Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review House of the Dragon each week in a series of letters.
First impressions: Solid finale, and a good-to-very-good end to an excellent second half of the first season. I had my misgivings about last week, but prior to that, everything from episode six onward had been a knockout, and I think we got back there tonight with “The Black Queen.”
More than anything, I thought the episode highlighted the big thematic differences between the warring sides of the Targaryen dynasty. Last week, we were almost exclusively with the greens, with the lone exception of Rhaenys, and this week we were almost exclusively with the blacks, with the lone exception of Aemond and Otto Hightower. And in general, I think Team Rhaenyra is a little bit more fun right now. There’s a sense of openness and possibility surrounding them, a kind of underdog vitality that has been waiting to emerge for a decade or more. The opposite is true in King’s Landing, where the greens seem to be in a claustrophobic defensive posture, operating within the close confines of the Red Keep, their machinations happening in back room councils, the levers of power in the hands of shadowy men with foot fetishes. (Yes, I am still not over the foot scene, Josh. I don’t know that I ever will be.)
The headline here, of course, is that Aemond’s murder of Lucerys—poor Lucerys!—is going to be the end of Rhaenyra’s moderation, and clearly send her on a killing spree that can only end in war. What was interesting to me here is that while in George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, the source material, Aemond’s attack on Lucerys was rage-filled and entirely purposeful, while on the show the writers hedged their bets and made it seem like he was either just trying to scare him or perhaps on a mission to take his eye, but not to kill him. Ultimately it’s the dragons that fail to obey—apparently you can’t just yell “serve me” to get them back in line—and more or less their fault that the situation escalated. In fact, Aemond looks horrified when worse comes to worse. You have to think this is because there’s a lot more plot left for him, and they want to cast him more as a creature of circumstance rather than a cold-blooded killer with no chance of catching our sympathies.
In any case, the season ends with a look from Rhaenyra that says it all—it’s war time, baby. There’s an old adage that when you set out on a mission of revenge, you should dig two graves, but here it feels like the grave should be dug for all of Westeros.
It’s a shame, too, because Rhaenys was right when she told a recovered Corlys that Rhaenyra was the only one holding the kingdom together. Daemon just wanted to fight at any cost, and most of the advisors felt the same way, but she seemed to be on the verge of hatching a plan that would strangle the greens with sieges and alliances and force the end of Aegon’s reign with as little bloodshed as possible, while preserving the relative stability of the realm. Instead, it’s all going to go to hell in a handbasket.
Speaking of chaos, Josh, I have to mention here that I respect the HELL out of Otto Hightower for showing up on Dragonstone with “peace terms” from King Aegon. It’s been an insane season of television, but that might be the single most insane thing any character has ever done. That’s a job that the lowliest messenger would dread, and here the guy who plotted the entire downfall of Rhaenyra now has the cojones to show his face in a place where he has literally no chance of protecting himself. The fact that he did it and made it out alive? I almost hate to say it, but maybe this guy should be king.
I also enjoyed Rhaenys quite a bit in this episode, right from her response when Daemon asked the question a lot of us were asking last week, which was, “why didn’t you just light them all up while you had the chance?” Her answer makes sense, but I liked it even better when, for once in his life, Corlys suggested neutrality, and she looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “This is the one time in your life you can’t be neutral, idiot,” she said. (Okay, she didn’t say those words exactly, but close enough.) There’s no such thing as not taking sides in the civil war to come, and while there are really no good choices for the Velaryons, since they think Rhaenyra and Daemon killed their son (I still think this was a plotting mistake, by the way…his death should have been left more vague, as in Fire & Ice), but apparently they still think Rhaenyra’s sons are their blood, or they just don’t care. Regardless, it’s still the better option for them, and having the Sea Snake on her side is a really big deal for Rhaenyra.
Elsewhere, we have the sad separation of Erryk and Arryk, Kingsguard twins, a stillbirth, Daemon working those Nick Saban hours on the dragon recruiting trail, and the coolest f***ing table I’ve seen in a show full of cool tables. All in all, a really full episode!
And a good one, at least in my estimation. Over to you, Josh. What did you think?
I agree that the first season finished strong, unfortunate pun intended. Poor Lucerys, indeed! Of course the show waited until this episode to really develop the young prince in any meaningful way, but it was enough to make his shocking demise heartbreaking.
You asked me before which camp was drawing my sympathies more, but the writers have left no question on who we should be rooting for—Rhaenyra became the most sympathetic figure on the show in The Black Queen. Alicent might not completely be a villain here, but her progeny are awful. Aemond might have “accidentally” murdered Lucerys, but from Otto’s plotting to put his awful grandson on the throne to Aemond killing the child prince, I’d be surprised to find any TV watcher who supported the Greens. Not sure if it’s as cut-and-dried in the book.
And while you say you respect Otto Hightower for being brave enough to treat with Rhaenyra, I’m not sure he had a choice. To me, that scene said as much about how Alicent has truly reclaimed power to the point that she sent her father with a message to her old friend when he had advised striking first. The question is that if he waited around for answer, I imagine he’d be a dead man once the queen found out about her son.
I do appreciate that this is a story of two women who don’t want war but the men—and dragons—around them have left both of them with little choice. They both understand what this is going to mean for the kingdom, that a war with dragons will mean the victor will be ruling the ashes of Westeros, something neither Daemon nor Otto seem concerned with.
What did you get from the scene where Daemon was strangling Rhaenyra? Do scenes like that make the show feel more artful or true because they certainly make it less enjoyable. I don’t think of myself as a prude or someone who’s easy to offend, but like the foot fetish scene, I get tired of the writers feeling like they need to make the audience uncomfortable. I’m all for art that challenges when there’s a purpose behind it, but once again I’m scratching my head at the purpose.
Anyways, I was glad to have Corlys back, especially this older, more introspective version. Steve Toussaint has been one of the stand-outs among an already stellar cast, and even a weak and injured Lord Corlys can command the room.
So what do you think of Daemon at this point? There’s very little redemptive about his character, and no matter how charismatic Matt Smith is, I’d be happy to see Aemond’s dragon eat him like a snack. Also, the events are starting to reach beyond one little corner of Westeros. Will that continue next season or is this tragic tale of two families destined to remain a smaller story in Martin’s world?
Agree with you on the strangling scene. On one hand, at least it was a little more ambiguous than the knock-you-over-the-head foot scene, in the sense that it was kind of hard to understand why he was doing it, if it was just pure rage or he was making a point or it was just more Targaryen weirdness, and her response also seemed a little counterintuitive. It hinted at dynamics we can’t really understand. By and large, though, I totally agree, no matter how we rationalize it, it was gratuitous and unnecessary. It’s interesting to me how the show went away from the book several times in an attempt to paint the characters in shades of gray (Aemond killing Lucrerys was accidental, Alicent legitimately thought Viserys named Aegon king, Laenor not actually being killed, etc.), but then in its down moments it constantly feels the need to hammer us with something egregious out of left field. If you want to be edgy, HotD, stop trying to make us think everyone is a good guy!
Still, it didn’t detract a ton from the episode, the way the Larys scene did last week. I’m with you on Corlys, it was nice to see him back in action like we predicted, and fighting hard for (what he thinks is) his family. The greens are now fully the bad guys, regardless of the writers’ intentions, and it’s especially evident in the casting choices, like how in the last time jump Aemond aged about 30 years and three feet, while Lucerys went from being age seven to approximately eight. And though we didn’t get to see Aegon II this time, the thought of what a creep the next king of Westeros is can never be far from our minds. Frankly, Aemond is one of the few interesting greens to me at this point, besides brave Otto.
Speaking of him, you’re right, Alicent has begun to prove that she can wield power now that she has it, and his visit to Dragonstone proves the point. Granted, it may have been wise to send an emissary instead, especially when messengers proclaiming a usurper king tend to be killed from time to time, but we’ll get past that.
As for Daemon, I can’t help but be drawn to him still. Matt Smith is just so good at whatever emotion the sometimes mercurial script calls for, whether that’s sadistic, sad, or just weird. I’m as happy to watch him clamor for war or threaten king’s guards who don’t seem to need threatening as I am to see him wander around the dragon pit singing in the face of the most terrifying dragon in Westeros.
And you’re right, the world is expanding. We’ve heard references to more than a few characters, one of whom, Boros Baratheon, we saw at the very end Sunday night…and he kinda sucked. Is there anyone you’re interested in meeting in season two, Josh? Will the Starks be the same as Starks have always been? Will the Arryn at the Eyrie be hopefully less bizarre than Lysa Arryn? Who else?
Season 1 was expansive over time, often at the cost of interrupting the emotional beats, but it paid off for the most part by setting up a grand history. I expect Season 2 to become more expansive geographically, and I hope it can balance it with the intimate stories the show has been telling. And because this is a franchise show, we’ve already had a lot of world building that will be fun to revisit. And there’s nowhere I’m more looking forward to than Winterfell.
Winter is coming, many generations for now, and Lord Stark may be the only person alive besides Rhaenyra that has any inkling. I suspect the North will continue to remember.
And frankly, I could use an honorable Stark next season, along with more of the White Worm and, of course, good Ser Harrold Westerling.
Until next season…