This article contains House of the Dragon episode 10 spoilers.
She did not want to be Queen of the Ashes. She did not wish to rule over a kingdom of ash and bone. Yet what she wants and what the world is are two different things. And in the final shot of House of the Dragon’s first season, Emma D’Arcy’s Rhaenyra Targaryen comes to a stunning and brutal epiphany: everything burns. Including the best intentions.
Rhaenyra Targaryen’s ascent across the first season (and her final descent into despair during Sunday night’s finale) has been one of tragedy and betrayal. When the character was in her youth, and played by Milly Alcock, she was reluctantly chosen by her father King Viserys (Paddy Considine) to be the heir apparent to the Iron Throne. And despite her father’s vacillating, Rhaenyra saw every lord and prince of the Seven Kingdoms come to King’s Landing and bend the knee.
Even so, the more secure Viserys was about her claim on his crown, the more the soft-power of respect and deference seemed to slip through Rhaenyra’s fingers. Many of the male lords of Westeros breathed a sigh of relief when her younger brother Aegon was born; and the most diligent courtiers in the Red Keep flocked to the circle of influence around Aegon’s mother while Rhaenyra found herself in semi-exile on Dragonstone, estranged from her father and her birthright. Nonetheless, she attempted to put her duty—as a monarch and a defender of the realm if not a wife—above her own ambitions.
For the record, this is an astute choice by House of the Dragon creative team. They have Rhaenyra face the biggest betrayals and treasons of the last two episodes with a degree of fortitude and restraint, even after the shock of it cruelly causes her to lose an unborn child. In the book Fire & Blood, George R.R. Martin’s unreliable historical narrator suggests that after such horrors caused a miscarriage, Rhaenyra bitterly remarked, “They stole my crown and murdered my daughter, and they shall answer for it.” And when met with messages to bend the knee to Aegon II, Rhaenyra contemptuously uttered, “Tell my half-brother that I will have my throne, or I will have his head.”
While such lines are full of fire and blood, fury and badassery, it should be noted that Fire & Blood is written by a male maester whose disposition is to naturally sympathize with the Greens. He and many view Rhaenyra as the usurper for defending what was hers by rights, and these lines would seem to suggest a recklessness that plunged the Seven Kingdoms into war. But the truth of it, at least in the show’s canon, is that she was the hesitant one. Even upon the humiliation of being in a gruesome labor while her husband Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) schemed and plotted, consigned to the birthing bed and “woman’s duties” that she never wished to define her, Rhaenyra kept her composure. She accepted the crown’s duties as being about more than only personal gratification.
That makes what came next all the more tragic.
The Violence Between Daemon and Rhaenyra
All the aforementioned grace and big picture-thinking is what makes Rhaenyra’s emerging fallout with Daemon both inevitable and bitter. Some book fans are aggrieved that Smith’s Daemon raised his hand and struck a wife who was always the apple of his eye. And aye, it’s true that the Daemon of Fire & Blood is said never to have physically abused his third wife/niece. However, given what we know about the Rogue Prince, it is hardly out of character, especially since in House of the Dragon he is shown to murder his first wife with his own hands.
And in the case of the television series, the wedge that comes between Daemon and Rhaenyra is the same thing that arguably drew them together: their shared alienation from King Viserys and the throne he sat upon. Daemon visibly became obsessed with Rhaenyra to the point where her ghost even haunted his relatively happy (or at least contented) second marriage. But that obsession initially came out of the fact that she was his father’s daughter—the offspring of a brother who’s love Daemon always yearned for but never fully could count on.
Rhaenyra was loved unconditionally by Viserys, who was perhaps too weak to express it in more than grand gestures, such as by making Rhaenyra his heir and telling her about Aegon I’s prophecy wherein a Targaryen will unite the living against the armies of the winter and the dead. Daemon never respected Viserys’ abject weakness, perhaps blaming it on the king’s bookishness and affinity for prophecy—but the reason he raises his hand against Rhaenyra is he realizes for good and all, and within hours of learning of his brother’s death, that Viserys never trusted him enough to tell him this prophecy. Even when Daemon was technically Viserys’ heir, and before Viserys out of contempt picked Rhaenyra over him, he was always somewhat on the outside.
So when Rhaenyra reveals she has to think of the good of the realm, it means more than just throwing cold water on Daemon’s war games; it is a reminder yet again that his brother loved her more than him.
Daemon’s instinctual act of violence to this news is thus all the sadder. Daemon was the one person the Queen trusted. Yet on the same day she discovers her former friend betrayed her utterly and completely, and has already created a narrative in which the woman is yet again the villain in the eyes of the realm—and the same day she and Daemon lost a child!—the only man she ever loved proved himself unworthy by placing his hand around her throat.
It would not be the last major betrayal Rhaenyra experienced this episode.
The Accidental Kinslaying in the Sky
In the official history of the Dance of the Dragons, the death of Queen Rhaenyra’s secondborn son, young sweet Lucerys Velaryon, is an act of calculated murder by Aemond Targaryen, an uncle who is reported to have threatened, “I will have your eye or your life, Strong” in front of dozens of witnesses. However, this is revealed to be a lie (or at least a misconception) in House of the Dragon.
On the show, Prince Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) might enjoy playing at war while sparring with Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) in a courtyard, or draping himself in Daemon cosplay, but no matter how cool that sapphire eye looks, he’s still a dumb kid who knows not the level of disaster he courts. When he follows young Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) into the storm, he seeks to bully the lad, even to terrify him, but he doesn’t mean to kill him.
The fact that his ancient dragon Vhagar ultimately does slaughter the child confirms something Aemond’s father, Viserys, once told Rhaenyra at the beginning of House of the Dragon: the Targaryens’ control of dragons is illusory at best. Vhagar understands Aemond’s fury and taps into it, perhaps committing what Aemond’s ego will not allow after Lucerys’ baby dragon Arrax tags Vhagar with a fireball in self-defense.
Still, the die is cast to even Aemond’s horror. Given we know the man Aemond becomes, and how he continues to lean into his younger, more malevolent-Daemon cosplay image, it can be presumed he will keep it to himself that Lucerys’ death was an accident. Either way, it’s of little importance to Rhaenyra Targaryen who can receive the news in only one manner: the last and most sinister betrayal.
Before Lucerys died, Rhaenyra considered Ser Otto Hightower’s (Rhys Ifans) terms in which she could bend the knee and spare the realm, and in the meantime she and the Greens were only playing at war. Lucerys and Aemond had both been dispatched to Storm’s End to entreat the Baratheons’ support—with Aemond (likely at Otto’s bidding) coming with the sweeter promise by offering a Targaryen prince’s hand in marriage for Storm’s End’s support.
But up until this point, the war had no body count other than those poor bastards who were loyal to Rhaenyra in the Red Keep the day Viserys died. While its light was dim, the power of diplomacy still flickered. That light went out for good the moment Vhagar’s mouth enveloped the Queen’s son.
What This Means for Rhaenyra Going Forward
Apparently it was a Matt Smith improvisation that Daemon tearfully took Rhaenyra aside to tell her in private about her son’s death. It proved to be a brilliant choice, with the pair crowded around a hearth’s fire. Flames, and the dragons who can create them, are the source of the Targaryens’ power. It is also a force of absolute destruction.
The final episode of the season is titled “The Black Queen” because Rhaenyra’s partisans refer to themselves as the Blacks, in honor of the black and red Targaryen colors she always wears in contrast to Aegon II wearing his mother’s family’s colors. However, at the end of the hour, Rhaenyra stands not in black darkness. Nay, she’s bathed in a fire’s light, consumed with a fury that will soon spread these flames across all of the Seven Kingdoms.
It’s a tremendous scene for D’Arcy who’s had to constantly walk the line between Rhaenyra’s shortsighted indulgences (thinking she could brazenly get away with no one noticing that her children were not of Velaryon blood, or that she could prevent a war from the safety of Dragonstone) and her larger magnanimous qualities. But what D’Arcy’s sold above all else is a compassion lacking in almost anyone else on the show. All Rhaenyra’s life she’s lived in a paradox. She’s entrusted with maximum privilege that she readily enjoys, but there’s also a minimum degree of deference or love from her subjects since so few men of the realm view her as a queen. As it turns out, many view her as an obstacle to topple.
D’Arcy’s gaze says it all in the end. They’ve been usurped, betrayed, and now after giving safe passage to Alicent Hightower’s father, they’ve had a child murdered by Alicent Hightower’s son.
There can be no peace now, and no hope for reconciliation of any form. The tragedy is Rhaenyra did not wish to rule over ash and bone. But she is a Targaryen and sometimes that’s all that is left to a Dragon’s pride. This war cannot end now except with either Rhaenyra or Aegon dead. The Greens and the Blacks? It’s so much kindling for the fire.
Without spoiling what is to come, the days of caution and fortitude are over. Rhaenyra’s revenge will be brutal, swift, and leave the realm like Arrax’s remains: plunging into the abyss.
House of the Dragon season 2 will begin filming in early 2023.