House of the Dragon Season 2 Episode 1 Review: A Son for a Son

Revenge is served with fire, blood, and cheese in the thrilling House of the Dragon season 2 premiere.

Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D'Arcy) in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 1.
Photo: Theo Whitman | HBO

This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.

Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) says precisely four words in the House of the Dragon season 2 premiere.

Rhaenyra doesn’t speak when she unsaddles from her dragon on a beach in the Stormlands to find the ashen remains of her second son, Lucerys (Elliot Grihault), killed by Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) in the season 1 finale. She doesn’t speak when her eldest son Jacaerys (Harry Collett) appears in her chambers, attempting to deliver the good news about winning fresh allies to their cause, but instead weeping with her about what they both just lost.

The first and only time Rhaenyra speaks in the installment’s 64-minute runtime is upon her arrival back to Dragonstone after finding Luke’s body. As her advisors and allies plead for further instructions on the coming war – like establishing a stronghold in The Riverlands and maintaining the naval blockade of King’s Landing – Rhaenyra utters only “I want Aemond Targaryen.”

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By episode’s end, a six-year-old child is killed while Aemond remains whole and healthy.

Welcome back to another year of House of the Dragon! “A Son for a Son” is a muscular return for the Game of Thrones prequel. After the necessary legwork was put in to establish the beginnings of the Dance of the Dragons Targaryen civil war in season 1, this season immediately puts those efforts to good use by turning in an ugly hour of television where all roads, no matter how high or low, lead to death.

It’s said that the act of filmmaking is all about making choices. That rings particularly true for House of the Dragon. The source material for this series, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire prequel novel Fire & Blood, is written as a historical recounting of the Targaryen dynasty’s rise and fall. As a dramatized endeavor, House of the Dragon must fill in narrative answers where Westerosi historians have only questions. With season 2, showrunner Ryan Condal and the writers’ room project admirable confidence that their interpretation of events is the only one worth hearing.

That storytelling confidence allows for an appropriate expansion of scale. While much of season 1 took place within the confines of the Red Keep in King’s Landing, the impending war requires its wagers to traverse the continent for allies. Jace’s offscreen travels between seasons took him to The Vale of Arryn and The North. And thankfully Condal (who wrote this Alan Taylor-directed episode) doesn’t make viewers wait long for a return to the land of the Starks.

“A Son for a Son” opens on a familiar fog-drenched landscape being picked over by crows. The subsequent sight of a snowy wall removes all doubt of where we find ourselves. This era’s ruling Stark, Cregan (Tom Taylor), tells his royal guest about this land’s customs. “Duty is sacrifice. It eclipses all things. Even blood. All men of honor must pay its price.” Cregan is speaking of his House’s obligation to The Night’s Watch but he might as well be speaking about the war to come as well.

The popular perception about the Game of Thrones franchise among those who have never seen the TV series nor read George R.R. Martin’s books is that it presents “grittily realistic” fantasy world where morally ambiguous characters do mostly bad things. While some of that is true, it discounts the fact that many of this story’s characters are attempting to do the right thing. They just fail to do so because life is an impossible thing.

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That’s how Jace can return home to Dragonstone with two major victories in hand and nothing but pain in his heart. It’s how Rhaenyra can perfectly identify the right target for revenge, but somehow have a toddler’s head lopped off instead. House of the Dragon‘s decision to pick a storytelling lane and stick to it in this episode means the dark ironies get a chance to really curdle.

Even that rat bastard on the Iron Throne, King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney), nominally tries to do the right thing. “A Son for a Son” offers viewers a rare look at what ruling the Seven Kingdoms really means when the smallfolk of King’s Landing are brought before their king to petition their various grievances. One poor wretch simply asks for the return of his taxed livestock, of which Aegon is inclined to oblige. But his Hand of the King Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) has to remind him that there’s a blockade underway and the crown has many hungry draconic war machines to feed. So no, you can’t have your sheep back. Sorry!

The smallfolk really get their day in the sun this time around. For reasons that will become apparent only later on (no spoilers, bookheads), “A Son for a Son” comes to a grinding narrative halt twice – once to introduce the unassuming shipbuilder Alyn of Hull (Abubakar Salim) on Driftmark, and again to hear the carpenter Hugh’s (Kieran Bee) request to the king for advanced payment. These moments stick out, perhaps a little too much.

Also sticking out, and to better effect, are two dragon flyovers. In an example of weirdly superb background acting, the fishermen’s fear of Syrax in The Stormlands is palpable as they cry out “dragon!” with the same urgency one might yell “grenade!” Equally as palpable is Ser Arryk Cargyll’s (Elliott Tittensor) relief upon realizing that the giant beast floating towards the castle from the sky is merely Aemond’s dragon Vhagar. That’s what amounts to “good news” in this world: the titanic-sized monster zooming your way is technically an “ally” – even if it is a geriatric dinosaur who just ate a kid against its rider’s wishes.

Aegon’s mother, the Dowager Queen Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) could use some good news herself. King Viserys I’s widow can’t seem to take enough hot baths to wash away all her perceived sins. Alicent was already increasingly embracing the Faith of the Seven near the end of season 1, and now she is striving for even more godliness. Probably because she’s fucking her son’s Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). This is another story element that the Targaryen history texts leave out or attribute to crass rumor. But once again, House of the Dragon succeeds simply by choosing to go there. Of course, Alicent would fall victim to the same base desires that she would criticize Rhaenyra for when they were younger – and with the same man, no less. Because that’s what people are: impossible.

But you didn’t come all this way to read about King’s Landing inflation or Alicent’s sexual appetites. Let’s talk about the rat in the room: blood and cheese.

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The one aspect of “A Son for a Son” that will be long-remembered is its horrifying last act. After all, can you recall what else happened in Game of Thrones‘ “The Rains of Castamere” a.k.a. “The Red Wedding episode?” It’s tremendously important that House of the Dragon nails this moment and it’s tremendously satisfying that it does.

Daemon takes Rhaenyra’s “I want Aemond Targaryen” proclamation to heart and fast travels to King’s Landing. Undercover at the docks, Daemon meets with two would-be assassins: a former City Watchman known as “Blood” and a rat catcher known as “Cheese” (those code names aren’t revealed within the episode but rather within Fire & Blood‘s pages). The killers’ instructions are simple: a son for a son.

That’s how the House of the Dragon season 2 premiere comes to spend its final act with two villains whom we just met. The fact that these men are strangers only enhances the dread. Someone is going to die and they’re going to die badly. But who? We find out that sad answer when Blood and Cheese are unable to find Aemond, but do stumble across Queen Helaena (Phia Saban) and her twin children – the boy Jaehaerys and the girl Jaehaera.

Remembering their sex-based requirements for murder, the men ask Helaena to identify the boy. Somewhat to their surprise, Helaena answers honestly, perhaps unable to even process the horror she’s living through. As Blood and Cheese lean over to noisily decapitate Jaehaerys, Helaena scoops up Jaehaera and walks speedily, but gingerly out of the room and into her Alicent’s quarters.

“They killed the boy,” she says, not even responding to the presence of Criston Cole naked in the room with her mother.

As you might have guessed, this is a big moment from the source material. Just as fans came to know the murderous event at The Twins as “The Red Wedding,” this occasion lingers in the canon as “Blood and Cheese.” The show’s version is a little different, owing to the fact that one of Aegon and Helaena’s children, the youngest Maelor, has not yet been born in the show’s timeline. But the horror is very much the same.

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It’s to House of the Dragon‘s credit that Prince Jaehaerys’ murder doesn’t feel like sudden violence for violence’s sake but an inevitable consequence of everything that came before it. Blood and Cheese themselves are seen several times throughout the episode, prowling around the background as bit players in someone else’s play before they take center stage. Their place in history was sealed the moment Rhaenyra said she wants Aemond Targaryen. That all but ensured that someone else, someone innocent, would die in his place.

Because that’s how civil wars work. A desire for righteous vengeance can get you to the battlefield but it can’t ensure your guns will be pointed in the right direction. In the end, Rhaenyra saying those four words was still four words too many.

New episodes of House of the Dragon season 2 premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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5 out of 5