“What are children but a weakness?”
And just like that… it’s ten years later.
This is a shame, as I’d grown rather attached to the actors playing the younger parts, who now must necessarily be recast; though the older characters often don’t seem to have aged at all. So, it’s out for Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra, replaced by Emma D’Arcy; while Queen Allicent, her former friend and now deadly rival, is incarnated by Olivia Cooke, replacing the perfectly decent Emily Carey. Theo Nate, meanwhile, has been replaced as husband-in-name-only Laenor Velaryon by John MacMillan, who, as of this episode at least, looks strangely about the same age.
While it’s a bit of a wrench to lose cast members we’d come to like, I do get the reasons. The show’s narrative has already skipped about two decades, and presumably this is going to continue. It might work for Alcock and Carey to age from children to teenagers to young women, but how convincing would they be as middle-aged, then elderly characters?
Replacing them with older actors does give more scope in that regard, but it also has the effect, halfway through the season, of feeling like an entirely new start. That’s added to by the jumps in the plot – we have to fill in quite a few details as to what’s been happening over the decade since the characters were last portrayed.
The ep, written by Sara Hess, is bookended by two similarly nasty depictions of giving birth in this world. We saw the nasty consequences of a medieval Caesarean section back in ep1; here, we’re introduced to the ‘new’ Rhaenyra in the throes of a comparatively uncomplicated labour. It still looks bloody nasty though; ‘bloody’ being the operative word as Rhaenyra finds herself summoned to the chambers of arch-nemesis Queen Allicent immediately after the birth. Emma D’Arcy establishes herself in style as the still-bleeding Rhaenyra struggles defiantly through the Red Keep, ineffectual husband Laenor not really doing much to help, trailing bloodstains in her wake. It’s genuinely unpleasant to watch.
And that’s a birth that went OK. For one that didn’t, later in the ep we saw the new, older Laena Targaryen (nee Velaryon) have labour complications so severe Pentos’s best medics couldn’t even save the child, much less the mother. It’s a shame not to have seen more of Nanna Blondell, who impresses as the older Laena, but she chooses to die more quickly by dragon self-immolation. Ouch.
Both serve to once again highlight the horrible treatment women go through in Westeros, a theme that’s never far from the main plot. Allicent, mindful of her father’s advice last episode, has become Rhaenyra’s nemesis purely as a result of the disputed succession – if Rhaenyra, a woman, ascends to the throne amidst fierce opposition, she may have no option but to eliminate her competition, her half-brother and Allicent’s son Aegon.
Thus it is that Allicent, well aware (like most of the court it seems) of the sham nature of Rhaenyra’s marriage, keeps needling about the parentage of Rhaenyra’s three children. Children that, very obviously, are not fathered by the effete Ser Laenor, but Kingsguard Captain Harwin Strong, son of King’s Hand Lyonel and brother of clubfooted schemer Larys (it’s getting easier to keep up with who’s related to who by this point). “Keep trying Ser Laenor,” Allicent smiles sweetly, “one day you may get one who looks like you.”
Unfortunately for her, the one person wilfully blind (as many people remark) to this is King Viserys. One of the few original cast members who does look noticeably older for ten years of narrative, Paddy Considine is now gamely tottering around with his Ridiculous Targaryen wig reduced to mere wisps of white strands. Everything in this ep – his deference to her at the Small Council, her impatient coddling of him with blankets – suggests that Allicent is now the real power behind the Iron Throne now, but on this one issue he’s immovable. He simply won’t believe the rumours about his beloved daughter, despite all the evidence to back them up.
It can’t last much longer though, what with the now embittered (though apparently no older) Ser Criston doing his mistress’ bidding in spreading poison about Rhaenyra’s kids. The latest one is to be called Joffrey, at the insistence of Laenor, after his murdered boyfriend of ten years previously.
This makes me realise how confusing the naming in this series can be. I mean, yes, in real life, many people do have the same names, particularly in royal dynasties. England, after all, has had eight King Henrys. But in a fictional drama, multiple characters with the same names can be tricky to keep up with. So, now, if anyone refers to Joffrey, are they talking about the murdered boyfriend or the newborn son? At least we can be fairly sure they’re not referring to the familiar Caligula-esque character in the parent show, as he’s two centuries away from being born.
Then there’s the similarity in so many other names. Apparently most Targaryen and Velaryon names must have the “ae” dipthong – Aegon, Aemond, Daemon, Rhaenyra, Laenor – and/or the “ys” final syllable – Viserys, Rhaenys,Corlys, Jaeharys. It can get confusing. The newly revealed arch-manipulator of the show, Larys, even has nearly the same name as his counterpart from the original, Varys. Though, as oleaginously portrayed by the excellent Matthew Needham, Larys is a far nastier piece of work than his near-namesake, chopping people’s tongues out and setting them to burn the rest of his family alive at Harrenhal.
This ep also gives us our first real look at how exactly the dragons are bonded with their riders from an early age, in a striking sequence at the dragon pit. I had wondered how the Velaryons had been able to ride them, as the implication in Game of Thrones was that they were somehow only connected to those of Targaryen blood; but no, it seems that, with the proper training, they can bond with anyone. This does rather contradict the vital plot point in GoT that Jon Snow could easily ride Daenerys’s dragon simply because he had Targaryen blood, but hey ho.
Unfortunately there aren’t many of them, which is why the Targaryens guard their eggs so jealously, and even then few of the eggs actually hatch. For all the title of the show, it seems that this isn’t the age of the dragons, but their twilight. Still, for those interested, it would be cool if the show eventually gets round to showing us how exactly they mate. Carefully, I imagine.
Not even all of Allicent’s children have a dragon, so few are there to go round, a cause for much teasing of young Aemond by his brother Aegon. Now grown into a rather effete teenager with a habit of masturbating out of the window, Aegon (ably played by David Tennant’s adopted son Ty) doesn’t seem like much of a threat to Rhaenyra in himself, and would probably make for a terrible king. But as his mother Allicent reminds him, it’s the very fact of his existence that threatens his half-sister, and could get him killed. Trouble’s a-brewing.
Everything in this ep feels like a reset, and it could easily have been the opener for another season. I guess this is a pattern we’ll have to get used to, as I gather George RR Martin’s prequel history spans a very long period of time. Having read up on it, I gather it’s based on another one of England’s frequent civil wars (there were more than just that one with Cromwell), this one the so-called Anarchy, a 12th century war of succession with two factions claiming the throne. Just as with Game of Thrones’ adaptation of the War of the Roses, this might give us a clue as to where the plot is going next. With Daemon widowed in Pentos, Rhaenyra on the run to Dragonstone, and Allicent consolidating her power over the ailing King in King’s Landing, I’d wager it’s nowhere good.