House of the Dragon Episode 1.06: “The Princess and the Queen” Review

“You know better than I that in a Republic talent is always suspect. A man attains an elevated position only when his mediocrity prevents him from being a threat to others. And for this reason a democracy is never governed by the most competent, but rather by those whose insignificance will not jeopardize anyone else’s self-esteem.”

– Niccolo Machiavelli

Melancholia is the primary taste that House of the Dragon leaves in my mouth. Speculating where the story is going, that taste is going to linger for quite some time. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s a departure from the first half of the season, which was hardly a fun romp. (That didn’t even last through the cold open.) However, what followed was a sense of dread, which largely came from small steps and mistakes that the audience could predict would have ramifications.

The murder of Ser Joffrey Lonmouth (Sally MacLeod) at the hands of one Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) at the end of the previous episode was especially significant. His character was nonexistent but it capped that chapter of the story on just the right note of “oh, fuck.” At the end of “The Princess and the Queen,” however, there’s a double murder and, all of a sudden, even Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) realizes just how much things have gotten out of hand. She badly wants her father (Rhys Ifans) to come back to court so she can have an ally in King’s Landing. Larys (Matthew Needham) fulfills her desires by murdering his father (Gavin Spokes) and extremely hot brother (Ryan Corr). 

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The shock and fear on Alicent’s face as she runs her hands over her neck portends what’s to come. The image evokes a person realizing her choices have catastrophic consequences. Some of that is just from age – mistakes we make as children or teenagers usually tend to have lesser consequences compared to when we make them as adults. Some of it is just from people not taking into account things they could or could not have reasonably foreseen. And sometimes, perhaps most damningly, is what people choose to do after those consequences come to light.

Out of the two leads, Rhaenyra has most substantially changed and, in doing, so presents an almost inverse relationship to Alicent compared to the one we had at the beginning of the series. She now makes politically astute observations about when the Crown should and should not step in to help various subjects. She’s learned to take account of who the nobles are in court, a skill not considered by her younger self. The fire is still there, the strength is still there, but it is important to note that she has matured politically in the decade since we last saw her.

Alicent has also matured but much differently. She has abandoned any pretense of caring for Viserys (Paddy Considine) or staying in his political shadow. She joins Rhaenyra on the Small Council and is calling a lot of the shots her younger self could never have imagined. But she is consumed by the envy she feels towards Rhaenyra flaunting the propriety she was forced to tie herself to. She has internalized the words Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) imparted before her and repeats them to her own son (Ty Tennant) almost verbatim. But like many people who so severely cling to their piety and propriety as an extension of their entire character, Alicent has plenty of skeletons in her own closet and she has just unwittingly formed another one. She should execute Larys for his double kinslaying and commit herself to said piety – but will she? 

Shani Smethhurst, Eva Ossei Gerning, Courtesy of HBO

“The Princess and the Queen” benefits substantially from this thematic resonance because otherwise this is arguably the weakest episode of the season. That it operates as a de facto second pilot episode is not the issue (it rather helps the episode’s flaws), but this episode feels like it is bearing the brunt of the narrative and character development required for the rest of the season to roll out smoothly. It’s an episode whose scripting is good but also does reveal the strains of the writing team trying to provide the audience with enough ground to cover what happened in the ten-year time jump, where the characters are now, and what needs to happen for the next installment.

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Larys went from being seen as insignificant because of his physical disability to becoming someone who, at least to Alicent, is the most significant threat both to her and others if she chose to wield him effectively. And in doing so, he exposed himself as one of the most dangerous players of this absurd game of life and death that is Westerosi politics. His double homicide had an impact but that impact would have been greater if we had more of a window into how he was able to separate his relationship with his family, to power, and where he saw those two beginning to diverge. 

Similarly, the deaths of Harwin and Laena (Nanna Blondell) suffer from a general lack of time devoted to the characters. Their overall parts in the story mostly exist to further the stories of the main characters and that’s fine, but considering the impact they have on those main characters in question, their presence ought to have had more weight. Nanna Blondell strikes such a charismatic and powerful figure as Laena Velaryon that it seems not just a mistake, but a genuinely missed opportunity to make her choice how she would depart from this world more meaningful. Harwin is charismatic in a different way and while we expect happy relationships to be short-lived in this universe, it would have been meaningful to show Rhaenyra content and loved. This story is so bleak that characters who burn brightly need to shine before their lights are extinguished.

Olivia Cooke, Evie Allen, Courtesy of HBO

Notes:

+ When they first announced that the first season of House of the Dragon would be split between younger and older Rhaenyra and Alicent, that seemed reasonable enough and it still does. But the show did such rich character work that it made me think about what it would have looked like if the time jump had occurred for season two. We would spend a lot more quality time with these characters, but then again, I don’t know if there would be enough there to keep the casual viewer attached, so I get it.
+ A line or two of dialogue around how Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) is still around in his post would have been welcome
+ The opening sequence is a genuine triumph of character and technical style.
+ Emma D’Arcy’s line reading of “My deepest sympathies” was excellent.
+ “Do keep trying, Ser Laenor. Sooner our later you will get one who looks like you.”
+ “You are the challenge, Aegon!!!”
+ “To trust a Martell is to be disappointed.” Hey now.
+ Rhaenyra’s birth, the afterbirth, pain, and her breasts lactating – in a story fundamentally about two women, it really shows how important it is to have women in the writers’ room and director’s chair.
+ Laena Velaryon rode Vhaegar of all dragons, the now largest and oldest of the dragons and one of the three that conquered Westeros. Her claiming Vhaegar is a scene that I deeply miss – and considering Vhaegar’s emotion at her asking to be immolated by fire, that particular relationship deserved far more time to be explored on screen.
+ I don’t agree with all of the Machiavelli quotes I’m using for these reviews; rather, I’m choosing the ones that feel most relevant to me based on the episode’s content – I’m just putting that out there ’cause, while the man had a lot of intriguing insight into the dynamics of power, he also had some, um, questionable opinions to say the least



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