House of the Dragon Letter Reviews: Episode 4Photo by Ollie Upton / HBO TV Features house of the dragon
Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review House of the Dragon each week in a series of letters.
I write to you from Bar Harbor, Maine, where I must say…
[takes 20 minutes to pour a glass of wine and amble around the room]
…the view across the marches is inspiring.
So here we are, four episodes in to House of the Dragon, and I think you and I were both solidly of the mindset that it’s been a B to B+ experience so far; no comparison to the heady early days of its predecessor (which, let’s be honest, we’ll never stop comparing it to), but not bad, either. My first question to you, after “King of the Narrow Sea,” is whether you feel better, worse, or essentially the same.
From my perspective, I have to say the opening scene alone was worth the price of admission. When young Samwell Blackwood manages to slay Amos Bracken, played admirably by the smuggest actor in the seven kingdoms, it was a pretty sweet mini-moment of triumph, and I liked how they chose to film it, with Rhaenyra walking away totally unconcerned about the outcome; and also unconcerned with stopping the fight, protecting what was basically a child, or even deigning to be polite to anyone. This is one thing, I think, that the show has done well; showing us the complications in each character, the shortcomings, and the sort of underlying arrogance to many of these people, kings and queens included. It’s a strange combination, actually, with certain scenes played in very broad, black-and-white strokes (I’m thinking of Daemon’s conquest on the Narrow Sea) contrasted with these subtle character-driven moments. If they stuck with the latter on all fronts, House of the Dragon would become a much different and much better show, I think.
Not to dwell too long on the fight, but I did think it was interesting that the show reversed the fates of the characters; in ASOIAF lore, it was actually Amos who defeated Blackwood in a duel for Rhaenyra’s hand, though it took place in the Trident, and didn’t result in Samwell’s death. Later, when the civil war sprang into full combat, the Brackens fought against Rhaenyra, while the Blackwoods fought for her, and this time Blackwood was killed by Amos in hand-to-hand combat…though Amos died shortly after when Samwell’s young sister, “Black Aly,” shot him with a weirwood arrow. All of which is to say, I hope we get a Black Aly character in HotD>
So, nerd glasses off, I also enjoyed the scene of Daemon returning home with his driftwood crown, and bending the knee once again to Viserys. There really was never a question about Viserys accepting him back; he’s a softy at heart, which speaks well for his character but perhaps not as well for his abilities as king. Daemon is flush with ambition, but—I could be reading this wrong—there’s also something a little soft about him, in the midst of his resentments, and you could sense palpable relief in both men when the rift was repaired publicly. Deep down, Viserys is clearly glad to have solved two problems, ridding himself of an obnoxious opponent and healing a divide in his family which can only bear toxic fruit. As far as he’s concerned, a lot of unpleasantness has just passed, and there’s satisfaction there, though he doesn’t seem to realize that everything comes with a price.
Speaking of former friends torn apart, we also see a sweet moment between Alicent and Rhaenyra, and I once again found myself feeling palpable sympathy for Alicent, who is very good at existing in court and playing the game, but who carries a sadness within her that constantly reminds you how she was thrust into this situation, and might have chosen otherwise for herself if it was ever possible. As for Rhaenyra, she’s clearly in a prison of her own, and dreading have to play by the rules and marry a rich lord somewhere, none of whom she likes. I liked Daemon’s line to her—”there are worse things to be sold for”—but again, I feel plenty of sympathy and even pity, because she’s in a situation not of her own making, but unlike Alicent, she’s headstrong and quick to anger, which is a terrible combination for someone in such a high, but precarious, situation.
Of course, just when we’re feeling vaguely sad for everyone, we must move on to a reality we were never escaping: CTS. That stands for Creepy Targaryen S***, and it almost always involves incest. That stays true enough here, when Daemon takes Rhaenyra to a brothel and they (almost? I couldn’t quite tell) get it on in front of lots of people, all interspersed with scenes of Alicent having some very unpleasurable intercourse with Viserys. These are certainly two sides of the sexual spectrum, and we’re probably not going to be able to unsee it. When it’s over, Rhaenyra, clearly hungry for experience, seduces Criston Cole, and at that point pretty much everything has gone to hell. Otto Hightower, with a network of child spies to rival Lord Varys, finds out about Daemon and Rhaenyra, and obviously his first move is to tell the king, because a story like this only facilitates his ultimate aim of putting his grandson on the iron throne. You wonder if Daemon had a similar motive, and if he wanted to be seen in order to make Rhaenyra’s eventual betrothal more difficult, wed her herself, and become king. In any case, we learned the lesson again: sex is never just sex in Westeros.
Viserys doesn’t like it, and doesn’t want to believe it, even as Otto utters the hilariously solemn phrase “the hour of the owl.” This also manages to further damage any lingering friendship between Alicent and Rhaenyra, because Alicent tries to help her and she’s forced to lie. It has a similar effect on Viserys and Daemon, when Daemon stumbles home drunkenly and has the audacity to ask for Rhaenyra’s hand instead of apologizing. That earns him an informal exile, and it all ends with Viserys finally insisting that his daughter marry Laeno Valeryon after telling her about the prince that was promised, the great secret knowledge of all kings and queens. In exchange, Rhaenyra manages to get Otto Hightower the axe (metaphorical, lucky for him).
All in all, Josh, I found this to be probably the best episode we’ve seen so far, and definitely a solid character builder, first mending and the incinerating two key friendships that were, perhaps, holding the realm together by a thread. Now that they’ve been spoiled, all hell could break loose.
What did you think?
I agree that the opening scene was one of this episode’s best moments. While House of the Dragon has a much more expansive timeline, it’s in many ways a much smaller story so far, rarely venturing beyond the walls of King’s Landing. But it’s nice to remember the richness of the world building we’ve already experienced in Game of Thrones and to see some of the lords of Westeros that Rhaenyra hopes to one day rule, even if she’s bored by the whole endeavor. And it serves as a reminder that while our would-be protagonist has plenty of qualities, she’s also a spoiled and entitled princess with little empathy for those outside her immediate circle.
We’re reminded this again in my other favorite moment—before it devolves into yet another gratuitous brothel scene—when Rhaenyra experiences the thrills and hard truths of the gutters of King’s Landing. She may be somewhat bothered by the portrayal of her as feeble, she thinks the opinions of the smallfolk as almost meaningless. She has the Targaryen pride and also the Targaryan self-pity.
The dragons give the towheaded family absolute power and corrupts them in a way that it’s hard to imagine what a good Targaryen ruler would even look like without the hardship of growing up in exile. Daemon proved himself the worst of the current batch as it was clear he wanted to be discovered by his brother in the most pathetic and creepy power grab imaginable.
Paddy Considine continues to shine as Viserys, especially when he fired his hand. Viserys is conflicted about everything and everyone and always with great reason. The Hand is indeed self-interested, but Viserys knows that so is everyone who’s ever been on the small council. But he also knows that Otto wasn’t lying and that he’s been a valuable aide.
And while the Daemon-Rhaenyra “coupling” stopped short, that final scene was powerful as the Grand Maester brought the princess tea. Rhaenyra realizes that her father believes she had sex with her uncle. And she knows that while that wasn’t fully true, she still needs that tea.
Lots of character development, lots of conflict between the main players and the plot keeps driving on. Only one off-screen and very short battle, but no one can accuse this show of being slow. So what did you make of Sir Criston Cole’s decision? I mean that’s going to end up being a death sentence for him, right? And I got the sense he kind of knew that. And Otto looked more hurt than angry. How fairly was Viserys assessing him? I mean, we know he was pawning his daughter off on the king, but Viserys seemed to imply he was responsible for the death of the previous hand or enjoyed the benefits of that death at the very least. Viserys essentially calls him a schemer and that was my first impression of the Hand. Is that fair? And just when the friendship between Alicent and Rhaenyra seemed to be getting repaired, it gets put to another test. Alicent seemed to be reaching out in friendship, but Rhaenyra responds by getting her father fired. Will there be any shred of friendship left?
It’s a question I thought about a lot re: Viserys and Otto. He’s definitely being unfair, especially in the half accusation regarding the previous hand. Where I ended is that it wasn’t quite a fair decision, but it might have been a wise one in the sense that in order to keep his family in line and ensure that Rhaenyra walks the line, he needs to throw her a bone. The problem is, to fire someone in the wake of an accusation like that doesn’t exactly look great; it looks like you’re suppressing the truth, and these things have a way of spreading anyway. But we’ll see how all that plays out.
I also think you’re right about the Targaryens being behind the ethical 8-ball from the start. How can you raise anyone in that environment without them being corrupt from the start, not to mention arrogant, entitled and everything else? In that sense, Viserys looks better all the time, even if he lacks a bit of the mettle you’d like to see. And I agree that Considine remains the star here for how he embodies all of this guy’s contradictions.
Amazing point about the moon tea scene, it’s probably a sad commentary on my viewing habits, but I didn’t connect the dots about King Viserys almost certainly being the one who ordered it; I suspected…well, I don’t know what. But it showcases the idea that Viserys is nobody’s fool, even when it comes to his family. And it also means he knew Otto was telling the truth, even if it served his self-interest.
As for Criston Cole, yes, this is the worst possible decision for him, and one that’s at the very least going to entangle him in things he does not want to be entangled in, and at worst just result in his death.
So Josh, forgetting good guys and bad guys for a moment, since this show and its predecessor are very good at avoiding that kind of dichotomy, I’m curious who you find yourself rooting for? Is there anyone yet who has captured even a touch of your allegiance, or is your flag still to be won?
That’s my biggest complaint of the show so far. Even though Martin is really good at giving us complicated and down-right awful characters, Game of Thrones had heroes who we felt deeply for. It’s what made scenes like Ned’s death or the Red Wedding so shocking. But more than that, there were a dozen characters we came to love—Tyrion, Samwell, Arya and Daenerys and so many more. House of the Dragon gets closest with Rhaenyra, but it’s also taken pains to show that she’s pretty cold and pretty spoiled. The characters we should care for, those who are just doing their best to be decent and get by—Ser Criston, for example—we barely know. I’d love to answer your question with a resounding yes and a list, but my allegiance is still fully up for grabs.
Wait, I take that back. I’m Team Mysaria. Daemon’s second wife is the first person in all of Westeros I can remember being presented with a path to power and spitting in its face. She knows how stupid blind ambition can be. It’s enough to forgive whatever that weird accent is. I hope she lives a long and happy life.
Until next week…