This article contains House of the Dragon episode 8 spoilers.
Even a character as arrogant as Matt Smith’s Daemon Targaryen has to begrudge it was a good line. When a young and still bleeding Prince Aemond (then Leo Ashton) takes his hand and places it in the queen’s, he says, “Do not mourn me Mother, it was a fair exchange. I may have lost an eye but I gained a dragon.” The little flicker across his uncle’s face suggests the older prince is impressed.
Such was our first hint on House of the Dragon that these are two Targaryens cut from the same stuff: fire and blood. And after last night’s episode, that fact has become both clearer and more perilous for the realm of Westeros.
The first time we see Prince Aemond after a six-year time jump between episodes, it’s jarring. He has a new face and a new actor; Aemond is now played by Ewan Mitchell. Still the second son of the ailing King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and his not-quite-doting wife Alicent (Olivia Cooke), Aemond remains a teenager; he’s an adolescent who should be a novice to politics and the game of thrones they create. Yet that is not how he appears when his nephews, Jace and Luke Velaryon (Harry Collett and Elliot Grihault), spot him in the Red Keep courtyard.
With sword in hand, and swift of foot, Aemond is in the midst of a practice melee with Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel)… and he’s winning. Dominating, really. From certain angles, he even looks to be the spitting image of Smith’s Prince Daemon during the first three episodes of House of the Dragon, back when the Rogue Prince was at the full height of his chaotic power and his silvery long locks flowed past his shoulders. Now roughly 20 years later, Aemond could be his doppelgänger if not for the eyepatch.
That sliver of cloth, a token of Jace and Luke’s familial love from six years earlier, casts an instantly more sinister shadow over his countenance. It’s reminiscent of villains from 19th century novels like Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. And Mitchell’s performance does nothing to disabuse you of that notion with the actor seemingly taking a page from the late Sir Christopher Lee, who famously played the cycloptic Rochefort in Richard Lester’s classic adaptation of Dumas.
Aemond may still be grateful for owning the largest dragon in the world, but an eye isn’t the only thing he lost on Driftmark. Gone is the uncertainty and perhaps a yearning for acceptance. The Aemond we meet in a courtyard knows exactly what he is: cold-blooded; domineering; a killer waiting to claim his first victim. And when he acknowledges Jace and Luke by announcing, “Nephews,” it is with a hard, unblinking stare and a mirthless smile. He might as well be a reptile.
Like Daemon before him, Aemond was born as a second son to a man who would be king—or at least should be in Aemond’s case, and as told to him quite often by his mother. So by the time we meet Aemond as a young adult, he already knows he’ll never sit the Iron Throne. In addition to Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and her strong, strong lads, there’s his own brother, and presumably his brother’s children (poor Helaena is already expecting). There’s no place for Aemond in this line of succession. So he sharpens his sword instead.
It’s a song we’ve heard before, but what’s remarkable about House of the Dragon’s structure is how in only eight episodes, the showrunners and cast have made us feel the weight of time and these lived experiences. When the series began, and Daemon and Viserys were younger men, Daemon being the restless agitator, and the chaotic joker in the deck, was fun. The Targaryens’ power was unimpeachable, and the worst Daemon seemed to be able to do was get up to some mischief by slaughtering freaky pirates on the Stepstones while his brother held court.
But in only five episodes since those wars concluded, the hour has grown late. Viserys lies on death’s door. This reality has dulled his mind by sharpening his gravitas to a nigh Shakespearean degree. Viserys at last sees how his inability to truly favor his daughter’s claim or his wife’s family has left the realm divided. Now it’s only a single heartbeat away from civil war.
Daemon could play at being a rogue when the stakes seemed so much smaller for Westeros, but now in the hour of the wolf, a joker in the deck could bring this whole house of cards down. Even with a loss of an eye, Old King Viserys can see it and attempts to unite his family, at long last, which is what makes the echoes of Daemon in the next generation so dangerous.
Yes, Daemon is still here, and still able to play the rogue when it suits him. It was one of the character’s best moments in the entire series when he goaded Vaemond Velaryon (Wil Johnson) to say “bastard” and then immediately took his head. House of the Dragon uses the moment, too, to call to attention the parallels between Daemon and Aemond. Whereas the rest of Aemond’s Green family looks on, horrified or infuriated by Daemon’s brazen arrogance to behead their man on Driftmark before the whole court, Aemond looks on in admiration… and envy.
Age brings wisdom, supposedly, but for many it brings comfortability. Daemon has what he’s seemed to always want. Rhaenyra is his wife, the Iron Throne will soon be his (kind of) by proxy as a Consort to the Queen, and he’s apparently gotten over his issue with impotence given that he’s now father of four healthy children.
Aemond, on the other hand, has none of his brother’s security of placement, power, or marriage (Aemond was disturbingly jealous in the last episode that Aegon would be the one who’d get to marry their sister). From Aemond’s narrow perspective, Daemon’s had his turn. Now it’s Aemond’s time.
And we see what that can mean during the episode’s climactic dinner sequence. Aemond’s mother attempts a tentative peace with her greatest enemy, Princess Rhaenyra, and both Jace and Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) can swallow their pride long enough to ignore each others’ slights in front of their father/grandsire.
But Aemond? As soon as the old man is out of the room, he turns the knife and steers a feast intended for peace back toward war. I have no way to prove it, but I suspect Aemond ordered a roasted pig to be delivered in full in front of him—and in front of the princeling who took his eye. Unblinking, always unblinking, Aemond’s just waiting for an excuse. Luke gives him one with a snicker, and then it’s time to toast his STRONG nephews.
Just as Daemon could undo in an instant all of Viserys’ high hopes for Rhaenyra’s betrothal, Viserys’ second son will now undo his efforts in the far grimmer matters of war and peace.
After Aemond has successfully antagonized his nephews to the point of bloodlust, Daemon interferes again. He steps between his wife’s sons and Aemond, looking at the latter again, just as he did on Driftmark. It’s plain to see both Daemon and Aemond recognize their mirror in the other’s image. But there’s no more subtle amusement in Smith’s performance—just a warning to sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up.
Aemond doesn’t say another word, but the avarice in his lonely eye speaks volumes. This is not over, and he is eager to rip away the tranquility and stability an older Daemon now feels entitled to.
As Daemon never let go of his pursuit of Rhaenyra, it would seem Aemond is only beginning his pursuit of Rhaenyra’s sons and her husband. It’s easy to imagine that there’s only room enough in all of the Seven Kingdoms for one Rogue Prince. And the realm will weep when their building rivalry comes out into the open.
New episodes of House of the Dragon premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max in the U.S. and Sky Atlantic in the U.K.