‘The Princess And The Queen’


When we open on House Of The Dragon this Sunday, ten years have passed. Rhaenyra—now played by the excellent Emma D’Arcy—is in labor, about to give birth to her third son.

The babe is born and immediately the queen demands that the boy be presented to her. Rhaenyra declines to have it sent, determined to make the long trek herself and not give Alicent—now played in much more ruthless fashion by Olivia Cooke—the satisfaction.

She’s joined by her husband, Laenor (aged up and played as an overly-confident dandy by John McMillan) who thinks the whole thing is ridiculous.

Alicent’s demand is a power play, obviously. She wants to flaunt her power over the princess and she wants to see if the baby bears any resemblance to Laenor. The boy, who Laenor blurts out is named Joffrey, does not. Like his brothers, he is white and has brown hair. “Keep trying, Ser Laenor,” Alicent murmurs. “Maybe someday you’ll get one who looks like you.”

An old and worn down Viserys (Paddy Considine) seems entirely oblivious of all this politicking around him. He refuses to believe Alicent’s allegations that the children are, in fact, Harwin Strong’s (Ryan Corr) but also doesn’t seem to care that his wife forced his daughter to present her child just moments after birth.

His obliviousness extends to the training yard, where Ser Criston Cole shows clear, unbridled favoritism for Alicent’s sons, Aegon (Ty Tennant) and Aemund (Leo Ashton) at the expense of Rhaenyra’s sons Lucerys or Luc for short (Harvey Sadler) and Jacaerys (Leo Hart).

This irks Harwin, who has come to the yard to watch. He confronts Criston (Fabien Frankel) and asks why he doesn’t give the younger boys the same amount of attention. So Cole pits young Jaecerys against Aegon and urges the older boy to give no quarter and show no mercy. Finally Harwin grabs the prince and hurls him aside.

Cole, clearly pleased, asks why he shows such interest in the boys. The kind of interest that a father might show. It’s an obvious taunt but Harwin is known for his strength not his wits, and he takes the bait leaping onto Cole and beating him. Cole doesn’t seem phased; indeed, he seems very pleased by the whole thing.

It’s a scandal, of course. Harwin’s father and Hand of the King, Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes) is furious with his son and tries to resign, telling Viserys he can no longer advise him faithfully. Viserys refuses saying that Harwin’s dismissal from the Goldcloaks is punishment enough; Alicent tries to get Lyonel to tell them why, but he says he cannot. He asks, instead, to take Harwin back to Harrenhal and out of the public eye. This, we soon find out, is a grave mistake.

Harwin is a very likable knight. He is more honorable and kind than Ser Criston, and clearly a better match for Rhaenyra. But neither he nor the princess has been careful enough. When he departs and says his farewells to the boys, even they realize that he seems more than just a friend. “Is Harwin Strong my father?” Jaecerys asks. “Am I a bastard?”

“You are a Targeryen,” Rhaenyra replies. “That’s what matters.”

Meanwhile, Alicent has surrounded herself with schemers and politicians. Ser Criston Cole now guards her chambers instead of Rhaenyra’s, and his bitterness toward the princess has only grown and festered over the years. While Alicent views her as a threat and as competition, Criston actively despises the princess, calling her a “spoiled c*&$” at one point. Alicent stops dead in her tracks at this, and glares at him until he apologizes. But her dismay at his words doesn’t translate to actual love for her old friend and companion.

When Rhaenyra proposes a betrothal between her oldest son and Alicent’s daughter Helaena (Evie Allen) Viserys calls it a wonderful idea, but Alicent says tersely that they’ll think it over and tells Viserys she’ll agree to it over her dead body. She won’t have her daughter marry a bastard and thinks that Rhaenyra is only proposing the idea because she’s all but been caught red-handed. (Helaena is Rhaenyra’s half-sister so she would be Jacaerys’s aunt, but when has that ever stopped a Targaryen!)

Alicent turns to her other shady ally, Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) the crippled and scheming brother of Harwin, for advice. When he pushes back against some of what she’s saying she complains that nobody is on her side, nobody will help her, nobody will speak the obvious truth that Rhaenyra’s children are illegitimate.

Larys doesn’t say a word, but later visits the dungeons where he finds a group of killers, rapists and other villains sentenced to death and tells them that they can earn their freedom . . . for a price. They agree and he has their tongues chopped out of their mouths, making them mutes to hide the deeds they’re about to commit (surely none of these men can write).

Later, we see them outside of Harrenhal. When Lord Lyonel and Ser Harwin sleep, the killers set fire to the keep, barring the doors. Both men burn to death—assassinated by their own kin. It’s a harrowing moment, and one of the darkest in an already very dark show. Larys quickly establishes himself as the most connivingly evil scoundrel in the entire show. Even Alicent seems dismayed.

“I didn’t ask for this,” she tells him, her face pale and drawn from shock.

Larys disagrees. “I’m sure you’ll find a way to repay me someday,” he tells her.

The death of her lover and the father of her children finally spurs Rhaenyra to action. “A wise sailor flees the gather storm,” Laenor had told her earlier in the episode, and she finally takes his advice. She tells him that they’re leaving, taking their children (and Laenor’s lover) to Dragonstone where they’ll be safe from the queen and her allies, and where her sons especially can rest easy. With only her bumbling father as protection against whatever Alicent has planned, putting distance between them makes sense. It may look like a retreat, but it’s a tactical one.

Meanwhile, in Pentos Daemon (Matt Smith) and Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell) have taken up semi-permanent residency with their two young daughters.

Laena is pregnant with a third. She’s itching to return home to Driftmark and Westeros, tired of long years spent living in the country away from everything. Daemon, on the other hand, is enjoying life outside of court and away from the endless politics and skullduggery of Westeros. They have a fine offer of an estate, endless cash and a life of largesse from the Pentos powers that be, who only want in return the dragons as protection from the renewed threat of the Triarchy.

Daemon wants to stay. Laena wants to go. Daemon makes it quite clear who calls the shots, however. He obviously has feelings of affection toward his wife (unlike his last one!) but he’s very much a self-centered prince of the realm. “Father ignores me,” his older daughter, Baela (Shani Smethhurst) tells her mother.

This episode begins and ends with a birth. The first brings a young prince into the world. The second is yet another tragedy. Even powerful dragonrider women were not safe when it came to the birthing bed, and Laena is no exception.

In a scene mirroring Visery’s first wife, Aemma’s death, the Pentos doctor reaches the end of his skill and tells Daemon he simply cannot get the baby to come out. He could cut open the mother, but there’s no guaranteeing that the baby will live. Daemon is not interested.

In the end, Laena takes matters into her own hands. She leave the mansion and goes out to the yard where her massive dragon Vhagar is resting. “Dracarys!” she screams, over and over. Daemon runs from the building, “Laena, no!”

“Dracarys!” she pleads, and the hoary old dragon, puzzled at first, finally obliges. Laena and her unborn child burn to death.

The other important character in this episode is young Aemond Targaryen (Leo Ashton) Aegon’s younger brother.

Aemond is the only one of the children (of Alicent and Rhaenyra’s broods) that doesn’t have a dragon. He’s mocked and teased by the other boys for this. At one point, they bring him a pig with wings tied to it and say it’s the Pink Dread. Alicent blames Rhaenyra’s sons, though clearly Aegon was a part of the bullying (possibly the ringleader).

Aemund has a sour, dangerous look about him even as a boy. Aegon’s wild nature is tinged with cruelty, but it’s a mostly disinterested cruelty. This is a teenager who masturbates on his window ledge. He wants to fight and screw. Aemund is more frightening, and a character I think we should all keep a very close eye on going forward.

Verdict

All told, this was a masterful episode filled with shocking twists and turns and a really powerful gut-punch of an ending between the murders of the Strongs and the tragic death of Laena. Rhaenyra’s departure to Dragonstone will change a lot of the dynamics at play, leaving Alicent alone with the king and very much the most powerful woman in the land despite her lack of dragons.

My only complaint, and it’s a small one, is that we rush through some of these stories too fast and don’t get to know the characters as much as I’d like. Laena and Harwin were both such small parts, I think we might have benefited from getting to know them better. Then again, this is a show that spans many years and simply can’t get bogged down in every character and relationship. They do an incredible job making these scenes powerful even without a ton of screentime for the characters.

And for those characters that remain—from Larys to Alicent to Rhaenyra to Daemon—we’re getting some truly masterful character development, with a fascinating and complex cast that is in some ways even more compelling than Game Of Thrones if not quite as much fun.

I really love the new casting of Rhaenyra and Alicent in particular and think both D’Arcy and Cooke are doing a wonderful job inhabiting these characters. I can’t wait to see where they take them in the remaining four episodes.

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