. But their hiding caves seem impregnable, and the alliance’s forces are getting nowhere, dragons or not. In the middle of the action of the first battle, the script gives us a brilliant moment of black comedy as a captured sailor cries out to Daemon to save him – only to be indelicately squished by the careless foot of his dragon.

The ep actually serves us up two major battle scenes, as if to make up for the comparative lack of action in the previous two instalments. Once again, it’s Matt Smith who dominates the action as the vain, glory-seeking Daemon. Whether hurling fire at the pirates, or furiously beating a messenger for bringing news of Viserys’ impending reinforcements, Smith makes for a charismatic, hammy performance at all times, clearly relishing his villainous role.

Vainglorious though he may be, Daemon’s no coward, and the ep’s second major battle is prefixed by his apparent suicide mission as he travels with a flag of truce to Crabfeeder central. You actually find yourself rooting for him, as he single-handedly slaughters pirates left, right and centre, escaping apparent doom to chase the Crabfeeder into the caves and return dragging his bisected corpse.

I must say, the show had built the Crabfeeder into such a large presence that this came across as a bit of a disappointment – that he should be defeated so early, and that we learned little about him. Not even what he looked like under that mask; in fact, despite a quirky, mannered performance from Daniel Scott-Smith, he never even got one line to speak.

Still, I never thought he would be the main antagonist – this show is clearly about the Targaryens’ internal struggles, and other baddies are merely catalysts for that. With Daemon having, improbably, defeated the Crabfeeder almost single-handedly before Viserys’ reinforcements could arrive, his political capital is surely on the up. He’s already got a cadre of men from the City Watch, and the alliance with House Valyreon – how many more will flock to his cause now? It looks like Viserys may have a deal more to worry about in forthcoming episodes.

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