It starts quietly. Through the halls and stairways of an empty palace just before daybreak, a serving boy brings news: The King is dead.
It ends spectacularly: From beneath the ground where thousands have gathered to pay homage to their new ruler, a dragon erupts, screaming its fury before flying away with its rider, Princess Rhaenys Velaryon, aboard. This, too, is news of a sort: There’s a new King in town, but for how long?
Titled “The Green Council” — after the circle of conspirators who plot to remove Rhaenyra Targaryen from her position as heir to the Iron Throne — this episode follows in their footsteps by removing the would-be queen (along with her husband Daemon and their entire brood of children) from the proceedings altogether. Instead, the focus is squarely on Rhaenyra’s friend-turned-rival-turned-friend-again-turned-rival-again, Queen Alicent Hightower, and the men trying to make her awful son Aegon monarch instead.
The plan, which we learn has been in the works without Alicent’s knowledge for some time, does not go off without a hitch. Lord Lyman Beesbury, the Small Council’s aged Master of Coin, was not consulted by Hand of the King Otto Hightower on this matter, and he’s outraged that his colleagues plan to break the oaths the Seven Kingdoms swore to Rhaenyra years earlier. He angrily objects — and promptly gets his head bashed in against the table by the fanatical Ser Criston Cole, the princess’s bitterest enemy.
Beesbury is not the only one to suffer at the conspirators’ hands. The palace servants are herded en masse into the dungeon to keep them from talking. Rebellious lords are threatened with execution and, in one case, hanged in the courtyard. Otto is not messing around.
But when he announces his intention to have Rhaenyra and her children killed to keep them from challenging Aegon’s ascension, the Queen has had enough. True, she erroneously believes that Viserys’s garbled last words about the original Aegon and his prophecy about the “Prince That Was Promised” to unite the realm referred to their son. But that doesn’t mean she wants her old friend dead, especially not just after they seem to have partially reconciled.
And when the future Aegon II goes missing, the race is on between Otto and Alicent to recover him first, knowing that whoever finds the king-to-be can probably persuade him to follow their orders regarding Rhaenyra.
The regent relies on the loyal Ser Criston and her ambitious, clearly very dangerous younger son Aemond One-Eye to hunt Aegon down. Otto goes with the twin Kingsguard knights Erryk and Arryk Cargyll, who are played by real-life twins Elliott and Luke Tittensor. (Nothing gives away George R.R. Martin’s New York tri-state area roots like his apparent belief that most people pronounce “Erryk” and “Arryk” differently.) Erryk may be Aegon’s sworn protector, yet he hates the prince, a.k.a. an alcoholic rapist who watches children fight each other to the death for fun. Arryk, on the other hand, seems to feel that an order is an order.
Otto and the twins get help in their hunt from an interesting source: Daemon Targaryen’s old lover Mysaria, now a high-powered spymaster known as the White Worm. Well aware of everything that’s been going on in the Red Keep, she hid Aegon for safekeeping and allows the twins to retrieve him…for a price.
But in the end, they’re beaten out by Cole and Aemond, who kidnap the future king away from Arryk (or is that Erryk?) and return him to Alicent. We then see how the Queen comes by her own intel: by allowing the mild-mannered mastermind Lord Larys “The Clubfoot” Strong to jerk off to her feet in exchange for his info and aid. (Finally, TV gives the foot fetishists of the world some long overdue representation!) Larys reveals Mysaria’s role in all this to the Queen and has the White Worm’s base of operations burned — the same method he used to take out his own dad and brother in hopes of currying the queen’s favor years earlier.
Otto arranges for Aegon II to be crowned in full view of the city’s populace. At Alicent’s insistence, the young man is given the crown and sword of his ancestor — “the Conqueror” — to further cement his claim. Everybody cheers!
Everybody, that is, except Rhaenys. Held captive in the Red Keep until such time as she swears loyalty, she’s freed by Ser Erryk and gets swept up in the crowd stampeding towards the coronation. She sneaks away, fetches her dragon Meleys, and sends the beast bursting through the ground beneath the crowd’s feat. But instead of torching the usurper and his supporters, she flies away, delaying the inevitable conflagration to come.
Writer Sara Hess and director Clare Kilner give the whole affair the vibe of a tense political thriller, as alliances are forged and broken and various players jockey for position in the new regime. Much of this is achieved through deft character work that helps shore up some of the show’s shakier decisions.
For example, is it a little annoying that Alicent decides to crown Aegon instead of Rhaenyra due to a sitcom-style mix-up involving Viserys’s dying declaration? Sure. But it’s worth noting how duty-bound she seems to feel about it; as far as she’s concerned, she’s doing the right thing and honoring the late king’s wishes, not gleefully screwing her frenemy over. In fact, she fights — hard — to keep Rhaenyra alive in the face of opposition from no less than her own father. Actor Olivia Cooke threads this needle with aplomb.
Similarly, Rhaenys’s decision not to roast the whole royal family comes across as foolhardy, at least at first. But keep in mind that, like Alicent, the older woman is trying to avoid a war, not start one. If she were to inaugurate her former daughter-in-law Rhaenyra’s reign by sneak-attack slaughtering Aegon II, Otto, and Alicent, as well as innocents like Aegon’s sister-wife Helaena, how would that help anyone?
(One quick note: Helaena appears to have foreseen Rhaenys’s dragon attack, muttering about “a beast beneath the boards” earlier in the episode. Pay attention to this one, folks.)
Then there’s Aegon himself. He’s a thoroughly contemptible person, and he both knows it and hates himself for it, as conveyed through a remarkable performance by actor Tom Glynn-Carney. He has no desire to be king, and says so; Aegon thinks his mother’s claim that his dad declared him the heir on his deathbed is bullshit, and says so too. But once he hears the roar of the crowd, he begins to change his tune, holding his legendary sword Blackfyre aloft and pumping it to pump up the people. Given that his only hobbies appear to be drinking and making weaker people suffer, that’s not a good sign.
Only one episode remains in House of the Dragon’s stellar first season. Presumably, it will show us Rhaenyra and Daemon’s reaction to all this, and it’s unlikely to be pretty. Rhaenyra left King’s Landing believing she’d mended fences with Alicent, eager to return to her old friend’s side. How will she react to being stabbed in the back, even if the Queen tried to do so as politely as possible? Both the Seven Kingdoms and the show hang in the balance.