Fear not, people of Westeros: The line of succession is strong.
True, we’ve said goodbye to Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Emily Carey as Queen Alicent Hightower, two key peformances that helped make House of the Dragon a massive hit. But even after a 10-year time jump, the introduction of a whole new generation of Targaryen heirs, and the replacement of Alcock and Carey with older actors Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke respectively, this prequel series has somehow not missed a beat. Indeed, this is the show’s best episode yet. Even a maester would tell you this is a minor miracle.
It starts slyly by showing the new Rhaenyra in childbirth, filmed by director and co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik in one extended, unbroken take — as is the long, painful walk she and her husband Laenor (now played as a charming but somewhat careless adult by John Macmillan) are forced to make when Queen Alicent demands to see the newborn immediately.
“Do keep trying,” Alicent quietly tells Laenor. “Sooner or later you might get one who looks like you.”
It’s only after we return to Rhaenyra’s chambers that we get the joke: Rhaenyra and Laenor (?) have already had two other sons, Jacaerys (Leo Hart) and Lucerys (Harvey Salder), aka Jace and Luke. And like their new baby brother Joffrey — named by Laenor after the lover that Ser Criston Cole beat to death in the previous episode — they have white skin and brown hair, as opposed to the other way around like their alleged father. It quickly becomes clear that their real dad is Ser Harwin “Breakbones” Strong (Ryan Corr), the Lord Commander of the City Watch…and Rhaenyra’s frequent companion.
Alicent, meanwhile, has herself given the increasingly sickly and maimed-looking King Viserys — the dude’s whole arm is missing! — a total of three children by now: eldest son Aegon (Ty Tennant), who in typical teenage-boy fashion likes playing pranks and jerking off; daughter Helaena (Evie Allen), who seems more interested in studying millipedes than matters of court; and kid brother Aemond (Leo Ashton), an easily bullied sort who’s frustrated by his inability to bond with a dragon.
The kids all seem to get along well enough when left to their own devices, though Aegon, Luke, and Jace pick on Aemond by providing him with a pig sporting fake dragon wings for a potential mount. But rumors about the true parentage of Rhaenyra’s sons are everywhere. Laenor knows the deal, of course. So does Queen Alicent, who won’t shut up about it. As does Ser Criston, who’s become Alicent’s bestie and his ex-flame Rhaenyra’s bitterest enemy, and the Hand of the King, Lord Lyonel Strong, a.k.a. Breakbones’s disapproving dad. Even young Jace picks up on the truth by the end of the episode. Only Viserys refuses to see what’s right in front of him, though this is more denial than genuine ignorance.
So it’s the adults who wind up driving a wedge between the next generation of Targs. Alicent interrupts Aegon while he’s busy masturbating out the window (jeez, mom, haven’t you ever heard of knocking!?) to warn him that Rhaenyra will likely have him killed if she ever ascends the Iron Throne. Cole is cruel to Jace and Luke in the training yard; he also encourages Aegon and Aemond to act the same way, leading Breakbones to beat the everloving snot out of the cocky Kingsguard.
This costs Harwin his job as Lord Commander of the Gold Cloaks, and causes his father Lyonel to try to resign his position as Hand out of fear that he can no longer give unbiased advice. Though Viserys refuses to accept his resignation, Strong does convince the King to allow him to escort his son back to their home, Harrenhal, and away from the increasingly tense atmosphere at court. (Rhaenyra gets the same basic idea and whisks the kids, plus Laenor and his new boyfriend Ser Qarl Correy, away to the Targaryen stronghold of Dragonstone.) Alicent, meanwhile, wants to replace Strong with her father Otto, Viserys’s old Hand. Would he be impartial? “He’d be partial to me,” Alicent growls, thus revealing her true motives.
And don’t worry, the show hasn’t forgotten about Prince Daemon. He now lives over the Narrow Sea in the Free City of Pentos with his wife Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell) and their twin daughters Rhaena (Eva Ossei-Gerning) and Baela (Shani Smethurst). The Prince enjoys riding his blood-red dragon Caraxes alongside Laena’s truly massive steed, Vhagar, the only creature still alive from the time of Aegon’s Conquest.
The problem is that that’s about all he enjoys. He seems to like and respect his wife, so there’s that, but he’s neglectful to his dragon-less daughter Rhaena and spends all his time moping around his rich Pentoshi benefactor’s estate — reading book after book, not getting much sleep, drinking shitty wine, and generally behaving like a whole different person from the rogue we knew. Though he briefly entertains the idea of going to war against the Triarchy in the Stepstones once again, a series of clever edits that cut directly from the melancholy prince to his long-estranged niece Rhaenyra are likely an indication of what he really wants.
Thanks to a pair of fiery tragedies, he might yet get his shot. Harwin and his father Lyonel — one of the only truly decent guys on the whole show — are burned to death in their cursed castle of Harrenhal by assassins. These were sent by a member of their very own family, Larys the Clubfoot, who kills his brother and father in order to curry favor with Queen Alicent. Actor Matthew Needham gives off major Tony-Perkins-in-Psycho vibes as Larys, speaking softly and with impeccable manners while saying increasingly sinister things. (He also personally cuts the tongues out of criminals’ mouths. Everyone needs a hobby!)
Laena, meanwhile, is yet another victim of childbirth gone bad. When her third baby becomes stuck inside her, it means certain death for her — but unlike his brother Viserys, Daemon refuses to give the order for a lethal Cesarean section. This allows Laena to take her fate into her own hands: She staggers outside and tearfully orders her dragon to burn her to death, which the beautifully animated old beast does with evident reluctance. Daemon can only watch in teary-eyed horror…but with his wife and Rhaenyra’s lover now out of the picture, they’re that much closer to, er, a Targaryen family reunion, if you know what we mean. (Watch out, Laenor!)
Like Game of Thrones before it, House of the Dragon has a reputation for a dizzyingly large cast of characters with hard-to-remember names — and in this episode alone, that cast has grown exponentially. Not to mention that the loss of Alcock and Carey, two brilliant young actors, is keenly felt.
But it’s hard to imagine anyone abandoning the show after an hour this thoroughly engaging. The new kids already provide a myriad of potentially fascinating character dynamics, especially as their nascent family feud grows. (Aegon’s reluctance to challenge Rhaenyra’s claim to the throne is of particular note.) Needham’s Larys gives the show its first real villain. Macmillan is a hoot as Laenor, a guy who’s fond of his family but whose real loves, i.e. warfare and the handsome men who wage it, lie elsewhere. Cooke plays the older Alicent as a woman who’s grown smaller and shittier, warped by palace intrigue till it’s all she thinks about. (Note that she wears green, the color of House Hightower, the entire time.)
And from that grueling opening birth scene to a Small Council meeting where the flow of her breastmilk dampens her gown to her careful life-on-the-line conversations with her husband, lover, and sons, D’Arcy’s Rhaenyra is a revelation. Gone is the reckless and restless teenager we knew. In her place is someone older and wiser, but still just as headstrong and determined to make her own way in the world rather than allow the world to make her way for her. She’d make a better monarch than anyone else on offer, provided scandal doesn’t sink her first.
Also, how good do all those dragons look?!
House of the Dragon has taken an enormous risk with this time jump and cast turnover, and it seems to have reaped an equally enormous reward. These are characters we want to get to know better, even — or especially — as a fiery conflict between them looms ever larger. Hang onto your Iron Thrones, folks. It’s going to be a bloody ride.