House of the Dragon jumps 10 years, and the Dance now feels awfully close.
The Princess and the Queen brought to mind something that I do wonder time and again while watching and covering House of the Dragon -- Is there a significant difference in the viewing experience of show only folks and those like me who read the books and have loved these stories for years? I don't dislike The Princess and the Queen. I understand the need to move along a season so we could get to the meat of the conflict, the one that was promised in the promotions, the Dance of the Dragons. I get all that. But then, seeing characters like Laena Velaryon and Ser Harwin Strong barely get any screentime before they are killed off hurts my heart.
Laena Velaryon is the rider of Vhagar, the last living dragon from the days of the Conquest. 'My brave girl,' Daemon Targaryen murmured about her, as that she is; in every scene we have seen her, Lady Laena is self-assured, quick-witted, warm in ways that many if not most characters in the Game of Thrones universe are not. In one episode, we as viewers have to process a Lady Laena who wanted to go home to Driftmark (she, Daemon and their two daughters have been living in Pentos), who understood that her husband may be suffering from depression, who accepted that she may not be the one he truly wanted to marry, who wanted to rejoin Westerosi society as befits her station and that of her family's, and die a dragonrider's death when her time had come. The glimpses we were given of Laena and Daemon's relationship were lovely though heartbreaking; this was a marriage of equals, and the way Daemon moved a cushion for Laena to sit beside him was a small sweet moment that seemed to underscore that yes, in one episode, Daemon Targaryen will not commit a crime (okay, you have to be on Twitter to fully understand what this means). At the same time, Daemon appeared to be a man who was running from something, who would rather be a glorified employee of the Prince of Pentos than a prince in his own right in the kingdom his family has ruled for generations, and there was Laena, loving him in ways he could not love her back.***
I am far from a book purist, and I don't even dislike the change the showrunners did here. In Fire and Blood, Laena was severely weakened from childbirth (the baby died), and she tried to reach Vhagar to fly one more time. She died before she could reach her beloved dragon, and Daemon carried her back to her bed. Here, there was a callback to the tragic death of Queen Aemma Arryn. The child would not come out, and Daemon was told they could cut the baby out, but the mother would not survive. Daemon shook his head, and when he turned back toward the bed, Laena was gone. Laena overheard the conversation and did as she said she wanted, die a dragonrider's death. She gave the Dracarys command to Vhagar several times before the ancient dragon obeyed. Daemon saw his wife burn. Did Laena not trust Daemon enough to respect what he must have known would be her decision (he did, but I don't think she saw him shake his head)? I didn't really have complaints about the scene, but after I watched it, something bugged me, and I think it was the pacing. They tried to squeeze too much into this episode, and there was a whiplash, at least for me, once it was done.
Now, about Ser Harwin Strong -- yes, he died before the Dance, but he was such a pivotal part of it, I feel robbed that we did not see more of him. This is the man who fathered sons with Princess Rhaenyra. What happened after he carried her out of that chaos at her wedding feast? What was their relationship like? From the scenes we saw between Ser Harwin and Rhaenyra, I genuinely have no idea.
At least the House of the Dragon powers that be gave us a rather satisfying beatdown of Ser Criston Cole by Ser Harwin. It was a one night stand ten years ago, dude, seek therapy. Criston Cole got me to like him for a bit, but he is now on full villain mode. It's honestly scary how his inability to accept a woman's no is very much a frightening part of our modern non-Westerosi life. His hatred of Rhaenyra extended to her sons, and even with the King and the Hand watching, he had no problem being a douche to Prince Jacaerys and Prince Lucerys during training. He got the much bigger Prince Aegon to continue to attack Jace though he was down, and of course Harwin intervened. Criston continued to goad Harwin until Harwin snapped and repeatedly punched him. Criston did not bother to fight back, because this was what he wanted, to get Harwin to react at an insinuation that the Velaryon boys were his.
Harwin was fired as Commander of the City Watch, but this punishment was not enough for his furious father. Lord Lyonel felt he could no longer serve as Hand, and tried to resign. Viserys, who absolutely refused to accept all these accusations of his grandchildren being bastards even though he knew them to be true (him kissing Aemma's ring at the end of the episode was the confirmation for me), did not accept the resignation. Lyonel, however, was given leave to escort Harwin back to Harrenhal where Harwin would serve as lord in his stead.
Harwin was able to say goodbye to Rhaenyra and the children, though again, I have no idea what Harwin and Rhaenyra's relationship is like, because of course the both of them have to continue with this facade of non-lovers in front of the boys. The best I could come up with was, Harwin was a convenient booty call to Rhaenyra, but she appreciated that he was a good father who tried as much as possible to be there for the boys. He was also a (mostly) unproblematic companion whilst her husband Laenor had lovers of his own, in accordance with their agreement. But, who knows, we didn't get any details. I saw a couple of polls where viewers overwhelmingly voted that the relationship between Harwin and Rhaenyra was one of mutual romantic love, and maybe they are right. In any case, Jace was old enough to notice the tension, and as Harwin walked away, he asked, 'Is Harwin Strong my father? Am I a bastard?' I liked that Rhaenyra did not engage in Harwin erasure and deny this, and merely said Jace was a Targaryen and that was what mattered. Jace Velaryon is one of my favourite characters in Fire and Blood, and I cannot wait to see how House of the Dragon portrays him!
We barely got any interactions amongst the Strongs, so I don't know what the relationship was between Lord Lyonel, Harwin, and Larys. In Fire and Blood, there were multiple suspects in the fire at Harrenhal that killed Lyonel and Harwin. I had always favoured Viserys as the suspect; he did not know that Lyonel was joining Harwin in the trip (this was changed in the show) and killing Harwin could be viewed as a way to protect his daughter from further talk. The show chose a more straightforward motive, ambition; with the death of his father and brother, Larys was now Lord of Harrenhal. Because he framed the deaths as a favour to Alicent, he now had the Queen in his grasp. I don't hate it, and maybe future episodes will make me like this change, but for now I still prefer my Viserys theory.
Alicent complained of not having anyone on her side, but it was Rhaenyra whose power felt fragile through this episode. It opened with Rhaenyra giving birth to Joffrey, and Alicent immediately demanding to see the baby. Refusing to part from her son, a still bleeding Rhaenyra got up and walked up the castle stairs; they bickered a bit, but it was a relief to have Laenor there for support. After the multiple difficult births of Aemma, it must have been a relief to Viserys that Rhaenyra had now birthed three healthy children and was relatively all right. He just seemed so genuinely happy to see his new grandson. Alicent, of course, could not resist twisting a knife on Laenor, urging him to keep trying and perhaps he may have a child that looks like him at some point.
I will confess to being mostly Team Black whilst reading Fire and Blood, but of course the obvious issue of parentage of the Velaryon boys was a problem. There was a discussion on Twitter on whether Jace, Luke, and Joffrey were bastards; after all, Laenor claimed them as his children. The King himself refused to view them as anything other than legitimate (Kings can legitimise bastards and enable them to inherit). All the Greens had was the fact that the boys looked nothing like Laenor, and gossip. But even Lord Lyonel pointed out to Harwin that his intimacy with the Princess could result in the deaths of himself, Rhaenyra, and their children, so even without proof, the situation was dire.
But why was the situation dire now? Rhaenyra and Harwin had been carrying on with their affair for ten years. What changed that convinced Rhaenyra to apologize to Alicent in front of the Small Council, propose a marriage between Jace and Princess Helaena, offer an egg from Syrax to the dragon-less Prince Aemond, and later, make the dangerous decision of leaving King's Landing for Dragonstone with her whole family? Was it Criston successfully baiting Harwin into beating him up after taunting him about his sons? I feel that if the episode were better paced, this would be clearer.
The 10-year time jump did not just give us new actors (Emma D'Arcy and Olivia Cooke have now taken over the roles of Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower), it also gave us the adult versions of the characters with marked differences in how they were as kids. This is no longer the Rhaenyra who openly mocked a lord at Storm's End during her royal progress to find a husband. When Rhaenyra and Laenor passed by Lord Caswell (thank you, House of the Dragon, for continuously including book characters) on their way to Alicent's chambers with baby Joffrey, Rhaenyra responded graciously (as graciously as she could, at least, whilst walking and bleeding) to his congratulations. At the Small Council, Rhaenyra tried to make peace with Alicent, and even invoked their past friendship. I had some concerns about the show not portraying well enough how Rhaenyra was loved when she was young, by the high born and the smallfolk, but perhaps it is all part of a plan. In any case, we now have a Rhaenyra who is more willing to be politic.
Otto Hightower's poison had taken strong root in Alicent, and she now endeavoured to pass that on to her children, especially her oldest child, Aegon. At the Dragonpit scene (Vermax!), Aegon actually did not seem to have any issues with Jace and Luke; the object of his pink dread prank was his own brother Aemond, the only one amongst them who was not yet bonded to a dragon. Yet, just as Otto created this existential crisis in Alicent's head, Alicent did the same for Aegon. Aegon did not want to be King (this is in keeping with the books) but Alicent told him, just as Otto told her, that his life was forfeit when Rhaenyra came to power. Whatever acrimony Aegon had for Rhaenyra and the Velaryon boys, that was created by Alicent and Criston.
Aegon (played by Ty Tennant, David Tennant's adoptive son) was a rather enjoyable character, for now. Whilst he was a bully to Aemond, his bullying of Jace later on during training was a direct result of Criston's commands. That already famous masturbation scene on the same window where Tommen Baratheon jumped to his death was an interesting addition, as was that quick shot of Aegon turning toward a couple of female servants and them looking uncomfortable. It has only been one episode, but I have high hopes on how the powers that be will handle this character.
Through all this simmering tension, Viserys remained as he was, intent on building his Old Valyria model and ignoring the very serious dynastic issues within his family. With his declining health came the rise of Alicent's power at Court; she now attended the Small Council. Young Alicent never would have stalked away from Viserys, but grown up Alicent did, twice. Viserys still called some shots, but he was now even more willfully blind to anything that did not match his hopes for a harmonious future, and mostly checked out.
I appreciate the challenges the House of the Dragon crew faced with this episode. After five very strong episodes, however, The Princess and the Queen is a bit of a let down. Based on the previews, things will pick up next episode. Can't wait!
♕ Should we pay attention to Alicent's servant Talya? She was mentioned twice during two fairly important scenes so I am including her here in case she plays a larger part later on.
♕ Rhaenyra was annoyed that Laenor announced Joffrey's name without consulting her. Laenor shot back that he deserved some say in their family. They have a good dynamic, because though there were disagreements, they talked through them. Laenor wanted to join the reignited war at the Stepstones, whilst Rhaenyra, who was feeling the heat, wanted him to remain at her side. She finally had to command him to remain as his Princess, and he obeyed. Later, when Rhaenyra decided they were leaving for Dragonstone, she told Laenor to bring Qarl, his lover.
♕ The way Laenor shooed Jace and Luke out the room so Harwin and Rhaenyra could have some private time with baby Joffrey was sweet. Luke picked the dragon egg for Joffrey.
♕ I am in awe at how spoiled we are at the dragons we are seeing. Each of them were carefully designed, with their own personalities that showed in the way they moved and flew. Vermax was precious. Vhagar was huge and very clearly ancient. Caraxes remains my favourite.
♕ That Aemond did not have a dragon bothered him deeply. Alicent assured him he will have a dragon one day. Bug-focused Helaena: 'He'll have to close an eye.' Helaena being a dreamer is a perfect addition to her character.
♕ Alicent really called the Velaryon boys savages when her sons Aegon and Aemond [redacted because spoilers]. There was also a nice cut of Alicent talking honour and decency with Criston, then immediately to naked Aegon masturbating on an open window.
♕ As Alicent brought up the Velaryon boys' parentage for the nth time to Viserys, the guy working on the Old Valyria model was called Eddard. Nice one, show.
♕ Viserys forbade Alicent from speaking of her suspicions about Rhaenyra's sons again. He had previously forbidden her, but that clearly did not stop her.
♕ The Triarchy had allied with Qoren Martell, which reignited the conflict at the Stepstones. The Prince of Pentos was concerned the Triarchy would turn their eyes on his city, and wanted Daemon, Laena, and Baela's dragons as protection. Rhaena Targaryen has had her egg for eight years, but it has yet to hatch. Daemon was seriously considering the Prince's offer whilst Laena just wanted to go home.
♕ Aw Daemon was teaching Baela High Valyrian. I did not like the implication that Daemon was ignoring Rhaena because she was not (yet) a dragonrider.
♕ Daemon has been spending his time in Pentos at the library reading about his ancestors. I wonder if this will have any significance later on, or just a symptom of Daemon's depression.
♕ I am a Jace stan so I liked that they showed him giving Aegon a good fight though he was younger and smaller. Aegon actually had to cheat to gain the upper hand.
♕ At that training scene, there was that little pat Aegon gave young Luke. Without the influence of Criston and Alicent, Viserys's rose-coloured view of the children getting along may have had a chance of happening.
♕ 'The wise sailor flees the storm as it gathers.'
♕ There was another Blackwood v Bracken mention at the Small Council, which gladdens my book reader heart. Alicent did not even want to touch the problem and just leave it to their liege lord the Lord of Riverrun (Viserys agreed with this) but Rhaenyra thought the dispute was worth looking into.
♕ Like Viserys, Lord Beesbury has gotten really old. If the show follows the books, Lord Beesbury will gain some fans before the season ends.
♕ Rhaenyra also had a point when she said the Crown should have built garrisons, watch towers and fortifications at the Stepstones. Alicent and Lord Beesbury pointed out the expense, but Rhaenyra said war was more expensive.
♕ Alicent really wanted her father back as Hand. Well, she will get her wish next episode.
♕ Larys removed the tongues of three condemned criminals before sending them to murder his father and brother. What's with the bug imagery? Edited to add: Apparently, it was a firefly and Larys Strong's personal sigil.
♕ There was that ever present rat, this time, inside Viserys's chambers.
♕ Larys to Alicent: 'I feel certain you will reward me when the time is right.'
♕ ***This does not mean that I don't think Daemon loved Laena; I argued in one of the two Laena focused posts I wrote that Daemon did love Laena, though it may not have started that way, and though he may have loved another too. In contrast, there was no indication that Laena loved anyone else or that she would have exchanged the life she lived with Daemon for a different one.
Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Writer: Sarah Hess
Original Air Date: September 25, 2022