This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.
House of the Dragon Episode 10
The world is old and it isn’t getting any younger.
Every moment that passes, a little bit more of the historical narrative slips away into the ether, only to be replaced with a new hero, a new slight, a new disagreement, a new love, a new war. And the stuff that’s “lost” to history isn’t really lost at all. Even the forgotten moments of the past are oftentimes encoded into our very DNA or just melt into the collective unconscious. The weight of history bears down on us all, whether we’re aware of it or not. And it bears down particularly heavy on the poor fools on House of the Dragon.
From its very first episode, House of the Dragon revealed itself to be an engaging historical drama about an entirely fake history. Based on George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones prequel Fire & Blood (which itself was written as a historical document), this show treated the fictional event known as the Dance of the Dragons as if it were a real civil conflict somewhere in our own timeline. That writers have thus far been devoted to depicting this story as “faithfully” as possible to the “real” people involved in it, while at the same time deftly filling in the blanks of the things that we don’t know for sure.
With this season 1 finale “The Black Queen,” however, it becomes clearer than ever that House of the Dragon hasn’t just been covering a particular history this whole time, it’s been about history itself.
They say those who don’t study the past are doomed to repeat it. But those who do study the past know we’re all doomed to repeat it anyway. Such is the human condition. Several times in “The Black Queen,” characters seem primed and poised to “break the wheel” as Daenerys Targaryen will one day put it and act in the best interests of the realm. But time and time again they just become another cog in a grand historical machine of grudge-bearing and precedent-honoring that started long before them and will carry on long after.
Fitting for this episode’s title, it all begins with Princ…excuse me, Queen Rhaenyra I Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy). We pick up with the soon-to-be queen and her court in their ancestral home in Dragonstone. Let me gently point out one last time that this all could have been avoided if Rhaenyra and friends had steadfastly never left the capital. Sure, she wanted to get her kids “home” after the traumatic events of episode 8 but that’s really no excuse for the would-be heir to leave the throne behind while the current king is as close as any human being has ever been to dead without actually being dead yet. But I digress.
House of the Dragon‘s forefather Game of Thrones operated under the assumption that the quickest way to make a female character sympathetic was to make clear that she loved her children. In fact, it became something of a joke in later seasons when Cersei Lannister would commit truly heinous acts and Tyrion would assure his team that “no really, guys. She can be reasoned with. She loves her children!”
The final two seasons of Game of Thrones were bad.
But here I’m heartened by the fact that House of the Dragon is doing something a little more complex and human with Rhaenyra. Sure, it’s fair to say she’s a mother who loves her children but her interactions with Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) represent that she’s much more than that. She doesn’t just love the idea of her children. She loves them – weirdly little dark-haired bastards that they are. By loving her children, she’s carrying on the love her father had for her. It’s the good part of that historical weight bearing down on us all.
“My father looked after me and helped prepare me for my duties. Your mother will do the same for you,” Rhaenyra tells Luke.
Unfortunately, the bad weight of history arrives with Rhaenys’s (Eve Best) dark news. The king is dead and Rhaenyra may as well be the last person on the continent to know about it. What’s more: Aegon II sits on the Conqueror’s throne, wields the Conqueror’s sword, and bears the Conqueror’s name. Rhaenyra is losing the war before she’s even aware it began. The news sends Rhaenyra into premature labor.
House of the Dragon certainly hasn’t shied away from the grim realities of medieval-era (or an approximation of it) childbirth thus far. The show’s first six episodes featured three scenes of labor, two of which were lethal to the mother. And yet, many of us knew that at least one more was coming, and not only because of the precedent set in the book. In the HBO’s post-episode featurette for episode 6, director and showrunner Miguel Sapochnik revealed that the season would feature four childbirths, almost as though he was encouraging viewers to gird their loins for the fourth and final one to come. Ultimately, I appreciated the warning but not much can truly prepare you as a viewer for a graphic and tragic depiction of a miscarriage.
For as long as Rhaenyra lives (and who knows how long that will be), these two events will be inextricably linked in her mind: the day the Greens took my throne and the day the Gods took my daughter. Hell, maybe the Greens took the baby too. Who knows how a pregnant human body responds to the stress of the news that their throne had been usurped. Simultaneously depicting the moment of Rhaenyra’s labor with Daemon’s war preparation, while dark, is creatively sound. One of the first things we heard Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke) tell her daughter was that childbirth was a woman’s battlefield. And now here she is preparing for both.
Much of this episode, before its tragic ending, devotes itself to logistics. In that way it serves as an interesting two-hander with “The Green Council.” The death of any monarch presents a logistical nightmare: there is a coronation to schedule and lords to keep in line. Hell, we’ve got to redo the money! It’s particularly hectic when there are two factions seeking to replace that monarch. Daemon (Matt Smith), man of action that he is, immediately works up a plan of action.
First, they have to make sure The Kingsguard on Dragonstone are sensitive to their cause. A visit from Caraxes takes care of that. Then, they have to make sure the regional lords of the Blackwater Bay are onboard: the Bar Emmons, Celtigars, and Masseys. Finally, it becomes time to convince the major lords: the Starks, the Baratheons, the Arryns, the Tullys. All of this talk of politicking and consolidating support could get boring fast. It’s to House of the Dragon‘s credit that it never does.
That’s because it never loses sight of the human angle at play here. Boremund Baratheon was a big booster of Rhaenyra (remember when he hosted her at Storm’s End to hear from suitors) but will his son Boros Baratheon feel the same way? Rhaenyra is related to the Lady Jeyne Arryn through her mother but will House Arryn we willing to overlook Daemon’s indiscretions with their Bannerman, the Royces? And then there are the Starks. Perhaps the episodes biggest (only?) laugh line is when Rhaenyra astutely asserts that “there has never lived a Stark who forgot an oath.” Yep, those are the frosty narcs we know and love.
Throughout it all, the history matters and the history must be considered. That goes not only for Rhaenyra dealing with Westeros’s great houses but with her dealing with her own family. Rhaenys and a now-healthy Corlys (Steve Toussaint) are impressed by Rhaenyra’s consideration for the realm’s well-being and her hesitance to go to war. Little do they know, however, that it’s influenced not just by her good judgment but by the promise she made to her father to save the world. The Song of Ice and Fire is real. She knows that.
Daemon does not. Which means Viserys never truly saw Daemon as his heir. Choking his niece/wife upon learning this news is an overreaction to put it mildly. But it’s probably not unfair to say that this is the most traumatic moment of Daemon Targaryen’s life thus far. Whether he cared to admit it or not, family has always been Daemon’s North Star, specifically his brother. Through all the various feuds, misunderstandings, and wife murders, a part of Daemon always felt that a part of Viserys believed who could be a king. Viserys, though he loved his brother, never saw him as someone serious enough to bear this apocalyptic knowledge. Now Daemon carries that hurt and that history too.
And that brings us to the end. Naturally, much of the marketing for House of the Dragon focused on the dragons of House Targaryen themselves. After only getting to realize three dragons in Game of Thrones, HBO now has more than a dozen to play with this time, each one of them carrying the potential to be made into an unbearably cute plushie for consumers to bring home. Still, House of the Dragon has deployed its dragons somewhat sparingly up until this point. They are used as chesspieces like when Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) wins Vhagar over the the Greens’ side in episode 7 or briefly as spectacle like Caraxes and Seasmoke laying waste to the Stepstones in episode 3.
In this finale, dragons become…well, everything. Corlys points out early on that the only thing that the Blacks counting of soldiers and bannermen means very little in the grand scheme of things. All that matters are dragons: who has more of them and who has the dragonseeds to ride them? On this account, the Blacks situation is looking pretty good. Despite having a far inferior army to the Greens thus far, the Blacks can account for 13 dragons to the greens four, granted most of these dragons don’t have riders currently.
Dragons are game-changers in every possible way. One dragon is worth more than 10,000 men. They are the nuclear weapons of Westerosi military technology. In this episode we see two of those nukes in the hands of children and the results are sadly predictable.
The whole sequence in which Lucerys arrives at Storm’s End to parlay with Lord Boros Baratheon is executed quite well from beginning to end. If the ever-present rain of the Stormlands doesn’t set the mood then seeing the enormous Vhagar parked in the courtyard like a combination of a Godzilla and a Toyota Camry certainly does. “The Black Queen” does little to hide the fact that Luke will be the first sacrifice to the war engine. His first moment with Rhaenyra is fraught with foreboding, as is their second encounter when she urges him to be a messenger rather than a warrior. The boy is marked for The Stranger, it’s just a matter of how he chooses to come collect the soul.
When we see Aemond and the reveal of his sapphire eye, we’ve got to know what’s coming. If you introduce a dragon the size of three sperm whales in the first act, it had better eat a child in the third act. But knowing doesn’t make the execution anything less brutal. There are a handful of little details here to make the experience richer: like the fact that Lord Boros clearly can’t read to him urging Aemond to respect the right of guests that Lord Walder Frey will one day trample over. Once the boys take off into the stormy sky, the technical aspects of the dragon chase is equally as impressive. The rain whipping at Lucerys and Aemond’s faces really seems like it stings and the physics of the dragons check out.
The episode is wise to have Luke and Arrax break the cloud cover and enter a clear sky so that the Vhagar chomping moment in question can really leave no doubt. Lucerys Velaryon is dead. The war has started. There’s no turning back.
In the book (which, remember: is written as a history text and is therefore up to interpretation), Luke’s death is depicted as a cold-blooded murder with no remorse on Aemond’s part. Here, the show attempts something a bit more elegant. Aemond may style himself a Daemon-style badass with his eyepatch and anime leather jacket but there’s a key difference between the two: Daemon has been in war, Aemond has not. Thanks to King Jaehaerys and then King Viserys’s peaceful reins, Westerosi men have not known true war for half a century unless they seek it out like Daemon and Corlys. Whether he realizes it or not, Aemond is a child just like Luke. He didn’t fully understand the power that he had acquired with Vhagar. But he does so now.
I saw a tweet a little while back that made me laugh. Here it is (apologies for the user’s vulgar, yet admittedly hilarious tag):
It is indeed hilarious to imagine that a nearly 200-year-old dragon is fully senile and believing that she’s still living the events of the past. The notion also, I think, hits at something deeper about dragons in this world. The maesters understand little about the lifespans of dragons. It is known that they can live much longer than humans but their maximum life expectancy remains a mystery as most observed have died in battle. But they can live for a long damn time, as Vhagar’s ancient existence makes clear.
In that sense, dragons aren’t just the nukes of this world…they are its living history. Though Aemond sees Vhagar as a tool that can be conquered and commanded, what she really is an artifact. She’s Old Valyria itself. She’s Visenya during Aegon’s Conquest. She’s the hope that Baelon Targaryen represented. She is Laena’s tears.
Aemond is such a small part in Vhagar’s story so as to almost not register. When Vhagar doesn’t listen to her rider and bites down on Arrax’s neck, maybe she does really think it’s still the Conquest and some petty river lord is trying to escape Visenya’s wrath. Maybe she can sense the beating of Aemond’s heart and knows that this violence is what he really wants. Or maybe this is just what she wants.
Whatever the reason for Vhagar’s disobedience, one thing is clear: Aemond was not in control. It seems that no one ever is in this story. History is in the dragon saddle and it’s headed straight to the past. Rhaenyra’s dark look of vengeance that would make both Aegon I and Daenerys I proud confirms that she’ll follow it there.