Warning: the below contains full spoilers for House of the Dragon’s second episode, which aired on Aug. 28 on HBO. If you’re not caught up, check out our spoiler-free review of last week’s premiere.
At the end of the strong opening episode to this Game Of Thrones spin-off, everything seemed to be unusually hunky dory for Westeros. Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) was anointed heir to her father Viserys’ (Paddy Considine) throne, while troublemaking uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) went into exile in a huff. Alas, this second episode, taking place six months later, sets up the potentially titanic conflicts that will drive this series, and which could spell ruin for them all.
The most obvious threat bookends the episode: the Crab Feeder, aka Craghas Drahar, haunts the kingdom’s shores. A mysterious figure, he fires on Westerosi ships and stakes out his victims on the shore at low tide to be devoured by Westeros’ apparently vicious crustacean inhabitants (I suppose it makes sense that even the crabs are cursed with an insatiable bloodlust there). It’s a strikingly shot scene, the low golden sun nicely playing off the black smoke of burning ships and the horrific gore at ground level, but also grotesque. For Craghas himself, however, the series falls back on prejudiced old tropes equating disfigurement with violence, hiding his scarred face behind a Phantom Of The Opera-style metal mask.
This seaside carnage is the first sign we’ve seen of the large-scale massacre we’re accustomed to in Westeros; if last week was all about the carefully limited violence of the joust and the all-too-real dangers of childbirth, here the scope widens to whole battlefields of victims at once. And it’s still only week two. At this point in Game Of Thrones they were still on the Kingsroad, throwing stones at a puppy.
No wonder that Steven Toussaint’s Lord Corlys argues for war against this outlaw. As per usual Viserys is reluctant to act, creating a rift between them. That rift is torn wider by the episode’s main plot: the question of the king’s remarriage. Corlys and his Targaryen wife Rhaenys (Eve Best) propose their daughter Laena (young Nova Foueillis-Mosé currently). She’s the king’s first cousin once removed, so continues the Targaryen tradition of intermarriage; she is also the daughter of his oldest ally, House Velaryon, and marrying her would show that the two old Valyrian houses are as tight as ever. If she’s about 10 and he’s around 50, what of it? Gross medieval rules apply, apparently.
Ick factor aside, the proposition makes sense to the king’s entire small council, even to Rhaenyra. But all of these planners have reckoned without Viserys himself. On one hand, Considine’s character shows a commendable reluctance to marry a literal child. On the other, his growing affection for Alicent (Emily Carey) leads him to a decision that alienates Corlys, shocks the rest of the council, and could jeopardize his relationship with Rhaenyra forever.
The problem is not simply that he’s marrying Alicent – although marrying your daughter’s bestie is simply not a good look. The issue, which runs all through this episode, is that Rhaenyra’s position is still not secure. She’s the heir, but still not in the king’s confidence. She attends (some) meetings of the small council, but is still serving drinks. She senses them trying to maneuver around her but seems to have no supporter of her own to turn to. It’s an untenable position, made worse by her father’s decision not to warn anyone, even Rhaenyra, of the announcement he’s about to make. So much for working together to protect Westeros from the apocalypse foretold in the Targaryen dreams.
Rhys Ifans’ Otto Hightower, meanwhile, works hard to suppress his smugness that his manipulations have paid off. Ifans does a lot with very little in this episode, showing a wariness of Rhaenyra, an iron fist with Alicent, and a delicate sense of what will sway the king. Watch the early scene where he talks about the wisdom of a match between Viserys and Laena, but bemoans the “pain” of marrying for duty that the king must bear. Otto knows that Viserys has never opted for pain in his life, where there was an easier road, and sure enough he won’t here either. It’s a lovely bit of writing by Ryan J. Condal, and of acting by Ifans.
The single most significant event this week is probably this marriage, and Rhaenyra’s immediate horror. The show’s attitude to sexism is odd, so far. On one hand, this is yet another fantasy series that has freely chosen to replicate a patriarchy, unlike Wheel Of Time for example, because it’s one thing to conceive of dragons but another to conceive of sexual equality. The only good reason for it will be if it can give the female characters sufficient agency and character to actually say something about the wrongs that such discrimination creates in our world, and the unnecessary waste of ability that it causes. It’s not entirely clear, yet, if this show will do that, or just stick with murder.
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But enough speculation: Daemon might die if we don’t discuss him already. After sulking on Dragonstone for half a year he’s clearly bored mindless, so he decides to claim his brother’s attention by claiming a dragon egg for his own, announcing his plans to marry his girlfriend Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) and promising the egg to the child they might one day have. Given that the wedding seems to be news to Mysaria, and that she isn’t pregnant, this is acting out on a royal scale. Otto, showing a measure of bravery that we didn’t expect from him, leads the mission to retrieve the egg despite the clear possibility that Daemon will just set the dragon on him. But it’s Rhaenyra who saves the day.
Their confrontation is the best moment of the series so far. Daemon and Otto are squaring off on the long path up to Dragonstone (recreated in the studio rather than in the Spanish location, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, where it was first filmed, it seems), their mutual hatred almost crystallising in the air around them. Then Daemon’s dragon, the “Red Worm” Caraxes, crawls down from the top of the cliffs and there’s a palpable sense that shit just got real. These dragons, with their sinuous long necks, are closer to Tolkien than Dragonheart, more Smaug than Toothless, and they’re deeply frightening weapons.
Just before Otto is lightly fricasseed, however, Rhaenyra arrives on her dragon Syrax, and she talks her uncle into handing over the egg. The connection between them, established even in the first episode as they flirted in front of the Iron Throne, holds good, however disappointed he was that she supplanted him as heir. Rhaenyra looks particularly Daenerys-like in her riding gear, and proves similarly effective. Smith, meanwhile, is great at the sort of sudden turn that Daemon does, arguing for his rights one minute and flipping over the disputed egg the next, apparently on a whim. Sure, he’s offended his brother, his niece, and his girlfriend, but Daemon knows when to cut his losses and wait for the next chance for mischief.
That chance comes, as luck would have it, very quickly. After storming out of council when the king announces his plans to marry Alicent, Lord Corlys retreats to his home on Driftmark and invites Daemon to visit. He proposes an alliance: they’ll both go and take down the Crab Feeder, thereby increasing their standing in the Seven Kingdoms until Viserys has to take them both seriously. What could go wrong? No doubt we’ll find out next week.
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