“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
“Driftmark” begins with a funeral and ends on a rebirth, a rare inverse of the usual cycle that defines lives and stories in Westeros. The rebirth was a welcome surprise, for one in that it’s a major departure from the books, and another that it gives a person who is ultimately decent the opportunity to live and even thrive. It feels like a release, to see Laenor (John Macmillan) and Qarl (Arty Froushan) row off to what is hopefully a brighter future, free from the plotting and ensnaring that is inevitably going to cause a cascade of destruction. But that joy, which felt so emotionally impactful, cannot entirely escape the shadow that an innocent man had to die for it to be achieved.
It is fitting that an episode beginning with a funeral is thematically tied together through the cycle of death and rebirth. Literal deaths, partial deaths, metaphorical deaths. Each of these course through our characters’ lives like needles suturing literal wounds, forcing them to question who they are, who they think they are, and if there is a distance between that and who they want to be. People turn corner after corner and are confronted with either some deeply uncomfortable truths or perspectives that force them to reconsider their own. The maelstrom of emotions is only heightened by most of the cast being united at a funeral – and funerals in particular excel at forcing people to take stock of their lives and think about how they should use the time that is remaining to them.
It is devastating. Few times do any of us take stock of our lives and walk away with a feeling that everything is going as it should, everyone is being who they should be, that our lives are moving forward in a way that tracks with how we thought our lives would go. But being at a funeral, a wedding, any gathering that centers around a milestone of life, often serves to augment that emotional self-introspection. We walk away from those conversations with solutions but those solutions are often much more, or much less, than the ones we truly need.
Laenor’s reflection upon Laena’s (Nanna Blondell) death makes him think about how much he has failed in the potential he believed himself to have, of how he hasn’t been able to be the father he thinks he should have been, or the husband that Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) deserves. There’s some truth to that, we saw bits and pieces of where Laenor has failed in both last week and this week, but when his conclusion is that he has to sacrifice his sexuality in order to be there for his kids and Rhaenyra, that’s heartbreaking. And it’s not going to work. Rhaenyra understands this, opening up in both the honesty of what has failed in their relationship but also that she does not hate the gods for making him gay. He’s a kind and generous man with a good heart, a rare thing in this world as she points out, and just because that’s not enough in this situation doesn’t mean it’s worth sacrificing.
So Rhaenyra comes up with a plan to get what she wants and in the process, give Laenor some happiness along the way. She loves him and to the show’s credit, it has done an excellent job in a short amount of time establishing that the two of them care for one another. How much she loves Daemon (Matt Smith) versus how much she understands that he can bolster her political position is still kind of up in the air for me, but regardless of that ratio, she wants to unite herself in true Valyrian tradition with her kin and for that, Laenor had to go. It is symbolic of their relationship to one another that she simply doesn’t decide to just off Laenor and Qarl to get ahead – this is not a family where I would put anyone past doing that. But it is also symbolic of another important element.
The suffering of the small folk when the high lords and ladies play their game of thrones is a theme strongly established throughout George R. R. Martin’s work and when Daemon murders that guard, it’s not just a grisly plot necessity. It’s another example of how even when the high lords and ladies play a small game just to be happy, even that game has consequences for people who don’t have nearly the same level of structural and institutional power.
In the cycle of death and rebirth, there is entwined the shadow of legacy. It’s a shadow that shatters the thematic depth of time – we have shadows from the past, shadows forming in the present, and the shadows from the future whose shape is always shifting and indeterminate but whose existence is often beyond doubt. Rhaenys (Eve Best) cannot escape the shadow of her coronation slight, her beloved daughter’s death, and the fear that the rest of their family would soon crumble. Corlys (Steve Toussaint) cannot escape the shadow of his ambition, his struggle to build his family name, and his desire his family name to mean something.
Corlys faces two moments where he has to contemplate his determination of how important legacy ultimately is to him. The first is when he approaches a young Lucerys (Harvey Sadler) and tells him that one day he would be the Lord of Driftmark. And Luke, bereft that he cannot mourn the death of the man he knows to be his birth father, says quietly that he doesn’t want to be the Lord of Driftmark because that would mean everyone is dead. That’s not how Corlys thought of it at all, for him legacy is more meaningful than the life in the now. But what is legacy if you don’t take stock of your life in the now?
When Rhaenys chastises him for hiding beneath the cover of fighting for her rights, it’s partially true. A part of Corlys is fighting for his line and the prestige he wants himself and his progeny to have. And after Laena’s death, Rhaenys is challenging him to think about what his pursuit of legacy means, what is ultimately the point of that legacy if they lose their children in the here and now? But Rhaenys herself, in denying Lucerys and Jacaerys (Leo Hart) in favor of Baela (Shani Smethurst) and Rhaena (Eva Ossei-Gerning) is harming those two boys who’ve done nothing wrong, either.
The complexity of these emotions is the strongest heartbeat of House of the Dragon. The show’s pacing with the time jumps has created multiple instance of jarring readjustments for the audience. But in spite of that, the writers and actors have done an excellent job at conveying the complexity of those emotions and how they create these combative internal strifes within them. Some of the time jump detractors will say that we should have just started with adult Rhaenyra and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) but without Milly Alcock and Emily Carey’s portrayal of their youth, the dynamics in the series’ best sequence yet would not have been nearly as sharp.
Aemond gains Vhagar and then loses an eye. The tremendous accomplishment of bonding with the largest dragon in the world immediately takes his sense of lacking self-worth and burns it in seconds. He returns a brute, his self-satisfaction exuding from him as he inflicts shocking levels of cruelty towards his kin. Well, as the saying goes, talk shit, get hit. And hit he does – and Alicent goes ballistic. That she is upset at her son losing an eyes is understandable. That she is upset that Viserys (Paddy Considine) doesn’t take vengeance for this injury only strengthens her belief that if Rhaenyra were to kill her kids, she would face no punishment. That she responds with a demand that Criston remove one of Lucerys’s eyes is reprehensible.
Alicent steals the catspaw dagger from Viserys and all hell breaks loose. She rushes towards Rhaenyra, presumably to attack one of the children (seven hells) and in this confrontation lets loose every single ounce of anger that she had been holding back for more than a decade. She had made all the sacrifices and done her duty, hating every minute of it and never complaining. In that she has our sympathies. But the way she is reacting to those is horrific and not just because her treatment of Rhaenyra is cloaked less in righteousness than in envy. Rhaenyra says as much, the slightest hint of relief in her voice that everyone else could see the ruthlessness that Alicent actually possessed. It’s a dramatic moment but at its heart a deeply sad one, the final snap between two people who were once friends and now could never go back to the way it was.
+ As much as I loved that Laenor and Qarl weren’t murdered in another bury your gays trope – something that gave me a lot of joy – as someone whose family is not accepting of me or my relationship with my partner, it also filled me with a lot of melancholia to see that a happy ending for a gay couple in this series came with an abandonment of blood family
+ For all of Alicent’s talk about piety and decency winning the day, her and Criston’s (Fabien Frankel) tutelage has ensured that both Aemond (Leo Ashton) and Aegon (Ty Tennant) turn out to be colossal, violent douchebags.
+ Corlys wouldn’t approach Qarl like that in public, it just doesn’t make any sense
+ “History does not remember blood. It remembers names.”
+ That Rhaenyra at the beginning of the episode told Daemon that she didn’t believe that Alicent could be responsible for murder is deeply sad
+ “Exhausting, wasn’t it? Hiding beneath the cloak of your own righteousness.” Goddamn, what a line
+ “We will speak no more of it.” If Viserys had a personal motto, this would be it