Warning: the following contains full spoilers for the second episode of House of the Dragon, which airs August 28 on HBO. If you haven’t caught up, check out our spoiler-free review of premiere last week.
By the end of the strong opening episode of this Game Of Thrones spin-off, everything seemed to be unusually dory for Westeros. Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) has been crowned heir to the throne of her father Viserys (Paddy Considine), while disruptive uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) has gone into exile in anger. Alas, this second episode, set six months later, sets up the potentially titanic conflicts that will drive this series, and which could ruin them all.
The most obvious threat ends the episode: the Crab Feeder, alias Craghas Drahar, haunts the coasts of the kingdom. A mysterious figure, he shoots at Westerosi ships and stakes his victims on the shore at low tide to be devoured by the seemingly vicious crustacean inhabitants of Westeros (I guess it makes sense that even crabs are cursed with a thirst for insatiable blood there). It’s a striking scene, the low golden sun playing nicely against the black smoke of the burning ships and the horrid gore at ground level, but also grotesque. For Craghas himself, however, the series falls back on old prejudiced 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 slaughter we’re used 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 entire battlefields of casualties at once. And it’s still only the second week. At this point in Game Of Thrones, they were still on Kingsroad throwing rocks at a pup.
No wonder Steven Toussaint’s Lord Corlys pleads for war against this outlaw. As usual, Viserys is reluctant to act, driving a wedge between them. This flaw is dug by the main plot of the episode: the question of the king’s remarriage. Corlys and his wife Targaryen Rhaenys (Eve Best) offer their daughter Laena (currently young Nova Foueillis-Mosé). She is the King’s first cousin once removed, so the Targaryen tradition of intermarriage continues; she is also the daughter of his oldest ally, House Velaryon, and marrying her would show that the two ancient Valyrian Houses are closer than ever. If she’s around 10 and he’s around 50, what about? The rough medieval rules apply, apparently.
Ick factor aside, the proposal makes sense for the entire King’s Little Council, even Rhaenyra. But all these planners counted without Viserys himself. On the 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 isn’t just that he’s marrying Alicent – although marrying your daughter’s best friend just isn’t pretty. The problem, which runs through this entire episode, is that Rhaenyra’s position is still not secure. She is the heiress, but still not in the king’s trust. She attends (some) small council meetings, but still serves drinks. She feels them trying to maneuver around her but seems to have no supporters to turn to. It’s an untenable position, made worse by his father’s decision not to tell anyone, not even Rhaenyra, of the announcement he’s about to make. So much for working together to protect Westeros from the apocalypse foretold in Targaryen’s dreams.
Rhys Ifans’ Otto Hightower, meanwhile, is working hard to quell his smugness that his manipulations have paid off. Ifans does a lot with very little in this episode, showing a distrust of Rhaenyra, an iron fist with Alicent, and a delicate sense of what will influence the king. Watch the first scene where he talks about the wisdom of a match between Viserys and Laena, but laments the “pain” of getting married for the duty the king has to bear. Otto knows that Viserys never chose pain in his life, where there was an easier path, and of course he won’t here either. This is a beautiful piece of writing by Ryan J. Condal and Ifans actor.
Probably the most significant event of this week is this wedding and Rhaenyra’s immediate horror. The show’s attitude towards sexism is strange, so far. On the one hand, this is yet another fantastic series that has freely chosen to reproduce a patriarchy, unlike wheel of time for example because it is one thing to design dragons but quite another to design gender equality. The only good reason for this will be if it can give the female characters enough agency and character to say something about the harms such discrimination creates in our world, and the needless waste of ability it causes. It’s not entirely clear, at this time, if this show will do that, or just stick to the killing.
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But enough speculation: Daemon might die if we don’t already talk about it. After shunning Dragonstone for six months, he’s clearly bored, so he decides to claim his brother’s attention by claiming a dragon egg for himself, announcing his plans to marry his girlfriend Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno ) and promising the egg to the child they might one day have. Since the wedding appears to be news to Mysaria and she is not pregnant, it is happening on a royal scale. Otto, showing a bravery we didn’t expect of him, leads the mission to retrieve the egg despite the obvious possibility that Daemon will simply lay the dragon on him. But it is Rhaenyra who saves the day.
Their confrontation is the best moment of the series so far. Daemon and Otto clash on the long road to Dragonstone (recreated in the studio rather than the Spanish location, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, where it was reportedly first filmed), their mutual hatred simmering. almost crystallizing in the air around them. Then Daemon’s dragon, the “Red Worm” Caraxes, crawls from the top of the cliffs and there’s a palpable feeling that shit has gotten real. These dragons, with their long twisty necks, are closer to Tolkien than Dragonheart, more Smaug than Toothless, and they’re deeply fearsome weapons.
Just before Otto is lightly fricasseed, however, Rhaenyra arrives on her dragon Syrax, and she talks to her uncle about handing the egg over to him. The bond between them, established in the first episode when they flirted in front of the Iron Throne, holds firm even if he was disappointed that she supplanted him as heir. Rhaenyra is particularly similar to Daenerys in her riding gear and proves to be equally effective. Smith, meanwhile, is good at the kind of sudden turn Daemon makes, standing up for himself one minute and flipping the contested egg the next, seemingly on a whim. Sure, he’s offended his brother, niece, and girlfriend, but Daemon knows when to cut his losses and wait for the next opportunity for mischief.
This chance comes, as luck would have it, very quickly. After storming out of the council when the king announced his intention to marry Alicent, Lord Corlys retreats to his home in Driftmark and invites Daemon to visit. He offers an alliance: they will both go and take down the Crab Feeder, increasing their standing in the Seven Kingdoms all the way to Viserys has take them both seriously. What could go wrong? No doubt we will find out next week.
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