This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.
House of the Dragon Episode 3
It took Game of Thrones nearly two full seasons (and an influx of gold dragon currency) before it felt comfortable enough to tackle a big action sequence. In fact, for much of its early run Game of Thrones went out of its way to avoid major battles even when the situation called for it. Season 1 saw Tyrion sit out a scuffle after an errant axe to the head knocked him out. Then, when newly-minted King Robb Stark goes to war against the Lannisters, we never get to actually see any of his victories.
Now, just three episodes into its first season, House of the Dragon has proven itself way ahead of Game of Thrones schedule by pitching its first major battle setpiece. And reader…it’s pretty great.
There’s a nerd somewhere deep inside of me that has some quibbles with when and how House of the Dragon has chosen to stage its first epic battle. The skirmish against the Crabfeeder’s Triarchy in the Stepstones isn’t necessarily worth the budgetary TLC that the show affords it. As evidenced by King Viserys’s (Paddy Considine) nearly three-year long refusal to get the crown involved with it, the Stepstones war is far from an existential threat to the Seven Kingdoms. If anything it’s a vanity play from Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) and Lord Corlys (Steve Toussiant) to establish themselves as major movers and shakers in the world.
By embedding itself within that war, House of the Dragon kind of makes it seem more important than it really is. Daemon’s gambit to lure the Crabfeeder out to play may come across as a touch too selfless and heroic when in reality it’s just the latest in a long line of temper tantrums. But for now, let’s shove that inner nerd further back into the locker where he belongs and appreciate the battle at the Stepstones for the awesome spectacle that it is.
Everything about Daemon and Corlys’s struggle against Craghas “Crabfeeder” Drahar and his Triarch forces is indicative of how House of the Dragon’s writing and production teams truly care about the product they’re turning out. The costumes are incredible. The scenery is lush. The violence is impeccable and satisfyingly ironic. Daemon’s dragonmount Caraxes (whose long neck looks increasingly like a fleshy churro to me) is as seemingly as likely to accidentally crush or immolate an ally as an enemy.
It certainly helps that the Crabfeeder himself is a kind of perfect Game of Thrones “miniboss.” Not since Ser Ilyn Payne has a Thrones character made such an impression without uttering a single line of dialogue. Truth be told, Craghas doesn’t really need to speak to get his point across. Blessed with superb greyscale makeup design and an expressionless mask, Craghas and his crabs are a truly menacing threat. While the Triarchy itself is a complex political entity of several Free Cities with equally complex political aims, the Crabfeeder is clearly just a simple man who wants to watch the world burn. How lucky is he then that Daemon and Caraxes oblige him of that.
Though House of the Dragon does imbue the Crabfeeder saga with a little more importance than its worth, the show does get one crucial character (re)introduction out of it. It would be one thing for Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and the rest of the realm to hear about Laenor Velaryon’s (Theo Nate) ascension as a dragonrider, it’s another thing entirely for us to actually see it. Suddenly the Sea Snake’s house has another major player on the field and one that seems to justify Lord Lyonel Strong’s second attempt at a Targaryen-Velaryon union.
While our time in the Stepstones is certainly worthwhile and glorious, “Second of His Name” could not be considered a successful episode of television if it contained only that. Thankfully the show’s writers (led here by Gabe Fonseca and Ryan Condal) understand this and wisely tuck a whole second episode within it…and arguably a better one.
King Viserys and his party’s journey into the Kingswood for a hunting expedition for the wee baby Aegon II’s name day is simply superb storytelling. Though sometimes the dialogue still lags from George R.R. Martin Medieval standards every conversation here is dripping with subtext when it’s not right out screaming with context. So much of the worthwhile action on Game of Thrones and now House of the Dragon happens within its characters’ heads as they try to figure out what words to say to further their schemes…or merely just survive to see another day in King’s Landing. Episode 3 is full of such rich inner turbulence.
It’s been around three years since the events of “The Rogue Prince” and King Viserys’s fortunes have changed immensely. The King and his child bride Alicent have a son now – the absolute unit known as Aegon, second of his name after the Conqueror himself. But what should be a joyous occasion is marred by a promise that Viserys has already made to Rhaenyra.
Though the Stepstones will get all of the attention, the increased scope of a royal hunting party here is where House of the Dragon’s inflated budget is really put to the best use. In Game of Thrones, King Robert’s hunting party consisted of the drunken king himself, his brother Renly, and a handful of other dudes roaming around the woods until a boar goared the Usurper King to death (offscreen of course, in keeping with Thrones’ early monetary modesty). Here, however, the scale of the occasion is truly immense and impressive.
Perhaps even the viewer can’t help but get swept up in all the baby Aegon excitement. A white hart? On the Aegon II’s name day??? Hell yeah, make the little guy king already! So many of these regal traditions and pretty colors mask what, at the end of the day, is basic high school-level posturing and gossip. The Hightowers want one heir, the Velaryons want another. And the Lannisters (now represented by Viserys’s new Master of Ships Tyland and his twin brother Jason), well they just want a bigger piece of the pie. When all of these competing desires come together under the guise of a “civilized” event like a hunt, then satisfying drama and backbiting can’t help but ensue.
Befitting of the great hunt’s scale, “Second of His Name” provides House of the Dragon with another influx of new characters. Some fresh Lannisters (Jefferson Hall) are always welcome, particularly when they continue the House’s odd penchant for turning out twins. Meanwhile Larys Strong a.k.a. “The Clubfoot” (Matthew Needham) and Aemond Velaryon (Will Johnson) are intriguing additions as well. The core of this episode, however, belongs to the two Targaryens at its center: Viserys and Rhaenyra.
I must say, I’m a little surprised at the extent to which Viserys has operated as a lead character in House of the Dragon thus far. Martin’s writings tend to shy away from kings as true POV characters but Viserys here operates in a similar capacity as Ned Stark in the early episodes of Game of Thrones. Thankfully Paddy Considine is more than up to the task.
In the series first episode, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) assured his king that the gods had yet to make a man who lacked the patience for absolute power. But Viserys’s patience here is starting to look pretty thin. The Iron-Throne-wounded Targaryen looks like a caged animal at a circus than rather a king as more and more well-wishers approach him, trying to sway him to one way or another.
Even before Viserys comes right out and drunkenly tells Alicent his tortured state of mind about the state of Targaryen succession, the pain is read plainly across his face. More and more the Iron Throne looks like a prison of contradicting responsibilities on House of the Dragon. The Gods say to do what’s right for the realm but also to honor one’s family and the promises they make. Just what exactly do those celestial freaks even want anyway? Why can’t they just say it? Oh well, perhaps the answer is at the bottom of this wine chalice.
“Second of His Name” does well to spend plenty of time with Rhaenyra as well as she nurses her wounds over her father’s marriage and the creation of an heir that might leapfrog her over the throne. Rhaenyra’s scenes with Ser Criston Cole are quite satisfying (and for my money: the moment where Ser Criston rides down Rhaenyra on horseback features more impressive stunt work than anything in the Stepstones). When Criston thanks Rhaenyra for writing his name in the White Book and bringing honor to House Cole forever, it serves as a helpful reminder of just how powerful absolute rule is and the difference it can make in any one person’s life.
Rhaenyra and Criston’s encounters with first a boar and then the mythical white hart stag are also imbued with the requisite amount of awe. It seems possible or perhaps even likely that Otto Hightower had that white hart brought into the Kingswood himself so Viserys would come across it and be convinced that the gods wanted Aegon II as their earthly representative. The best laid plans of mice, stags, and men often go awry, though. Neither Rhaenyra nor her father are one to indulge in superstition but how can Rhaenyra deny the mighty symbolism of being the one to see the white hart when it was intended for somebody else?
In reality, that white hart is just a dumb animal, roaming around the woods looking for berries to eat and weird little spherical turds to leave behind. To Rhaenyra, however, it’s a sign…just like Viserys’s dream of the Conqueror’s true heir. It all goes to show just how fragile the political equilibrium is when human beings are involved. That unwitting stag might have very well have unknowingly locked Westeros into one of the bloodiest and most destructive wars ever fought on its soil.
When Rhaenyra and Ser Criston emerge from the Kingswood, covered in blood and dragging fresh boar meat behind them, the episode might as well end there. Of course, “Second of His Name” instead goes into Viserys’s morning-after conversation with Rhaenyra and the thrilling conclusion of the war against the Crabfeeder. The rhetorical impact of the white hart might have hit harder if those were left for future episodes but it’s hard to quibble with getting more House of the Dragon when it’s already this fun.
In many ways, “Second of His Name” provides the most compelling evidence yet that the show knows what it’s doing. Episode one was a worthwhile endeavor but that was largely due to how much original Martin content it was able to adapt. Episode two subsequently struggled without the Martin-led dialogue and intrigue to fall back on. This episode, however, is almost purely an original creation of the show’s writers as none of its most climactic moments can be found on any page from a distinct point of view. The fact that it still feels like classic Game of Thrones anyway is as auspicious a sign as a white hart in the kingswood on your Name Day.