“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”
– Niccolo Machiavelli
House of the Dragon ends with a tragedy that compels itself through a feeling of inevitability. Once Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Criston (Fabien Frankel) spilled their grievances against Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) into the next generation, the Dance of the Dragons was sealed. It was not a matter of if, but rather when and how. That, in many ways, is the central sadness of what’s to come, that there were so many opportunities to travel along a different path but each of them squandered.
The success of House of the Dragon‘s first season rested upon the show’s ability to establish the central players of the conflict and how their relationships would define this particular chapter of Targaryen history. It largely succeeded in doing that, buoyed most heavily by a powerhouse cast that conveyed so much through their expressions and glances alike.
It was not all a slam dunk, however. The time jumps in particular created a structural strain on the season, a strain that showed itself through a lot of expository dialogue. Episode six, in particular, buckled under that strain, acting as a de facto second pilot but moving the story forward as if it wasn’t. The arc was there and clear, but the script struggled to make characters we barely knew matter enough so that their fiery ends drove a stake through our hearts.
Some of that structural strain is based on how George R. R. Martin crafted his story. George, who has a chaotic relationship with how much his works are informed by historical accuracy, did not make this particular story easy to adapt. On top of that, HBO was nervous about how the largely negative reception to the final season of Game of Thrones would impact their attempt at turning their biggest show ever into a franchise. Turns out people love Westeros and this first season not only convinced people to come back, but also to stick around.
The strength of any story lies most within its characters. They could be any degree of relatable, but there is something about them that reaches us, connects with us, and leaves a lasting impression far beyond their screen time. House of the Dragon has plenty of characters who don’t create a lasting impression, in part because, with the first season covering almost 30 years, there’s no time for them. But the show also has plenty of characters who are filled with complexity and life and it is they who make this finale a gut-wrenching hour.
The most consequential moment, of course, is Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) killing Luke (Elliot Grihault) over Shipbreaker’s Bay. That it was not intentional is irrelevant. The intention was terror and injury but it spiraled out of control into another thing entirely. Aemond lacks many things, but surety of his control and competence are not two of them. Ever since he bonded with Vhagar on Driftmark, he has been training to be everything his now brother (Tom Glynn-Carney) is, something he even said while searching for him. But the funny thing about power is that it very rarely is something we can control to the degree we think we can. People who are cocksure about their ability to control that very power tend to lose control even more quickly.
Viserys (Paddy Considine) told Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) that the control the Targaryens have over their dragons is an illusion. It was an expression of his fear of dragons, a sign of the weakness of his rule, but it felt like it was a bit more than that. It reminded us of Daenerys’s (Emilia Clarke) famed pronouncement: “A dragon is not a slave.” The relationship isn’t clearly defined, which is probably for the best from both a narrative and structural perspective, and this instills within the series, one defined by the presence of dragons, a real sense of uncertainty.
No one will believe Aemond’s declaration that he did not intend to murder his own kin in cold blood, much like no one believed Alicent’s insistence that Viserys named Aegon to be his successor on his deathbed. But the truth of such things doesn’t matter as much as the perception, and Aemond has a choice: he can be seen as craven for murdering a member of his own family by denying it – or he can own it and pretend that that was his intention all along. He, like Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), will be loathed, but he calculates that it is better to be loathed and feared than loathed but seen to be a coward.
Rhaenys (Eve Best) touches upon perception when Daemon (Matt Smith) asks her why she didn’t incinerate the Greens at the Dragonpit. The public would perceive her to be the person who started the war and the public’s perception matters when it comes to governance – particularly when the dominant religion of the Kingdoms harshly demonizes kinslayers. However, she doesn’t take into account the public perception of the casualties she caused when Meleys burst through the floor of the Dragonpit, a noticeable omission. To top that off, she’s still not ready to acquiesce to Rhaenyra, not until she observes that Rhaenyra is much more cautious and careful about her pathway forward than she had assumed.
Rhaenyra is certainly more cautious than many had assumed her to be. When Otto (Rhys Ifans) presents his terms, spouting his righteous nonsense about sparing the realm bloodshed after spilling quite a bit of it mere hours ago, it is Daemon who is ready to slice through the Hightower host. Rhaenyra is the one who stays the hand and considers what it would look like if she accepted the terms offered to her, terms sealed by the very slip of paper she had tore from a book and given to Alicent (Emily Carey) all those years ago–when they were still friends. “As a Queen, is it more important for me to sit on the Iron Throne or to safeguard my subjects?” It is a valuable question to ask and one that speaks highly of the woman speaking it. But it is also, in function, a rhetorical question, as without the throne she does not possess the necessary power to safeguard her subjects.
There is no easy answer and she, much like her father, is searching for one. You can see that irritation voiced through Daemon, who accuses Rhaenyra of being her father. To a certain degree, Rhaenyra, much like Viserys, is searching for the perfect solution to come together and therein lies the potential of catastrophe through naïveté. But, and this is crucial, Rhaenyra is grappling with the difficult choices and options, confronting them head on and asking herself and others about the right pathway forward. It calls back to the question of temperament that Alicent raised to Rhaenys last week, that by right and temperament she should have been Queen, not Viserys King. Then she raises her rapist son to the throne, a man who enjoys watching kids in fighting pits during his spare time. And here is Rhaenyra, asking whether her sitting on the throne is more important than for the realm to remain stable. In terms of temperament, the choice is clear.
The perception of power is also cemented through the soft power of diplomacy, a skill that Rhaenyra did not develop to the degree she ought to have. “Stale oaths” is how Otto refers to the Lords and Ladies of the Realm bending the knee to her when she was proclaimed as the Heir to the Iron Throne. Rhaenyra, like many people in Westeros, trusts too much in the power of the institutions she is a part of. Otto, whose power plays are often stunningly short-sighted, has this part correct. Oaths and promises have to be maintained – one cannot assume that they will hold true over years and years and years. Assuming they will remain intact can turn into a perception of entitlement, which is exactly what the boorish Borros Baratheon (Roger Evans) – who seems to have forgotten how feudalism works – believes to be the case.
Jacaerys (Harry Collett) has a point when he says that the envoys entreating these lords and ladies to remember their oaths will perceive the power of an in-person request on a dragon as more important than honoring the one sent by raven. They might do so out of honor, or respect, or fear. But it’s a stronger move than sending requests by raven – papers, as Cersei (Lena Headey) reminded us on Game of Thrones – are so fragile. But even if Luke hadn’t died with Arrax above Shipbreaker’s Bay in such a grotesque and horrific fashion, Rhaenyra assumed that the perception of power within her reminder of his oath would be enough to sway Lord Borros to his side, and it wasn’t.
There’s two crowns. Two monarchs. One reminds Lord Borros of the oath his father took to bend the knee to Rhaenyra. One provides Lord Borros with an offer that raises his prestige and ties him even more intimately to the royal court. Both sides have dragons. So Lord Borros, calculating that the risk exists either way, opts to throw in his lot with the team that is offering him more instead of nothing. Honor and oaths may be enough for our beloved Starks, but not everyone is going to acquiesce. While Rhaenyra told Luke that her father had prepared her to rule, we know that he didn’t. Otherwise she would have possessed an even keener insight into the various power players of Westeros and what would make them stick by her side.
We don’t know how much of that restraint is going to go out of the window. A quiet Daemon walks up to Rhaenyra and in a wordless sequence informs her that Aemond has murdered Luke. Before this, Rhaenyra was aiming to maybe avoid the war entirely and accept that her birthright had been stolen. Now that is no longer a possibility – war is happening. The Greens fired the first shot and now the question has become how the titular Black Queen will fight this war.
Rhaenyra’s eyes burn with vengeance and the first season of House of the Dragon comes to an end with the promise of infinitely more bloodshed and tragedy to follow. George has gone on record saying that the Dance of Dragons will need forty episodes to do the story proper justice. But, after a first season whose story could have easily occupied more than one season, I hope the creative team takes a deep breath and allows the characters to do the same. The show is a hit and the overall story is mapped in its entirety. So take the time to let these tensions simmer before they erupt into conflicts. The show is good. Let it become great.
Suggestions for Season 2:
– Pacing! Now that you don’t have to worry about people watching the show, take your time!
– Let Sonoya Mizuno drop the accent or switch to a different one. Her performance is so good and as Mysaria gets a much more expanded role, I’m concerned that the accent is all the character will be remembered for
– Lighting! Not everything needs to be super dark (and not everyone has a tv they can calibrate to the right settings, etc.)
– House of the Dragon has done the job of casting a more racially inclusive cast, but it needs to do much better at making its characters of color as complex and meaningful as its white characters
– The moment when Daemon chokes Rhaenyra is so alarming and reminds the audience of his volatility, especially when he believes that his perceived sense of self is being threatened in any way.
– Rhaenyra’s little smirk when she realizes that Viserys never told Daemon about the prophecy was an excellent touch. As Emma noted in a recent GQ interview, realizing that Viserys never informed Daemon of this really cements for her the confidence about the role she has to play in the history of the Seven Kingdoms.
– Emma’s body language when Matt Smith tells them about Luke’s death is perfection. That little stumble? EMMY.
– The final, nightmare dream-like sequence of Rhaenyra finding out about her son’s death? From the mind of Matt Smith, according to the same GQ interview. Whether he intended this or not, the symbolism of them walking towards fire is hard to miss.
– It really should have been Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish) who brought Rhaenyra the crown. Yes, that would have been a change from the book but it would have been much more emotionally impactful, especially as we saw their bond in the pilot episode.
– Stay tuned for more articles in this drought between Season 1 and 2, which according to the production team should start filming in spring 2023.