The books that make up A Song of Ice and Fire are famously long-winded. The fourth, A Feast for Crows, went on so long and created so many complexities for George R.R. Martin that its character list was sliced in half, with some appearing in those chapters and the rest in the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons. Fire & Blood, the basis for House of the Dragon, is, by contrast, a glorified appendix, hundreds of years of backstory told at breakneck speed: The events of the second episode of the series only take two pages to play out.
So it’s no surprise that so many of the series’s established “problems” wrap up rapid fire. King Viserys needed a new wife and bam, within a few conversations he proposed to Alicent Hightower. The difficulty in choosing between appointing Rhaenyra or Daemon as heir? Solved after one (extremely) offensive dead-baby joke. And in this episode, the terror of Drahar the Crabfeeder, a Phantom of the Opera figure at sea, is rectified, after months of stagnation, with one clever plan. Resolutions that might take seasons to play out in Game of Thrones (Cersei’s second marriage to Loras, anyone? Arya’s three-season walk to find her family?), are wrapped up here in 30 minutes.
At least three whole years pass by, rather unremarkably, between episodes two and three of House of the Dragon. Here’s what’s changed at court: Alicent and Viserys have wed, their oldest son Aegon is turning 2, and Alicent is moments away from giving birth again. The existence of a male heir has reignited the same ol’ succession woes we went through in the first episode. Viserys’s advisers are urging him to name blond little Aegon, who most likely still can’t use a chamber pot, the heir, even though he isn’t the firstborn and the lords of the realm have already bowed down to his sister. And Rhaenyra has been seething, whining, sulking, harrumphing — hiding under the weirwood tree with only her jealousy and a lutist to keep her company.
Envy, envy, everywhere. Admittedly, the sight of my scraggly old dad coupled up and fathering children with my 17-year-old best friend wouldn’t inspire my most charitable feelings. But the Rhaenyra who sped toward Dragonstone on Syrax’s back and challenged her beloved uncle to kill her has completely vanished. In her place, this chit of a girl who flounces around the Red Keep ordering musicians to strum the same old tunes over and over again: “She fled with her ships and her people!”
What kind of (young) woman is Rhaenyra? This episode bounces her around — depending on your point of view, either filling in her complexities or rendering her a mass of contradictions (though maybe those amount to the same thing). When Alicent’s “delicate condition” is raised in the carriage — reasonably so! Why is this woman bouncing around the rocky roads of Westeros at 4 centimeters dilated? — Rhaenyra practically faints with worry, most likely reliving the trauma of her mother’s birthbed death. As an emissary to the ladies’ chat circle in the banquet tent, she wittily dispatches with Lady Redwyne, an avatar of Pocahontas’ Governor Ratcliffe and his smug little pug. Off in the King’s Wood with Ser Cristan Cole, she sweats jealousy for her younger brother, but then stabs that feral hog to death with the zeal of a hundred Aryas. Compared with her father’s tepid and inaccurate jab at a tied-up stag, Rhaenyra’s thrusts carry the force of someone willing to rip a neck out in order to survive. Meanwhile, there’s a sense that Viserys is slowly limping towards death.
It’s bizarre to see any king so loved in Westeros, especially with the foreknowledge that so many of the rulers in the continent’s future are winos, tyrants, and blond terrors hell-bent on cruelties of the We Need to Talk About Kevin variety. But as the king’s wagon train bumps into camp, the local folk wave their hands and smile real smiles. These aren’t a people living in fearful awe of an Old Testament king. They’ve had it (relatively, for a medieval peasant) good and winter isn’t coming. It’s understandable that preserving that sense of stability would weigh heavily on Viserys’s shoulders, but he seems uncommonly burdened by wagging tongues and scheming aides. We are perhaps meant to ask ourselves: Did the Council choose the wrong monarch a decade ago? Would Princess Rhaenys (currently toughing it out somewhere on the Stepstones, according to reports, but we wouldn’t know for certain, because the writers are hiding Eve Best from us) have stomached the hubbub better? Doubt is inherent in royal succession, doubly so when a king doesn’t have the benefit of divine appointment.
Last episode Viserys got to yelp “She is 12!” when it was proposed he wed Laena Velaryon, and in this episode he flatly responds, “The boy is 2,” when Otto recommends little Aegon marry his teenage half-sister. Which isn’t to say Viserys minds the incest bit — we need to accept that Targaryens don’t care one jot about their gene pools — but that his vision for Rhaenyra involves marrying a sentient being, though preferably a rich and well-heeled one.
Can we blame Rhaenyra for avoiding marriage? Not one bit. Especially when the likes of Medieval Bro Jason Lannister are what’s on offer, and childbirth gutted her mother like a fish. Can we blame the showrunners and writers for sending us through a giant revolving door around the same issues? Well yes, we can.
House of the Dragon struggles to make disagreement interesting, mostly because it goes light on the scheming and heavy on the exposition. Yes, any new show needs a while to get going, especially one in a universe as large as Westeros. But this episode sees someone explaining the significance of the White Hart to Viserys, as if the king wouldn’t already possess such knowledge. It has Jason Lannister bounding onto the stage practically bellowing facts about Casterly Rock, the worst guest ever on MTV Cribs. People introduce themselves like they’re holding their résumés just off-camera.
But (newly former) showrunner Miguel Sapochnik’s influence is all over House of the Dragon’s action sequences — he directed “Hardhome,” “Battle of the Bastards,” and “The Long Night” — which, while smaller in scope, possess all the verve and guts (literally) of Game of Thrones. I hate to hope for a show that is just a bunch of men riding around on horses and slitting each other’s throats, but when blood is in the air and Matt Smith is onscreen, my pulse picks up its pace.
The opening minute of this episode has just the right salty taste. A sailor wails as the Crabfeeder pounds iron through his palms, and then screams with joy when Daemon and Caraxes zoom overhead. “Save me!” he bellows, and then Daemon brings Caraxes down in a swoop and pounds that sailor into meat under one of the dragon’s massive feet.
The last ten minutes, back on the Stepstones, return to that pitch. Daemon isn’t winning any popularity contests among the Velaryons; although he fights like a beast, he’s the kind of leader who expects kamikaze tactics from every last troop. (In a moment of perfect character development, he mercilessly beats about the head a messenger from Viserys who promises aid in the form of ships and soldiers.) But Smith really sells it that Daemon may be surrendering, that his men cannot defeat a band of marauders who retreat to caves every time a dragon wing flaps overhead. It’s been several years, dammit! So as Daemon hands over Dark Sister, his Valyrian blade, I bought it, even though minutes earlier Corlys and an extremely grownup Laenor had agreed that bait was the only way to bring the Crabfeeder out of his shell. It’s a trick, duh, but a beautiful one, and a testament to Daemon’s bravery and foolishness.
Smith snarls and swirls a sword like he was born to it, and Sapochnik can submerge viewers in battle to a wild degree. If Rhaenyra proved her moxie with that dagger to a hog’s belly, Daemon did the same by singlehandedly dicing up dozens of men, taking three arrows to the body, and still hauling half of the Crabfeeder’s torso through a tide pool, barely breaking a sweat. One shot zooms in on Daemon’s catlike green eyes, and he looks as if he might start murdering his own troops, just for the hell of it. Viserys may swear to Rhaenyra, “On your mother’s memory, you will not be supplanted,” but Daemon is still out there, making mincemeat of other tough guys, waiting in the wings for his moment to toss aside the proverbial white flag and make a move for the Iron Throne.
From the Ravens
•For the love of the Mother, please give Alicent Hightower more to do than just simper.
• In what may be a Westeros first, Viserys smells and fondles some stag poop to see how fresh it is. Doesn’t a king have someone to do that for him?
• Ser Cristan Cole gains a bit of backstory this episode. His father served at Blackhaven, in the Stormlands, but he wasn’t highborn, and he isn’t as Dornish as Rhaenyra first assumed. He is, however, extremely ready to step in as a love interest.
• The moment when Rhaenyra sees the majestic white hart and refuses to kill it bears a strange resemblance to an episode in the fourth season of The Crown, in which the royal family stalks a stag but nobody can catch it. Until Diana, that is. Hm.
• Lyonel Strong’s proposition that Rhaenyra marry Laenor Velaryon appeals to Viserys but sounds particularly foolish to viewers, considering how young he looked when we last saw him. But when he soared out of the sky above the Stepstones on his dragon Seasmoke, looking gloriously grownup, the idea took root.
• Viserys rants again about his dream of a son born wearing Aegon’s crown, and though I’m wary of prophecy in these series, this one is starting to feel meaningful.