House of the Dragon Season 2, Episode 4 Review

House of the Dragon: Finally Embracing the Fantasy

One of Game of Thrones’ key innovations was taking most of the fantasy out of its fantasy. In that first season especially, magic was sidelined in favour of sexposition and ultra-violence, lulling cooler viewers into a false sense of security before hitting them with baby dragons in the finale. But that non-nerdy audience has had time to adjust to scaly critters by now, so it’s a delight to report that the end of this episode of House of the Dragon finally sinks its teeth fully into the possibilities of a warring clan who all ride dragons, as the Targaryens’ cold war turns hot. Really hot.

The results are shouting-at-the-TV level glorious. No longer are the dragons confined to a three-headed sigil on a banner in the background while some dude debates whether he should marry a cousin or a niece. These are living, fire-breathing monsters with big claws and sharp teeth and a willingness to absolutely rip one another to shreds. The sight of three dragons going at it over a small besieged castle while soldiers down below try to figure out which way to run for safety is juicy. These are dragons red in tooth and claw, finally delivering the sort of epic fantasy that some of us have been craving since the day we first saw the Reign of Fire poster.

Compelling Storytelling and Impressive Human Stakes

It’s impossible not to start by talking about that finale, because the human stakes make it compelling and the storytelling is seriously impressive. Awful Prince Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) rides Vhagar into battle with no trace of the pangs of conscience he felt after Lucerys’ death last season. Now he’s eager to prove himself in battle and happy to take a family member or two out in the process. That’s why he holds back the biggest dragon in Westeros long enough to ensure that his brother has committed to a fight he can’t win. Rhaenys (Eve Best), meanwhile, knows the stakes far better than either younger fighter, and yet she still turns her Meleys (who she fondly calls “old girl”) back to the fight when she could safely run for it. Then Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) on Sunfyre, is goaded into battle and suffers terribly – maybe fatally – for his ego. What a final act. Even Ser Criston (Fabien Frankel) is shaken.

That’s not to say that the rest of the episode is lacking, because it’s easily the best so far this season. Daemon (Matt Smith), at Harrenhal, is steadily losing his grip on reality after further encounters with Alys Rivers (Gayle Rankin) and an ill-advised decision to accept a sleeping draft from her. He is also, it transpires, sleeping in a bed made from the heartwood that was sacrilegiously felled to build the cursed castle, which might explain all his visions. He sees young Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) again, taunting him in High Valyrian as when they used to spar together. He’s also offered the allegiance of the Blackwoods if he’ll use his dragon Caraxes to attack the Brackens, their foes in the Battle of the Burning Mill last week. There we see the Targaryen civil war beginning to spread along other fault lines in Westeros, and the family’s fire-breathing weapons of mass destruction threaten a greater population than ever.

Intriguing Character Dynamics and Political Intrigues

Still, it was fun that the show remembers this episode that the Targaryens all speak the language of the Freehold, and informative to learn that Aegon never studied it properly while Aemond is fluent. We learn the latter fact from scenes in Aegon’s council, where the immature king is wildly bored by the business of running a country. After once again being humiliated by Aemond’s superior knowledge and planning work with his councillors, he picks a fight with his mother. But Alicent (Olivia Cooke) is enduring the pain of a medical abortion and has absolutely no time for his self-importance. “You should humbly be seeking our opinions and counsel. You have no idea the sacrifices that were made to put you on that throne,” she tells him. “Do simply what is needed of you: Nothing.” Ultimately, she does at least as much as Aemond to put him on his dragon’s back and send him into battle; there’s also a lovely moment of Aegon slowly pushing a probably priceless water jug off the table, like a cat, that expresses his sheer nihilism beautifully.

Ser Larys (Matthew Needham) is still slinking around creepily, well aware of Alicent’s condition and unconcerned with the loss of his family seat at Harrenhal. There’s an interesting moment where he questions her sudden dive into historical research: Does she now doubt her son’s right to rule? “Rhaenyra’s supporters will believe what they want, and so will Aegon’s… the significance of Viserys’ intentions died with him,” she replies – suggesting that she did indeed take Rhaenyra’s (Emma D’Arcy) pleas of last week seriously, but isn’t going to do anything to change her forces’ disposition as a result.

Intricate Political Maneuverings and Emotional Turns

Rhaenyra, meanwhile, has left her council fighting in her absence and almost completely dysfunctional. Rhaenys attempts to restore order but it’s only her husband, Corlys (Steven Toussaint), who manages to achieve that; an ominous sign for Rhaenyra’s own efforts to exercise a strong hand on the throne. When she finally returns, she eventually manages to quell the in-fighting, and agrees to send Rhaenys to defend her Rook’s Rest – both her ally’s seat and a key land link for her Dragonstone base. Even now the show emphasizes that she does so reluctantly. “To unite the realm I had to send the dragons to war. The horrors I have just unleashed cannot just be for a crown alone.” For Rhaenyra, it’s still all about the song of ice and fire prophecy and the Prince Who Was Promised (though there’s no way of knowing which family line he or she will come from, of course.

It’s a good episode all around. We get one more scene of fondness between Rhaenys and Corlys before she goes off to battle, with the notably sane Rhaenys correctly figuring out that Rhaenyra has disappeared on some sort of peace mission, and encouraging her husband – reading between the lines – to acknowledge his bastard sons now that he lacks a legitimate surviving male heir. There’s an even more poignant moment at the end when she and Meleys share a look as Vhagar’s teeth sink into her dragon’s neck and they both know they’re done for.

Sumptuous Direction and Riveting Performances

It’s all directed by Alan “Thor: The Dark World” Taylor, a Game of Thrones alumnus who also directed the season two premiere. He finds the grace notes to play here, and does a good job of shifting between political machinations and outright warfare. He’s also tapped into the malevolent sides of Daemon, Larys, and especially Aemond. The latter is standing over his brother with a sword when Criston arrives to help, eliminating the possibility of any coup de grace. But somehow even from the back he looks smug. The day saw him destroy a leader of the Blacks and a rival dragon, take out an enemy stronghold and possibly contrive the death of his underachieving older brother. It’s no surprise he looks pleased with himself. He and his family have finally unleashed the beasts on each other. If the rest of the season follows this episode’s lead, we’re in for a treat.