House of the Dragon 2.01: “A Son for a Son” Review

Season 2 kicks off with a haunting start as it explores the consequences of Season 1's finale.

The following review contains spoilers for House of the Dragon Seasons 1 and 2

The construct of a Sophie’s Choice is centered around the emotional catastrophe of choosing which one of your children will die. There is a reason why that phrase has become the shorthand to describe an impossible choice in an impossible situation. It’s a lose-lose, but the decision has to be made, for if nothing else than to exercise the minimal agency you possess in that moment.

Such is the case in House of the Dragon Season 2, when Helaena (Phia Saban) has to make a choice at literal knifepoint. The two goons in her chambers, bumbling but no less dangerous for it, have made it quite clear that she has two and only two options. She can either point them towards her son and guarantee his death, or she can risk both of her children being slaughtered along with her. You can see, on her face, the very moment she realizes that there is no escape. So, in a moment that will surely haunt her for the rest of her life, she points at her son.

Harry Collett, Emma D’Arcy, Oscar Eskinazi – Courtesy of HBO

It’s not obvious whether she points at her son hoping they wouldn’t believe her or if she rightfully assumes that with any deception, she would be dooming both of her children. But either way, she makes that awful choice with no other real option at her disposal. Thankfully, we don’t see it, but you do hear it. You hear that little boy’s muffled screams as they hold him down and precede to decapitate him. And hearing that is more than enough.

It is a different scene than the one described in George R. R. Martin’s Fire and Blood, but it remains extraordinarily effective at translating the nightmare described within it. An adaptation, in my view, succeeds when it understands the intent of the source material – whether or not it recreates the scene exactly as written is secondary. The consequences, too, are different than the ones in the books but arguably more significant and in line with the overall themes of this adaptation.

Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) no longer has an heir and, should anything happen to him, the throne would go to Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) – a reality that Aemond will surely realize as soon as he hears the news of what has happened. As fate would have it, Aegon is in the same position as his father was: he no longer has an heir and he can’t name his daughter to be the heir for the simple reason that his own claim rests its legitimacy upon women not being permitted to ascend to the throne.

Emma D’Arcy, Courtesy of HBO

The full scope of the consequences from Blood (Sam C. Wilson) and Cheese (Mark Stobbart) will unfold, but “A Son for a Son” sees plenty of consequences left over from Lucerys’ (Elliot Grihault) death from the end of Season 1. The Greens are embroiled in a blame game of sorts to determine who should be held responsible for the inevitable war. Aemond has plenty to answer for but, as far as he’s concerned, it’s ridiculous that anyone would blame her for starting a war considering that Otto (Rhys Ifans) and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) had done the actual coup beforehand.

Alicent, meanwhile, is riding the hypocrisy train that is Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) and realizing with every passing minute just how much power is escaping through her fingers. Her now-of-age rapist for a son is legally allowed to make decisions for himself and the realm at large. She is trying, in part, to do the near impossible and manage things that are clearly spiraling wildly out of control in real time. But her and Otto are realizing quickly what people in positions of power never seem to realize: that they simply won’t be able to exercise the amount of control they thought they would. First, it was trying to stave off Rhaenyra’s (Emma D’Arcy) claim to the throne. Then, it was installing Aegon on the throne with as much secrecy and efficiency as possible so that Rhaenyra would have no chance at claiming it beforehand. Now, it’s trying to manage the inevitable, catastrophic violence after Aemond’s stupidity got Lucerys killed.

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Olivia Cooke, Courtesy of HBO

Rhaenyra has spent several days around Shipbreaker Bay searching for any remains of her son. As Emma notes in the behind the scenes clip following the episode, grief is a strange thing in that you feel, more than anything, an absence. You can’t hold onto an absence. It just claws and grasps at you constantly, tearing you to shreds, and when you try and grab ahold of it so the heartache will stop, you can’t hold onto anything. So, the torment keeps on growing. But after several days, the remains of her son and his dragon wash up on shore and she finds what she needs for her next stage of grief: vengeance.

Notes:

– I’ll have more to say about Helaena as the season goes but, for now, I’ll add that the show’s “softer” adaptation really works for me. It was horrifying enough as a sequence while it was unfolding and, especially considering Helaena’s mental state, afforded her a certain agency and dignity that I really appreciated.

– The sequence of Blood and Cheese was also so sharply executed in terms of suspense. Both Alan Taylor’s direction and Ramon Djawadi’s score effortlessly captured the feeling of when you know something terrible is about to happen, but you just don’t know what it is.

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– The show’s visual palette is significantly sharper this season: the establishing landscape shots are gorgeous to look at, the dragons blend beautifully with the real locations, and everything was clear for the night scenes, hurray!

– The acting on this show is exquisite, but my MVP might be a toss-up between Phia and Emma.

– I appreciate that the show took the critique of Mysaria’s accent in the first season and fixed it for the second one. Sonoya Mizuno is such an excellent actress and it was frustrating that it didn’t feel like the show had her back in its first run. I’m excited to see how her character develops.

– New intro! The tapestry is beautiful and, in terms of visual colors alone, an improvement over the gray Valyria model from the previous season. Maybe next season we can also get a different intro theme?

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– I do miss Aemond’s initial entrance into the Red Keep from the books.

New episodes of House of the Dragon Season 2 premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. ET exclusively on Crave.



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