This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.
House of the Dragon Episode 9
Episode 9s have a long, storied history on Game of Thrones. The ninth and penultimate installments of House of the Dragon’s progenitor include climactic hours like “Baelor,” a.k.a. The One Where Ned Stark Dies; “The Rains of Castamere,” a.k.a. The One with the Red Wedding; and “Battle of the Bastards” a.k.a. The One with the….Battle of the Bastards.
House of the Dragon’s first stab at a penultimate ninth episode arrives with this week’s “The Green Council,” and the surprisingly subdued way it approaches this season’s ostensible climax highlights the fundamental differences between these two series thus far.
“The Green Council” has all the appearances of “A Very Important Thrones Episode.” The hour opens with some truly stunning imagery of the Red Keep after hours. The Iron Throne is unoccupied, yet still imposing. The hallways are so empty and haunted that not even the rats dare tread through them. The only sounds in Maegor’s Holdfast are the whispers being passed from ear to ear to deliver the only news in the world: the king is dead. Even GoT/HotD composer Ramin Djawadi dusts off his “big episode piano” for an unnerving stringy score that harkens back to the astonishing music of season 6’s “The Winds of Winter.”
Despite all of these auditory and visual trappings of great importance, however, “The Green Council” never comes anywhere close to as shocking or disrupting as any previous second-to-last Game of Thrones installments. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. If anything, House of the Dragon should receive some credit for not forcing it. The rhythms of the story, as laid out in George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, clearly led the show to big surprises in episodes six through eight followed by some necessary narrative bookkeeping in episode nine.
Though nothing particularly surprising happens this week, it’s certainly not accurate to say that nothing big happens this week. The ascension of Aegon Targaryen, Second of His Name, to the Iron Throne is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. After several events that serve as symbolic beginnings for The Dance of the Dragons civil war, Aegon’s coronation is now the official, concrete starting point for the conflict. Rhaenyra Targaryen (who, like Daemon and the rest of her Dragonstone contingent sits this episode out) is supposed to be upon the Iron Throne. The fact that she is not is fundamentally a declaration of war, as Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) and his legions of traitorous goons are well aware of.
Otto receives his supervillain glow up in this hour in superb, satisfying fashion. For the first time in nine episodes, the casting of the hyper-talented Ifans as the hyper-conniving Oldtowner makes sense.
“(Viserys) has left us a gift,” Otto tells his Small Council, which will heretofore be known as The Green Council. “With his last breath, he impressed upon his queen his final wish. That his son Aegon shall succeed him as Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.”
“Then we may proceed now with the King’s blessing of our long-laid plans,” master of ships Tyland Lannister (Jefferson Hall) reveals, living up to his House’s reputation for treachery.
Tyland’s declaration that he, Otto, and other council members have been in a state of active treason for nearly a decade is perhaps the most shocking part of “The Green Council.” It certainly wouldn’t have been hard to guess that this was the case but to be this confident and open about it is truly wild. It also helps establish one of the hour’s major themes, which could best be described as “man, the fucking patriarchy is really at it again, isn’t it?”
House of the Dragon was pitched to viewers as the struggle between two women: Queen Alicent Hightower and Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. Technically, the show did deliver on that front as the battle lines between these two competing factions are neatly drawn between the two women they support. Let’s not forget that the greens and blacks are so named for the clothing color choices of their respective queens.
But neither of those queens really want this! At her dying father’s bedside last week, Rhaenyra cursed the old man for naming her heir without anticipating that it would tear the realm apart. Alicent meanwhile this week is genuinely shocked to find out her father was planning to pass over Rhaenyra this whole time. The only reason she goes along with it is A. She believes in her false interpretation of King Viserys’s last words and B. She can’t really stop it so the best she can hope to do is convince her son to let Rhaenyra live.
At the end of the day, Rhaenyra and Alicent may have genuinely been the only two people in the Seven Kingdoms who actually believed that Rhaenyra would one day sit the Iron Throne. The rest of the realm, even the men who swore their allegiances to King Viserys’s daughter, appear to have all been in on this mummer’s farce. “Yeah your daughter will definitely be queen one day even though you have perfectly fine male heirs. Sure thing, old man.”
This central tension leads to one of the most interesting conversations of the episode and maybe the series at large. Naturally once King Viserys’s death is made known to Alicent, she and the greens immediately lock Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) inside her chambers. Rhaneys is one of the few un-allied pieces on the board and as both a fierce dragonrider and the Lady of House Velaryon, she will be a fierce asset to whichever side claims her. Thus far, Rhaenys has proven herself to be a logical thinker when it comes to the game of thrones. In her pitch to the princess, Alicent appeals to that logic.
“You should have been queen,” Alicent acknowledges, before adding: “We do not rule but we may guide the men that do.”
Several times throughout this season, Rhaenys has demonstrated that she understands the realm’s distaste for female leaders better than any of her male counterparts. At the tournament in episode 1, she barely acknowledges a Baratheon knight who addresses her as “The Queen Who Never Was.” Later on, she urges her husband Corlys to let the indignity of her being passed over for the throne go. What happened, happened. No use in crying over spilled milk of the poppy. And yet, when Alicent repeats Rhaenys’s own philosophy back to her, she realizes how hollow it makes it feel.
George R.R. Martin is fond of repeating a certain William Faulkner quote: “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” We see a prime example of that sentiment here with Rhaenys. Rhaenys is a pragmatic woman. Her heart has spent much of its adult life coming to terms with the rejection of her youth. When that same heart is asked to finally pick a side between a female ruler and a male ruler, however, it knows what it needs to do.
“You desire not to be free but to make a window in the wall of your prison. Have you never imagined yourself on the Iron Throne?” Rhaenys tells Alicent, though she might as well be speaking into a mirror.
From that moment on, Rhaenys is team black through and through. And her fiery interruption of Aegon II’s coronation confirms it.
As long as we’re talking about women and the Westerosi men who exploit them, perhaps now is the time to (briefly) talk about Lord Larys Strong (Matthew Needham). As this pre-episode 9 tweet points out, the works of George R.R. Martin are impressive in their ability to introduce disabled characters who don’t fall into stereotype or cliche. In fact, Martin’s suite of marginalized individuals run the full gamut from evil to heroic for reasons far beyond their physical characteristics.
So what then, exactly, are we to do with a character whose foot birth defect led to an apparent intense (and rapey) foot fetish? There’s on-the-nose and then there’s…whatever this is. Larys was already a creepy guy who literally murdered his whole family. We didn’t need this extra garnish on top. Nor did we need the additional reminder that Alicent was a pawn to the politically-scheming men in her life. Sad to say, I decree three slaps on Dragon‘s snout with a rolled up newspaper for this one.
For as much as “The Green Council” is fundamentally about the ascension to power, it’s equally about people who feel powerless. Rhaenys is powerless to enact real change but will try anyway. Meanwhile, Mysaria (Sonya Mizuno) becomes the voice of the powerless in King’s Landing as she negotiates Aegon’s life in return for the crown ending what are essentially legalized children cock fighting rings. Even the would-be king himself is mostly a passive participant through the events of his own rise to power.
Thus far in the story, Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) has been far from a sympathetic figure. At best he’s a privileged creep and at worst he’s an outright rapist. While he’s no more sympathetic than usual here though, he is at the very least a bit more rational. Kudos to Aegon for recognizing his namesake’s crown as the death sentence it is. When Ser Criston Cole (Fabian Frankel) and Aegon’s brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) retrieve him from the seedy bowels of Flea Bottom, Aegon treats his metaphorical walk to the Iron Throne as though it were the electric chair.
Aegon’s actual coronation at the Dragonpit represents the most emotionally-stirring and visually-striking moments of this episode. Aegon, dead-eyed, hungover, and exhausted, passing through a dazed crowd of commoners and under the swords of his protectors is truly striking stuff. The relatively quiet and rote sacraments of the ceremony are equally harrowing. While it doesn’t have the usual oomph of a Thrones-ian ninth episode (at least not until the dragon shows up), it really does capture the anxiety and strange emotional alchemy of the moment.
Annoyingly, Aegon’s coronation also belatedly proves Ser Otto right. Years ago, Ser Otto told his king that “the gods have yet to make a man who lacked the patience for absolute power.” Here we see how right he is. Despite his terror at the prospect, Aegon appears to understand the appeal of this whole king thing once the people cheer his ascension. Alicent may have thought she was scuttling her father’s plans to consolidate support and endanger Rhaenyra when she insisted upon a quick coronation for her son. But regretfully Otto must have been right about her too. She’s a far shrewder political operator than even she realizes. Aegon II donning Aegon I’s crown and swinging the ancestral Valyrian steel sword Blackfyre really does the trick. They say possession is nine-tenths of the law and right now Aegon II has: Aegon I’s crown, Aegon I’s sword, Aegon I’s throne, and the love of the city Aegon I built.
“The Green Council” is not without its flaws and represents a slight downturn in quality from the previous three weeks. The fight choreography featuring Erryk and Arryk Cargyll is needlessly confusing (and not just because they’re twins). Rhaenys’s decision to not end the war before it begins in a hail of dragonflame is confounding. Still, occasionally messy storytelling logistics aside, “The Green Council” once again gets the character moments right.
This isn’t the spectacle that Game of Thrones trained us to expect but it’s another worthwhile step in an increasingly worthwhile story.
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.