House of the Dragon Episode 6 Review: The Princess and The Queen

New actors, new dragons, and new drama keep House of the Dragon fresh after a 10-year time jump.

Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D'Arcy) and Laenor Velaryon (John MacMillan) in House of the Dragon Episode 6
Photo: Ollie Upton | HBO

This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.

House of the Dragon Episode 6

“The Princess and the Queen” is effectively a second pilot episode for House of the Dragon. The installment flashes further forward into the future than ever before and ages its characters up so severely that they may as well be entirely different people. And that’s not even to mention the nearly dozen actually new characters that the episode does introduce in the form of Queen Alicent, Princess Rhaenyra, and Prince Daemon’s respective broods of children. 

The decision to jump so far down the timeline midseason is as bold a one as you’re likely to see on television. It has every reason to be a disastrous one as well. Shuffling the board to this extent halfway through a story shouldn’t work. And yet, work “The Princess and The Queen” does. This episode isn’t just an impressive technical maneuver. It’s by far the most entertaining and enriching dispatch from House of the Dragon yet. 

The fresh burst of energy that “The Princess and The Queen” provides to House of the Dragon is evident from its very first scene. HBO was wise to “leak” this moment to viewers before the episode premiered because it makes plainly apparent that the new actors portraying Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), Alicent (Olivia Cooke), and even Laenor (John Macmillan) are up to the task of replacing their youthful counterparts. (Granted, Macmillan looks so similar to New Jersey senator Cory Booker in a wig that I find it distracting but that’s my cross to bear…)

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Though it might not be immediately apparent to the viewer because the technical execution is so seamless, the first 10 minutes or so appear to be shot in one take. From the moment that Rhaenyra gives birth to her third son Joffrey to the moment she brings him to Alicent in her chambers, the camera never takes its eyes off of her. Usually television deploys single-shot takes or “oners” to create a sensation of exciting perpetual motion for the audience. Here, however, House of the Dragon doesn’t appear to be aiming for excitement but rather exhaustion.

This opening scene (which may be the best thing the show has done yet, full stop) capably communicates just how exhausting the past 10 or so years have been for Rhaenyra. All of the wounds built up between Rhaenyra and Alicent in their youth haven’t healed but calcified to the point where the queen would demand to see the princess’s child the moment he was born without giving her one single second of rest. 

Perhaps it goes without saying but D’Arcy, Cooke, and Senator Cory Bo…I mean John Macmillan are immediately superb in their roles. Rhaenyra’s exhaustion is palpable. Alicent’s malevolence is believably growing. And Laenor…well, he’s just being his best self. Tell your freshly labored wife about that time you took a lance to the shoulder, king. 

“The Princess and the Queen’s” opening dispatch is a perfect House of the Dragon moment because it combines what’s best about George R.R. Martin’s storytelling (the weight of shared history wrapping itself around characters’ necks like a noose) with the visual artistry of fundamentally good-TV making. It also helps that the opener culminates in the delivery of one of George R.R. Martin’s funniest and most catty lines ever. 

“Do keep trying, Laenor. Sooner or later you may get one that looks like you,” Alicent tells Rhaenyra’s silver-locked husband upon seeing a third consecutive child with a patch of brown hair. 

In the span of roughly 10 minutes, House of the Dragon has effortlessly caught its viewers up on a decade of missing time, established the bona fides of several new actors, and set up the central conflict for the rest of the episode and beyond. This, my friends, is how you television. Granted, the rest of “The Princess and The Queen” doesn’t quite live up to the deliriously joyful highs of its opening act but nothing really could. What follows is still a well-crafted hour that is positively dripping with raw, uncut, juicy, revolting drama

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In my review of House of the Dragon episode 2, I observed that much of what makes any given episode of a Thrones show work is whether the dialogue is up to snuff. Even in episodes like this that feature countless budget-busting sequences of dragonriding, most of the action in Westeros is delivered verbally as various characters gather in various rooms to discuss various topics while the subtext of history gently roars around them. Not to pat myself on the back or anything *pats back anyway* but that observation is looking pretty good when it comes to “The Princess and The Queen.”

This is among the best-written installments of the show yet and the dialogue positively sings throughout. Some of the best lines are borrowed from Martin himself (like Alicent’s absolutely cutting take down of Laenor and his “children”) but many others appear to have arisen from the joint efforts of the writing staff in this script penned by Sara Hess. Just about everything said in this episode is believably “Westerosi” with the lines consistently rising to the heightened occasion that characters find themselves in. Just revel in some examples below. 

Midwife: “You should remain abed, princess.”
Rhaenyra: “Yes, I should.” (as she stands up)

Viserys: “I do believe he has his father’s nose.” (upon viewing a baby that definitely does not have his “father’s” nose)

Aegon: “Then I won’t challenge…”
Alicent: “You are the challenge. You ARE, Aegon. Simply by breathing.”

Lyonel: “A willful blindness of a father towards one child.”
Harwin: “I wish my father affected a similar blindness.”

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Larys: “You cannot say that Otto Hightower would be impartial in this matter.”
Alicent: “No, but he would be partial to me!”

There is just simply so much joy to be had when everything looks, sounds, and feels right on a period or fantasy show. Rarely has it been easier to suspend one’s disbelief that Westerosi history could be our own history than it is here. The sublime execution of all these elements helps first ease viewers in and then ultimately buy into what could have been a very chaotic episode otherwise. 

Though it may not at first seem like it because the ride is so smooth, quite a lot happens in “The Princess and The Queen.” But the core of the episode remains the conflict between the titular princess and queen as they jockey for influence at court. At first glance, Rhaenyra’s current situation – a gay bff for a husband and a zaddy paramour to churn out some heirs – seems pretty ideal. Of course, we all know better. This is the game of thrones, after all, and if you don’t win it, you die. 

Rhaenyra’s casual disregard for the laws of inheritance coupled with King Viserys’s (Paddy Considine) stubborn refusal to acknowledge what can be seen plainly understandably has Alicent upset. Olivia Cooke really excels in this episode in playing a woman who is constantly living out Will Ferrell’s “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills” line delivery from Zoolander. Doesn’t anyone understand how serious this all is? Alicent has children – three of them – and each and every one of their lives is under the constant scepter of death (at least in her mind). When it’s time for one of Rhaenyra’s illborn brood to ascend to the throne, how can any one of them be expected to let someone with a name as powerful as Aegon live? 

Refreshingly, Aegon himself (played by Ty Tennant, David Tennant’s son) is mostly oblivious to all of this. I think sometimes we forget just how central a role children have played in Martin’s world since the very beginning of Game of Thrones. Sure, Rhaenyra and Alicent were teenagers when House of the Dragon began but 13 might as well be 30 in Westeros. The sudden influx of young blood in the form of Aegon, his brother Aemond (Leo Ashton), his sister Helaena (Evie Allen); and Rhaenyra’s Jacaerys (Leo Hart), Lucerys (Harvey Sadler), and Joffrey (some baby)really brings this show back to the halcyon days of the Thrones pilot when the Stark kids trained to be adults in Winterfell, blissfully unaware of the horrors that would soon arrive.

It also helps that all of the kids are pretty likable…at least so far. Jacaerys wisely works out that Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr) is his father. He and Aegon also both pull off an admittedly very funny prank on Aemond. Meanwhile, Helaena is a fascinating figure in her own right. Though it is not the case for her character in the book, Helaena appears to be a bit spacey and perhaps even on the autism spectrum. A careful listening to her dialogue also reveals to book-readers that she may have some uniquely Targaryen precognitive abilities. 

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The tragedy here is not that the kids are bad – they very rarely are (save for Joffrey Baratheon who was completely satanic from birth). Instead the tragedy is that all the adults in their lives will fail them. Sure, Aegon and Jacaerys and seemingly close enough now, but how many more grueling combat training sessions with Ser Criston Cole (Fabian Frankel) will it take for them to become every bit the enemies that their respective mothers are? Methinks not too many. 

Yes, Criston Cole is still around and still wearing his Kingsguard cloak. The 10 year time jump finds our usually gregarious and charming knight twisted into a more calculated and hateful beast. When speaking with his new partner-in-crime Alicent, he slips up and calls the princess a very nasty word. He swiftly realizes he’s gone too far and backtracks, apologizing to Alicent. But when a kingsguard is using harsh language about the princess in the queen’s presence then some important norms have already been broken. It’s all downhill from here. 

While things are miserable over in King’s Landing, the time jump appears to have served Daemon (Matt Smith) well. Daemon and his new lady wife Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell) have absconded to Pentos where they and their two children Rhaena (Eva Ossei-Gerning) and Baela (Shani Smethurst ) pursue quiet lives of luxury. Daemon really is House of the Dragon’s swiss army knife. Though every character changes slightly from time jump to time jump, nobody is quite the chameleon that Daemon is. 

It’s a credit to both Smith and Blondell that Daemon’s latest mood change mostly makes sense. Even if he’s but a decade removed from murdering his first wife, something about the change in environment (and more importantly: estrangement from his family) has really mellowed the dragon out. That’s why he responds so favorably to the Pentoshi’s offer to stay in Pentos and discourages Laena from her desire to return home. 

Of course to home Daemon must now soon return. The scene in which Laena faces self-immolation via dragonfire rather than die in childbirth is a heartbreaking inverse to Queen Aemma’s death in the first episode of the series. Crucially, Laena takes the decision as to whether to save their child’s life out of Daemon’s hands so that we do not see if he would make the same choice as his brother. All of this is a lot to happen in one episode of television – let alone just one part of one episode of television. That any of it works is a testament to the storytelling capabilities at play.

The one area where those storytelling capabilities fail to elevate “The Princess and the Queen” is in the sudden supervillainification of Larys Strong (Matthew Needham). As witnessed last week with Daemon’s Sith lord glow up, pure mustache-twirling isn’t a particularly good look on any of House of the Dragon’s characters. Larys’s plan (and subsequent execution thereof)  to murder his father and brother certainly makes some sense. In his devious mind it solves a lot of problems: preserves House Strong’s honor, elevates himself to Lord of Harrenhal, and ingratiates himself with the Queen. That the queen responds in horror is but a minor impediment. She’ll come around when she realizes a treacherous, yet loyal man’s worth – just like the rest of this royal lot.

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Unfortunately it all just happens too quickly to make much of a real impact. And Larys’s voiceover that accompanies the fiery murders is moslty a bore. The phrase “The things I do for love” cuts a lot deeper than a long, flowery villain’s monologue about how “love is a downfall.” 

In the end, however, the sped up downfall of House Strong is but a blip the episode’s runtime just as its a blip in the long, ruinous history of Harrenhal itself. House of the Dragon now has a head of narrative steam and seemingly nothing but good, fresh ideas to come.

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.


4.5 out of 5