House of the Dragon 2.02: “Rhaenyra the Cruel” Review

There is a moment in “Rhaenyra the Cruel” that is not the moment most people will talk about but it is perhaps the most piercingly poignant encapsulation of the entire conflict. Mysaria (a standout Sonoya Mizuno) is walking down the pathway from Dragonstone, the beautiful vistas holding the key that she has been looking for ever since Larys (Matthew Needham) burned her inn down and almost killed her in the process: a ship taking her far away from the accursed Westerosi continent and towards another future. Mysaria’s eyes grow wide and deep with hope and relief right before she notices the deception that results in the show’s latest climatic tragedy.

It’s poignant because this entire conflict is built upon moments of people finding relief right before realizing that things are spiraling so quickly out of control that that relief does not in actuality exist. That their attempts at controlling even the narratives of their own lives are cut short by the unrelenting cruelty of the world around them. That their active agency in making a decision is dampened, inevitably, by how that world warps and diminishes that very agency. It’s because we know that for many characters, that relief will not come and so it feels cruel in a way we all can recognize for that relief to materialize at all.*

That relief is particularly nonexistent for the small folk. As the brothel madam (Michelle Bonnard) notes to Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) as he nestles in her comfort, “when princes get angry, others pay the price.” It’s not likely that Aemond will take that warning note to heart nor will anyone else because there will almost always be a more immediately pressing matter that pushes concern for public welfare even further down the line. The public of King’s Landing may express their sympathy for Helaena (Phia Saban) as baby Jaehaerys’s (Jude Rock) body is paraded through the streets in an open casket. But how long is that sympathy going to last when the blockade of the capital is making it difficult for everyday people to get food and medicine?

Olivia Cooke, Phia Saban, Courtesy of HBO

The average length of an empire is roughly about 220 years.** The Targaryens would rule for almost three hundred years and this conflict, marking roughly the halfway point of the dynasty, doesn’t just begin the end of the dynasty because most of the dragons will die by the end of it. It marks the beginning of the end of the Targaryens by destroying public faith in the institutions around them. When Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) tells Viserys (Paddy Considine) that Targaryens are closer to gods than men, she is also speaking of the public’s perception of their family. But when people begin to go hungry and die from that hunger, the desperation of the public becomes stronger than the perceived infallibility of their rulers. The gods be damned.

Otto (Rhys Ifans) gets his Emmy submission reel in an episode where he realizes, as he says so bluntly, “the king is my grandson and my grandson is a fool!” For all of his faults, and he has plenty, he is seeing the board more clearly than the people around him (a low bar, to be fair). He puts in a motion a gut-wrenching funeral procession blaming Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) for his grandson’s brutal murder and sends ravens to all of the major noble houses to that effect. But that PR masterstroke hits an immediate roadblock in the capital itself because Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) decides to unleash his anger by hanging every single ratcatcher in the Red Keep. He hangs them and then has their bodies strung up on the walls of the Keep for everyone to see. Their families, Otto thunders, are weeping and clamoring against this injustice at their front doors. Aegon doesn’t care – he need a steel fist, he says, and with that steel fires Otto and replaces him with Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) as Hand of the King.

As Aegon makes one blunder after another in his grief and rage, Rhaenyra receives the decidedly unwelcome news of Jaehaerys’s assassination. Not only would most people not believe any letters from her refuting the allegation that she was responsible for the decapitation of a child, some of her Small Council members even are raising their eyebrows at her protestations. And it takes just one small moment until she realizes that Daemon (Matt Smith) is the one who ordered that assassination. The resulting fight is an absolute highlight rivaling Otto’s dressing down of Aegon, a fight in which Rhaenyra confronts the fact that Daemon did what all abusive groomers do: target someone young who is not yet mature enough to see them for who they are. The petulant man-child that he is, he refuses to take responsibility for what he has done and rides off to presumably Harrenhal.

Harry Collett, Bethany Antonia, Courtesy of HBO

There is a common misreading of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince in which people have come to associate the writer’s name with cruel efficiency. But Machiavelli’s argument was less about the need to be wantonly bloodthirsty and more so about how to be effective at wielding statecraft certain positions of power. For Aegon, stringing up the bodies of all the ratcatchers outside the gates is an execution of the common misunderstanding of Machiavelli’s arguments – something that Otto rightfully notes as being a significant blunder and a ruination of the significant goodwill he had crafted for Aegon through the funeral procession.

But in a smaller instance that most will not see as a political maneuver even though it has significant political lessons to impart, Rhaenyra honors her word by allowing Mysaria to go free. This act of mercy, following a conversation in which the two women bond over their relationships to Daemon, results in Mysaria walking down to the shore at just the right moment. She could have continued to walk away but chose to repay Rhaenyra for that kindness and in doing so spared her life. Building loyalty through mercy versus cruelty with those who have less power than you – a lesson worth learning.

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Notes:

* This is not to indicate any spoilers for Mysaria as a character specifically but rather to the larger tragedy of the story
** You can find the 2011 study detailing this analysis at: https://pdodds.w3.uvm.edu/files/papers/others/2011/arbesman2011a.pdf

  • Visually this show continues to be a wonder – just immaculate visuals and a definite improvement from the first season.
  • Ramin Djawadi’s scoring of this episode is particularly haunting, excellent work.
  • Excellent, quiet moment between Luke (Harry Collett) and Baela (Bethany Antonia) – there is so much death in this show that it is vital to pause and take a moment between.
  • More to say about some of our newer characters, but will wait for a future episode to delve into them.
  • This episode was peak Thrones – as Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) would say, “elegant people having conversations in elegant rooms”.

Catch up on previous House of the Dragon recaps and reviews now.



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