House of the Dragon Letter Reviews: Episode 9

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<i>House of the Dragon</i> Letter Reviews: Episode 9

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review House of the Dragon each week in a series of letters.

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Shane,

There was a point when King Aegon, Second of His Name, etc., was getting coronated that I remembered what you said about this being Episode 9, a traditionally epic number in the Game of Thrones Universe, and I thought, “Well, this has been a very good episode, but I’m not sure that I’d call it epic” when Princess Rhaenys came crashing through the wall on a dragon. So, okay, pretty epic.

So, even if I’m still bothered by this whole Westerosi Civil War being the result of Queen Alicent basically misunderstanding her dying, poppy-addled husband and forgetting she has a step-grandchild also named Aegon, and even if I’m put off by Alicent paying for the assassination of one of my favorite characters by humoring Creepy Lord Larys’s foot fetish, there was much to appreciate about “The Green Council.”

As soon as word of the King’s death reaches the King’s Hand, the pressure is on. And even though both Alicent and her father were in accord on who should sit on the Iron Throne, I loved seeing the two vying for who would play puppetmaster to young, whiney, rapist King Aegon. Otto is a master manipulator, but Alicent has proven she’s come a long way from the young girl who played her part in her father’s schemes without complaint or even comment. Olivia Cooke continues to shine in the role, making believable the complexity of a character who can be both ruthless and compassionate, cunning and oblivious.

And of course I’m thankful for the return of Mysaria! I knew I loved The White Worm from the first time she put Daemon in his place, scolding him in the most inscrutable TV accent since Moira Rose. Now she’s using her one moment of leverage to get the King’s Hand to put an end to the horrific child fighting pits. George R.R. Martin really must believe strongly in the depravity of man. They sharpen the fingernails and file the teeth of children so they can fight? Who imagines crowds who are entertained by that? But at least there is one character I can unabashedly pull for. Forget Rhaenyra and Alicent. I’m Team Worm!

I’m also still Team Westerling. I mean, we’ve seen the gruff-but-honorable Kingsguard character in the GoTU before, but Ser Harrold Westerling got his moment to shine during the treasonous Small Council meeting. As did Ser Erryk. Or was it Arryk? Hats off to whichever twin freed Rhaenys, allowing her to crash the coronation on a dragon.

So what did you think of the penultimate episode of this first season of House of the Dragon? Worthy of its honored number?

—Josh

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Josh,

We’re on the same page here—it was a solid episode overall, but I think maybe a slight step back from the heater of a run they’ve been on since at least episode six. I hate to lead with foot fetish content, but it’s the scene that stands out most in my mind, and not just because of how gross it was. I actually consider this a pretty bad choice for HBO, because it does a few things that really fail the heart of the show for dubious gain. First off, let’s talk about Queen Alicent, the woman who debases herself by basically turning herself into a sex object for this creeper to get off to so he’ll help her with the more unseamly aspects of King’s Landing realpolitik. For me, this doesn’t jive with her character one bit. She makes sacrifices for her family, yes, but fundamentally she’s strong and cunning, especially in her adult years. This isn’t the kind of person, at least in my mind, who would allow herself to be used like this. She doesn’t have to! Larys depends for her on whatever power he has, and it’s up to him to cast his lot with her in order to improve his prospects. He’s plenty creepy enough just as an ambitious Ltitlefinger type, and I loathe when a show and its writers go into full overkill mode to hit viewers over the head with extraneous lechery that would almost certainly get him killed for ever initiating in the first place. It was unpleasant to watch just from a visceral standpoint, and completely unnecessary and almost insulting from a narrative standpoint. Just a really, really bad choice. And it probably says something that this scene is foremost in my mind even moments after watching the dragon wreckage finale.

Let’s talk about the dragon. Yes, it was our dramatic episode nine shocker, though it stopped short of real death (“real death” equals, of course, death of anyone rich…this is the Game of Thrones universe, after all). When Rhaenys’ dragon only screamed a fireless scream, it took me back immediately to the scene when Alicent visited her in her room. What she said there—that Rhaenyra had screwed her over, among other things—obviously resonated with Rhaenys, and despite the fact that she spoiled the coronation, the mercy she showed indicates that, at least to some degree, she trusts Alicent’s wisdom more than she trusts anyone else. She’s still going to flee, and she’ll almost surely be an antagonist, but she stopped short of defeating the Greens in one fiery conflagration. Maybe she’s a little soft at heart, and maybe she was affected by Alicent’s flattery (“you should have been queen!”), but her decision to fly away is going to have some very long-lasting effects.

Elsewhere, while I appreciated the drama and the speed with which everyone had to act upon Viserys’ death, I also felt a certain ham-handedness here. The murder of Beesbury by Criston Cole didn’t feel “true” for Cole’s character, and the whole plot to install Aegon was a little scatterbrained generally. Sure, they didn’t know exactly when Viserys would die, but it was clear even before that night that his death was imminent, and they really stumbled out of the blocks in a way that felt beneath Hightower.

The same is true for the “kid fights” for exactly the reasons you pointed out Josh. Yes, we’re judging things with modern sensibilities, but this again feels like the writers diving into the dark recesses of their own minds, thinking of the worst thing they can muster, and putting it on the screen regardless of whether it aligns with the reality they’ve created. Once you get past a certain level of depraved, you lose believability, and with this scene (just like the foot fetish scene), you don’t react the way the creators want—it’s not horrifying on a relatable, human level, but just outlandish in a disconcerting way that detracts from the show.

On the positive side, I did enjoy the new schism between father and daughter in the Hightower clan, and the scheming between them as they try to get the upper hand and have control over the future. I also really enjoyed how Aegon transformed the minute they made him king. Before, he was this loathsome, rapey drunkard, and when the crown went on his head…well, he was still all of those things, but also a king. And he was inflated with the reality of being a king. There are serious parallels to the Lannisters of GoT here—father and daughter think they have everything planned out and controlled, but it turns when you make some godawful rat a monarch, you lose some of that control, and the kingdom inevitably suffers for it. Before Rhaenys spoiled the party, you could sense their own budding realization that giving the reins to a sadist may not have been the foolproof plan they had hoped.

I’m with you on Mysaria. She’s exactly the kind of character this show needs. That said, I’m worried about her now that Talya has been found out, and Otto Hightower’s “I will remember” could be read a couple ways…most of them bad. (I also liked his “I’ll look into it” response on the child fights…never has he sounded more like a politician.) Also, this was the first episode without Rhaenyra or Daemon, and I missed both of them. It felt a little claustrophobic being stuck in King’s Landing with the Hightowers. No Paddy Considine is a little jarring too…well, no Paddy Considine besides a brief view of his unfortunate corpse.

As a last thing, despite the fact that I didn’t like what was written for them, I have to once more give props to Olivia Cooke and Rhys Ifans. They continue to kill it, and their sheer presence alone was enough to cover a lot of the flaws of this episode.

Back to you Josh, with a question: If we agree that this episode was maybe a slight wobble, what are you looking for next week to right the metaphorical ship and send season one out on a high note? And a bit of a random one: Do you think we’ll see Corlys Velaryon again?

—Shane

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Shane,

Before I answer your question, I have to say that the overkill with the foot fetish and the child fighting ring reminds me of the whole Ramsay Bolton/Theon Grayjoy torture arc in Game of Thrones, one of the low points of that show leading up to its conclusion. Hopefully neither will be revisited next week.

I’m hoping instead for Mysaria and Harrold Westerling to survive. I’m expecting for Rhaenyra to be as reluctant to launch a Civil War as Alicent was to murder her old friend and step-daughter. And to be left hanging before any battles actually rage.

You bring up an interesting aside about “real death” meaning only the rich and powerful characters of House of Dragon. One of the biggest themes of Martin’s works has been the suffering of the many caused by the ambition, greed and general moral failings of the powerful, illustrated succinctly but almost off-handedly by Rhaenys breaking into the coronation. She spares those who’ve imprisoned her and usurped the crown, but how many deaths of commoners go completely unnoticed—by Rhaenys, by the Hightowers, by the camera? I’ll say again that one of my biggest complaints about this show is the lack of an everyman to give us some kind of investment in whether whoever wins this particular game of thrones is a decent ruler. Mysaria is the closest, but give us the story of one person in Flea Bottom or one servant in the castle or one apprentice conscripted into battling this rich man’s war. I guess that’s what I hope for next season—give us a glimpse into the people Mysaria cares about beyond seeing them rounded up in a jail cell.

As for Corlys, they wouldn’t have kept him alive—and brought him up again this episode—for nothing. Surely he factors into the finale. What about you? What would you caution the writers not to do with the finale if it hadn’t already been filmed? What traps are you hoping the show avoids in order to make us want to write these letters next year?

—Josh

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Josh,

I love the idea of a touchstone type character in this universe, although I very much doubt we’ll ever get one. Game of Thrones, in its early seasons, was decent at giving us brief snippets from that perspective. I’m thinking of Mycah, the butcher’s boy, who the Hound rode down at the queen’s behest, or someone like our old pal Hot Pie. House of the Dragon hasn’t really gone in that direction, aside from someone like Talya who is present but not really prominent, even in small moments.

If I were throwing up a warning sign for next week, it wouldn’t be much different from always: Lean on the human drama, and trust your actors and characters to be intriguing enough on their own without resorting to absurd violence or, you know, foot fetishes. They did such a nice job in the second half of the season leading up to episode nine, and I still think they can save it with a grounded finale. There’s plenty of ground to cover, so maybe that will check them from their worst impulses.

Next week, I anticipate the first steps toward war. I’m especially excited to see what Daemon and Aemond do…both of them are basically listless characters when they don’t have someone to fight, but when it’s time to throw down, nobody is more compelling. And I’m not so sure about Rhaenyra…remember, the Greens wasted no time depriving her of her birthright, and when she left King’s Landing, she was still under the assumption that the crown would be hers. That, plus the fact that they tried to imprison Rhaenys, and murdered the lords who wouldn’t bend the knee, makes me think that Targaryen blood will be boiling.

Should be a great one. Until then!

—Shane

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Follow Shane Ryan and Paste founder/editor Josh Jackson on Twitter.