This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.
House of the Dragon Episode 7
If nothing else, House of the Dragon’s most recent two episodes have made it clear that the show is really going to miss director and co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik.
Last month, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Sapochnik (who directed some of Game of Thrones‘ most action-packed installments like “The Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome”) would be leaving the series that he developed alongside co-showrunner Ryan Condal before season 2. This being Warner Bros. Discovery’s biggest TV product by a wide margin, viewers can be forgiven for looking for spilled tea all around Sapochnik’s departure. In listening to Sapochnik on the most recent episode of the official House of the Dragon podcast, however, it really does seem like the guy just needs a break.
And what a well-earned break it will be! Just like last week’s “The Princess and the Queen” (also directed by Sapochnik), this week’s Sapochnik-helmed “Driftmark” is another visually-staggering, well-crafted, and tonally-perfect hour of television. House of the Dragon’s sixth and seventh episodes are clearly the show’s two best in some order. And the continuity behind the camera can’t have been a coincidence.
While “The Princess and The Queen’s” breathtaking one-take opening sequence blazed new technical ground for House of the Dragon, “Driftmark’s” first act is somehow even better. There aren’t any nifty camera tricks this time around, aside from a keen understanding of the power of natural light, but the elegiac mood the show captures is palpable.
Come to think of it, we haven’t seen too many funerals in the Game of Thrones world – or at least funerals for characters we know and care about. Though the Stranger is a persistent, unwanted guest in Westeros, most funerals on this show are of the perfunctory variety for old background characters like Hoster Tully or Jon Arryn. Here “Driftmark” takes us through every excruciating detail of Lady Laena Velaryon’s (Nanna Blondell) commitment to the sea.
Just about every single named character on House of the Dragon is present for the event (save for Mysaria…remember when she was on this show?) and we get to witness that old adage of family only getting together at weddings and funerals. The last time this particular family gathered for a wedding, things didn’t go too well. Will a funeral lead to less violence? That’s the question that hangs around “Driftmark’s” opening 15-minutes like a millstone.
I really can’t praise the direction, set design, and performances of this first act enough. Every single element at play serves to increase the tension of some event that we know is bound to come even if we don’t know precisely what it is (at least non-Fire & Blood book readers don’t). After Ramin Djawadi’s typically gorgeous score swells for Laena’s eulogy (delivered entirely in Old Valyrian naturally), the sound design goes nearly mute for the post-funeral haze. It’s almost like a silent movie as characters wander around Driftmark’s docks, stealing glances with one another but not daring to say what they really think.
Aegon (Ty Tennant) determinedly delves into his cups. Jacaerys (Leo Hart) wordlessly moves to comfort Baela (Shani Smethurst) and Rhaena (Eva Ossei-Gerning), only for them to wordlessly grasp his hand to comfort him instead on the loss of his real father, Ser Harwin Strong. Before they actually consummate their love on the beach later on, Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and Daemon (Matt Smith) have basically full-on penetrative eye contact here. During the rare instances that characters do speak, the words they utter are So. God. Damned. Heavy.
Poor Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), having already lost a daughter, tries to cheer up his grandson, Lucerys (Harvey Sadler) by assuring him that one day he will serve as the Lord of Tides at Driftmark. But Luke is adamant that he doesn’t want such an honor.
“If I’m the lord of Driftmark, it means everyone’s dead,” he says.
From the mood of Laena’s funeral, everyone may as well already be dead. And not just because little soothsayer Helaena (Evie Allen) is seemingly whispering House of the Dragon spoilers under her breath for the whole thing. It’s remarkable to consider that technically nothing bad has happened yet here. The war that we know is coming has not yet arrived. But everyone involved is so sure that it’s about to come that they may as well be Helaena themselves.
The moment the sun starts to settle into the evening sky, both Rhaenyra and Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) order their respective broods to bed as though they know a monster is en route to eat them all. Of course, a monster is on the way – a surprisingly literal one.
It can’t be overstated how significant Aemond’s (Leo Ashton) claiming of Vhagar is. Vhagar is likely the biggest, oldest, and most powerful living creature in the known world. By taming and riding the dragon, Aemond is not only establishing himself as a major player on the world’s stage but also taking an important resource out from under House Velaryon. Baela and Rhaena understandably feel as though Vhagar is their birthright, but try explaining property law to a dragon. Whoever claims the beast, has the beast.
Aemond’s night ride, and Rhaenyra and Daemon’s coupling that occurs alongside it, once again reveals Sapochnik as an asset. Night scenes are increasingly hard to pull off in an era of splotchy streaming speeds and 4K TVs but the night draped around the actors here feels like a malevolent sludge and gives the coming events some added import. Thankfully though, House of the Dragon moves inside for the episode’s most climactic moment.
Just one week later we’re seeing how the seeds of mistrust and avarice that Criston Cole planted in the Targaryen and Velaryon kids’ heads begins to bloom. Aemond’s scuffle with Jace, Luke, Baela, and Rhaena isn’t too dissimilar from the usual melees that kids find themselves in. The key difference this time is that Aemond makes the petulant decision to pick up a rock and Luke responds with a knife and Aemond loses an eye.
When the maesters write about the Dance of the Dragons (and thanks to the existence of Fire & Blood, we know they certainly will) some might identify this night as the moment the war truly began. The gathering of the adults and children in Driftmark’s throne room is positively filled with “mask off” moments. Credit is due to King Viserys I (Paddy Considine) here, whose sincere desire for familial peace appears to have generated a rare burst of energy. But no amount of the king’s shrieked decrees can undo the damage that has been done.
Alicent’s cold demand that one of Rhaenyra’s children should have an eye removed as well is something that I could have never imagined actually playing well onscreen. Here somehow Olivia Cooke makes it work. Similarly, Alicent’s lunging for the Valyrian catspaw dagger and subsequent attack of Rhaenyra is another element that seems ripe for laughable melodrama. In fact, if memory serves, it’s not a moment that occurs in the books but has popped up prominently throughout HBO’s marketing material.
Well call Olivia Cooke Tim Gunn because here she is one again: making it work. If this is the opening salvo of the war, then Rhaenyra’s assertion that everyone now sees Alicent for what she really is can be considered the war’s first victory. But they say history is written by the winners, and the new (old) Hand of the King already has an alternative take on Alicent’s outburst.
“We play an ugly game. And now for the first time I see that you have the determination to win it,” Ser Otto tells his daughter.
During Ser Otto’s first run as Hand of the King, Rhys Ifans appeared to be miscast at times. Ifans is such an expressive actor while Otto is remarkably reserved. With his daughter fully committing some blood (and then some) to the game, Otto is finally able to reveal what a capable player of it he’s been all along. Between Otto and Larys Strong (who helpfully offers to gouge a kid’s eye out himself for Alicent this week) the Queen appears to have the market cornered on devious bastards.
Speaking of devious bastardry. Let’s talk about Daemon and Rhaenyra. Part of the uneasy magic of George R.R. Martin’s works is how effortlessly it encourages its viewers to root for actual incest. Despite their familial ties, Daemon and Rhaenyra are the right match for each other. And their Valyrian marriage ceremony (contrasting with Laena’s Valyrian funeral ceremony) proves to be a legitimately touching moment. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t accompanied by a confounding fake murder plot.
Much like these reviews themselves (sorry, everyone), the average House of the Dragon episode tends to run out of narrative steam at the end. Rhaenyra and Daemon’s plan to fake Ser Laenor’s (John Macmillan) murder so that they can marry and Laenor can run off to Essos with Ser Qarl Correy (Arty Froushan) is just…well, it’s a lot. Faking a noble person’s death is certainly not unheard of for Game of Thrones. Theon Greyjoy faked the deaths of Bran and Rickon Stark using similar burned body tactics that Rhaenyra and Daemon do here. The whole thing just happens so quickly and abruptly after what was otherwise a perfectly-paced episode.
I’m sure that sometimes it seems as though I prefer my television where nothing actually happens and all of the action is subtextual. Perhaps that’s more true than I care to admit. I’m very boring, you see. But action clearly does need to happen on House of the Dragon, I just wish it were more carefully paced out so that an enormous moment like Ser Laenor’s survival feels cathartic and not like an episode rushing through plot to maintain its years-long storytelling mission.
In any case, good for Laenor for avoiding the same presumed fate as his book counterpart! Good for Daemon and Rhaenyra for marrying! Good for Aemond for taming Vhagar! Good for Alicent on stabbing a lady! And most importantly: good for us for getting another superb episode of House of the Dragon!
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.