House Of The Dragon is such a peculiar series.
It can be rather shocking and a little on the slow side all at the same time.
It marches to the beat of its own drum, which involves sudden time-jumps that seem to skip over large swaths of story, and plodding bits that slog on a meandering route, punctuated by moments of violence, tragedy and scandal.
And so we come to Episode 4, ‘King Of The Narrow Sea.”
Spoilers through Episode 4 follow.
The big shocking moment in tonight’s episode is sure to turn some viewers off (and others, well, the less we say of them the better). It’s quite bad, but not really out of character for a pair of Targaryens.
Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) has returned victorious from the Stepstones where he’s defeated the corsair prince they called the Crabfeeder. He’s gotten a much-appreciated haircut in the meantime, making him look a little less like a Witcher vampire in the process.
He shows up at the Red Keep, the first time he’s set foot in King’s Landing since he stole that dragon egg back in Episode 2.
There’s a moment of tension as Daemon’s older brother, King Viserys (Paddy Considine) asks him if he calls himself king, but Daemon plays his part well enough, telling him that while some called him the King of the Narrow Sea, he knows who his rightful king is. He bends the knee (Daenerys would be so happy) and pays proper homage to his brother.
Which is why his next actions are so confounding. I’m still puzzling over Daemon’s motivations at this point. They’re so deeply puzzling. It’s actually kind of fascinating from a character analysis perspective, even if at times it feels like we’re running in circles. I’ll get to all this in a moment.
First, we must hop onto the back of a dragon—Syrax, perhaps—and go find Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock). She’s been sizing up the realm’s eligible bachelors and what’s she’s found so far is fairly grim.
Rhaenyra, shown above with Lord Boremund Baratheon (Julian Jones) on her right and Ser Criston Cole of the Kingsguard (Fabien Frankel) on her left, has been given a somewhat remarkable opportunity by her father: Rather than force a marriage upon her, he wants her to go find a husband for herself.
This is not merely radical for a young lady, but for any noble child of a Great House, male or female. Almost all marriages were cobbled together as part of a larger strategic alliance in feudal societies; few married for love.
But this proves a more tedious and trying task than Rhaenyra bargained for. The first suitor we’re introduced to is an old man, and Rhaenyra is quick to mock him for his advanced years.
The second is a young boy, not even as old as Rhaenyra was when this show began. When he’s mocked by an onlooker, he draws his sword and the princess quickly stands. “We’re leaving,” she tells Ser Criston, and the two hurry from the hall to the clanking of blades. The young suitor takes a beating at first, before sliding his blade through his bully’s belly.
It’s interesting how House of the Dragon continues to highlight the violence of peacetime. The jousting tourney turned extremely gory in the series premiere.
Now we have this reminder, that at the drop of a pin—or the slightest bit of mockery and abuse—blood may spill, whether it’s two armored knights or a pair of jeering boys.
Rhaenyra calls off the rest of the tour a full two months early and heads back to King’s Landing. On the way, her uncle Daemon swoops down on his dragon Caraxes and flies by their ship, rocking the vessel and sending its crew into a small panic.
Game Of Incest
All is mended—for a brief moment—between Daemon and his brother. There is feasting and merrymaking, wine flows, lords and ladies flit about in the gardens. Alicent (Emily Carey) and Rhaenyra even have some bonding girl time, the former’s marriage to the latter’s father having caused a fairly sizable rift between the two.
Later, when Rhaenyra returns to her chambers she finds a note and some commoner’s clothing on her bed. The note shows a secret passage in her room that leads out to a staircase behind the walls that she never knew about. She puts on the clothes, including a cap to hide her hair, and makes her way through the castle, past the skulls of dragons and flickering torches, and finally comes face to face with the hooded figure of her uncle, Daemon.
He grins and, without a word, swoops into the night. Rhaenyra follows. The two make their way out into the lively nighttime streets of King’s Landing and into a fever dream of paupers and whores, eyeless fortune tellers and yellow-cloaked guards, firebreathers and drunkards.
There’s a mummer’s play; actors with gaudy makeup make a bawdy—if salient—mockery of the matter of the king’s succession. “Rhaenyra,” one of the mummers declares. “A girl so young and so slight, the Realm’s Delight, but . . . would she make a powerful queen, or would she be feeble?”
“Feeble!” the crowd cries.
Rhaenyra is clearly miffed, though she takes it like a champ. (True to the history of stagecraft, all the actors are men, even those playing women. You could be a woman and a whore, but acting was not ladylike enough).
After the play, Rhaenyra begins to eat some food from one of the vendors when Daemon stops her. “Four coppers, street rat, in King’s Landing we pay for our pleasures,” he says sternly.
She throws the food and runs. Dameon gives chase.
Meanwhile, in the castle, Alicent is summoned to her husband’s room so that we can watch these two scenes play out one atop the other. When the maid comes with the summons, the queen almost protests. “The hours is late,” she says. The maid only curtseys.
Daemon eventually catches up with his niece, who has just run into a Gold Cloak (I believe it’s Ser Harwin Strong). He takes her to a pleasure house where a fairly massive orgy is underway. If you were worried there wasn’t quite enough nudity in House Of The Dragon, fear not: Here, all is revealed—at times the full package. Men and women, men and men, women and women.
“What is this place?” Rhaenyra asks, fascinated and clearly enjoying herself.
“This is where people go to take what they want,” Daemon replies, and his meaning is clear enough.
Soon, the two are kissing, and then more than kissing.
In the Red Keep, the old king—covered in blemishes from his many cuts from the Iron Throne—is thrusting above his young queen, who looks off into the distance with the thousand mile stare of one used to suffering, the indignation turned to boredom.
Daemon and Rhaenyra are more passionate—until Daemon wavers. I’m not sure if it’s doubt or whether he realizes that taking his niece’s virginity out of wedlock might actually be wrong or what stops him, but he stops. She tries to kiss him and he dodges her kiss—we think perhaps he’s teasing her at first, but then he slams his palms against the wall and leaves in a fury.
Rhaenyra is left alone in the pleasure house, half-naked and clearly confused.
Here’s the thing about getting all hot and bothered like this and then being left unsatisfied—and also being a beautiful princess. Sometimes you can just go take what you want, even if it’s not what you wanted just a few minutes ago.
Rhaenyra returns to her chambers and the confused sentinel standing outside her door. Ser Criston Cole worries that something is wrong when she hurries into her room, but she pops the door back open and pulls him inside.
Her intentions become clear quickly enough, and the knight tells her “no”—he’s sworn a vow of chastity as a Kingsguard, for one thing, but surely he also knows what kind of consequences such an act could carry. Alas, he puts up a meager defense, far from the valiant fighting skills he put on display during the tourney.
Soon the two are coupling, Rhaenyra finally taking that last step into womanhood with her bodyguard since her uncle would not avail himself of her.
A Helping Hand
Naturally, going to a public brothel and being seen by all and sundry (at this point both Daemon and Rhaenyra had shed their disguises and were walking around in undergarments) means that word will soon go ‘round.
Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) has his little birds and one soon makes his way to the Red Keep. The Hand, clearly not too upset by the scandalous reports, puts on his best “I am deeply troubled and disturbed by this awful news” face and makes his way to the king’s chambers.
Daemon and Rhaenyra were engaged in activities unbecoming a maiden, he tells the king, who is enraged and refuses—at first—to believe it. He’ll have out the eyes of whoever is spreading such gossip. But Otto doesn’t back down, telling him that there are multiple witnesses to the act.
Daemon, who appears to have gotten wildly drunk that night, is grabbed by knights of the Kingsguard and dragged to the throne room, where Viserys confronts him angrily. Daemon doesn’t deny having had sex with Rhaenyra, even though the two never made it that far. (Alicent is correct later when she reminds her husband that Daemon almost never tells the exact truth, and here he withholds precious information even though it would be less damning for him and Rhaenyra).
“Wed her to me,” he tells his brother, “In the tradition of our House.”
Viserys is aghast at the thought and reminds his brother that he’s already married. “That didn’t stop Aegon,” Daemon replies, though the smirk on his face makes you wonder what he’s really thinking the entire time.
“You’re no conqueror,” Viserys hisses. He tells him to go back to the Vale (where his wife lives) and never to return.
It’s a curious see-saw ride. Viserys has already exiled his brother, who then spent years fighting in the Stepstone only to finally return to King’s Landing victorious and once again in his brother’s good graces. Less than 48 hours later he’s been exiled again, this time for good.
I do think this is a bit of narrative whiplash. When I have complained in the past that this show moves too fast and too slow all at once, it’s often because it seems we skip straight through from one big story beat to the next, without all the character and plot development that might come if the show wasn’t always skipping ahead so much.
This is a good example of what I mean. On the one hand, I do enjoy not quite knowing what Daemon’s motivations are; on the other, do we not know simply because we aren’t given enough time with his character to figure that out? He has now twice very publicly done something to upset Viserys, knowing that his actions will result in being thrown out of the castle, knowing that he’ll be no closer to either the Iron Throne or his brother’s confidences, but doing it anyways. Why? We can spin theories, but a part of me wishes we’d simply get more time with some of these plot threads, that some could brew a little longer rather than everything moving at this breakneck pace (that also sort of drags along).
Fortunately, it’s all very well acted and written and the mood and feel of this opulent court and decadent city is savory and delicious. I think I like the slowness of it more than I like the time-skipping, but the two combined is just a bit jarring. In a lot of ways, I’m still making up my mind I suppose.
Alicent confronts Rhaenyra about the reports of her dalliance with Daemon and she flatly denies it. She lies through her royal teeth about that and about her bedding of Ser Criston. Alicent, clearly troubled, is at least pacified.
Viserys is less naïve. When he finally confronts his daughter her denials mean nothing. It doesn’t matter what’s true, he tells her. Just being in that position exposes and weakens her.
There’s a bit more prince that was promised prophecy stuff with Visery’s knife which I actually find a little grating, both because I don’t think it’s necessary to include here and because every time I’m reminded how they twisted things up in Season 8 to be “the prince or princess who was promised” which was just silly. Perhaps this is a subtle way of taking all that back, having Rhaenyra read the blade’s inscription and, as a fluent speaker of Valirian, find no such double meaning. If that’s the case I like it more.
Ultimately, the king tells her that her choice in the matter is now once again out of her hands. She’ll wed the Sea Snake’s son, Ser Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nate) and the combined strength of these two Great Houses—replete with dragons in each—will ensure the fate of the Seven Kingdoms and his royal line. He still, it seems, would have Rhaenyra take the Iron Throne rather than his young son, Aegon, but even with a possible marriage her succession is far from certain still.
Rhaenrya says that she’ll do her duty if he does his and rids the realm of the “vulture” who sits atop the Iron Throne: Otto Hightower, Hand of the King.
And so Viserys finally confronts his father-in-law. We learn that Viserys’s own father, Baelon, was supposed to become Hand but died after five days on the job. The king then named Hightower, who served him until his death and then taught Viserys how to be a king. He’s been a loyal and wise advisor, but his ambition has clouded his judgement.
Viserys realizes—too late by a few years—that his Hand sent Alicent to comfort him in his time of blind grief, and that she comforted him all too well. Otto denies it, but it’s clear that Viserys knows the truth. Hightower is finished as Hand, but his grandson is the only male heir, and his daughter is queen.
That night, the Grand Maester visits Rhaenyra in her bedchamber with a bottle of Potion B that he prepared for her. “If not brewed properly it can prove ineffective or else bear unpleasant—” he says.
“I’m sorry, what is that?” she interjects.
“A tea,” he says. “From the king. It will rid you of any unintended consequences.”
This was a very strong episode of House Of The Dragon even though I maintain that the pacing is a bit off. I also continue to have a tough time really connecting with any of the characters outside of Rhaenyra, though Viserys is sympathetic in his own way, as is Alicent, and Daemon is certainly fascinating.
Perhaps this isn’t the kind of show where you really root for anybody. You could, and did, in Game Of Thrones, but there the lines between good and evil were much more clear. Much has been made about George R.R. Martin’s portrayal of complex characters, who were not altogether good or bad, but Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark and plenty of others in those books (and the show) were clearly good, while others like Cersei Lannister or her father, Tywin, were clearly bad. Then some were bad but moved toward good, like Jaime Lannister or the Hound, while others were good and then broke bad faster than Walter White ever dreamed of, like Daenerys Targaryen.
Here, while there are schemers like Otto Hightower, it’s not as though he’s all that wicked. At his most diabolical he’s simply giving the king more heirs and doing his part to create (in his mind) a more stable future for the realm and its royal House. He didn’t kill anyone to get there or arrange any wedding ambushes.
Rhaenyra, our hero, is pretty much ready to get it on with her uncle and, when spurned, seduces a knight who she picked to be a Kingsguard, knowing full well that included a vow of chastity. There’s deceit all around, is all I mean to say.
I suppose I found the incest troubling but not shocking, as I’m aware of the history of the Targaryens and their incestuous ways. I figure things will just continue to get more shocking and terrible as we continue, and a bit of uncle-niece making out in a pleasure house is the least of our concerns.
Here’s my video review of the episode: