This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.
House of the Dragon Episode 4
Sex plays a big role in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire world (as it does in our own). Not only does the act, you know, feel good, but procreation is kind of a big deal in a political landscape dominated by inherited dynasties. So while Game of Thrones certainly reveled in spicing up the fantasy genre with nudity and violence, both elements at least felt natural to the story that the show wanted to tell. The issue, however, is that Game of Thrones’ prurient moments were frequently sloppy and unsensual in execution at best and downright exploitative at worst.
In the show’s latter seasons, it started to depict the onscreen rape of some of its characters like Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister, something that even the traditionally ruthless author Martin would usually move “offscreen” in his novels or find a way to avoid altogether. Additionally, Daenerys Targaryen actress Emilia Clarke recently revealed that if the Thrones pilot were shot today, she might advocate for less nudity.
If we view House of the Dragon as an opportunity for HBO to finetune and perfect what was already a superb TV-watching experience in Game of Thrones, then the show’s approach to onscreen sex is certainly ripe for refinement. And that refinement arrives in episode 4 “King of the Narrow Sea.”
House of the Dragon episode 4 might as well be called “The One Where They All Bang.” A now 18-year-old (I think?) Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) learns all about the joys of fooling around and then immediately after, its consequences. It’s all like a Westerosi after school special but a relatively sensitive one that respects how easy it is for a relatively sheltered royal girl to get swept up in unfamiliar emotion. Granted, most after school specials don’t cover the complications that arise from hooking up with one’s uncle. Oh right, did I not mention that part? This is the episode where HotD once again asks “what part of ‘the Targaryens are incestual’ didn’t you understand?”
There’s a lot to enjoy in “King of the Narrow Sea” even outside of the exchange of carnal knowledge, but let’s get to that first. The foreplay seemingly begins when Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) arrives home from the Stepstones, driftwood crown in hand, ready to cause yet another major political headache for his brother Viserys (Paddy Considine). Surprisingly, however, the proclaimed “King of the Narrow Sea” removes his crown, hands it to his brother, and acknowledges him as the one true king. The hatchet is buried and the mood is joyous. The whole throne room erupts in cheers when the brothers embrace!
That leads into one of my favorite King Viserys scenes of the series yet (which is saying a lot because Paddy Considine is knocking this thing out of the park). Daemon, Alicent, Rhaenyra, and a very wine-drunk Viserys gather in a courtyard of the Red Keep and Viserys is just the happiest little lad you’ve ever seen. The realm is secure, his wife is dutiful, and most importantly: his brother is back.
Viserys booming with laughter at the thought of Daemon being invited to see some musty tapestries within the castle walls is infectious. There’s a certain lack of pretension when it comes to dealing with family that must be so refreshing to a king who is white-knuckling his way through the staid, ceremonial portions of his job. He knows Daemon is an asshole but gods-be-good he still loves him, right down to his distaste for art. When things are going well, someone’s faults are charming, not grating. Unfortunately, things won’t be going well much longer.
It’s unclear if Daemon always intended to court Rhaenyra and fuck his brother’s whole life up from the very moment he arrived back in King’s Landing. I’m not sure if Daemon himself was even aware of what he wanted. Daemon is a rampaging id, darting from stimuli to stimuli like a single-cell organism. It just so happens that the latest stimulus that catches his nervous system’s attention is his niece.
House of the Dragon made it quite clear early on that there was something going on between Daemon and Rhaenyra. It reminds us that yet again as the episode takes time to linger on the Valyrian steel necklace that Daemon gifted his niece. Still, I imagine many of us expected that something to occur offscreen or at least after the older actor Emma D’Arcy had stepped in to embody Rhaenyra. Instead, however, House of the Dragon just goes for it now and the result is actually more sensual and interesting than it than any instance of onscreen incest has a right to be.
The show’s time jumps certainly help in this regard. Rhaenyra is at least closer to our modern perception of adulthood now than she was in episode 1, even if it is hard to see her as anything other than a kid. Truth be told, she still is something of a child, having spent most of her life locked away in the Red Keep, gossipping with Alicent and reading stories about mythical maidens and martyrs. When Daemon takes her out into the “real world” her sense of awe is easy to appreciate.
Even before he leans in for an ill-advised kiss, Daemon has already fundamentally changed Rhaenyra forever. All of the education she received from boring maesters is immediately supplanted by images of low-born firebreathers, pock-marked fortune tellers, and crude mummers in Flea Bottom. But then, of course, Daemon does take Rhaenyra to a pleasure house and he does lean in for that kiss.
Rewatching the scene, it all happens quicker than you might remember and doesn’t go as far as you might have thought. Daemon isn’t so much ravishing Rhaenyra but imparting a message: this is the life of a true queen. Take what you want…who you want. And if the gods say an uncle and niece can’t be together then the gods are wrong. The two don’t even consummate their unholy act as Rhaenyra is left alone and wanting, undergarments around her ankles.
The many sex scenes on Game of Thrones helped coin the popular critical term “sextoposition,” in which boring exposition or backstory is presented while naked people touch one another to give the audience something to gawk at. Say what you will about Daemon and Rhaenyra’s dalliance, but it is decidedly not sexoposition. There is no background information necessary here, it’s all in the moment. A crucial message is imparted on Rhaenyra in the only way it could have been. All this time she’s wanted to be her father’s heir but she had no idea what it meant to be a queen. Somehow, now she does. Bugger tradition. Defy the gods. Take what you want. Fuck your uncle while you’re at it.
We know Rhaenyra gets the message because in the very next scene she decides to act on her own desires for perhaps the first time in her life. Rhaenyra flirting with and ultimately sleeping with her sworn knight Ser Criston Cole (Fabian Frankel) is quite the fraught moment. While the power dynamics in the previous scene favored Daemon, here they favor Rhaenyra.
Just one episode ago, Criston told Rhaenyra that he and his family owe everything to her. She was the one who had the power to write “Criston Cole” into the White Book and change the trajectory of House Cole forever. And now here she is jeopardizing that honor. Criston’s internal monologue appears to be one long primal scream as he resists, then doesn’t, then resists again, then gives in as he very gently places his white cloak down and picks his princess up. The pair’s throes of passion are contrasted with Viserys and Alicent’s expressionless dutiful act.
Rhaenyra’s consecutive moments of sexual awakening serve as the climax of the episode as much as Daemon and Corlys’s war in the Stepstones did last week. Initially to me, the choice to highlight the scenes to this extent felt odd or at least uncomfortable – probably due to the various factors at play like the characters’ ages and the, uh … incest. In hindsight, I may have been reacting to the ghosts of Thrones’ past. House of the Dragon’s sex isn’t perfunctory, expositional, or even exploitative. Something real is gained here for Rhaenyra.
Of course, as is often the case with wild nights out in Flea Bottom, something is lost as well. This time around, Rhaenyra loses precious standing with her father. No amount of advocating that she should be allowed to sow her oats just like Viserys and Daemon did will reach the king. She is not Viserys Nor Daemon. She is Rhaenyra, a girl. Much as Viserys may see himself as Westeros’s progressive champion for naming his daughter heir, that distinction doesn’t mean much if he’s not going to let her act like a king.
Viserys’s position is at least a little sympathetic. He reminds his daughter and us this week of Aegon’s Song of Ice and Fire and reveals a heretofore unseen message hidden in the Valyrian catspaw dagger (that will one day take out the Night King). That’s undercut (pardon the pun) though by him silently and passive aggressively delivering Rhaenyra moontea (Westeros’s version of Plan B) at episode’s end.
The aftermath of Rhaenyra’s sexual awakening is the portion of the episode that works the least. Messy king that he is, George R.R. Martin has a natural ability for writing about rumor and gossip from a historical perspective that House of the Dragon cannot match just yet. Rhaenyra and Daemon’s trip to Flea Bottom becoming the subject of breathless speculation for the court over the span of the next few episodes would have been more historically astute and satisfying to take in than Viserys’s histrionics. But House of the Dragon has a schedule to stick to. Otto Hightower has to go and the show must presumably jump forward yet again in week five.
The show’s approach to time remains a double-edged Valyrian sword. House of the Dragon does so many of the little things well that you wish it had more time to indulge them. This week’s brilliant opening scene set in Storm’s End is able to communicate both the weight of history and very human contradictions of a bored princess simultaneously. Game of Thrones’ version of the Hatfields and McCoys, the Brackens of Blackwoods of the Riverlands, come to blows during the courtship of Rhaenyra all the while she’s just concerned with not having to marry a boring old man or a naive little boy.
At the same time though, continually jumping forward in time means that some moments have to be brought to the forefront more quickly rather than being allowed to simmer in the background for episodes at a time. At the end of the day, all that really matters for posterity’s sake is that a show gets the big things right. In “King of the Narrow Sea,” House of the Dragon mostly does.
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.