Warning: the below contains full spoilers for House of the Dragon’s Season 1 finale, which aired on HBO on Oct. 23, 2022. To refresh your memory, check out our review of last week’s episode.
After the hurried efforts of the Green Council last episode to secure the Iron Throne for that awful monster Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), it’s the turn of Team Black to pull together their response to the suddenly destabilised Westeros in the wake of the death of Viserys the Peaceful (Paddy Considine). But their response to the crisis will face serious obstacles, ranging from debilitating grief to, well, giant dragons. By the end of the episode, the first blood in the civil war that has been brewing will have been spilled from a great height, and the Black Queen, Rhaenyra I (Emma D’Arcy), will be as dead-set on war as her enemies always were.
We open on the map table in Dragonstone, which should be a spoiler that war games are coming. Later, candles will be placed under the table so all its place names and waterways glow like lava, or dragonfire (I’m not the only one wondering who cleans the soot off the underside of the table, am I?). It’s an obvious but effective metaphor: the whole of the Seven Kingdoms are about to catch fire, figuratively and also literally.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After a touching scene between Rhaenyra and the still reluctant Lucerys (Elliot Grihault), Rhaenys (Eve Best) arrives with the news that Viserys has died and unbearable Aegon has been crowned. Interestingly, Rhaenys explains why she didn’t burn the lot of them before she left: “A war is like to be fought over this treachery, that is sure, but that war was not mine to begin.” If you’re not convinced that’s a good enough reason, Daemon is with you.
It’s all momentarily too much for Rhaenyra, who is grief-stricken and in disbelief – “They crowned him? They crowned him before the masses?” – and goes into premature labor with a stillborn and deformed baby. During her labor, director Greg Yaitanes intercuts Rhaenyra’s pain with visions of her dragon, Syrax, roaring. It’s one of several moments in this episode that explore the link between dragons and riders – but for now the show remains obstinately reluctant to delve too deeply into the nature of that connection. Do the dragons respond to unspoken commands, as it sometimes seems when one appears right on cue? Or is the link more a subconscious, emotional one? There’s a big hint by the end of the episode, but given that this show is literally called the House of the Dragon, a bit more discussion of the question might be nice.
Daemon (Matt Smith), meanwhile, instantly leaps to a two-thirds unfair conclusion: “That whore of a queen murdered my brother and stole the throne.” He’s gunning for immediate war, though he’s also smart enough to know that they don’t yet have the numbers of men to wage a war of conquest. Still, soundtracked by Rhaenyra’s moans in childbirth he sets guards around the island and plans which of their allies to call first. Even in labor, Rhaenyra strives to hold the peace, sending Jacaerys (Harry Collett) to rein him in. Instead Daemon takes the teen out to threaten Kingsguard members Ser Steffon Darklyn (Anthony Flanagan) and Ser Lorent Marbrand (Max Wrottesley) with death by dragon unless they’re loyal to Rhaenyra. Take your stepson to work day clearly means more in Westeros.
The funeral rites of Rhaenyra and Daemon’s lost baby do double duty as a moment to process the loss of Viserys, interrupted by the arrival of Ser Erryk (Elliott Tittensor) with the old king’s crown. Daemon, after a moment of careful consideration, presents it to his wife, and all present bend the knee – except Rhaenys. She stands watchful, but later persuades her convalescent husband Lord Corlys (Steven Toussaint, making a welcome return) to side with the Black Queen to protect their grandchildrens’ interests.
From then on it’s less debilitating grief and more determined response. Lord Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) arrives to offer terms; Rhaenyra calls him a “fucking traitor” and rips the symbol of the Hand from his chest, with her dragon at his back. Still, she considers his offer momentarily, reluctant to start a war with her old friend. Daemon has made much of their advantage in number of mature dragons, and warily approaches old Vermithor, once the dragon of his grandfather King Jaehaerys (Michael Carter), pleased to find that he still looks ready to kill a dude. But Rhaenyra has her dad’s prophecy of ice and fire to consider as well as her own interests. Daemon was never let in on that, and it shows: he half strangles her in frustration at having to deal with yet another monarch of reason and compassion. After that piece of domestic violence, Rhaenyra’s strongest ally could also be a liability.
Corlys’ arrival offers hope, however, and significant strategic assets: the Velaryon dragons, in particular Rhaenys and her dragon Meleys (note Daemon’s arrogance; he’d already listed Meleys among their assets); the Velaryon fleet, strongest on the seas; and the Stepstones, those pirate-infested rocks so important early in the season. If they can enlist the Tullys of Riverrun, the Starks of Winterfell (a balm for all those with Stark withdrawal symptoms), and the Arryns of the Vale, they have a fighting chance. They just need a few more dragonriders for the spare and wild dragons and their air advantage will be total.
So Rhaenyra sends Jace to Winterfell and Luce to Storm’s End and the Baratheons. Lord Borros Baratheon (Roger Evans) will, she tells him, be honored to host a prince of the realm and his dragon. That’s true: sadly it’s awful Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) and Vhagar who got there first. Borros rudely rejects Lucerys’ diplomacy, and as Lucerys leaves Aemond demands satisfaction for their long-ago fight. An eye for an eye, once again. Lucerys leaves for his dragon, Arrax, and escapes – but a stroke of lightning illuminates the courtyard and shows Vhagar already in the air.
In the show’s best action scene to date, Arrax climbs steeply through the stormy skies – but a dragon ten times bigger bursts through the clouds behind him. Aemond and Vhagar seem unrelenting until Lucerys and Arrax, flying well, escape through a narrow rock formation. Aemond taunts his nephew and seems content to leave it at that, but when the impudent little dragon flames across Vhagar’s nose the limits of his control over his mount become clear. Vhagar simply bites down on the smaller beast and leaves body parts strewn behind him as Aemond, horrified for once, looks on.
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It’s a more sympathetic portrayal of events than in George R.R. Martin’s Fire And Blood, where Aemond seems to be pretty happy to dish out death by dragon and start a civil war in the process. Whatever his motives, that’s what he does. Receiving the news back on Dragonstone, Rhaenyra sways, and bows her head – but does not fall. This sometimes slow first season has had those occasionally discombobulating time jumps to absorb, but it has created the characters and put all the pieces in place for a devastating civil war; for the House of the Dragon to sow the seeds of its own fall. And as Rhaenyra turns back to her war council, with flames behind her, the look in her eyes makes it clear: it is on, motherfuckers.