“The Princess and the Queen”

When we open House of the Dragon this Sunday it’s been ten years. Rhaenyra—now played by the excellent Emma D’Arcy—is in caesarean section, about to give birth to her third son.

The baby is born and immediately the queen demands that the boy be presented to her. Rhaenyra refuses to send it, determined to make the long journey herself and not give Alicent – now played much more ruthlessly by Olivia Cooke – the satisfaction.

She is joined by her husband, Laenor (aged and played as an overconfident dandy by John McMillan) who thinks the whole thing is ridiculous.

Alicent’s demand is a power play, apparently. She wants to demonstrate her power over the princess and wants to see if the baby bears any resemblance to Laenor. The boy Laenor blurts out is named Joffrey, she doesn’t. Like his brothers, he is white and has brown hair. “Keep trying, Ser Laenor,” Alicent murmurs. “Maybe someday you’ll get someone who looks like you.”

An old and worn-out Viserys (Paddy Considine) seems completely oblivious to all this politicking around him. He refuses to believe Alicent’s claims that the children are, in fact, Harwin Strong’s (Ryan Corr), but also doesn’t seem to care that his wife forced his daughter to present her child moments after birth.

His obliviousness extends to the training yard, where Ser Criston Cole shows clear, unbridled favoritism for Alicent’s sons Aegon (Ty Tennant) and Aemund (Leo Ashton) at the expense of Rhaenyra’s sons Lucerys or Luc (Harvey Sadler) and Jacaerys Leo Hart).

This disturbs Harwin, who has come to the yard to watch. He confronts Criston (Fabien Frankel) and asks why he doesn’t pay the same attention to the younger boys. So Cole pits young Jaecerys against Aegon and urges the older boy to give no quarter and show no mercy. Finally Harwin grabs the prince and throws him aside.

Cole, clearly pleased, asks why she’s showing such interest in the boys. The kind of interest a father can show. It’s obvious taunting, but Harwin is known for his strength rather than his smarts, and he takes the bait by jumping on Cole and beating him. Cole doesn’t seem phased. indeed, he seems quite pleased with the whole thing.

It’s a scandal, of course. Harwin’s father and Hand of the King, Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes) is furious with his son and tries to resign, telling Viserys that he can no longer advise him faithfully. Viserys refuses saying Harwin’s dismissal from the Goldcloaks is punishment enough. Alicent tries to get Lyonel to tell them why, but he says he can’t. Instead, he asks that Harwin be taken back to Harrenhal and out of the public eye. This, we soon find, is a serious mistake.

Harwin is a very likable knight. He is more honorable and kind than Ser Criston, and clearly a better match for Rhaenyra. But neither he nor the princess has paid enough attention. When he leaves and says goodbye to the boys, even they realize that he seems more than a friend. “Is Harwin Strong my father?” asks Jackeris. “Am I a bastard?”

“You’re a Targeryen,” Rhaenyra replies. “That matters.”

Meanwhile, Alicent has been surrounded by artisans and politicians. Ser Criston Cole now guards her chambers in Rhaenyra’s place, and his bitterness towards the princess has grown and festered over the years. While Alison sees her as a threat and competition, Kristen actively despises the princess, calling her a “spoiled f*&$” at one point. Alicent stops dead at this and glares at him until he apologizes. But her disappointment at his words doesn’t translate into real love for her old friend and partner.

When Rhaenyra suggests an engagement between her eldest son and Alicent’s daughter Helaena (Evie Allen), Viserys calls it a great idea, but Alicent honestly says they’ll reconsider and tells Viserys she’ll go along with the dead her body. She won’t have her daughter marry a bastard and thinks Rhaenyra is just suggesting the idea to her because she’s been caught. (Helaena is Rhaenyra’s half-sister, so she would be Jacaerys’ aunt, but when has that ever stopped a Targaryen!)

Alicent turns to her other shadowy ally, Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), Harwin’s crippled and conniving brother, for advice. When she counters some of what she says, she complains that no one is on her side, no one will help her, no one will tell the obvious truth that Rhaenyra’s children are illegitimate.

Larris doesn’t say a word, but later visits the dungeons where he finds a group of murderers, rapists and other criminals on death row and tells them they can win their freedom. . . for a price. They agree and he cuts their tongues out of their mouths, rendering them mute to hide the deeds they are about to commit (certainly none of these men can write).

Later, we see them outside of Harrenhal. When Lord Lionel and Sir Harwin are asleep, the assassins set fire to the keep, closing the doors. Both men are burned to death – murdered by their relatives. It’s a poignant moment and one of the darkest in an already very dark show. Larris quickly establishes himself as the most diabolical con artist in the entire show. Even Alicent looks disappointed.

“I didn’t ask for this,” she tells him, her face pale and drawn with shock.

Larris disagrees. “I’m sure you’ll find a way to repay me someday,” he tells her.

The death of her lover and father of her children finally spurs Rhaenyra into action. “A wise sailor sails out of the storm,” Laenor had told her earlier in the episode, and she finally took his advice. She tells him they are leaving, taking their children (and Laenor’s lover) to Dragonstone where they will be safe from the queen and her allies and where especially her sons can rest. With only her turbulent father as protection against whatever Alicent has planned, the distance between them makes sense. It may look like a retreat, but it’s a tactic.

Meanwhile, on Pentos Daemon (Matt Smith) and Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell) have taken up semi-permanent residence with their two young daughters.

Laena is pregnant with a third. She is itching to get back home to Driftmark and Westeros, tired of her many years living in the land away from it all. Daemon, on the other hand, enjoys life outside of court and away from the endless politics and death-soul of Westeros. They have a nice offer of a fortune, endless cash and a life of grandeur from the forces of the Five, who want only the dragons in return as protection from the renewed threat of the Triarchy.

The Demon wants to stay. Lena wants to go. However, Daemon makes it clear who is calling the shots. He obviously has feelings of affection for his wife (unlike his last one!), but he’s a very self-centered prince of the kingdom. “Father ignores me,” his eldest daughter, Baela (Shani Smethhurst), tells her mother.

This episode begins and ends with a birth. The first gives birth to a young prince. The second is another tragedy. Even powerful female dragonriders were not safe when it came to the birthing bed, and Laena was no exception.

In a scene mirroring the death of Visery’s first wife, Aemma, Doctor Pentos reaches the end of his abilities and tells Daemon that he just can’t get the baby out. He could cut the mother, but there is no guarantee that the baby will live. The Demon doesn’t care.

In the end, Laena takes matters into her own hands. He leaves the mansion and steps out into the courtyard where Vhagar’s huge dragon rests. “Dragons!” he screams, over and over. Daemon runs from the building, “Laena, no!”

“Dragons!” he pleads, and the old dragon, bewildered at first, finally obliges. Laena and her unborn child are burned to death.

The other important character in this episode is Aemond Targaryen’s (Leo Ashton) younger brother Aegon.

Aemond is the only one of the children (of Alicent and Rhaenyra’s offspring) who does not have a dragon. He is mocked and teased by the other boys for this. At one point they bring him a pig with tied wings and say it’s the Pink Dread. Alicent blames Rhaenyra’s sons, though clearly Aegon was part of the bullying (probably the ringleader).

Aemund has a sour, dangerous look about him even as a boy. Aegon’s wild nature is tinged with cruelty, but it is a cruelty that is mostly uninteresting. It’s about a teenager masturbating on his windowsill. He wants to fight and screw. Aemund is scarier and a character I think we should all be watching very carefully going forward.

Verdict

Overall, this was a masterful episode filled with shocking twists and a really powerful punch of an ending between the Strongs’ murders and Laena’s tragic death. Rhaenyra’s departure to Dragonstone will change many of the game’s dynamics, leaving Alicent alone with the king and by far the most powerful woman in the land despite the lack of dragons.

My only complaint, and it’s a small one, is that we rush through some of these stories too quickly and don’t get to know the characters as much as I would have liked. Laena and Harwin were such small pieces, I think we could have benefited from getting to know them better. Then again, this is a show that spans many years and it just can’t stick to every character and relationship. They do an incredible job of making these scenes strong even without a ton of screen space for the characters.

And for those characters that remain—from Larys to Alicent, to Rhaenyra to Daemon—we get some truly masterful character development, with a fascinating and complex cast that’s somehow even more fascinating than Game of Thrones if not as fun.

I really love the new casting of Rhaenyra and Alicent in particular and I think both D’Arcy and Cooke do a wonderful job inhabiting these characters. I can’t wait to see where the remaining four episodes take them.

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