House of the Dragon: season 1, episode 10 – The Black Queen

“We do not choose our destiny… it chooses us.”


And so, House of the Dragon ends its first season much as it began – with multiple scenes of nobles gathered in dark rooms discussing strategy, punctuated by a graphic, horrific birth scene and the occasional bit of jaw dropping violence.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The show’s frequent council meeting scenes are sometimes stilted, but at their best serve to throw light on some by now well-developed characters and their conflicts. As expected, after last week’s King’s Landing-centric ep, the focus of the finale is squarely on events at Dragonstone, as rival Iron Throne claimant Rhaenyra receives word of her father’s death and the utterly unsuitable Aegon’s coronation.

Needless to say, this does not go down well, especially with the headstrong, short-tempered Daemon. He’s all for a first strike on the Greens right now, but luckily for him (and the show’s longevity), Rhaenyra has a cooler head.

I had wondered last time as to the meaning of the ep title, The Green Council. Well, with this ep and its title I wonder no more. It seems that the faction supporting the succession of Aegon are now known as ‘the Greens’, while as of now, Team Rhaenyra are ‘the Blacks’. It’s a handy shorthand I guess, but nothing in the dialogue indicates when this started or why each colour was assigned; Rhaenyra just starts referring to her opponents thusly with no explanation, while other meeting participants nod sagely instead of asking her what she’s talking about.

Oh well, at least we (the audience) know now. Less clear (to me anyway) are some of the other events. We saw last time that, while both Cargyll brothers agree on the unsuitability of Aegon for Kingship, one has stronger feelings than the other. That’s followed up on here as said brother turns up at Dragonstone bearing what appears to be the crown, swearing fealty to the ‘Black Queen’. Trouble is, as the Cargylls are identical twins, with near-identical names (Erryk and Arryk), played by actual identical twin actors (Luke and Elliot Tittensor), I’m not sure which one we’ve got here.

Whichever Cargyll it is, it serves to illustrate a split in the Kingsguard (Queensguard?) too. We’d seen a fair few of them decamp to Dragonstone with Daemon earlier on in the season. Now, Matt Smith gets another chance to be at his most chilling, as he presents them with an ultimatum – loyalty to Rhaenyra (and of course him) or a quick death. The point was reinforced by the looming presence of Daemon’s dragon, but really, it didn’t need to be – Smith’s glowering presence was more than menace enough. He’s consistently been the best thing about this show (Paddy Considine’s last ep aside), and will presumably continue to be in the already-confirmed second season.

Smith also got a chance to shine in repeat showing of a confrontation with Otto Hightower on the narrow bridge to the castle. It was a nice bit of bookending for the season. Both times, a potential bloodbath is averted by the arrival of Rhaenyra on her dragon; but this time, she’s not protecting Otto but giving him notice of her opposition to him.

Even by this show’s standards, this is a very sweary meeting, with Daemon referring to Aegon as, “your drunken usurper cunt of a King”, while Rhaenyra calls Otto a “fucking traitor”. Reacting to the delivery of Alicent’s message, Daemon incredulously remarks, “what the fuck is this?” before promising that Alicent’s answer would be “stuffed in her father’s mouth along with his withered cock”. I think this is what is often referred to as a “frank exchange of views”.

In truth, Daemon’s probably right not to trust Otto’s promises of charitable treatment if the Blacks bend the knee. We saw last time how fervently he insisted that any rival claimant is a danger merely by existing, and that Team Rhaenyra needed to be put out of the way. Yes, Alicent objected, and yes, she’s now the “Dowager Queen”. But the Council meeting last ep left little doubt as to who was really in charge. My guess is that Alicent’s promises of mercy aren’t worth the paper they’re (vey artistically) written on.

Still, Rhaenyra shows admirable restraint in not wanting to be the one who strikes first, thus being remembered as the instigator of full-on civil war. So rather than the expected first Big Battle of that war, what we get in this season finale is yet more squabbling about which Lords will support which faction. I’m glad to see that Lord Corlys didn’t actually die offscreen, as that would have been a waste of Steve Toussaint’s excellent performance; now, with him as an ally, Team Rhaenyra control the seas, a massive advantage. But can they take on the might of the whole of the Seven Kingdoms and all of their armed forces?

Well, they do have one other massive advantage – dragons. Oh sure, the Greens have some too, but only four ranged against the Blacks’ thirteen. We know from Game of Thrones that dragons are this world’s Ultimate Weapon; and as Rhaenyra remarks of Old Valyria, “when dragons went to war, the whole world burned”. That’s what really distinguishes these shows from the real medieval histories that inspire them – this lot have the ability to, in essence, unleash full-scale Armageddon on a nuclear scale. It’s little wonder Rhaenyra isn’t reaching for them except as a last resort. Unlike Daemon, who wants to use them right away, risking the kind of destruction that can be imagined after seeing the result of what just one of them managed to do to King’s Landing in a couple of centuries’ time.

While the season might not have ended on a Big Battle, it does show us the beasties in action against each other for the first time proper. We know already how cruel and vindictive Aemond can be. So your heart sinks when you realise he’s reached the Baratheon stronghold of Storm’s end before the well-meaning and sweet-natured Lucerys.

Still, I don’t think even Aemond was looking for the result of two dragons engaging in conflict for the first time in the story. It’s a thrilling action sequence, ably directed by Greg Yaitanes, as the dragons chase each other through the raging storm, with the sheer size of Aemond’s secondhand dragon Vhagar breathtakingly demonstrated in a shot of it dwarfing Luke’s far younger dragon Arrax.

The outcome’s never really in doubt. Arrax is a tactical nuke compared to Vhagar’s ICBM. I did wonder how they would deploy the usual fire in that torrential rain, but as it turned out, Vhagar doesn’t need to. Incensed by a feeble (uncommanded) attack from Arrax, he simply bites the smaller dragon in half, sending its young rider to a presumed inevitable doom. This plainly is not the result Aemond wanted; Ewan Mitchell’s face is a picture at the sight, and the picture says, “oh shit”. He’s claimed first blood, and in effect started the war. His mother is not going to be happy.

Thus, the season ends with the Greens having (unintentionally) made the pre-emptive strike in the war (yes, the use of terms associated with nuclear war is entirely appropriate). It’s been an assured first season, dodging the disadvantages of the other prequels littering the TV landscape by dint of sharing no characters viewers know will survive.

It’s also trod a fine line around the (often justified) criticisms of its parent show’s gratuitous use of nudity, sex and violence – mostly on the right side. However, it’s developed a few tropes of its own – graphically depicted painful and often fatal births, a fatal head trauma about once an ep, bits where it’s too dark to see what’s going on, and endless scenes of men in meetings telling each other things they must logically already know for the audience’s benefit.

To be fair, it has that last in common with almost every historical drama; audiences can’t be expected to be historical experts, particularly when the history is fictional. I might wish the show had chosen to distinguish itself from its parent by at least using a different theme tune – but fans love it, so what do I know?

And at this stage I think I can be certain that it won’t garner the same criticism about the plot arc of a beloved hero figure descending into villainy and mania. Because in House of the Dragon, there are no hero figures. No Daenerys, no Robb Stark, no Jon Snow, no Sam Tarly. Everyone here has a thoroughly grey sense of morality, and the few idealists there were have either been killed or had their passions crushed by the cruel reality of the world they live in. Some might think that disadvantage, leaving the audience no-one to root for; but it also means they won’t throw their toys out of the pram if (when) these characters turn out to be monsters. Because, let’s face it, most of them already are – and fans are still watching. Bring on another season of these horrible, horrible people…

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