This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.
House of the Dragon Episode 5
An imagination is a terrible thing to waste. Thankfully, George R.R. Martin rarely wastes ours.
Fire & Blood, Martin’s Game of Thrones prequel upon which House of the Dragon is based, leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. That’s by design as the book is written as a historical document from the perspective of multiple conflicting sources. While a narrative regarding the events that will lead to the Dance of the Dragons eventually emerges, so many of the details in that narrative remain unclear or up for interpretation.
The real reasons for why House Targaryen entered into a ruinous civil war are obscured behind rumor, gossip, and legend, leaving readers to create a more satisfying narrative in their own heads. As talented as any writer is, one’s imagination can always craft a more intimate, curated portrait of events.
That’s what makes House of the Dragon such a challenging proposition as an adaptation. As a visual document, the TV series must depict certain moments onscreen almost by definition. It must show something rather than leaving it to the annals of the Westerosi gossip mill. For the most part, House of the Dragon has succeeded in filling in the details. In episode 5, however, it falls short on several occasions.
Like episode two (the only other “meh” episode of HotD thus far by my estimation), episode 5 fails to live up the imaginative potential that its source material provides. “We Light the Way” puts events onscreen that were “offscreen” in Martin’s world and the way it chooses to depict them ends up putting its viewers’ imagination to waste.
That’s not to say the episode is a disaster, far from it really. The middle portion of this hour is perfectly entertaining palace intrigue. It’s just frustratingly imperfect and wedged in-between two very bad ideas. The opening and closing moments of “We Light the Way” represent House of the Dragon at its least effective.
The episode begins with Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) paying a visit to his estranged wife, Rhea Royce (Rachel Redford), in The Vale. This marks our first trip to the Vale in quite some time within the Game of Thrones universe. Outside the oppressive confines of House Arryn’s The Eyrie, the craggy valley is actually quite lovely. As is Lady Rhea. If the Vale is full of “sheep-fuckers” as Daemon claims, then I, uh…would like to see those sheep.
To borrow some old-timey Westeros terminology, Lady Rhea is quite comely indeed, which adds a new layer to Daemon’s rejection of her. Perhaps it isn’t his wife’s appearance or demeanor (she seems really sharp and cool!) that repulses Daemon so but rather that she is not of his precious, precious blood. Or at least Rhea’s introduction would have added a new layer to Daemon, if he didn’t just go ahead and murder her in cold blood immediately.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Daemon Targaryen killing folks. Lord knows he’s done it before and we still love him for it. The issue here is that Daemon is supposed to be the show’s most complex character and this kind of mustache-twirling villainy is far too one-dimensional. Clad in a black hood and armed with some less-than-inspiring dialog (and a rock), Daemon looks and acts like a Sith Lord dropped into a fantasy series. Given the wild ride that Daemon has taken us on up until now, I can’t imagine that perception is what the show is going for.
The situation would so easily have been rectified by eliminating this scene entirely, as Martin’s Fire & Blood does. In that historical tome, Lady Rhea dies in a mysterious hunting accident as she does here. Crucially, however, we don’t see it happen. It begs the question as to whether Daemon was somehow involved. And begging questions is frequently more satisfying than providing answers. Imagine the perverse thrill if Daemon’s first appearance in this episode occurred when he swaggered into the Throne Room, moments after viewers learned his wife died in mysterious circumstances. Daemon Targaryen should be more myth than man and that kind of entrance is myth-making stuff.
Speaking of myths, the other disappointing aspect of “We Light the Way” is its treatment of Ser Criston Cole (Fabian Frankel) and how it clarifies the myth of his role in these historical events. It was not hard to see Criston’s shame getting to him. A kingsguard knight taking carnal knowledge of a woman he is sworn to protect is as big a sin as there is in the Seven Kingdoms. Criston makes that much clear when he politely asks Queen Alicent (Emily Carey) to execute him rather than geld and torture him.
Criston and Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) were never going to have a happy ending – that much was clear to us from the moment that the soiled knight removed his white cloak that one fateful evening. His downfall, however, happens a touch too quickly and is far too intense to be believed.
Look, you just can’t go around violently murdering guests at weddings. I know there is ample evidence to the contrary, given the bloody history of onscreen weddings on Game of Thrones, but those events are exceptions, not the norm. Here one of the king’s seven sworn bodyguards literally punches the groom’s best friend to death at a wedding and…the wedding just kind of goes on? And Ser Criston is given leave to go attempt suicide below a weirwood tree?
Not to harp on the books once again (though harping is kind of my default state) but in Martin’s continuity, Ser Criston kills Ser Joffrey Lonmouth at a tourney to celebrate Ser Laenor and Princess Rhaenyra’s wedding. Was Ser Joffrey’s death accidental? Or did Criston Cole have ill intent upon finding out that his lover’s new husband had a male lover of his own? Who knows! Like Daemon turning up after his wife’s death, the fun part is getting to ask the question in the first place. Once again: imagination rules over all, or at least it should.
Ultimately, House of the Dragon opts to pick a side in two events that could have been left up to interpretation. The route the show chooses to take is a logical enough one each time – it’s just that not making a choice at all would have been the better choice.
That’s not to say that House of the Dragon needs to leave everything unclear. The middle portion of “We Light the Way” features many moments that choose a storytelling lane and ultimately enrich it by doing so.
The best example is undoubtedly Rhaenyra’s careful negotiations with her new husband-to-be Laenor. It’s apparently an open secret that Laenor Velaryon prefers the company of men to women and like Margaery Tyrell before her, Rhaenyra decides she can work with that. The scenes in which Rhaenyra and Laenor come to an understanding are immensely satisfying – not only because Rhaenyra breaks down the complexities of human sexuality to preferring roast duck over goose – but because they feature two characters properly playing the game of thrones.
There’s a lot at stake here in this union, a fact that Rhaenyra reminds Criston Cole of when he pitifully entreats her to run away with him to Essos. It’s therefore quite gratifying to watch both Rhaenyra and Laenor rise up to meet the occasion. Rhaenyra is putting the lessons she learned about sex and power from her uncle to good use in proposing a marriage that can accomodate them both. Laenor is similarly acting as a rational actor and behaving in his best interests in the realm’s.
Even the betrothed’s respective families get in on the deal-making spirit as Viserys (Paddy Considine) and Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) come to a successional compromise that makes sense to them. Laenor and Rhaenyra’s children will bear the surname of their father, in keeping with Westerosi (and Western Earth’s) traditions. But when an heir, male or female, ascends to the Iron Throne they will be known as a Targaryen. Not a bad deal. Particularly for one negotiated by an incredibly ill man.
Unfortunately though, both these deals are already doomed before they are even consummated. Laenor and Rhaenyra’s happy union is doomed because Rhaenyra engaged in a dangerous emotional alchemy with Ser Criston. Though she may be perfectly happy with their current arrangement, Ser Criston cannot be. He sees marrying Rhaenyra as the only way out of the dishonorable hell he’s gotten himself into. When she takes away that opportunity he ruins their wedding night and will surely one day ruin everything else.
Viserys’ best laid plans are sure to fail as well. For, as progressive a king as he might be, the realm is not nearly as so. It’s a fact that Rhaenys, The Queen Who Never Was, knows better than either men supposedly seeking to fix the indignities of her own past. The King derives his power from the gods and his word is law. But at the end of the day when men are asked by their king to try something, they’re far more likely to shake their sword at it than accept it. That’s why Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) imparts upon his daughter the importance of backing the right horse before he leaves…preferably the horse with a penis she gave birth to.
House of the Dragon is at its best when viewers can feel the weight of history pressing down upon every moment. It’s why most of the various conversations and negotiations in the episode work. It’s also why the more literal, kinetic moments don’t. When the mere sight of a young woman wearing a green dress is enough to bring an entire wedding to a grinding halt, we don’t need Ser Criston Cole to crush some other guy’s face in for good measure. As House of the Dragon continues on, hopefully it will pick up on that lesson and let our imaginations run free.