On a sandy shore, wounded men are being nailed to posts. Crabs, thousands of them, swarm over their bodies, eating them alive. It’s a profoundly ugly scene, depicting the reign of terror waged by a pirate king called “the Crabfeeder” over the seas of Westeros. Yet in the sky, the sun is shining — a distant, bright yellow coin, glowing through the smoke and mist and haze. It lends the entire landscape of carnage an eerie beauty, like something out of a dream you can’t quite decide was a nightmare or not.
Nasty business, rendered beautifully: That’s the shared Game of Thrones universe’s stock in trade. And from crazed warlords to dragon-fueled standoffs to a momentous marriage proposal, this week’s House of the Dragon episode does its dark business well.
Take the storyline centered on Daemon Targaryen, who gives the episode its title: “The Rogue Prince.” After his brother King Viserys exiled him from the capital city of King’s Landing last week, he has claimed House Targaryen’s ancestral island of Dragonstone as his own. Worse, he has stolen a priceless dragon egg that briefly belonged to Viserys’s dead son…to place in the crib of the baby he’s having with his wife to be, the former courtesan named Mysaria.
At least, that’s the story Daemon tells the king and his Small Council. Turns out it’s bullshit, a deliberate provocation — but the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, has no way of knowing this when he heads to Dragonstone with a contingent of knights to bring Daemon to heel. He’s hated the regent’s brother for a long time, and you can see him seethe when the Targaryen prince produces his giant pet creature in order to back the invaders down.
But Daemon’s not the only dragon-rider in town. Princess Rhaenyra, his niece and his replacement as heir to the Iron Throne, shows up on a winged beast of her own, soaring through the low-hanging clouds in one of the episode’s most striking shots. (The hazy sunlight echoes the later Crabfeeder scene as well.) Rhaenyra calls her uncle’s bluff; he tosses her the dragon egg and strides off to be reprimanded by Mysaria for his risky ruse. As a commoner, she’s much more likely to lose her head over it than Daemon is.
The whole incident is proof, if we didn’t have enough already, that Rhaenyra is getting ready to rule. It’s not even the first time she’s pulled rank on Ser Otto in this episode, having already selected a new knight of the elite Kingsguard — the talented but low-ranking knight Ser Criston Cole — over the Hand’s objections. (Don’t worry: The ambitious Otto will get his way soon enough.)
As for Daemon, his political fortunes appear to improve dramatically thanks to Lord Corlys Velaryon, the so-called Sea Snake. Despite heading one of the richest and most powerful houses in the realm — a house with an even deeper Valyrian heritage than that of the Targaryens, to hear him tell it — Corlys keeps getting the cold shoulder from King Viserys. His pleas for permission to battle the Crabfeeder go ignored, out of fear that this would provoke open war with the powerful Free Cities that fund the warlord’s fleet.
In hopes of mending the breach, Corlys proposes that Viserys cement the bond between their two ancient houses by marrying his 12-year-old daughter Laena (Nova Foueillis-Mosé). She dutifully follows her father’s instructions, telling Viserys she knows she wouldn’t have to “bed” him until she turns 14 — an upsetting reminder of the status of girls and women in Westeros.
But Viserys has other plans. He’s visibly weary of the demands of his office; when seeking the counsel of his Master of Laws, Lord Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes), he leans on the back of his chair as if crushed by the weight of it all. He’s also suffering from yet another wound from the Iron Throne that refuses to heal. (Grand Maester Mellos treats the gash by immersing it in maggots, which is every bit as disgusting as it sounds.) It’s comfort that the king is looking for in a new wife, not political advantages.
So he selects Alicent Hightower — Rhaenyra’s best friend, Ser Otto’s daughter, and his own secret confidante — for his bride. Otto is visibly thrilled, as is Alicent, whose nervous tic of picking her cuticles bloody indicates some deep anxiety beneath her courtly surface. But both Rhaenyra and Corlys storm off, gravely upset by the decision. And Corlys runs straight to Daemon, proposing an alliance against the Crabfeeder’s forces.
But it’s easy to see that Rhaenyra is the one who’s really suffering from the decision. For one thing, she’s effectively losing her best friend to her own father. For another, she and Viserys had finally opened up to one another about their grief over the death of Rhaenyra’s mother; his choice to remarry calls their newfound closeness into question.
And in the back of her mind, no doubt, is the warning issued to her by Princess Rhaenys, who was passed over as a potential monarch in favor of her male cousin Viserys. “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne,” the older woman tells her. If Alicent produces a male heir for Viserys, all bets are off, and Rhaenyra knows it.
Which brings us to the heart of the story: family drama. At this point, underneath all the dragon-riding and crab-feeding, this is ultimately a show about a dad, a daughter, and the demands that are pulling them apart.
Paddy Considine and Milly Alcock, the performers in question, root this material in vivid, empathetic acting. Considine constantly wears a hangdog expression on his instantly likeable face; his Viserys is a guy who wants to be happy, and is deeply frustrated to find that he can’t be. No wonder he selects Alicent, who’s become his closest friend, to rule the realm with him.
Alcock, meanwhile, projects a blend of precociousness and vulnerability, enhanced by the show’s blocking choices. She may insist on selecting the next Kingsguard knight, but she has to stand on a stepstool to see the candidates; she convinces Uncle Daemon to back down, but he towers over her in much the same way that his dragon dwarfs her own.
Striking imagery, compelling intrigue, humane performances: Put it all together and you’ve got some damn fine fantasy television. And with a new queen on the way and war on the horizon, we have a feeling things are about to get wild in Westeros once again.