House of the Dragon Letter Reviews: Episode 6

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<i>House of the Dragon</i> Letter Reviews: Episode 6

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

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Shane,

This week we had births and deaths and births that ended with death. It was an interesting way to introduce Emma D’Arcy as the adult Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, unceremoniously replacing young Milly Alcock, who had been one of the best things about House of the Dragon so far. Casting has always been a strong suit of this franchise, and I have no doubt that D’Arcy will continue that trend, but it was a little disorienting to accept this bullied and desperate Rhaenyra as the same confident and headstrong woman we’ve been watching.

The transition of Alicent Hightower from the young woman played by Emily Carey, who we last saw turning heads in her striking green dress, to the colder and more calculating Queen in all her power played by Olivia Cooke, was almost seamless. Alicent has taken her father’s words to heart, believing that if she stands by her children won’t survive Rhaenyra’s ascension.

Unfortunately for her—and possibly the realm—her sons don’t exactly seem like king material. Prince Aegon’s scenes in “The Princess and the Queen” include bullying his brother, pleasuring himself on the balcony and barely beating up a boy half his size. He looks like a Targaryen with his bad blond haircut, though, unlike Rhaenyra’s bastard sons, who look more like their father, Ser Harwin Strong, the son of the King’s Hand.

Last week we talked about Lord Larys Strong as the show’s one true schemer, and this week revealed him to be a bit of a psychopath who cuts the tongues out of prisoners and sends them to burn down his home of Harrenhall, killing his own father and brother in the process. I need more backstory on the Strong family and if there’s any more motive here than that of a second son wanting his father’s inheritance. He seems to think there’s more reward to be had from the queen for doing her dirty work, even if she never asked him to.

And then we have Prince Daemon and his wife Lady Laena Velaryon living in exile in Essos. Laena, who Viserys passed over as his queen suffers the same fate as Viserys’s first wife, choosing to die a dragonrider’s death instead of getting carved open by a surgeon.

So much has happened in the time jump between episodes and in this sixth episode. What stood out to you and how do you feel about all the new actors and characters? How is Ser Criston Cole still around and how has Laenor not had him killed? And how long can the king just put his head in the sand?

—Josh

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Josh,

This was my second time watching this episode after seeing it on screeners roughly two months ago, and it was also the last episode offered in the original screeners package, meaning my privilege is done and I’m going to be flying blind from now on. I only mention this because I remember feeling an urge to keep watching the first time around, and now that I’ve seen it again, I actually think this might be the best episode of the series yet. That’s not a super high bar, because you and I have both had our reservations with various aspects of the show so far, and I agree with you that the new cast was a little bit jarring (as we thought it might be). That said, I thought “The Princess and the Queen” succeeded the most of any HotD episode so far mostly because of how aggressively ominous everything felt.

It started with the very first scene, when Alicent essentially forced Rhaenyra to walk the baby to her moments after delivery. Watching Rhaenyra receive that news was deeply unsettling, and even though the worst didn’t happen, it planted a seed of murder and disquiet that would pay off by episode’s end. Alicent herself, when we first see her, is chilling. “You should be resting after your labors,” she tells Rhaenyra, but it’s clear she wanted to put her through the exact trial she has to endure walking up the steps. It’s equally clear that the reason she wanted to see the child was to suss out whether this one might actually be Laenor’s child, or if it was another illegitimate son of Harwin Strong. It’s equally hard to tell how she feels about the news, but as you pointed out, she is now very much her father’s daugher—his words stuck with her—and you get the sense that for her long term plans, it’s quite a good thing that the children thus far have been born out of wedlock. We can see that mindset even more clearly when Rhaenyra proposes marriage between her son and Alicent’s daughter; Viserys loves the idea, but Alicent receives it as coldly as humanly possible.

I agree with you that in terms of casting transitions, Olivia Cooke seems to fit the earlier version of her character better than Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra. Which isn’t a criticism of D’Arcy at all—she was terrific in this episode, I thought—but just that Rhaenyra feels far more worldly, with her flaws tamped down, than the headstrong princess we knew before. (It may also be that Cooke and Emily Carey look far more alike than the two Rhaenyras.) In any case, I don’t think I’ll have too much trouble adjusting, though of course Milly Alcock will be missed.

As for Criston Cole, I think he’s around because Alicent knows he makes a good ally. She essentially saved him after he murdered Laenor’s lover in the melee, and now he likely feels grateful and loyal to her where once he had felt that way toward Rhaenyra. I thought the way he egged on Harwin Strong when the kids were battling was a particularly good scene, right up until his bloody grin, lying on the ground: “I thought as much.”

He doesn’t realize he’s sealed Strong’s fate by pushing him to violently defend his sons, but then again he probably doesn’t realize the level of psychopath he’s dealing with in Larys Strong. What do you think of him, Josh? Gavin Spokes is certainly creepy enough, and the way he looked at Alicent when she said “Will nobody in King’s Landing take my side?” was appropriately terrifying…as was his knowing demeanor when she protested that she didn’t actually want anyone to die. But now she’s freed up to bring her father back into the fold, which she desperately needs, and Larys has a favor in his pocket. I think I like this caracter, although like many GoT analogues in this show, he’s not quite as subtle as someone like Varys or Littlefinger.

Finally, we have Daemon and his poor wife. I still have no idea what to make of Daemon. They’re trying to strike that Jaime Lannister balance, where he’s both good and evil, but there just seems to be very little consistency here. I find the character compelling, but it never quite feels right to me, if that makes sense. Still, there are big things coming for him, particularly with Rhaenyra headed to Dragonstone.

Question for you as I throw it back—do you feel more or less excited about the show today than you did last week, when we both agreed the episode was below par? And what do you think of Viserys’ development? Is it more, or has he become even more ineffectual with the time jump?

—Shane

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Shane,

I can’t point to a better episode, except maybe the pilot when it felt like all the potential was there and it was a joy just to be back in Westeros. With this time jump, it feels like the table is finally set and everything is in motion. We’ve gotten to know the characters even if we’ve only just been introduced to half the actors. There was a new tension from the jump where Rhaenyra isn’t just at odds with her old friend Alicent, but she fears her. And all of their children’s lives are suddenly on the line. I am looking more forward to next week’s episode than I have the last few.

Viserys may be a better man than any of the kings of Westeros that we’ve seen, but he’s become an even weaker king. Paddy Considine continues to brilliantly portray his world-weariness and his complexity so that he feels the most real, developed character in the show by some distance. I’ll be sad to see him go. We need some flashbacks with the younger king and his young daughter later this season.

And I’m reserving judgement on Larys. George R.R. Martin’s schemers have been a delight to watch and I hope that’s going to be the case here. But as you say, it’s going to require a little more subtlety than we’ve seen—and someone for him to play his evil game of cyvasse with. Little Finger had Varys. I don’t even know who Rhaenyrs’s allies are yet.

So what do you think of the potential heirs so far? Aside from Ty Tennant as snivelly Aegon, the new child actors haven’t had a whole lot to do yet, but an entire war is about to be fought for their future. And as time keeps jumping, we’ll have new actors for all of them—and grown-ass dragons for all of them to both ride and creepily command “Dracarys!”

—Josh

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Josh,

The heirs are indeed a little uninspiring, particularly the blond progeny of Viserys and Alicent, who seem both enfeebled and a little odd. That said, I think I can spot a bit of the red-hot Targaryen rage in some of them; the kind we’ll see later in Daenerys and the Mad King. A little inbreeding is going to give you some of that emotional turmoil, although at the moment they look more sickly than psychopathic.

As for the children of Harwin Strong and Rhaenyra, they seem a bit more sturdy, but also pretty screwed vis-a-vis their position in Westeros. Not only is their father dead, but with rumors circulating about the parentage, who knows if they’ll even have Velaryon support? We already know that the Dance of Dragons is about a Targaryen Civil War, so what I’m about to say isn’t exactly profound, but still I’ll say it: All signs point to war.

What does seem clear is that Daemon and Rhaenyra’s paths will cross again, and that Rhaenyra is right to run away from the storm as the clouds gather. Otto Hightower told Alicent that Rhaenyra would have to kill her children when the time came to protect her own children’s path to the throne, but even though Rhaenyra is queen-in-waiting, she’s already getting the sense that Alicent is out-maneuvering her, and that her claim won’t mean much once Viserys dies. I think it’s no coincidence that Larys Strong, who understands the machinations and alliances at court better than anyone, is casting his lot with Alicent—at the moment, she seems like the clear winner, and the only thing holding her back is Viserys refusing to kick the bucket.

I agree with you, Considine remains perfect, and it will be said when his character goes (he can’t have more than 1-2 more episodes, right?). Tepid as he is as a leader, there’s still a sense of stability in him, and what made this episode so exciting for me and so tense is that you can already sense how the shit will hit the fan when he’s gone. The chess pieces aren’t attacking each other directly yet, but they’re filing into position, and when the Viserys piece is removed from the board, it’s going to be mayhem.

In short, we’re beyond a peaceful resolution—another fact that speaks to Viserys’ failure. The good news is, I’m excited to see what happens next. Until Sunday!

—Shane

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