Nuptials are deadly in Westeros. A bite of roasted pig, a glass of sloshing wine, a plate of sweet treats … and usually a pool of guts on the floor. The feast to open Rhaenyra’s wedding to Laenor Velaryon almost avoids this ending. There’s a string of near conflagrations between guests with inflamed tempers, but they all end without violence — until, in the episode’s final moments, the temptation to spill some blood grows too strong.
The fifth episode starts with one crushed-in, pulpy head and ends with another. Lady Rhea Royce, Daemon’s estranged wife and the unfortunate recipient of his classic brand of misogynistic cruelty (“Sheep are more fuckable than this woman,” etc.), appears content with her lot. One foggy morning, she heads out into the Vale’s craggy passes to hunt deer (we later hear she was an excellent sportswoman), only to be greeted by her hooded husband, alone in a ravine with a menacing look on his face. Rhea — actually extremely pretty and absolutely tired of this man’s depraved bullshit — must have had a hearty breakfast because she’s prepared to tear him a new one. Their marriage, we learn, is unconsummated, furthering the “Daemon can’t keep it up” theory. And when he knocks her from her horse, paralyzing her on the ground, she manages to get in one last rib: “I knew you couldn’t finish!” Until that is, he comes toward her, heavy rock in hand, looking to mangle the face he ridiculed all across the continent.
For House of the Dragon’s first four episodes, Daemon was the biggest threat to the stability of Viserys’s reign. And he’s still plotting away. But now a pack of new menaces has arrived just in time to broaden the show’s reach.
Viserys’s failing health is one. Understandable as seasickness might be, it’s a trifle undignified in a king, especially when it turns his face the color of glue. Then there’s his mangled hand — Princess Rhaenys’s reaction when she grabs it is telling — and the gloppy, festering flesh all the way up his left arm. Is it some Westerosi wasting disease? Slow-moving gangrene? Whatever it is, he’s now coughing and falling and all around rather poorly. Legend has it that the Iron Throne slices up the monarchs it finds unworthy; the Mad King Aerys was constantly pricked by it, and King Maegor, renowned for his cruelty, was found dead in the metal chair, bloodied to bits. If Viserys’s weakness is to blame, that could explain his sudden urge to recast his legacy and usher in “a second age of dragons in Westeros.”
His backbone is as flagging as his immune system. Dragging himself to Driftmark to ask for Laenor and Rhaenyra’s betrothal is beneath the dignity of a king. The lack of a welcoming party is another knock. But negotiations with Corlys and Rhaenys (who seems genuinely delighted to see her cousin and former rival) go smoother than expected, partly because Viserys partially relents to their demands. In a moment straight out of The Crown (complete with a castle that bears an uncanny resemblance to St. Michael’s Mount off the coast of Cornwall in England), Corlys asks that any children from the union carry the Velaryon family name, just as Prince Philip asks for Charles & Co. to carry the surname Mountbatten. Philip is denied — dropping the family name for the next monarch is akin to ending the dynasty — but Viserys makes an allowance for his grandchildren; they can use the Velaryon surname until the time leading up to the crowning of Rhaenyra’s successor. It sounds small fry, but that’s potentially a big win for Corlys. If Laenor’s and Rhaenyra’s (hypothetical) child comes of age as a Velaryon, it may be hard for the public ever to accept that they’re really a Targaryen. Perhaps Corlys (unlike almost everyone else at court) has his eye on the long game.
After a less-than-romantic start (“I hold nothing against you”), Laenor and Rhaenyra end up with a compromise of their own — one that personally made me weep for that poor little lad and lass. “How about we just … tolerate one another?” was the gist. They’ll have just enough sex to produce an heir and maybe a spare; otherwise, let each other satiate their “appetites” separately. (This is Duck, Duck, Goose as I’ve never seen it.) “We perform our duties to our fathers and to the realm, and when it’s done, each of us dines as we see fit,” Rhaenyra proposes. This is all very grown up and reasonable, but as the frame of a marriage, woooo boy, what a bummer. Luckily (?) they grew up together and get along well — Rhaenys notes their, dear God, “familiarity” — but this is really no basis for a system of government!
House of the Dragon is still learning how to pace itself. When Cristan asks Rhaenyra to run away with him to Essos, he proclaims that he’s been listening to her fantasize about leaving “for years” — but we hardly know him, so their intimacy doesn’t fully translate. In the span of one episode, Rhaenyra and Laenor are engaged, try to work out new coital arrangements with their other partners, and start their wedding feast. The progression from tentative chats on the beaches of Driftmark to formal dancing in the Great Hall is so quick that some of the weight falls out. Had the writers spun things out a bit and let the tension build between Laenor’s boyfriend (the unfortunately named Joffrey Lonmouth) and Cristan, then the vicious face-hammering Lonmouth gets might have stung the audience and not just Laenor.
With that said, the shock of the scene came from two directions. First, a number of opportunities for trouble arose and then snuffed themselves out before the mid-banquet tussle. There was Daemon, swooping into the Hall with his new ’do: just an uncle come to offer a parting kiss to the niece he tried to fuck against a wall a while back. Gerold Royce, uncle to Rhea and a regular Columbo, strolls in and is given the unlikely chance to tell Daemon that they’re onto him for her murder, the sort of accusation that could easily lead to some drawn swords. And then there is Alicent, essentially staging a coup by couture. Earlier in the episode, after she learned from Larys Strong that Rhaenyra did, in fact, give up her virginity and gulp down a special Plan B tea brewed by the Grand Maester, Alicent’s allegiance slowly shifted via color. Kissing her father good-bye, she wore the Targaryen red and gold. While watching Viserys stumble out of the carriage, she donned blue. But strolling into the wedding party, just late enough to ensure all eyes are on her, she wears emerald green, the color of the torch fire lit to call bannermen to arms in her home city of Oldtown. Fellow Hightowers quietly cheer her signal, but no battle breaks out.
Secondly, the fight itself is staged more like real life than your typical TV fight. (I was surprised that Miguel Sapochnik, with his brilliance for filming hand-to-hand combat, didn’t direct this episode.) Limbs flail, bodies are tossed aside, and no one, including viewers, has a sense of what is happening. It looks at first like Daemon, while roughly luring Rhaenyra from the room and her forthcoming marriage, has incurred Cristan’s wrath. Then the spill of dirty blond curls appears to come from Jason Lannister’s smarmy little head. Ironically, it isn’t until Cristan flips over the body, its face puckered in like a rotten bit of fruit, that Joffrey’s features are clear. Blood pools around him around the stone floor. Anyone reasonable would infer that the wedding might be delayed or deferred after this opening ceremony.
But hours later, Rhaenyra’s hair still tousled, the septon unites her in marriage with Laenor, who is certainly in a state of shock. Why rush? And why, oh why, hold the wedding in the same hall where Lonmouth’s flesh still stains the floor?
Breaking his vows proves too much for Cristan. While his beloved Rhaenyra weds Laenor, he retreats to the weirwood tree, dagger in hand, ready to open his own belly. But Alicent, who spared his life and has so far kept his secret, appears. Rhaenyra has a new ally in the Velaryons, but betrayal may bind Alicent and Cristan in ways no one can foresee.
From the Ravens
• When Otto leaves King’s Landing, he spells out a vital message for Alicent, who is too simple for her own good. Viserys won’t live into old age, and the kingdom will not want Rhaenyra as queen. She’ll have to kill her rivals to assert her claim, meaning little Aegon Targaryen and his baby sibling are headed for the chopping block. Alicent doesn’t appear a particularly doting mother, but it’s this warning, plus the revelation that Rhaenyra lied to her, that finally turns Alicent from a simpering fool to a motivated woman.
• Rhaenys’s outfit in this episode is the epitome of pirate chic: miniskirt, high boots, drapey-armed blouse. It’s refreshing to see a short hemline in Westeros.
• Never trust a man who seeks you out alone in a weirwood, unnecessarily flatters your father, and then, whoops, spills the beans about your best friend’s secret prophylactic use. Larys Strong (called Larys Clubfoot in Fire & Blood) is most likely not as docile as he presents himself to Alicent. But he might prove an interesting ally for her.
• If the punishment for sleeping with a virgin princess were either gelding or death, I, too, would take death. Alicent lets Cristan off easy, but we have to wonder why.
• Jason Lannister, that smarmy mouth breather, ought to have gotten a good slap for his “This is why men wage war, because women will never be ready for the battle in time” line. We’ll have to settle for Rhaenyra’s extremely memeable eye roll.
• Rhaenyra’s wedding hair looks like one of those English cakes dotted with raspberries.
• If I could preserve in amber any moment from this episode, it would be when some poor servant drags out a tiny chair for Daemon, sticks it at the end of the table, and then hastily brings out the flatware.
• Daemon reminds Gerold Royce that he now stands to inherit Runestone, the Royce family seat and a major vassal house to the Lord of the Vale. Two hundred years from now, Littlefinger will try the same trick — offing the lady of the house to take her might for himself.
• Are Rhaenyra and Laenor doing an actual … dance of dragons? Are their arms meant to be … flappy wings? Is this … seductive?
• The creators of House of the Dragon got that rat idea from Martin Scorsese, didn’t they?