“If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.”
– Sunzi, The Art of War
To be a lord of the tides is, in essence, a fruitless task. No one can control the movement of the tides nor command them to come to the shore, or to go away, no matter how good one’s High Valyrian is. The tides arrive, they stay for as long as they want, and then they retreat. The best you can hope, indeed, what you should aim for, is to know the tides and be able to move before they shift. One can also simply move with the tides, although that option is less ideal. But in either situation, one has to surrender one’s pride to the forces of nature. If there’s one thing most characters on House of the Dragon are unable to muster, it’s humility.
The microcosm of the larger civil war that’s beckoning with alarming imminence is the smaller, more contained struggle for the Velaryon seat of power on Driftmark. Corlys (Steve Toussaint) has been injured in the godforsaken Stepstones and Vaemond (Wil Johnson) sees this opportunity to adhere to strict male primogeniture, which puts the firstborn son at the head of the succession line, and claim the Velaryon leadership mantle for himself. But in wanting the title of the Lord of the Tides, Vaemond neglects to watch the sea carefully. When it seems he’s about to drown, he digs his feet in even more firmly. In one brief Valyrian steel stroke, finds his head severed from his neck.
Rhaenys (Eve Best), however, does know how to shift as the tides move. She displays political acumen shared by no other ruling family member on House of the Dragon. It was always an injustice that she was denied the Iron Throne on account of her gender, but that injustice feels particularly sharp when you see Rhaenys observe the change that happens in the Red Keep and make her move accordingly. She despises Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and Daemon (Matt Smith) for the assumed murder of Laenor (John Macmillan). Beyond that, she understands that, in that particular moment, they’re the party destined to lose. She will not hitch her horse to a broken wagon.
But then Viserys (Paddy Considine) makes us all cry with his grand entrance, proving what good character work and a fine ass performance can do for a story. But within the context of shifting political tides, it becomes immediately clear that Rhaenyra would now win and Rhaenys steps into the role of the unifying matriarch. Rhaenys retains power while Corlys recovers and she ensures that she will retain power as regent if Corlys dies. This act reduces Vaemond as a political threat, puts Rhaenyra and Daemon in her debt, and places her granddaughters in line to both the Iron Throne and Driftmark. All of this happens without a flicker of her intentions crossing her face.
The beating heart of the episode, however, remains Paddy Considine’s immaculate performance as Viserys. From the moment we see him in his bed, to the moment he takes his final breath in that same bed, the hour is truly his. Viserys could see the faint shapes of the tides but believed that he could stem them by the sheer force of his position. But he never enforced that position. If you can see the tides but don’t love leading up to or upon their arrival, then what use is that position? Rhaenyra and Laenor had that initial disagreement about what to do when a storm is approaching, but the choice to do nothing is not a smart option.
That Viserys propelled himself through truly significant pain to safeguard his daughter’s claim is an incredible act of courage and love. But the power he displays in stemming the tide brewing against his daughter is simply too little, too late. He witnessed these tides gathering for over twenty years, ever since he announced that Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) was going to be the heir to the throne and not Daemon. He surely ought to have known that that was not going to go over as smoothly as him saying the word and everyone agreeing that they would follow a queen as easily as a king. It became even more obvious when he dismissed Otto (Rhys Ifans) as Hand.
Yet here we are and in the final dinner of his life, Viserys removes his golden face mask and asks for the final time for them to all get along with one another. But it’s not going to happen. When he looks at Helaena (Phia Saban) and Jacaerys (Harry Collett) dancing, he thinks back to the time when Rhaenyra made the offer to marry the two of them and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) had rebuffed it. You can see the grief and sorrow in his eyes that only, if only at that moment, he had acted, then perhaps the joy he saw around him would have been made a reality.
But he passes alone in the dead of night, so small in a room so large. His arm moves emptily through the air, as if to grasp a hand that was not there and my heart broke again. He whispers “No more” for the pain – physical, emotional, and mental – and takes his final breaths. He sees his love (Sian Brooke) and Viserys Targaryen breathed no more.
+ The time jumps have been jarring to some degree, but it doesn’t help that some people (like Fabiel Frankel, Sonoya Mizuno, and Rhys Ifans) barely look as if they’ve aged a day. Some consistency in aging would have been appreciated.
+ I don’t know how I feel about Viserys accidentally telling Alicent parts of the prophecy, which she misinterpreted it to believe that he wants her rapist son Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) to sit on the Iron Throne. The Dance of the Dragons was going to happen regardless, so there is that, but I reserve judgment on this execution until the next episode.
+ Sonoya Mizuno’s Mysaria returns and she’s doing quite well as a spymaster, isn’t she? Also her outfit is fabulous.
+ The way Ewan Mitchell’s Aemond lusts and admires Daemon is excellent character development. The contrast between him and his older brother also serves to drive home the series’ questioning of the place second sons hold in this system.
+ I will never forget Viserys dropping the crown and Daemon picking it back up, whispering “Come on,” and putting the crown back on his brother’s head: Absolutely brilliant, emotionally wrecking material.
+ This is Geeta Vasant Patel’s directorial debut and I hope she sticks around.
+ Emmy for Paddy Considine. This was an all-time great television performance, hands down.