Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review House of the Dragon each week in a series of letters.
First things first, the headline for me is that House of the Dragon keeps getting better. You and I both had similar experiences early on with a tepid response—it kept us watching with great acting performances and the usual high production value, but weak plotting, particularly around episodes four and five, had us questioning whether we really wanted to be in this for the long haul. Two episodes later, with civil war brewing, I’m ready to pronounce this a solid late season recovery that has me hooked.
In Driftmark, we saw a lot of beautiful filmmaking, starting with the moving funeral for Laena, and culminating with the excellent sequence on the sand dunes when Aemond—suddenly an extremely interesting character—claimed Vhagar from under the Velaryon’s noses in a final insult to their hosts. He also had the line of the night shortly after: “I may have lost an eye, but I gained a dragon.”
The drama is so thick right now, to the point that even Alicent, the woman of duty, is losing her shit and demanding the eye of a child (echoes of Cersei insisting on the direwolf being killed after Joffrey gets bitten). Even better, Otto Hightower loves it because he’s finally seen some fire in his daughter…and is also totally fine with his grandson losing an eye if it means they get a dragon.
Meanwhile, Daemon and Rhaenrya are finally letting their incestual passions run wild, and the scene on the beach was surprisingly tender…but you still can’t help thinking that Targaryen incest is less about love or preserving bloodlines than about the fact that their deepest egocentric desires are to look in a mirror every time they have sex. Regardless, it doesn’t take them long after uniting to plot the death of Laenor. It’s an interesting change from the books by GRRM that in this case, the murder is only staged; in the written histories, Laenor does indeed die at the hands of Qarl, though whether it was truly at Daemon’s behest or a matter of simple jealousy is unsettled.
Regardless, my one concern with this episode is that we’re veering a little quickly into a realm where Rhaenyra and Daemon are the clear villains. I’m not arguing that anyone is truly good in this story, but part of the brilliance of the Dance of the Dragons as written is that you can’t really pick a side. At the moment, I’m hard-pressed to see how the spouse-murdering Targaryens garner sympathy from any side.
The real brilliance of this episode, I thought, was in how clear the battle lines are being drawn before Viserys’ eyes, and his dawning realization that his failing health is all that stands between them and total mayhem. He’s totally powerless to secure a safe legacy for his family or for Westeros, and he knows it, and all he can do is blindly rage at everyone spreading “calumnies” about his daughter. Was there ever a “right” path for him to take? For me, that probably meant disinheriting Rhaenyra somewhere along the way, but then that would be casting his daughter into the abyss…but hey, Rhaenys learned to live with it, even if her husband never did.
As for Corlys, his ambitions are turning into nightmares before his eyes, and despite his assertion that “history doesn’t remember blood, it remembers names,” it’s not looking like either one will come through for him at the moment.
You can feel the anticipation building, every action has an aura of menace about it, and gradually the tenuous peace that has existed between the families is shattering and the general consensus on both sides is moving closer to “act now, and act aggressively, or the other side will.” In short, you can feel the war locomotive gaining speed, and it already seems like there’s no stopping it.
So Josh, what did you think? My big takeaways are that Olivia Cooke continues to kill it as adult Alicent, it’s terrific to have Rhys Ifans back as Otto Hightower, and Dameon and Rhaenyra seem increasingly gross to me in ways that go beyond the world’s least wholesome uncle-niece relationship. Last week I said I thought HotD delivered its best episode yet, and I think I’m ready to say it again. Curious to hear if you agree.
This is my favorite episode so far, and seeing as it includes a creepy incest scene and a kid getting stabbed in the face, I’m not sure what that says about me. I do know that I’ve never been happier that they replaced the wonderful Milly Alcock before Rhaenyra decided to get it on with her uncle. I think it helped that there was almost no time jump between the last episode and this one. We ended with a death and started with a funeral. Things have certainly gotten more interesting, and who would have guessed the kids would be responsible for that?
The fight scene between the children felt real and intense and terrifying. And then the tension that’s been building between Rhaenyra and Alicent came into full bloom when the queen demanded to take an eye from a child. The stakes keep getting higher and the king is as helpless as those of us watching to stop it. And while characters like Otto Hightower and Larys have proven to be schemers, none of them have pulled off a ruse that even had me snookered, like Daemon and Rhaenyra’s surprisingly kind move to set Laenor and Qarl free. If that twist wasn’t in the book, it’s a clever addition that helps mitigate what has been the show’s biggest weakness: that there’s no one to root for.
If Rhaenyra had really just had her husband murdered after he recommitted himself to her and after she told him what a good man he is, it would have cemented the fact that both sides in this struggle for the crown are almost irredeemable. It was a good feint, both within the world of Westeros and for those of us watching in our living rooms. Of course, Daemon has already murdered his wife and Alicent bears the responsibility for a whole family burnt alive, so it’s not like there are an abundance of heroes. I suspect there will be many times this season that I have to remind myself that Laenor and Qarl are living their best lives in Pentos as things become more and more brutal in King’s Landing.
So Olivia Cooke has made an instant impression as Alicent. Who are your other acting all-stars on the show so far? Is there anyone who hasn’t translated as well as you’d hoped from the books?
That’s a really interesting perspective on Laenor and Qarl, and one I hadn’t thought of. I was under the very cynical assumption that Daemon and Rhaenyra absolutely meant to have him killed, particularly after Daemon’s meeting with Qarl and handing him the gold. I thought it was Qarl who took the money and then staged the death because he loved Leanor. And now, even as I type, I’m realizing that the rando that Daemon strangled is the body they put in the fireplace, that he was in on it the whole time, and that I am, frankly, an idiot. Before we move on from my stupidity, may I just remark on the poor guy who got killed simply because he happened to be standing in the wrong place when rich people were doing some nefarious, complicated planning? That’s a real Westeros-style death right there…if you’re not a lord or lady and you’re shown in a GRRM show, RIP my friend. But hey, it is kinda nice that Rhaenyra didn’t whack Leanor a few minutes after their semi-sweet moment of laying all the cards on the table. And I don’t think Laenor will be too upset that “being a good husband” to his wife now means sailing off with his lover somewhere a lot more pleasant
And I agree with you, it’s somehow the very small scenes that are the most intense. When Aemond struts in, high on dragon flight, and starts beating the other kids, you go from respecting to semi-hating him, but quickly the whole thing just becomes incredibly tense…right up to eye stabbing, which comes as a sort of relief, but where you also think, crap, they probably should have just killed him before things get really bad. Leave the kid who just tamed a dragon alive, and with motive for revenge? Not great!
What’s funny about all this, I’m realizing, is that my definition of good guy/bad guy is basically just “who has blond hair?” When it comes to the kids, I’m Team Strong (though I do look forward to more Aemond), but when it’s the adults, I lean toward the Hightowers and the greens generally. I’m going to chalk this up to too much watching WWII films growing up; I simply don’t trust blond people. Or, then again, it might be memories of Daenerys nudging me in that direction. Either way, color me deeply suspicious of all the towheaded characters.
In regards to your question about the best of the best so far, it’s such a hard choice because of how great the casting is. I keep thinking of someone we haven’t seen a lot of, Prince Aegon, who is just masterfully and hilariously played by Ty Tennant. I looked Tennant up, and it was crazy to learn that his grandfather played the fifth Dr. Who, and he’s the adopted son of David Tennant…the tenth Dr. Who. In any case, I can’t tell if he’s very good at playing this sort of dissolute nihilist kid who only cares about drinking and sex, or if the casting is just incredible, since he so perfectly looks the part. I’m sure it’s both, and there are so many examples of that kind of thing.
But let me reframe it this way: who do I most look forward to watching in a given scene? As you said, Olivia Cooke is up there as Alicent. I’ll throw in Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower, Matt Smith as Daemon (even though the character is at times hastily or maybe even sloppily written, he’s still very compelling, a fact that owes itself to Smith’s presence as much as anything), Matthew Needham as Larys Strong (who keeps getting somehow more sinister and needier as things go on…I loved the scene when Alicent praised him on the ship despite a clear aversion to him, knowing she’ll need people like that when the chips are down), Leo Ashton as Prince Aemond (as of last night), and though I’m sure I’m forgetting many, I’ll leave it there for now. In general, though, the performances have been stellar, even in the first few rough episodes when the story was not.
On that note, I can’t think of anyone who has been worse than in the books. Keep in mind we’re talking about a “history” here, more than a novel like the ASIOAF books, so we’re getting way more characterization in the TV show.
I’ll throw it back your way with an off-the-wall question: Give me your top five list of characters from the HotD universe who, if you were thrown into that world as someone of sufficient social standing, you could be friends with.
Ooooh, good and dangerous question. And thanks for tossing me in there with some social standing so I don’t just get murdered in a hallway for my body to be used as a burnt-up double. I’d totally forgotten about that scene, just chalking it up to Daemon helping sneak Qarl into the castle.
They’ve already killed off Lady Baela (who seemed like a good Westeros bestie) Lyonel Strong (a nice enough chap) and Harwin Strong (stubborn but likeable). Plus, who knows what happened to Mysaria after she tried to reign in Daemon’s ambition. So I’ll go with those who we know are still alive:
#5 – Viserys – Sure he’d drive me crazy, but maybe I could talk some sense into him. Just don’t make me Hand to the King because that’s like a giant target on my back.
#4 – Lord Corlys Velaryon – I’d love to have the Sea Snake on my good side. He may be ambitious and a little blind to his son, but who else is going to take me sailing around the Stepstones?
#3 – Rhaenyra – She doesn’t always make the best choices, but who among us does? Plus, if I’m gonna go to Westeros, I need someone to take me for a ride on their dragon—and it sure as hell isn’t going to be Aemond.
#2 – Ser Laenor Velaryon – As Rhaenyra said, he’s got a good heart. Plus he’s uninterested in power and truly loved his sister, who if you sent me to Westeros earlier, would have been my bestie and I’d have talked her out of marrying Daemon in the first place.
#1 – Ser Harold Westerling – Graham McTavish has been sorely underused as the gruff and weathered Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. He seems a dependable and agreeable chap and the kind of guy you’d want in your corner when things go south.
Until next week…
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