“It is ill luck to look upon the face of death.”
There’s a lot going on in this episode of House of the Dragon – and as usual, it’s all to do with succession. The redoubtable Lord Corlys Velaryon has, it seems, been injured and afflicted with an infection that seems sure to kill him. With House Velaryon being the second most important House in the Seven Kingdoms (after the Targaryens), and with the logical heir, Ser Laenor (apparently) dead, there’s no clear inheritor. Let the squabbles begin.
As usual, this comes with oodles of exposition, principally to remind us who the potential claimants are, and why they have a chance. It’s difficult to deliver dialogue like this naturally, and I lost count of the amount of times the words “succession”, “family” and “blood” were mentioned. At least writer Eileen Shim avoided anyone beginning an expository statement with “as you know…”
That’s the framework to the ep, and to be sure, it’s an important one. In essence, the fight to inherit Driftmark serves as a rehearsal for the certain war that will begin over succession to the Iron Throne itself. But about halfway through, the ep becomes about something else – the final hurrah of the now horrifically frail King Viserys Targaryen, First of His Name. And with British actor Paddy Considine giving us his all in what’s presumably his swansong in the part, it was a terrifically powerful and affecting last hurrah too.
Viserys has throughout appeared at best a rather ineffectual King, but trying his best to be a decent man. He’s no firebrand, but he’s aware of the responsibilities of being a King – perhaps too aware, as his interminable lectures on Royal Duty have shown. It’s not been a showy part up till now, which made me wonder why a great actor like Paddy Considine was interested in taking it (“The money” did spring to my cynical mind).
Considine, who came to prominence working with director Shane Meadows in the 2000s, is usually quite picky about his roles. His usual choices are far more grounded in the real world, in gritty social realism based in the contemporary UK. He has expanded his repertoire to comedy (Hot Fuzz) and horror (The Girl With All the Gifts), but this is his first out-and-out fantasy role. As an actor, his performances are all about subtlety, until they cohere into something incredible you hadn’t even seen coming – for a good example of this, watch him in Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, a remarkable film that Considine co-wrote.
This is the episode that shows us what Considine’s performance has been building to throughout. He’s been content to let Matt Smith hog the limelight till now, but this is Viserys’ episode through and through. Reduced to a frail husk of a man by his wasting illnesses, sidelined and drugged by his ambitious wife and scheming Hand who rule in his stead, he could easily have come across as simply pathetic – as indeed he does when we first see him barely aware in bed.
But Shim’s script, and Considine’s incredible performance, lift him above that. The moment of his unexpected appearance during the petitions for Driftmark’s succession was a moment of punch-the-air triumph for Team Rhaenyra; but more, it leads into an affecting sequence of utter pathos as the quivering, elderly King defiantly makes his painful way across the Hall to the Iron Throne. Kudos to director Geeta Vasant Patel for showing us every moment of this, and of course to Considine for making it not only believable but heartbreaking. The moment he drops his crown and his brother Daemon tenderly picks it up and replaces it on his head made me well up.
But back on the Throne he shows himself as a man not to be trifled with – much to the relief of Rhaenyra, and the dismay of Alicent. In an ep light on the trademark violence, we actually get a little of it played as black comedy, when Daemon casually hacks the top of Vaemond Velaryon’s head off, sparing the King the trouble of having his tongue torn out. It’s a brutal bit of gore up there with the best of The Walking Dead’s head traumas, but oddly amusing – due to Daemon’s utter nonchalance about it, another example of Matt Smith’s own superb performance.
The ep’s other acting showcase comes as the family meet for a predictably awkward supper – and once again, Viserys unexpectedly shows up to try to heal the rifts – a task as impossible as Cnut holding back the tide. Once again though, Paddy Considine invests so much dignity and pathos into the performance that he dominates the scene effortlessly. The ravaged visage revealed when he deliberately removes his face mask is one of real horror, but it’s a tribute to the acting that we don’t feel horror. We feel pity and sadness, at a man who’s still trying to do his best surrounded by the gaggle of schemers and monsters who’ll soon be fighting over his legacy.
I hadn’t realised that this was where Viserys was going as a character, which is exactly the kind of thing Considine pulled off in Dead Man’s Shoes. The conception, of a frail, disease-ravaged king hiding behind a mask but still a decent man must obviously be another George RR Martin steal from real history – in this case, Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the crusader monarch known as ‘The Leper King’. Check out Ridley Scott’s sadly underrated movie Kingdom of Heaven for a similarly brilliant performance by Edward Norton as that masked monarch.
Those two scenes are the highlights of the ep. With the screen so dominated by Considine, it’s hard for the other actors to get a look in, but once Viserys has to retire from the supper, we get a decent look at the new faces of the children who’ll soon be squabbling for the Iron Throne. With a six year time jump, every one has necessarily been recast; Rhaenyra’s two elder sons seem nice enough (and more than aware of their illegitimate parentage despite it being the Great Unmentionable).
But the next generation of real Targaryens are a nasty bunch, as we find out early on when a sobbing maid tells of Prince Aegon’s sexual assault on her, a story his mother receives with such weariness that it’s plainly a common occurrence. Tom Glynn-Carney, as the new Aegon, is nasty but still rather ineffectual; if it’s another King Joffrey you’re looking for, look to his younger brother Aemond, now played with real malice (and an eyepatch) by Ewan Mitchell. I think he’ll be one to really watch out for in the coming power struggle.
This show has been going from strength to strength after a rather slow start, and this ep is just the latest to seem like the best so far. True, I do think it’ll be doing Steve Toussaint a bit of a disservice if Lord Corlys turns out to die offscreen – he was another great screen presence. But towering over everything here, deservedly, is Paddy Considine in a performance so cleverly built up to I never saw it coming. Well done that man.