House of the Dragon Episode 1.04: “King of the Narrow Sea” Review

“The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.”

– Niccolo Machiavelli

The dynamics of power are quite, forgive me, dynamic. They change from the throne room to the dimly lit chambers of a brothel at the flip of a coin. They change when a high born girl and a low born man engage in a relationship where the dynamics of gender and race and class become entangled in questions of consent. They change when a high born girl dresses up as a common peasant boy and walks through the street with a particular kind of freedom and joy that only gender euphoria can bring.

House of the Dragon’s fourth installment, aptly written by Ira Parker and directed by Clare Kilner, has a remarkable grasp on just how fluent those dynamics really are. And while most of us aren’t heirs to a throne, we know that a voice we use at home can’t be the same voice we use at work, that the way we carry ourselves in one room might very well be the exact opposite of how we carry ourselves in the next. It’s the way most of survive or, if nothing else, manage going from one day to the next. 


I know that when I dress in a way that doesn’t betray my gender identity or sexuality, I have a particular element of power and a particular loss of it. I know that when I dress in a way that does make my gender identity and or sexuality explicit, the power I possess is changed. In most places, when I express myself as I am, I feel an acute loss of power. When I don’t, the change is so striking that it hits me with all the subtlety of a dragon landing on top of a bound soldier.

Milly Alcock, Fabien Frankel, Courtesy of HBO

When people talk about power, they usually talk about power in a strictly institutional sense. A King, a Queen, a Prime Minister, a President, a CEO, et cetera, et cetera. But power exists in every element of our lives, from the institutional to the social to the personal. Power is nothing and a moment later it can become everything and what makes power so complicated is that the types of power a person loses in one moment and gains in another can be entirely different kinds of power.

When we think of power, we think of the head of an institution and we have a particular socially conditioned and enforced image of what that head of the institution (or dragon) should look like. He is usually a man. He is usually a man who was assigned a man at birth. He is usually straight. And so more often than not, when someone who fits these social conditions of power takes his place to enact institutional, social, and personal power, it is largely deemed acceptable. As Rhaenys (Eve Best) so icily noted the other week – it is the order of things.

That particular order of things is simultaneously dangerous and thoroughly fragile. It is dangerous because power structures will always maintain their security at all costs, principles and peoples be damned. It is dangerous because power structures will not stop from devouring the people upholding them if doing so suits the interests of the people who are at the top. It is dangerous because it will say what must be said to maintain a sense of justice about itself but will adhere to that justice only when it wants to.


Courtesy of HBO

It is fragile because power resides where people believe it resides. Varys’s (Conleth Hill) speech to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) about power in season two of Game of Thrones is apt in that it highlights why power structures maintain themselves through such violence and destruction. Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) ascending to the throne is a stab at the fragility of masculine power, which can be called into question at every level where male authority is paramount. Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) becoming Ser Criston Cole is a stab at the fragility of nobility and their sense of divine inheritance. 

It is fragile because the perception of power more often than not ends up eclipsing the reality of power, as Viserys (Paddy Considine) points out in a rare moment of political insight. If the commoners don’t believe that a woman could rule, that’s going to be a problem for Rhaenyra if she does take the throne. If the commoners believe that she in fact did sleep with her uncle Daemon (Matt Smith), then she has a problem. She dismisses the comments for now, but she would do well to take Daemon’s advice about caring about what the commoners think if she hopes to rule them.

It is fragile because more often than not, when you give someone a taste of power they’ve been lacking, they begin to question the lack of power in other parts of their life. They begin to think about what power they do have access to and whether they’ve been wielding it effectively. Rhaenyra discovers the personal power that comes from centering her sexual desire, a desire that she had been taught up until now was something that was secondary to that of her future husband, secondary to what that desire can ultimately result in. It’s no mistake that she makes her most significant power play after she understands the power of centering her desire in sex.

Sonoya Mizuno, Courtesy of HBO

It’s not a clean power play, however. Rhaenyra loses power when Viserys decides that, as a result of the rumors that she slept with her uncle in a King’s Landing brothel, she will marry Ser Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nate). The marriage will bridge the gap between the two Valyrian families, Laenor is a dragon rider, and it will put to hopeful rest these salacious rumors that undercut Rhaenyra’s legitimacy. She acquiesces, she understands the dynamics of power here enough to understand that she has lost this particular battle.


But Rhaenyra gained confidence from her experiencing sexual pleasure for the sake of her own sexual pleasure. In that confidence she began to think about where she has power and where she lacks it. She has gone from being the cupbearer to having a seat at the table. But now she finds the opportunity to execute some power at said table. It’s an opportunity to get vengeance, to remove a political enemy from the battlefield, and furthermore, she’s right that Otto (Rhys Ifans) won’t stop at anything until Aegon sits on the Iron Throne and is proclaimed Aegon II.

So Otto is out as Hand of the King and if nothing else, then an immediate consequence is how Alicent (Emily Carey) will become even more isolated as a result. She is Queen, an enviable position of institutional power, and something that Rhaenyra so deeply craves. But she is alone. She is so, so alone. When Viserys has her woken up in the middle of the night for sex, her initial reluctance reads not as a statement of fact but rather a plea, that she is tired and simply wants to go to sleep. But she doesn’t have a choice. She doesn’t have the opportunity to make a choice. And so the camera zooms in on her face as Viserys effectively commits marital rape and in Emily Carey’s expression you see someone who so desperately wants the power everyone is seemingly hell bent on denying her.

You make of power what you can and hope that the choice you made is the best one you could have.



+ Ramin Djawadi is a fucking genius. The score this episode is exquisite and the last bit of music at the episode’s close does a perfect job of conveying the catastrophes that are about to be unleashed
+ I have no doubt that Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy are going to crush it, but I’m really going to miss Emily Carey and Milly Alcock quite a bit. Milly’s eyes during her walkabout the streets of King’s Landing conveyed so much with no dialogue
+ Unlike Game of Thrones, here the brothel sex isn’t just for the pleasure of straight men and the additional involvement of intimacy coordinators makes all the difference?
+ Relatedly, Clare Kilner does an amazing job at centering the women in their exploration of sexuality and the different sex scenes themselves – it really, really came across just how important it is for straight men to not be the only ones telling stories about pleasure, especially since straight men are the ones whose pleasure society accepts with little to no question.
+ Daemon can’t go through with having sex with Rhaenyra and there are many readings of why that’s the case. But the one that sticks in my mind as being a particularly important reason is that his demeanor changes quite quickly
+ Wild Crackpot Theory Corner: Is Alicent also drinking moon tea? After her clear lie to Rhaenyra about Aegon’s birth being easy, I wouldn’t blame her if after a couple of kids, she was like, yeah we’re not doing that again.
+ Fabien Frankel, I’m in a polyamorous relationship and you have a fabulously sexy chest, so call me!
+ “Hard lessons are not welcome – they are suffered.” Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno, with a better served accent this week) realized the power of secrets as currency and has already established a link with no less than the Hand of the King himself – a remarkable rise for a woman who knows the precarious nature of power and fortune and doesn’t rest on her laurels for fate to constantly smile down upon her.
+ Even if you haven’t watched Game of Thrones, which you absolutely don’t need to to enjoy House of the Dragon, you should see the aforementioned speech by Varys in all of its deliciousness: