“It is our fate, I think, to always crave what is given to another.”
The King is dead, long live the…. ?
The death of a ruler without a clear succession is one of the most dramatic events a nation can face, and one of the most treacherous. The land is left without a ruler, while squabbling factions gather their forces to cement their claims. There is a name for a time like this, a name which sounds more solemn than the frantic consolidation of support that inevitably fills it. It is an interregnum.
No time jump this week, as House of the Dragon follows literally straight on from Viserys’ gasped last breath at the end of the previous ep. Given the state of the man, this wasn’t entirely unexpected – the only question was when it would occur. So it came as no surprise to find out that Ser Otto Hightower, Hand to the dead King, has been planning for this moment for months, with the connivance of most of the Small Council.
This ep presents the events solely from the perspective of those in King’s Landing – Rhaenyra and Daemon, the chief challengers to Ser Otto’s plans, are noticeably absent throughout. You have to pity the poor nobles who find themselves in the unfortunate position of being present at the time; Otto’s response is to basically lock them in the Red Keep until they display loyalty to Prince Aegon’s claim.
Dissent comes with harsh consequences – as Bill Paterson’s Lord Beesbury, finally discovering a spine, finds out when Ser Criston kills him in the middle of a Council meeting with one of the show’s now obligatory weekly head smashings. Merely faking loyalty doesn’t work either, as one hapless Lord discovers when his attempt to flee the city ends up with him hanging from a noose. Otto’s plans are going well, – Rhys Ifans even allowing his character a faint smile here and there – but there’s one problem. The new King he wants to install is nowhere to be found.
Despite all that, this is a fairly quiet ep, with many characters reflecting on the state of the monarchy and finding it wanting. Sara Hess’ script actually reminded me of nothing so much as Armando Ianucci’s blackly comic The Death of Stalin, which portrays a similar period of rudderless chaos in the wake of the famed Soviet leader’s unexpected demise.
Dispatched by Otto to root out the wayward Prince, Ser Erryk and Ser Arryk Cargyll (played by actual twins Luke and Elliot Tittensor) are full of misgivings when they find out what he’s actually been up to. A Prince who uses his own illegitimate children in brutal fights to the death is clearly not an ideal King, but what can you do? Sounds like there have been some pretty bad kings in Westeros before this, and as we know, there’s plenty more to come.
The biggest surprise this ep is Alicent’s obliviousness to – and objections to – the plans of her father. Previously, it had seemed that there was no love lost between Alicent and Rhaenyra, so it’s unexpected to see her baulking at having her rival killed to secure Aegon’s claim. Pragmatically of course, Otto is right – any living rival will polarise the Kingdom and lead inevitably to civil war. You can almost believe his claims to be acting in the best interests of the realm to prevent this; the fact that he personally will gain a position of tremendous power is of course neither here nor there.
It’s not that Alicent wants to allow her rival to claim the Iron Throne – her misinterpretation of the delirious King’s last mutterings have convinced her that Viserys finally shared her wish to have Aegon succeed him. It’s not like anyone else was there to explain what the King was really talking about, and let’s face it, accusing the Queen of lying isn’t going to go down well in the locked-down Red Keep.
No, Alicent is still, unfathomably, naïve enough to believe Aegon can be made King while allowing his bitter rival to live. This suggests she hasn’t been paying attention to the previous eight episodes; thus, as she sends out her own party to track down the Prince, the first half of the ep becomes a race for whether she or her father will get to him first.
Accompanying Ser Criston on this mission is the seething-with-jealousy Prince Aemond, who really, really wants to be King himself – while Aegon clearly doesn’t. With so much going on, I haven’t mentioned previously how good I think the new actors in these parts are; Ewan Micthell as Aemond, in particular, seems to be channelling Matt Smith’s scenery-chewing villainy in his performance, which is no bad thing. And of course an eyepatch always helps a villain’s image. I’ve said it before – Aegon is a hopeless dilettante, and it’s Aemond that the opposition really need to be worried about.
I’ve read comments elsewhere that, without the Unstoppable Supernatural Menace of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon is about little more than politics. To which I say – good. I’m not generally a fan of high fantasy, and I liked that, for the most part, GoT downplayed its fantasy elements. They were its least original – and least interesting – parts.
But even I like a bit of dragon action, and Westeros’ weapons of mass destruction were very much present this ep, putting a real crimp on Otto’s planned coronation of the no-longer-reluctant Aegon. It’s a heart-in-mouth moment when the spurned Rhaenys, having killed who knows how many innocent bystanders with her explosive dragon antics, just stares at the cowering King and his entourage. You really wonder whether she’ll just incinerate the lot of them on the spot.
In truth, given what we know of her character and her loyalties, it’s actually a little implausible that she doesn’t. Charitably, perhaps she hasn’t yet decided where her loyalties lie; more realistically, the show would hardly be able to continue past its first season if that happened.
Still, with her disruption of the meticulously planned coronation, it looks like the civil war is well and truly on. In the glory years of Game of Thrones (think seasons 1-5), episode 9 was always the Big Spectacular One, with huge battles that the cast then spent the season finale reflecting on in the after math. This was a much quieter episode 9 (apart from Rhaenys’ dragon destruction), so it leads me to wonder whether next week’s season final will be this show’s display of spectacle. Either way, it looks like the political manoeuvring is over, and the war is about to begin.