House of the Dragon Recap: The Second Sex

House of the Dragon

King of the Narrow Sea
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

House of the Dragon

King of the Narrow Sea
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: HBO Max

There’s our girl Rhaenyra, pulling Ser Cristan Cole into her room and then between her legs: playful, joyful, perhaps overcompensating for earlier disappointments but nonetheless really feeling it. And then there’s her best friend, Alicent, flat on her back, staring at the ceiling, willing her husband, the king, to hurry the hell up and finish so he can clamber off her and shuffle over to pee in a jar or something.

For all its SEX SEX SEX, Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon have mostly been talked about for one particular power dynamic in the bedroom: male domination. The Westerosi sexual experience is a varied one. Off the top of my head, I can easily remember Yara Greyjoy fondling a woman at an outdoor brothel picnic table (and being fondled on a horse by, ew, her brother); Daenerys leading Daario Naharis onto the monarchical mattress; Ygritte finally learning that Jon Snow does know a thing or two, etc., etc. But the rape scenes — and holy hell, there were a lot of them — begot the most discussion. And a good portion of the screwing and sucking we’ve been subjected to over the series’s decade-plus on TV has just been about showing sex in all its Twister spinner variety. Have you noticed how sexy our show is? Have you seen how people just have sex all over, all the time? Did you see how we had them doing it against a wall/in a horse stall/right before they pushed a kid out of a tower? Some was kinky, some was beautiful, some was cruel. But mostly, it was just a lot of thrusting.

“King of the Narrow Sea” brings Big Sex Energy to House of the Dragon and pulls off a neat little trick. It gears us up to think that Rhaenyra’s failed liaison with Daemon will be the “coupling” (to use Otto Hightower’s word) of the evening, when in reality, it’s only the first in a series of three, with the latter two telling us far more than the first. (Though incest has a way of throwing things a little off balance.) Congratulations to House of the Dragon for finding a way to make sex actually further the narrative and character development, creating the strongest episode so far.

Rhaenyra has been schlepped all across the country, held up like a sculpture at auction for bumbling, sneering, or downright pre-pubescent men to bid for. The names are familiar — Dondarrion, Bracken, Blackwood — all ancient families possessed of fortune and in need of a royal wife to carry them to the top of the noble heap. Of course, the princess has spent the past several years gawping at Cristan and lingering too long with her uncle Daemon, and these ninnies pale in comparison to either. There is also the plain fact that she has no wish to marry or have children. If she were a man, as she angrily points out, she’d be encouraged to try out a few maidens before settling down. But as the princess and heir, purity is the order of the day.

It will be a shame when Milly Alcock leaves the role in the sixth episode (Emma D’Arcy will replace her as an older Rhaenyra). Whatever casting director flung her together with Matt Smith hit the jackpot on chemistry; even when they’re enraged at one another, Daemon and Rhaenyra create a dry heat between them and appear on the verge of embrace. When Daemon appears on Caraxes and waltzes up the aisle in the Great Hall, freshly shorn to better show his new ossein crown, her glances make sparks. Together in the veranda by the weirwood tree, they both hint at the dissatisfaction that will befall them if condemned to the life they expect to lead; it’s left unsaid that life together might satisfy them both. (The Valyrian, again, throws oil on their fire. Did George R.R. Martin, of all people, somehow create an entire language that sounds like licks and pokes and lusty grabs?) Wandering through King’s Landing, even before they land at the pleasure house, their connection flits between fatherly guidance and giddy pleasure.

Rhaenyra needs this night outside the Red Keep. Daemon has sampled more of life than most, while she has moved from room to room inside one tightly guarded home, only venturing out for duty’s sake. But Daemon has more in mind than offering her a taste of the fire-breathing pageantry of King’s Landing nightlife. Their presence at an amateur theater production — which happens to be about Rhaenyra’s claim to the throne versus her toddler brother’s — feels planned, especially when Daemon reminds her that little Aegon, as the bearer of a penis, will always hold more appeal for the realm. He manages to put her in her place and seduce her all in one evening, a fitting series of events for a classic asshole like Daemon.

But what goes wrong up against that wall in the pleasure house? The camera angles are intentionally vague, but Rhaenyra is left with her pants down when Daemon hauls off, so we know that something started. We’re meant to wonder if he has second thoughts about nailing his niece or if his equipment has failed him again, in the same way it went soggy with Mysaria in the first episode. Targaryen impotence! Now that’s intriguing.

Viserys isn’t exactly thrilling his wife in the sack, either. Alicent tells Rhaenyra earlier in the episode, when they reconcile over their shared distaste for the Targaryen boys’ club’s japing, that she’s lonely in her role. Her royal husband may have elevated her to queen, but the interactions between them are painfully formal. When Viserys first calls her to his chamber, she wants to weasel out of it, but duty calls! Under his pustulant body, she can only stare into the middle distance and will her mind to another place.

The comparison between the two women’s sex lives remixes their power balance. In the last episode, Alicent overruled Rhaenyra regarding the unrelenting lutist. But unmarried Rhaenyra finds a way to sneak out, see the world, and fool around with a man (yes, her uncle) in a medieval-flavored Eyes Wide Shut. Alicent bounces a screaming baby, smiles blankly at her husband when he talks, and sighs when he wants her in his bed. Rhaenyra, spurned by one man, teases and cajoles another until he’s slowly (so so slowly, oh my lord how slowly) taking off his armor and climbing into her bed.

My oh my, can Rhaenyra lie. She swears on her mother’s grave that nothing happened with Daemon. Meanwhile he immediately (in a hungover stupor on the sweetly cold floor of the Great Hall) admits that they fooled around. It’s in each of their best interests to tell those stories: Rhaenyra to preserve her place as the unsullied heir to the throne, and Daemon to convince Viserys that no one else will have Rhaenyra now, and it makes sense that the two should marry. But Daemon miscalculates. “I screwed your daughter so now you have to let her marry me,” might work for some fathers, but Viserys is not one of them. “You are the dragon and your word is law,” doesn’t convince him either. And Viserys looks wary of such a close incestual relationship. When Daemon insists that it’s “the tradition of their family,” it’s partly for the audience’s benefit, to remind us that this is a Targaryen thing, and so we should only be slightly (?) appalled. But it’s also a callback to Aegon the Conqueror, the first Targaryen to rule Westeros and the mighty forefather of their clan — who also happened to marry his sisters.

This episode finally opened up the rules of the game for House of the Dragon. It gave Rhaenyra a taste of the empowerment that comes from rebellion. It humbled Viserys to a new low. It banished Daemon yet again (pfff) but also gave him stakes beyond just bad-boy-strutting all over the continent. It left Viserys without his closest advisor. And it further impressed on us (and Rhaenyra) the reason the Targaryen line of succession matters so much.

The Valyrian steel dagger Viserys holds up when he scolds Rhaenyra is the same one that Littlefinger sends with an assassin to kill Bran in season one of Game of Thrones, the same one that makes its way to Ned, and then back to Littlefinger, and then to Bran, and onto Arya. And what it says is “From my blood come the prince that was promised, and his will be the song of ice and fire.” We know the end of the dagger’s journey into the Night King’s belly, but now we’ll learn its route. And maybe more of its secrets and its magic.

From the Ravens

• Rhys Ifans’s appalled and maligned face works wonders when Viserys not only removes Otto as Hand of the King (at Rhaenyra’s insistence) but when the king essentially accuses him of murdering his way into the job. The scene — between two masterful actors, Ifans and Paddy Considine — bandies about so much raw emotion.

• Little by little, Otto’s facade is falling away, and underneath the decorous wiseman, there’s quite a bit of plotting. It turns out he has his own little birds whispering in his ear.

• I will not use a fantasy TV show to prove a political point, but actually, I will: It must be nice for Rhaenyra to have such easy access to an abortifacient, with no interference from the government!

• It’s a small point, but Rhaenyra is no longer a cupbearer at Small Council meetings. A step up!

• The play Daemon and Rhaenyra witness is a significant nod to the one Arya sees in Braavos that depicts her father’s execution. Strange how often this seems to happen to the nobility!

• Exactly how does Daemon end up in Mysaria’s … cave?

• That little stabbing at the beginning is only the most recent in a long series of family squabbles between the Brackens and Blackwoods, who once fought over control of the Riverlands.

• “Your interests no longer align with those of the realm,” the words Viserys uses to fire Otto sound like hilarious corporate speak.

• Last is certainly not least. Rhaenyra is now to marry Laenor Velaryon, last seen looking hot on dragonback over the Stepstones. But does his family know this yet? Corlys sailed home after the Crabfeeder was killed and conveniently hasn’t returned to King’s Landing.

House of the Dragon Recap: The Second Sex