House of the Dragon Episode 8 Review: The Lord of the Tides

King Viserys I makes his final pitch for peace in a surprisingly emotional House of the Dragon.

Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) and Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) In House of the Dragon Episode 8
Photo: Ollie Upton | HBO

This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.

House of the Dragon Episode 8

Given its outsized cultural status as a fantasy epic and a prequel to a larger text, there are many easy comparisons that can be made between House of the Dragon to both Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. I’ve largely avoided those comparisons in reviews thus far because this show deserves a chance to stand on its own two dragon feet. In its eighth episode, “The Lord of the Tides,” House of the Dragon stands on its own once again. Hell, it soars.

Good dramas understand that conflict is unavoidable. Great dramas give their characters one last futile chance to avoid it anyway. Think about Breaking Bad for a moment (if you’re not already). Would the story of Walter White’s descent into evil have had the same impact if he wasn’t given a choice to elude it? Almost certainly not. Without his old colleague Gretchen Schwartz presenting Walt with the opportunity to pay for his cancer treatments and help his family without selling meth, Breaking Bad is merely the story of a man backed into a corner with no other options. By giving Walter a choice, Breaking Bad instead becomes a far richer saga about one man uncovering the darkness that was within him all along.

In “The Lord of the Tides,” all of House of the Dragon’s major characters are given a choice. More than that they’re given an off-ramp: one final glowing opportunity to exit the path to ruin they’ve built for themselves. They don’t take that off ramp because how could they? They’re all pot-committed and House of the Dragon has at least two more episodes to go and likely a few more seasons after that. But they’re given the opportunity all the same. And that’s what makes for great drama, which this show very much is.

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That opportunity, of course, comes in the form of King Viserys I’s (Paddy Considine) heroic last stand. It seems as though every week for the past four weeks I’ve declared a new scene to be the best in the show’s history. But how else am I to describe Viserys’s fateful final dinner as anything other than HotD’s finest hour, and maybe one of the best scenes ever in the Game of Thrones franchise? 

Considine has been superb as the sickly monarch through all of House of the Dragon’s run but he is transcendent here. When we first catch up with Vis in this hour, he is little more than a skeleton grafted to a bed. Half of his face is missing and he has been rendered an incoherent mess by copious amounts of “milk of the poppy” to treat his pain. As the newly-married Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and Daemon (Matt Smith) arrive at their father/brother’s bedside to argue their case for Luke Velaryon as The Lord of the Tides, they quickly realize that there is no use of it. This sad, pitiful creature cannot help anyone. He cannot even help himself out of bed.

And yet, King Viserys does help himself out of bed! He ends up doing quite a bit more than that. This man who is barely more than a corpse dragging himself across the great hall and onto his iron chair (with a brotherly assist from Daemon) is awe-inspiring stuff. We’ve seen a lot of incredible phenomena on Game of Thrones. We’ve seen dragons lay whole cities to waste with their fiery breath. We’ve seen ice wights shatter into nothing when struck with a magical sword. Still, I don’t know if we’ve ever seen quite anything like this. An old man using every last bit of his remaining strength to walk across a room is both riveting and intensely affecting. 

Later at dinner, when Considine delivers his beleaguered character’s last monologue, it is truly something to behold – just as much Shakespeare as it is Martin. Viserys removes his golden Phantom of the Opera half-mask to reveal a haunting void where a face should be and he delivers an urgent message as if it comes from beyond the grave itself:

“My own face is no longer a handsome one. If indeed it ever was. But tonight I wish you to see me as I am. Not just a king. But your father. Your brother. Your husband. And your grandsire. Who may not, it seem, walk for much longer among you. Let us no longer hold ill feelings in our hearts. The crown cannot stand strong if the house of the dragon is divided. Set aside your grievances. If not for the sake of the crown then for the sake of this old man who loves you all so dearly.”

Viserys almost pulls it off. He really almost does. This raw, desperate request from a man who is pretty much dead already moves the exact two people it needs to move to avoid catastrophe: Rhaenyra and Alicent. We’re so far down the road to war already that it seems impossible for any of the combatants to avert their paths. But Rhaenyra and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) try to! They really do! I swear to the gods I saw it with mine own eyes. Rhaenyra’s toast to Alicent is sincere. Alicent’s toast to Rhaenyra is sincere. When Rhaenyra says she needs to take her kids back to Dragonstone, she promises to return on dragonback the very next day. She means it. Alicent knows she does and she’s happy to hear it. But then fate intervenes…as it always must.

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One might assume that it’s the roast pig that ruins everything. That’s not a bad theory as Aemond’s fiery reaction upon seeing it leads to some immediate conflict. Aemond (Ewan Mitchell), who as a young man has become every bit the irrepressible scoundrel that his Uncle Daemon is, tries to blow it all up. The presence of a pig at a feast reminds him of the time that his brother and nephews played a (honestly mostly harmless) prank on him. Not content to leave well enough alone, he stands up and delivers a toast to his nephews who are all very “Strong boys.” 

Aemond knows this is treason. Hell he just saw a man’s face get cut clean in half for uttering something similar. But what’s a little treason amongst family? At the moment, this feels like the last straw to viewers. This is the point of no return yet again. Recall though that Rhaenyra still promises to return to King’s Landing even after Aemond’s taunts lead to a violent reaction from her boys. A chance at peace isn’t over yet. Not for Rhaenyra and Alicent. The incident that truly kills any chance at peace comes in the episode’s final minutes. 

It’s easy for any story to address how hate leads to war. It’s harder, but more enriching, for a story to explore how love can lead to war. Here, House of the Dragon yet again chooses the more difficult, yet far more enlightening path. After his very busy night out at dinner, Viserys is brought back to his bedchambers and once again dosed up with milk of the poppy to dull his many pains. 

While in his delirium he mistakes his wife Alicent for his daughter Rhaenyra and attempts to finish the conversation they started earlier—the one about Aegon the Conqueror and whether his Song of Ice and Fire prediction was real. Does a Targaryen truly need to be on the Iron Throne when the Long Night comes from the North? Alicent was not privy to that earlier conversation. So when Viserys tries to belatedly assure his daughter that the Song of Ice and Fire is real, all Alicent hears is garbled words like “Aegon. The prince that was promised. It is you. You are the one. You must do this.” 

What other choice does Alicent have than to enact her dying husband’s final wish the way she heard it and put her son Aegon on the throne as King Aegon Targaryen, Second of His Name? Viserys’s rousing final message at dinner effectively primed Alicent and Rhaenyra into action. He meant that action to be reconciliation and peace but fate wants it to be war. And the grim hand of fate always seems to win in these stories. Choice was an illusion after all. But the characters still have to make it. 

Man, what an exciting, effective episode of television this all is. Much of that can be attributed to the hour’s final act, which in the long run is all viewers will remember from it anyway. The setup, however, takes a moment to get rolling. Vaemond Velaryon (Wil Johnson) is quite the exhausting little brat. His cartoonish fixation on Velaryon blood drags down “The Lord of the Tides’” opening scenes a bit. Granted, as a member of one of the only two remaining Valyrian families in the known world, Vaemond has some cause to be concerned about blood purity. That doesn’t make his histrionics any more charming to sit through.

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Thankfully House of the Dragon knows exactly what to do with annoying peons: CUT THEIR FUCKING FACES IN HALF. From the moment that Daemon eagerly whispers for Vaemond to “say it” and officially accuse Rhaenyra’s children of bastardry, this installment (which is tied for the longest episode yet with “The Princess and the Queen”) gains a deliriously joyful burst of energy that it never loses. Everything about the throne room scene is perfect from Daemon’s pithy one-liner “he can keep his tongue” to Aemond’s sincere joy at the violence to the aftermath of Rhaenys (Eve Best) viewing what’s left of her brother-in-law as the Silent Sisters tend to his corpse. 

Violence is best on House of the Dragon when sudden, shocking, and accompanied by some sick japes. It’s also tremendously satisfying that the issue of Driftmark’s succession ends up being little more than a MacGuffin to get the whole gang back together to witness Viserys’s last stand, particularly since Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) is probably going to be fine (we assume), rendering the whole topic moot for now anyway. 

“The Lord of the Tides” belongs to Viserys as has much of the series up to this point. It can’t be overstated just how crucial Considine’s portrayal of the well-meaning yet exhausted and ineffectual king has been to House of the Dragon thus far. And it’s to Considine and the writers’ credit that this version of the character evolves greatly from the genial, yet mostly absent king from Martin’s Fire & Blood.

Next week marks a new era for this show on several fronts. Viserys is gone and with him any chance at a meaningful peace. If House of the Dragon is able to execute the war as well as it has the lead up to it then we’re in for some good, yet dark times, indeed.

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