Daemon, Viserys, Rhaenyra Play The Game Of Thrones

“Even I do not exist above tradition and duty, Rhaenyra!” – King Viserys I Targaryen, to his daughter.

Sunday night’s episode of House Of The Dragon gave us two distinct storylines—one filled with fire and blood, the other with politics and scheming. It’s unclear which is the more perilous of the two.

Outside of watery battlefields and fire-breathing dragons, this episode was another slow burn that bordered on dreary at times—though not necessarily in a bad way. While House Of The Dragon moves at a bit of a slog at times, the characters and dialogue make every scene gripping and tense.

The King And His Court

Two years have passed since last week’s episode. King Viserys (Paddy Considine) has married Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey) and produced, at long last, a male heir. Aegon is celebrating his second ‘name day’ (birthday) when the episode opens, something that his grandfather, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) and grand-uncle Hobert Hightower (Steffan Rhodri) are keenly aware of.

Indeed, most of the court seems to think that any moment now, Viserys will say “Hey never mind! I should never have made my daughter my heir and now that I have a son, we’ll just stick with tradition!” No-one believes this will happen more than Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) herself. Tensions are high when the king and his retinue set out for the Kingswood for a lavish hunt. Indeed, it seems the entire court has fled King’s Landing in favor of more modest—though hardly shabby—accommodations in the forest.

The hunt appears to largely consist of lords and ladies milling about the great tent drinking and eating and gossiping while the King’s hunters and dogs set about the actual dirty business of tracking down animals to kill.

Both the charming but proud Jason Lannister and his more serious twin, Tyland Lannister (both played by Jefferson Hall) are here. Tyland, a member of the Small Council, has beseeched the king to send aid to Lord Corlys (Steve Toussaint) and Daemon (Matt Smith) who are losing the battle against the masked Craghas Drahar, the self-appointed prince-admiral of the Triarchy, an alliance of three Free Cities that’s turned into an army of raiders and corsairs. More on all this in a moment.

Also in attendance are Lord Lyonel Strong’s sons. Ser Harwin (Ryan Corr) is apparently the strongest knight in all the realm. His brother, the crippled Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) is his opposite in every way. Twin Lannisters and crippled brothers—this really is Game Of Thrones isn’t it?

Already, the lords are circling like vultures, and Jason Lannister makes his intentions plain to both Rhaenrya and her father, though both rebuke his advances. Hightower tells Viserys that he is king and his daughter would obey him if he ordered her to wed the Lion.

But Viserys would rather not think about such things. “His pride has pride,” he tells Otto, who then suggests the King betroth his daughter to none other than baby Aegon, his son. Many people complained last week when Lord Varys and his wife Lady Rhaenys (Eve Best) proposed a marriage between Viserys and their daughter, a girl of 12. Well eat your heart out, folks. Aegon is only two! And he’s Rhaenyra’s half-brother . . . .

Viserys will hear none of it, once again. He seems almost as much in denial over his daughter as he is the war in the Stepstones. He wants Rhaenyra to be happy, he tells his Hand, even if she drives him mad in the process. Indeed, her insolence is too much for Viserys to bear and soon he’s hollering at her in front of all the lords and ladies, forcing Otto to clear his throat and interrupt before any more Targaryen dirty laundry is aired in front of the crowd of gossipers.

It’s at this point that Rhaenyra decides to leave the hunt behind and ride off on her own, though Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) rides after her. They strike up conversation and end up making camp for the night, though Ser Criston implores her to return to her father’s camp.

It’s not bad advice. That night, a wild boar charges them from the dark of the woods—something of a callback to Robert Baratheon’s death in Game Of Thrones. Indeed, as his daughter is fending off the boar, Viserys is downing cup after cup of wine, sinking further and further into a wretched mood. Boars and wine were, of course, the downfall of the Baratheon king, whose sigil was a stag.

It’s curious, then, that a white hart is spotted in the forest, signaling a good omen for the king. The symbol of the white hart was once a sign of nobility prior to the Targaryen conquest of the land. Otto seems especially pleased at the news.

But it is not to be. The hunters lose the white hart’s trail and when Viserys shows up to kill the animal, it’s just a normal stag. Instead, Rhaenyra comes across the white hart, but after watching it simply let’s it go. Viserys botches the slaughter and is forced to stab the poor beast several times with a spear gifted to him by Jason Lannister, before he strikes the killing blow. He walks away to muted clapping from the lookers-on, his shoulders slumped.

Rhaenrya returns to camp covered in blood, the dead boar dragged behind her and Ser Criston. Of all the lords and ladies, knights and camp followers, only Ser Harwin Strong smiles at the princess.

There is much conversation I’m glossing over. Viserys speaks with Lord Strong who urges him to betroth his daughter to Lord Corlys’s son, Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nate). Alicent urges Viserys to send help to Daemon—for the realm if not for his brother, who Viserys calls a malcontent. And Viserys urges Rhaenyra to marry, not because he wants to replace her with young Aegon, but because he wants her to shore up her power and protect herself through marriage and with offspring.

And Otto schemes behind the scenes, telling his daughter—who seems totally fine with Rhaenyra ascending the Iron Throne—that the only way the lords of the realm will be happy and the only way to avoid civil war and strife, is for Aegon to become heir rather than his sister.

Two Princes Here Before You

The B-plot takes place at the beginning and ending of the episode. We see the Crabfeeder nailing his victims to spikes and covering them with crabs when overhead we hear the screeching of a dragon. It’s Daemon riding on the back of his dragon, Caraxes, plummeting down from the black sky in a plume of fire. The Crabfeeder and his men retreat to the caves. Daemon descends for the fight, ignoring the cries for help from the people staked to spikes below—the subjects he’s ostensibly arrived to help.

He calls for the Crabfeeder to come out and fight him, but of course the Triarchy prince stays hidden deep within the tunnels, presumably far enough to dodge any dragon flame Daemon might decide to lay down.

From here, the war drags out into a long stalemate. By the time everyone is trying to convince Viserys to send aid to Daemon and Corlys, three years have passed and the war simply drags on. Many in the Sea Snake’s ranks have abandoned the fight, and many more blame Daemon for the loss. I’m still not sure how they’re losing so badly given not only Daemon but also Laenor have dragons. Laenor shows up later atop his blue dragon Seasmoke to help crush the Triarchy.

That takes place at the end of the episode. Daemon, we learn, has such pride and such bitter feelings toward his brother, that when a messenger arrives with a letter from the king informing him that help is on the way, not only does Daemon viciously beat the messenger with his helm, he rows a boat over to the other shore on his lonesome, walks out to the middle of the battlefield, and holds his sword up above his head in apparent acquiescence.

It’s a ruse, however, and the moment the Crabfeeder’s men get within striking distance, Daemon springs into action, leaping forward like a mad viper for the kill. The ensuing fight scene is pretty damn great, with Daemon racing and barrel-rolling his way across the field as archers rein arrows down over his head (though only one strikes him). Just when things seem truly dire, Lord Corlys and his men show up, charging into the distracted enemy as Laenor flies over head shouting dracarys! to his dragon. Sea Smoke burns the archers and countless others.

Then Daemon sees the Crabfeeder retreating into his tunnels and follows him, emerging at last with just one half of his enemy’s body, covered in blood. I suppose one way to take out some anger at your brother is to hack an enemy up so badly only half his body remains.

The war is over at last, and Daemon may find a warmer welcome should he choose to return to King’s Landing and seek out his brother’s good graces.

Verdict

I’ll be honest, while I still can’t really root for anyone in this show the way I could for Jon Snow or Arya Stark or Ned or Sam or any of the great characters in Game Of Thrones, there are other things I like about it more as well. I love the slow pace, the grind of inevitability and the lack of supernatural threats. Here is a perilous world even for its rulers, who sit perched on a throne that seems intent on cutting its inhabitant, while all around the Targaryens, schemers and flatterers circle for the kill.

I thought the action scenes were a lot of fun also, but no matter how compelling Matt Smith is as Daemon, the war with the Triarchy feels like a sideshow. That’s fairly realistic, of course. Not all war in the Middle Ages was fought over the throne; many were fought to secure shipping lanes, settle petty squabbles and so forth.

Smith, meanwhile, continues to put in such an intense and compelling performance as Daemon, he risks stealing every single scene he’s in. Take the scene where he finds out his brother is sending aid, for example. He lands on his dragon, walks over to the warlords discussing their next move, reads the letter, hands it to Corlys, picks up his helmet and smashes the messenger’s face in before being dragged off, and then rows over to the other side and the forces of the Triarchy and never once during all of this does he utter even a single word. Still, he’s able to convey so much meaning with his expressions, with just his eyes.

These questions of marriage, succession and loyalty shape House Of The Dragon into what it is, for better or worse. Ultimately, the battles and action scenes are largely designed to inspire awe and excitement in us. But the real meat of the story lies in all the unspoken things, in the glances between characters and the scheming and self-interest that drives everyone at court. I’m enjoying it all a great deal, even if it is a little slow and, at times, just a little too dreary.

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