Saddle up your dragon: It’s time to return to Westeros.
Game of Thrones’ much-heralded prequel spinoff House of the Dragon premiered Sunday, bringing us right back into King’s Landing like no time had passed. (Well, it takes place a couple of centuries before the events of the original series, but you know what we mean.)
PREQUEL TO THE PREQUEL | We’re brought into this new — well, old — world during a gathering held at the end of the first century of the Targaryen dynasty. A female narrator informs us that we’re watching a council at Harrenhal, called by King Jaehaerys. Though the family’s rule was strong — with 10 adult dragons, “no power in the world could stand against it,” the narrator says — the king’s health is not. And because both of his sons are dead, he calls the summit to choose a successor.
Though more than a thousand lords attend, and 14 bids are made, only two potential successors are truly considered: Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Nurse Jackie’s Eve Best), the king’s oldest descendant; and Prince Viserys Targaryen (The Insider’s Paddy Considine), the king’s oldest male descendant. Both stand with their spouses by the king’s side as he announces the person who will sit the Iron Throne after his death. “The lords instead chose Viserys, my father,” the narrator explains, outing herself as Rhaenyra Targaryen, whom we’ll formally meet in a moment. Then she goes on to note that the council had been called to prevent a war over who’d be in charge, post-Jaehaerys, because “The only thing that could tear down the house of the Dragon was itself.”
THERE ARE DRAGONS IN THE SKY | A title card then leaps us ahead to the ninth year of King Viserys’ reign, “172 years before the death of the Mad King, Aerys, and the birth of his daughter, Princess Daenerys Targaryen.” Annnnnd, cue dragon! A giant, golden beast soars through the clouds and over King’s Landing, giving us a little aerial tour before landing in a clearing. A teenage Rhaenyra (The Gloaming’s Milly Alcock) hops down and lovingly pets her steed (who’s named Syrax) before bantering with a nearby knight, Ser Harrold Westerling (Outlander’s Graham McTavish), and meeting up with her bestie, Alicent Hightower (Casualty’s Emily Carey).
The teens are driven back to the Red Keep, where they swing by the queen’s room. Rhaenyra’s mom is very pregnant and highly uncomfortable, and Rhaenyra thinks it’s a travesty that everyone’s more focused on the baby than on the woman about to have it. “This discomfort is how we serve the realm,” the queen says, though Rhaenyra would rather be a knight. “The childbed is our battlefield. We must learn to face it with a stiff lip,” her mom says, wearily but lovingly.
Next, the teen runs off to her duties as the king’s cupbearer at his small council meeting. Viserys seems unbothered by the matters up for discussion, which include a potential threat to shipping lanes and the absence of his brother Daemon, who’s commander of the City Watch but apparently isn’t a regular attendee of these gatherings. When Lord Corlys Velaryon (Berlin Station’s Steve Toussaint) presses the shipping lanes issue, he’s quickly shut down by the hand of the king, Otto Hightower (Berlin Station’s Rhys Ifans). The talk turns to a tournament the king is holding to celebrate the imminent birth of his next child, whom he’s sure will be a boy and who will solve the problem of Viserys’ having no male heirs. The maester on hand is like, whoa whoa whoa we can’t guarantee you a dude, but the king is happily adamant that “there’s a boy in the queen’s belly. I know it.”
SOMETHING SQUICKY THIS WAY COMES? | And now it’s time to meet Daemon (played by Doctor Who’s Matt Smith), who is insouciantly draped across the Iron Throne when Ser Harrold leads Rhaenyra to him. They speak High Valyrian to each other, and from their easy back-and-forth, it’s clear they get along; he’s rather assured of his place as Viserys’ heir, and he’s back in town for the tournament. They lapse into English as he gives her a necklace of Valyrian steel, “like Dark Sister,” she notes, name-checking one of the family’s famed swords. “Now you and I both own a small piece of our ancestry,” he says as he puts it on her, but I barely hear it because my internal Targargen Incest Detector (which, admittedly, is on high alert given what I know of the family’s history) starts pinging softly but insistently during the exchange. When the jewelry is fastened, she turns to show him. “Beautiful,” he says softly in High Valyrian. Ping! Ping! Ping!
THE QUEEN TAKES A STAND | Upstairs, maesters are attending to the king, who has a small yet suppurating wound on his back that won’t heal. He says it’s just a small cut from the Iron Throne — which still has quite sharp edges — and thinks it’s no big deal; the maesters, and Otto Hightower, seem to think otherwise. After the wound is cauterized (and thankfully, we don’t have to watch), Viserys visits Queen Aemma while she soaks in a tub and tries to get comfortable. They’re affectionate. Still, he won’t let go of the certainty that their unborn kid is a son, thanks to a dream he had about placing his son on the Iron Throne.
Things get more serious when she tells him this is their last shot; in the past 10 years, she’s had a child die in infancy, two stillbirths and two miscarriages. (Oof.) “I’ve mourned all the dead children I can,” she says gently but firmly.
DEFUND THE CITY WATCH | That night, Daemon addresses the men of the City Watch, amping them up before setting them loose on King’s Landing to carry out “justice” as they see fit. In case any of you were worried that the Game of Thrones prequel wasn’t going to go all-in on the original show’s violence, this sequence features the de-penising of an accused rapist, among other dismemberments. By the end, the brutish police force has separated so many body parts from their owners, a two-horse cart is needed to take the appendages away.
Otto is in the middle of bemoaning Daemon’s violent actions to the king when the two men walk into the small council chambers… and see Daemon sitting there with a smirk on his face. He calmly explains that he was just cleaning up King’s Landing ahead of the influx of visitors for the tournament, and his brother agrees, though cautions him to be a little less heavy-handed. (For the record, Daemon makes no promises.) Then Otto takes a dig at how Daemon is neglecting his wife, who’s at their home in the Vale, and Daemon counters by reminding Hightower that his own wife recently died, and I’m starting to think these two hate each other, guys. Viserys steps in and tells them both to quit it, and Daemon says he understands, then leaves.
Daemon heads to a brothel, where the thought of losing the Iron Throne to a baby is weighing on him so heavily, he can’t, uh, set the wildfire ablaze? Land the dragon? Valar his morghulis? (Look, it’s been a while, so you’re going to have to give me an episode or so to get my Thronesian double entendres in order.) The woman he’s with, whose name is Mysaria (Dev’s Sonoya Mizuno), seems to be accustomed to stroking the prince’s ego. “The king cannot replace you,” she croons, hugging him to her chest.
HUZZAH! | Time for the tournament, which will be a bloody affair in more ways than one. The crowd cheers when Viserys opens the proceedings by announcing that Queen Aemma is in labor. The first few runs reveal that Ser Criston Cole (The Serpent’s Fabien Frankel), an unknown quantity at court, is quite good at jousting; when Rhaenyra asks, Ser Harrold supplies that the young man is common-born, but that’s about all he knows.
Daemon is up next, and he chooses Otto Hightower’s oldest son as his first opponent. When Hightower gets a good hit on the first pass, an angry Daemon trips Hightower’s horse on the second pass, making the horse throw his rider as he falls. Apparently that’s kosher? Anyway, when Daemon approaches the king’s box in victory, he asks for Alicent’s favor — yet another slap in the face to Otto. She gives it to him, to her father’s great consternation.
As the day goes on, some jousts devolve into horrifying hand-to-hand combat, with the crowd cheering the whole time. Rhaeyns muses to her husband that the young men who are competing have never known war, and therefore fight — as Anita so aptly put it in West Side Story — “like they gotta get rid of something, quick.” Meanwhile, on the grounds before them, a competitor literally has his face bashed in, and a nearby squire vomits as he watches.
Eventually, Daemon goes up against Ser Criston, and the latter bests the former, causing him to fall halfway off his ride and get slung down the rail like a happy hour beer at Cheers. Daemon then calls for the contest to continue, man-to-man, so it does. But Criston is as good off the horse as he is on, and Daemon eventually yields. And the mystery knight then approaches Rhaenyra and asks for her favor, which she tosses to him, wishing him luck.
R.I.P., QUEEN AEMMA | The king is called away by a maester who informs him that the baby is breech — aka feet-down position, which, in a time where anethesia-free caesarian sections rarely end well, is decidedly Not Great. Eventually, the king is called upon to make a decision: Cut Aemma open in order to try and save the baby, or lose them both.
Of COURSE the king gives the order to slice-and-dice, and of COURSE his dazed and delirious wife has zero say in what’s happening. To his (very slight) credit, Viserys looks sad as he tells Aemma he loves her, just moments before she starts crying that she’s scared of what’s happening. When they cut, she starts to scream. CAN’T SOMEONE GET THIS WOMAN A LITTLE MILK OF THE POPPY OR SOMETHING?
There’s so much blood. Let me say that again: There’s SO MUCH BLOOD. The baby — a boy whom Viserys names Baelon — is successfully delivered. But Aemma is dead. Otto brings the news to everyone seated in the royal box.
A REVOLUTIONARY IDEA | The worst part: Aemma and Viserys’ son died not long after his mother; Aemma was sacrificed for nothing. “I wonder, during those few hours my brother lived, my father finally found happiness,” Rhaenyra says bitterly, in High Valyrian, to Daemon at the funeral. Then, choked with tears, she gives the order for her dragon to set the pyres ablaze. The small council soon decides that the succession needs to be set ASAP, so they meet to debate whether Daemon is a fitting leader. Some argue that Daemon might murder Viserys to assume the rule sooner than later. (Daemon, by the way, is eavesdropping on all of this. Did no one in the king’s circle of trusted advisers think about the literal HOLES IN THE WALL?) Then Otto suggests that the king’s firstborn child become the named heir, instead.
The general reaction: A GIRL?! (It’s much the same when Corlys makes a renewed bid for Rhaenys’ sitting the throne.) Finally, a grieving Viserys yells that he won’t deal with the matter now, and that ends that. Otto is in his chambers when his daughter, Alicent, comes home. And their warm interaction makes it look like he’s one of the few good-guy characters we’ve met so far… until he tells her to put on one of her dead mother’s dreses and go to the king’s bedroom to “offer him comfort.”
She does. She brings a history book. She sits with him while he works on a giant model of King’s Landing (?) that he’s carving. She tells him she’s sorry for his loss. Meanwhile, Daemon hangs out at the brothel, where Mysaria toasts his being the king’s sole heir once more, and he winds up giving a speech about how “I’m not so easily replaced” and calling his dead, infant nephew “The Heir For a Day.” Otto reports all of this to Viserys the next morning; even Rhaenyra is taken aback to hear that her uncle celebrated the family’s loss.
Viserys summons his brother before the Iron Throne to ask him directly if he said the heir thing. “We all mourn in our own way, your grace,” Daemon says. (Heh.) Viserys unleashes upon him, saying that he’s made excuses for him forever. Daemon shoots back that he’s never once been asked to be Hand of the King, and that Otto doesn’t protect the king. “From what?,” Viserys asks. “Yourself,” Daemon replies. Then the king sends his brother back to the Vale, because he’s no longer the heir. As Daemon leaves, Viserys cuts his hand on his chair, and it bleeds.
Then the king meets with Rhaenyra to talk about continuing the Targaryen reign. He apologizes for being so focused on having a son, then tells her that he now believes she was made to wear the crown. Then he shares with her the secret that Targaryen rulers have been passing down ever since Aegon I had a very unsettling vision of the end of the world: “It is to begin with a terrible winter, gusting out of the distant north. Aegon saw absolute darkness riding on those winds, and whatever dwells within will destroy the world of the living. When this great winter comes, Rhaenyra, all of Westeros must stand against it. And if the world of man is to survive, a Targaryen must be seated on the Iron Throne. A king or queen, strong enough to unite the realm against the dark. Aegon called his dream the Song of Ice and Fire.” Good luck, kid!
So Alicent dresses her friend for a very public pledging of loyalty, and Rhaenyra stands before the Iron Throne while all of the lords swear their fealty. Meanwhile, Daemon brings Mysaria to meet a dragon I believe is Caraxes, and they go for a little ride.
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