House of the Dragon Season 2 Episode 4 Review: Rook’s Rest

The dragons enter the fray with predictably deadly consequences on a thrilling House of the Dragon.

Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) in House of the Dragon season 2.
Photo: Ollie Upton | HBO

This HOUSE OF THE DRAGON review contains spoilers.

Exhaustively researched and extensively detailed, Annie Jacobsen’s book, Nuclear War: A Scenario, presents what a 24-hour period during a hypothetical nuclear exchange would look like. As the nukes begin to fall on the United States, Russia, Western Europe, and the Korean Peninsula, Jacobsen imagines what must be going through the heads of the politicians, soldiers, and civilians about to be vaporized. Most of those thoughts amount to: This wasn’t supposed to happen. Nuclear deterrence was supposed to hold.

Westeros, of course, has its own version of nuclear deterrence in the form of dragons. While not nearly as destructive as Oppenheimer’s offspring, the children of House Targaryen are powerful enough to never use. As Queen Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) herself said in last week’s House of the Dragon: “If dragons begin fighting dragons, we invite our own destruction. Fear of it is, in itself, a weapon. The Greens will make the same calculation.”

It turns out the Greens did not make the same calculation, nor did Rhaenyra for that matter. Deterrence fails in the final act of House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4. The Greens deploy one dragonriding team (Aemond on Vhagar), the Blacks send another (Rhaenys on Meleys), and a third enters the fray of their own accord (King Aegon II on Sunfyre). The resulting aerial battle above Rook’s Rest in the Crownlands is as awesome and terrifying as its outcome is predictable. Two dragons perish, at least one dragonrider dies, and countless men-at-arms are either crushed under the beasts’ gait or vaporized by their fiery breath.

Ad – content continues below

For my money, this is the best episode of House of the Dragon season 2 thus far. While last week’s “The Burning Mill” was tremendously satisfying in a mature, understated way, this installment fully realizes the series’ spectacular kinetic potential. What will come to be known in Westerosi history as the Battle of Rook’s Rest is rendered in remarkable fashion here.

Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), now popularly known as the Kingmaker, does viewers a solid by initiating the attack against the seat of House Staunton during the day. As such, we can see the action a fair bit better than in the usual Game of Thrones skirmish. The VFX, stunt, and acting work are all on point as well, making sure Rhaenys, Aemond, and Aegon’s dance hits all the right steps. For as thrilling as dragons fights are conceptually, dragons themselves defy the rules of physics so thoroughly that the idea of them in battle is hard to process. House of the Dragon is able to avoid that limitation by really taking advantage of its scenery.

The sight of Vhagar slowly morphing from a camouflaged hump in the woods to a sky-scraping kaiju is wonderful. The reactions of the various Staunton and Targaryen soldiers are believable and tense. One of the best moments of the episode belongs to Lord Simon Staunton (Michael Elwyn). As Vhagar emerges from the woods to burn down Rook’s Rest and the whole Staunton family line with it, Lord Staunton’s soldiers try to pull him away to safety but he refuses. Death is here and it’s too beautiful to look away from. Even beyond the execution of the battle though, the Rook’s Rest slaughter works because every character involved arrives to it armed with complex, yet easily understood motivations.

Last week we saw a naked Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) humiliated by his brother at a King’s Landing pillowhouse. Aemond has some psychosexual mommy issues and he would have preferred if Aegon’s dumb frat buddies had not found that out. Who could have guessed though that Aemond’s humiliation and frustration would turn into a fratricidal ideation so quickly? Granted, the attempted regicide wasn’t pre-meditated but Aemond clearly sees a path to a brighter future open up once his brother arrives. It wouldn’t be a hard sell to claim that he instructed Vhagar to aim for Meleys and Sunfyre merely got in the way. Or at least it wouldn’t have been a hard sell, if Criston Cole didn’t see Aemond pursue the Sunfyre crater into the woods with his sword drawn.

Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), meanwhile, is just an absolute mess… and an easily manipulated one at that. Two episodes ago, Aegon was effortlessly convinced by his new Master of Whisperers Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) to fire his Hand of the King Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). Though that move proved to be disastrous almost immediately, Aegon still can’t learn the right lesson from it. This time around it’s Alicent (Olivia Cooke) who unknowingly pushes her son towards his most self-destructive instincts.

“You have no idea the sacrifices that were made to put you on that throne,” Alicent tells Aegon, understandably cranky from just learning that she misinterpreted her late husband’s final words and helped start a war that she was immediately sidelined in. The Hightower Lady has always done what has been asked of her from her family and what she has perceived to be right for the realm. All that has gotten her is the Moon Tea-induced stomach ache and a son who doesn’t listen. Now that son is either dead or severely maimed.

Ad – content continues below

Arguably the most tragic motivation of all of the Rook’s Rest participants belongs to Rhaenys (Eve Best). The Queen Who Never Was has a hell of a swan song this week and is gifted an episodic arc that represents her life in miniature. Rhaenys operates as a living reminder that no one can exist comfortably in this world – least of all a woman.

Rhaenys and Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) worked together to make their marriage a loving, mutually beneficial union. And yet, Corlys still got lonely during those nights at sea and betrayed her trust (As suspected, Alyn of Hull is a dragonseed). She’s among the most level-headed advisors at court on Dragonstone. And yet, with Rhaenyra gone, none of the men are prepared to listen to her wisdom regarding the war. When Rhaenyra expresses a desire to join the fight alongside Syrax, Rhaenys does the right thing and nominates herself to fly to Rook’s rest instead. And then she dies.

In her youth, Rhaenys was passed over as heir to the throne by her grandfather Jaehaerys I in favor of her uncle Baelon. The tragedy of her life is that she was never able to come to terms with the betrayal. A straight line can be drawn from Jaehaerys I’s decision to Rhaenys’ declaration for Queen Rhaenyra, and even further to her fatal, fiery fall from Meleys.

Impressively, House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 makes the already-strong episode 3 even better in context. That’s partially because it presents us with the visceral consequences of what Rhaenyra was trying to avoid, or as Rhaenyra puts it here: “I inherited 80 years of peace from my father. Before I ended it, I needed to know if there was another path.” Even more importantly, however, it recasts Rhaenyra and Alicent’s conversation as a doomed endeavor from the first place.

So often in stories, we vainly wish that the characters we love could merely get together and talk it all out. Well, Rhaenyra and Alicent did talk it all out. They re-asserted their respect for one another and discovered that their war began, in part, over a simple misunderstanding. But uncovering that misunderstanding doesn’t mean the war can suddenly stop now. The nukes have been launched, there’s nothing left to deter.

If anything, the Rhaenyra and Alicent meeting reinforces how important communication and translation are in the geopolitical landscape of Westeros (and everywhere else, truly). It’s telling that this episode is the first time this season we hear High Valyrian, the Targaryen native tongue. Aemond displays a mastery of the language during a Small Council meeting while Aegon responds with the Valyrian equivalent of “Donde esta la biblioteca?” – hammering home who really should be a Targaryen king of the two.

Ad – content continues below

Before that, we hear High Valyrian in Daemon’s continued spooky visions at Harrenhal. At first, Daemon can’t understand the gibberish that the shade of young Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) is saying to him. “Speak plainly,” he says in the episode’s first bit of English dialogue. So young Rhaenyra does exactly that, saying, “You created me, Daemon. And now you are set on destroying me. All because your brother loved me more than you.” He cuts her head off.

Daemon’s cursed journey in Harrenhal continues to be superb entertainment. It combines the necessary plot mechanics of the developing war in the Riverlands (Willem Blackwood is back! House Tully really sucks! Rosby and Stokeworth have entered the war!) with legitimately artful character work. The ghost of Daemon’s second wife Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell) joins the coterie of undead bridal hallucinations, and Daemon is clearly shaken by it.

Are these shades the work of the heart trees Black Harren tore down, the poultice brew from the witchy Alys Rivers (Gayle Rankin), or just Daemon’s conscience finally kicking into gear? The beauty of House of the Dragon approach to historical interpretation is that the answer gets to be all of the above or none of above to our own liking.

What’s not up for interpretation though is that deterrence has definitively failed in the Dance of the Dragons. The scaly weapons of war have entered the atmosphere and where they fall is anyone’s guess.

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

Learn more about Den of Geek’s review process and why you can trust our recommendations here.

Ad – content continues below


5 out of 5