“Exhausting, wasn’t it, hiding behind the cloak of your own righteousness? But now they see you as you are!”
It seems weddings aren’t the only royal occasions prone to disruption and drama in Westeros. As we see in this ep, funerals can be equally as difficult, as Lady Laena’s memorial on the Velaryon stronghold of Driftmark further draws the lines of alliances between factions that will (presumably) soon be openly at war.
It’s a strong ep in an increasingly gripping series, written by Kevin Lau and directed once again by the redoubtable Miguel Sapochnik. Sapochnik, one of the best directors of the original Game of Thrones, also served as co-showrunner on this first season of House of the Dragon, though reportedly he’s stepping down after this. I hope this doesn’t preclude further directorial outings, he’s one of the best they’ve got.
Certainly this ep was brimming over with memorable scenes, both visually and dramatically. Young Aemond’s first ride on a dragon was a particular highlight. Previously, dragon-riding has been depicted as an exhilarating, heroic process; here we got to see what it might really be like to try it, untaught, for the first time.
In a word, terrifying. Yes, Aemond does eventually gain some sort of control over Laena’s abandoned dragon, Vhagar. But before that, Sapochnik gives us a rollercoaster ride of the kind of peril it would involve – the boy screaming, barely hanging on to the saddle as the beast rises thousands of metres up, then plunges groundwards almost vertically. The unexpected hazard of flying at high speed through a flock of seagulls – no problem for a giant dragon, but potentially fatal for a little boy clinging desperately to its back. It’s a visceral thrillride of a sequence.
And the drama more than keeps up with it. All the bickering players in the drama are present, shooting each other suspicious, poisonous glances. Daemon, as disrespectful as ever, laughing out loud at his wife’s funeral. Ser Otto, restored as Hand of the King, keenly and wordlessly observing, calculating the maximum advantage for his daughter and therefore himself. Said daughter, Alicent, looking daggers at her sons’ rival for the Iron Throne, Rhaenyra. Even their children are gravitating to their factions, with Rhaenyra’s older son now painfully aware of his illegitimate status. Only the increasingly frail King Viserys seems unaware of how near his family are to outright civil war.
Ah, Viserys. I’d say his utter blindness to the events engulfing his family are implausible, if not for plenty of historical evidence of kings wilfully ignoring just that – the Anarchy, the 12th century civil war this is all based on, started exactly that way. Viserys is clinging on despite what appeared to be a pretty serious case of TB ten years previously, but judging by his state at the end of this ep, he can’t be longer for the world. And I’m guessing that his death will be the trigger for all out war.
That comes pretty close in this ep, with a children’s fight that steps far outside the skinned knee or black eye territory we might be used to from school. These children are from parents who hate each other; they have rocks and knives, and they’re prepared – eager, even – to kill. Well done again to Sapochnik, for making a fight between five pre-teens as brutal as anything we’ve seen in this or the parent show, resulting in a broken nose and a slashed out eyeball, blood spurting everywhere in the firelight.
Obviously the kids aren’t as well-versed in the arts of politics as their parents, and the scene of Viserys trying to get to the bottom of what caused the fight is lengthy but almost unbearably tense as they blurt out the truths their mothers have been keeping hidden. It’s also revealing, as the long-hidden animosities between each faction burst to the surface in a dagger-wielding Queen-vs-Princess confrontation. Paddy Considine is compelling again as the King calls for an end to the “infighting”, yet again demonstrating his inability to see the truth even when it’s right there under his nose. This isn’t “infighting” – this is the genesis of a civil war.
The kids’ fight – and its aftermath – may be the dramatic peak of this ep, but there’s plenty of intrigue elsewhere. Matt Smith is enjoyably chewing the scenery again as Daemon finally consummates his relationship with his now-eager niece (at least I assume that’s what’s happening, it’s pretty dark in that scene). Despite his usual lack of “limits”, this is an older, more thoughtful Daemon, more skilled in manipulation than the impetuous character we first met.
Rhaneyra too has matured into a more skilled schemer, but become a less sympathetic character as a result. Her earlier rebellions against that all-important Royal Duty seemed grounded in a sense of fairness and justice; here, she’s prepared to marry her uncle, have her husband killed, and betray her Queen. Not out of any sense of justice, but purely out of pragmatic self-advancement. And of course self-preservation – as we see this ep, arch-rival Queen Alicent is more than capable of killing her personally if the opportunity arises.
This is reminiscent of the development of Daenerys in Game of Thrones. There, though, it felt like her progression from sympathetic liberator of the oppressed to genocidal maniac happened far too quickly, with too little groundwork laid for the character to develop. Rhaenyra too is progressing to a much darker shade of morality; but here it seems justified and well-developed. Let’s hope it gets a better reaction from the fans.
By the end of this ep, the lines between the factions are drawn more clearly than before, with alliances both forged and broken. Previously, it had looked like House Velaryon woud have been supportive of Rhaenyra’s cause; now, with their only remaining child (apparently) murdered, and his wife immediately marrying her uncle, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who was responsible. I’d guess the Velaryons will be on Team Alicent from now on.
Inevitably Ser Otto will be on his daughter Alicent’s side too. Spending most of this ep watchful and calculating, Rhys Ifans barely got any dialogue; but when he did, as he praised his daughter’s passionate outburst and clear capacity for violence, it made an impact. He’ll be a formidable ally.
Along with Larys Strong, now Lord of Harrenhal, whose apparent devotion to his Queen seems more than a little suspect. What’s in it for him? Yes, he’s killed his entire family for her, but that’s also elevated him to a Lordship that would have gone to his elder brother. I reckon he’ll be on Team Alicent, but she’d be a fool to trust him.
So who does Rhaenyra have? Well, as of this episode, Daemon. He may be only one man, but he’s also ‘King of the Narrow Sea’, with plenty of soldiers and dragons of his own. As allies go, politically and strategically, he’s a good one to have. But Rhaenyra too should watch her back there.
And who will the seemingly-dead-but-not Laenor ally himself with? He’s no fool, he must know it was his wife that set him up to be killed. Not least because his boyfriend Ser Qarl must have told him Daemon arranged it. So you’d think he’d be against Rhaenyra. Yet if he’s on Team Alicent, why fake his own death? Maybe he just wants to run off and have a quiet life with his partner, but something tells me we haven’t seen the last of him.
The show is definitely ramping up the drama and the intrigue as the season progresses – from a relatively slow start. We’re fully involved with these characters now, to the extent that even the smallest narrow-eyed glance in the wrong direction can send us pondering who will betray who next. That’s good – it’s exactly what I liked about the original Game of Thrones. There’s three more eps to go, but here’s my prediction – this season will end with the death of Viserys, and open civil war declared. Let’s see if I’m right…