“Is it not better to have lived in peace than to have songs sung about you after you are dead?”
Oh dear. There’s going to be a wedding. Keen observers of previous (well, actually, future) Westerosi royal weddings will be well aware that such things tend not to go well. This one, however, sets a new precedent – it all goes pear-shaped before we even get to the actual ceremony, with a pre-wedding feast that goes from awkward, to supremely awkward, to horrifically violent, in one of the most bloodthirsty dances in the Seven Kingdoms. “I’m not much of a dancer,” confides Princess Rhaenyra to her intended, Ser Laenor Velaryon. “It’s just like combat,” he replies. He’s not wrong.
This ep, nicely written by Charmaine DeGraté, is full of barbed, darkly witty dialogue, in a style that for the first time captures the earthy humour of Game of Thrones. I’d been missing the erudite witticisms of the likes of Tyrion and Varys; this ep finally seems to introduce some characters who live up to them. Not least the wily Larys Strong, son of new Hand Lord Lyonel, who expertly pours poison into the ear of Queen Allicent, fanning the flames of last ep’s covered-up sexual scandal involving Rhaenyra.
Sexual scandals (and the required covering-up) are at the heart of this ep. Last time, I predicted that, however well-starred, the proposed political union between Rhaenyra and Laenor Velaryon would be no rom-com. This time, we find out why. Not only is Rhaenyra romantically involved with her painfully naïve Kingsguard protector Ser Criston, her intended isn’t attracted to her at all. Or to women in general, for that matter.
Ser Laenor isn’t the first Westerosi noble to be a closeted gay whose sexuality is pretty much an open secret; my first thought was of the ill-fated Renly Baratheon, and his equally ill-fated lover Ser Loras Tyrell. Of course, in the real medieval Europe that this world imitates, such things were far from rare either (think of Edward II of England).
What was excellent was the euphemistic dialogue used to discuss the matter, which is clearly well-known to everyone including Laenor’s parents. “I prefer roast duck to roast goose,” confides Rhaenyra delicately. “I cannot say why. It is just a matter of taste.” The metaphor of food for sexuality is stretched effectively over the scene, in what must surely have been a homage to (or ripoff of) the infamous deleted scene from Spartacus where Laurence Olivier obliquely confides his bisexuality to the hunky semi-naked Tony Curtis – “My tastes include both snails and oysters.”
In other sexual rumours, Queen Allicent, desperate to vindicate her disgraced father Ser Otto, goes after the truth about ‘that night’ with Rhaenyra (helpfully encouraged by Larys Strong’s skilfully-aimed gossip). Only problem – questioning Ser Criston as a likely witness, she finds herself uncovering an entirely different sexual scandal to the one Ser Otto reported on, as the hapless knight idiotically confesses to his own liaisons with the Princess. Honestly, Ser Criston, with his naively chivalric view of knighthood, is surely too innocent a character to have survived this long in the cutthroat environment of Westeros.
He’s actually so naïve as to propose running off and living in obscurity with Rhaenyra, which surely shows he doesn’t know her as well as he thinks. Her refusal also shows that her father’s interminable lectures about Royal Duty have made an impression. “I am the Throne,” she declares, grandly, seemingly oblivious to her lover’s crushed feelings.
And she may be the Throne sooner than she thinks, as King Viserys really doesn’t look well this week. All credit to Paddy Considine for rerunning the wearily cliched “he’s got tuberculosis” gambit of so much classic literature, represented by increasingly harsh coughing that culminates in blood spat into an immaculate white handkerchief. This cliché is normally used with women and children, so fair play to Considine for gamely reprising it here. Viserys is obviously not going to be around for much longer, an observation the shrewd Ser Otto makes to his daughter – and when he goes, the realm might tear itself to pieces, with half of it refusing to accept a female monarch.
All of this nicely sets up a wedding celebration of supreme awkwardness, and it doesn’t help that the frequently-banished Prince Daemon swaggers in unannounced, having recently murdered his wife. Matt Smith continues to own the screen in the part, having mastered a trademark cocky grin that Americans would presumably describe as “shit-eating”.
Daemon’s presumed inheritance of the Vale, seen here exactly as we remember it from GoT, is presumably going to play a major part in future eps. But in the here and now, the feast inevitably descends into the trademark Westerosi wedding carnage with the headstrong Ser Criston mistaking Laenor’s snide boyfriend’s attempt at confiding future sexual arrangements for actual blackmail. Cue the most violent beating of someone’s head I’ve ever seen outside of The Walking Dead (where head-pulping is a required activity several times an episode). I actually winced at the sight of what remained of the face of Ser Joffrey – interesting reprise of a much-hated character’s name, too.
The show is still more restrained than its unbelievably violent parent, both in terms of plotting and actual violence, but this ep felt the closest to it so far. It also felt the closest in terms of clever, pithy dialogue – interesting for a female writer to come up with the term “cuntstruck” to describe the lovelorn Ser Criston. I do still wonder why the characters seem unconcerned about the planet’s unusually long winters (which seemed to pass in a couple of weeks in the parent show). Perhaps one has only just finished, or perhaps whatever orbital event causes such lengthy seasons has yet to occur. Or perhaps it’s just going to be conveniently ignored as unimportant to the plot of House Targaryen tearing itself apart.
That’s just carping though. It remains to be seen whether House of the Dragon will equal its parent show – its pacing is more sedate so far, and it has yet to come up with characters as memorable as Tyrion or Varys. But by giving viewers a horrifically misfired wedding (what colour will this one be described as, I wonder?), it’s falling back on a tried and trusted formula that fans know and love. Calculated, perhaps, but this ep does it well enough that I found it the most enjoyable so far.