Good kings make bad characters. Each time they sagaciously agree to the recommendations of their cool-headed advisers, a little bit of narrative intrigue dies. Viserys has proven himself a remote father and a selfish husband — if he has to occasionally sacrifice a wife to the proto-surgeon’s sharp blade, well, he’ll do it for Westeros — but mostly he aims to check all the royal boxes: Produce an heir, rule justly, govern wisely, blah blah blah blah blah.
In the second episode — heavy on exposition and light on fornication — Viserys just can’t stop making good, or at least well-intended, decisions. Someone dracarys me, please, because this is not why we tune into Westerosi politics. We don’t need a Mad King, but I’d settle for a Bad at Times King. Instead, Viserys smartly heeds Otto’s advice not to start a Falklands-style war with his brother Daemon on Dragonstone; he blurts out what we are all thinking (“She is 12!”) when an adviser encourages him to marry Laena Velaryon; and he owns the poor fatherly instincts that have estranged him from Rhaenyra since Queen Aemma died. Right up until he hauls off and decides to marry Rhaenyra’s teenage best friend and only confidant, Viserys is torturously close to efficiently and humanely running his government. We simply cannot have that in our beloved little dragon show!
Lurking under some of this second-episode malaise is the fact that the overall stakes feel relatively low, considering the audience knows that 200 years in the future, a swarm of the undead will crash through the Wall and nearly wipe out civilization. It’s hard to compete with the apocalypse, especially when the kingdom is in the midst of a 17-year run of peace. Not to mention that characters are so accustomed to the strange magic of Old Valyria that they don’t wonder at the mysticism of it all. In the first episode, Syrax flies over King’s Landing and not a soul looks up to marvel at the gold-scaled dragon in their midst. (Compare that to scenes of Daenerys soaring in on Drogon in season eight of GoT.)
There is also a general drowse about a handful of the main characters. Alicent Hightower is lovely, and pretty, and a little sad, and she picks her cuticles, but that’s about all the development we get for a young woman who is soon to be at the center of a kingdomwide power struggle. Lord Lyonel Strong, the Master of Laws, encourages Viserys to wed Laena Velaryon, and reveals absolutely no personality in the process (besides being perfectly fine with the sexualization of a prepubescent girl). Grand Maester Mellos is dutiful. Ser Harrold Westerling, Commander of the Kingsguard, is a rugged teddy bear who loyally watches over Rhaenyra, but what else? Surely they will all grow in complexity and depth over the next few episodes, but even small hints would do a lot to add as much color to the rest of the cast as Daemon and Otto and Rhaenyra are drenched in.
But not to worry, because House of the Dragon has a spectacular new way to torture people, just unsettling enough to keep you squealing and clutching your belly. Down in the Stepstones, the Triarchy — a collective from the Free Cities across the Narrow Bay — is nailing Westerosi sailors to pieces of driftwood and then setting crabs on them to tear through their skin and then eat their insides. (It’s a novel portmanteau of cruelties from Game of Thrones: the crucifixions outside Meereen plus the gut-eating rats employed by the Tickler at Harrenhal.) Lord Corlys — the Sea Snake, owner of more than half of Westeros’s sailing vessels, and Master of Ships — sees a direct threat to his livelihood and a threat to the crown. If the shipping lanes go down, he warns Viserys, it would be terrible for the realm.
This entire episode is an exercise in pissing off Corlys, surely a terrible idea considering his enormous wealth and a life history spent defeating brigands and pirates at sea. His recommendation that Viserys marry Laena, a charming (very, very, VERY, can I be more clear? VERY) young girl who spends her walk with the king asking him about dragon lore, is more of a demand. From a logistical viewpoint, it makes a lot of sense. Both houses are of “pure Valyrian blood,” a factor Targaryens are so nutty for that they easily accept incest as necessary. Corlys’s wealth would bolster the crown, and his dominance of the sea between Westeros and Essos (Driftmark is on an island outside Blackwater Bay) would serve as a bulwark against incursion. But Viserys, smitten by his late-night book-reading buddy Alicent, would rather marry a different young girl, even if it means setting aside his dream of elevating King’s Landing and Westeros to the kind of volcano-adjacent power and glory of his ancestors at Old Valyria. (Which is precisely what he is building out of stone in his chambers.)
Two obstacles stand in Viserys’s way when it comes to marrying Alicent. The first is pissing off Corlys, who runs straight into the arms of Daemon in a surprising little twist. (Geographically, their meeting and alliance makes sense — Driftmark and Dragonstone are right next to one another.) The second is Rhaenrya, who is not only wounded by the loss of her best friend to her father, but also must now imagine the two in bed together, which is surely a form of emotional abuse. Rhaenyra plays it cooler than she really feels when it comes to any potential new sibling — as she proclaims to Daemon, she has been legally and ceremonially proclaimed as the new heir, but she is smart enough to know that a brother would cause chaos. Princess Rhaenys (who still needs more to do, for the love of the Seven) gloatingly reminds her that “the order of things” demands a male heir, but like her eventual descendant Daenerys (“I will break the wheel!”), Rhaenyra has plans of her own: “When I am queen, I will create a new order.”
House of the Dragon promised more, you guessed it, dragons, though until now, their screeching and roaring and giant flappy wings have had a petlike feeling (that is, if your pet could light your mother’s funeral pyre with her breath). But when Syrax and Caraxes face off on the giant stone ramp to Dragonstone, there is finally some delicious, vicious tension in the air. Like Rhaenyra, who looks absolutely teeny when she marches through the crowd of her father’s soldiers on those ramparts, Syrax is considerably smaller than ruby-red Caraxes, and not nearly so accomplished in battle. (Caraxes is older and knew a rider before Daemon — Aemon, father of Rhaenys and former Prince of Dragonstone.) But the bond between rider and dragon, forged from the cradle in Rhaenyra’s case, is heady and viscous enough that it practically floats through the air.
Rhaenyra and Daemon’s verbal sparring creates the episode’s most neck-prickling moment. Perhaps it’s the sexy Dracula vibes the Valyrian language gives off, or it may just be the sheer talent bouncing around between Milly Alcock and Matt Smith, but when they confront one another, and even when Rhaenyra dares Daemon to murder her, they hover on the edge of admiration, as if they might embrace or kiss or even laugh if one relinquishes. Endearment is what stops Daemon from slicing away at her and what leads him to toss the dragon’s egg back into her arms. But with House Velaryon’s ships and the threat of more heir come to nudge him down the ladder, Daemon may not resist the allure of blood for much longer.
From the Ravens
• Ser Criston Cole is the only candidate for the Kingsguard who has battle experience and is extremely good-looking. Ideal, really.
• If Rhaenyra were a male heir, I find it hard to believe she’d be punted from the room for daring to make a suggestion to the Small Council.
• Viserys’s finger is now gangrenous, too, as if the throne, which pricked him in the last episode, is physically out to destroy him.
• Rhaenys’s line, “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the iron throne,” seems like a direct response to what we eventually see Daenerys do in season eight of Game of Thrones — put the torch to the kingdom to keep it for herself.
• Laena and Viserys’s turn about the garden yielded some very interesting hints about what is to come, re: dragons. Vhagar, the largest and fiercest living dragon, who Tyrion Lannister claims is so big that you could ride a horse down her, is nested somewhere on the coast of Westeros, though Viserys doesn’t know precisely where. He never rode Vhagar, who was once mounted by Queen Visenya, the wife (and sister) of Aegon the Conqueror. But if the series follows George R.R. Martin’s House of the Dragon on this matter, she will end up with another woman on her back.
• Daemon “invites” Viserys to his wedding, but has not yet asked Mysaria for her hand. He also claims there is to be a baby, but she isn’t pregnant and implies that she’s done something to make herself infertile (pregnancy would be a big hazard in her profession). And now she’s furious with Daemon for carrying her off to a misty, miserable island and using her as a pawn. Sounds exactly like the fate of every other prostitute from this universe.
• Finally, some wit! “Did you call me to Driftmark to remind me of my low status, or was there some other reason?”