Season 1, Episode 6: ‘The Princess and the Queen’
This week on “House of the Dragon,” we were reminded that a lot can happen in 10 years.
For one thing, Alicent and Rhaenyra now seem like completely different people. The young queen, a callow peacemaker as a girl, has grown angry and aggrieved. Meanwhile, the princess’ former rebellious streak has hardened into a kind of royal court realpolitik, even as she keeps having Harwin Strong’s children.
Daemon, the former rogue prince, settled down and even managed to have a couple of kids of his own with Laena. Laenor, the former sensitive young warrior, is now a dissipated playboy looking to get unsettled any way he can. Elsewhere in the Red Keep, the next generation of Targaryen men are gallivanting about, looking just as ill-suited for leadership as their predecessors.
At the same time, there is plenty that hasn’t changed. Ser Criston is still hanging around. (What does a Kingsguard have to do to get fired anyway?) The Stepstones are a mess again. Somehow Viserys, last seen hitting the deck at Rhaenyra’s terrible wedding, is still alive. (Those leeches have been working overtime.)
As we picked up the action a decade after said wedding, we found an unhappy family enduring in a kind of uneasy equipoise. How did we get here?
Well, you might recall that Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr) had a couple of interactions with young Rhaenyra, encountering her during her night on the town with Daemon and later hauling her out of the wedding brawl. Apparently somewhere along the way sparks flew and then kept flying, at least three more times.
The additional heirs exacerbated Alicent’s intense resentment of Rhaenyra’s position — born partly of Alicent’s legitimate fear about her family’s future safety — leading her to lash out at everyone and make alliances with dubious characters. She’s almost convinced herself that she is motivated by a hope that “honor and decency will prevail,” even though she’s teamed with the dishonorable likes of Ser Criston and Larys Strong to make it happen.
The simmering status quo finally becomes untenable when the royal cousins square off during their combat training, in the process becoming pawns within the larger drama. Because when a sparring exercise results in their trainer, Ser Criston, goading Harwin into giving him the beating he’s long deserved, the incident throws a harsh spotlight on the ongoing scandal.
“People have eyes, boy!” Lyonel Strong later shouted at his brazenly virile son. Soon the Strongs and Rhaenyra were on their way out of town, leaving Alicent to plot how to get her ousted father, Otto, back in to even the playing field.
The events kicked off the next phase of the story, as the rivals for the Iron Throne gather their supporters and retreat to their corners while everyone waits for Viserys — now looking like the Crypt Keeper as he wanders from chair to chair, ignoring the growing discord around him — to die.
Alicent and Rhaenyra literally are different people, of course, now played by Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy. Other additions included Nanna Blondell (briefly) as Laena, John Macmillan as Laenor and Ty Tennant as Aegon, an enjoyably feckless twit who’s about as ambitious as a ham sandwich.
Alicent: “As things stand, Rhaenyra will ascend the throne and Jacaerys will be her heir!”
This week also saw the emergence of other prominent players, most notably Harwin (also briefly) and Larys. Heinous Act of the Week honors go to Larys, who freed a few condemned men in exchange for 1.) them torching his family home, along with his father and brother, and 2.) their tongues.
Larys seems to be filling the shifty manipulator role occupied by Littlefinger and Varys in “Game of Thrones” — his name is even a portmanteau of theirs — though so far he lacks their depth, subtlety and slippery charisma. The murder of his father cleared the way for Otto to return as Hand — things seem to be heading that way, at least — even as it revealed to Alicent the quality of the company she’s keeping these days. The elimination of Lyonel and Harwin also make Larys the lord of House Strong, a real victory.
It isn’t clear what effect Harwin’s death will have on the issue of his royal issue — is it better or worse for Rhaenyra, from an optics standpoint, now that he’s out of the picture? Could part of Larys’s plan be to create suspicion that the princess or her supporters had him killed to keep him quiet? With Rhaenyra and friends on their way to Dragonstone, she won’t be around to defend herself.
Maybe we’ll learn more about this next week. We’ll also see how Daemon adapts to being a widower twice over — at least he didn’t kill his latest wife himself.
Laena was a tragic figure, another illustration of the constraints that even women of privilege face in this story. We met her at 12, being offered up as a political child bride. She died in anguish as a young woman, another victim of the birthing bed.
“I’ve reached the limits of my art,” the obstetrician told Daemon. The fact that he then just let his patient stagger off to commit Dracaryside suggests that those limits are quite profound. I do realize that Laena assessed the situation and sought the dragonrider’s death she foreshadowed earlier, but the mechanics of the scene, with an exhausted, doubled-over Laena somehow outpacing Daemon to the beach, were odd.
What’s next for the suddenly re-eligible bachelor prince? I don’t see him committing to life as a stay-at-home single dad — it wouldn’t seem to suit him any more than being a pet dragon for Prince Reggio (Dean Nolan) in Pentos would have, as Laena perceived. (Reminder: Pentos is one of the Free Cities in Essos.)
The turbulent Stepstones, the site of Daemon’s only real glory, could be tempting. Or maybe he’ll head back to Dragonstone, too. Many things change over the course of a decade, but I’m guessing his and Rhaenyra’s twisted mutual attraction isn’t one of them.
A few thoughts while we wince
“The childbed is our battlefield,” the late Queen Aemma noted in the premiere, and “Dragon” remains determined to show as well as tell us this fact. Miguel Sapochnik, the outgoing showrunner who directed this episode, was known on “Thrones” primarily for big combat episodes, and he’s been the go-to director for these battles, too. (When the episode opened on Rhaenyra’s exertions, I knew it was one of his without looking at the credits.) These grueling birth scenes are significant narratively and for what they reveal about the harrowing precariousness and lack of autonomy a woman endures in this time and place. But all the unsparing close-ups and vivid detail can start to feel like the show is fetishizing women’s agony. I greatly admire Sapochnik’s talent, but I also wondered how a female director might have presented some of these sequences.
I was sorry to see Laena go so soon — as portrayed by Blondell, she radiated intelligence and nerve. At least Laena got to bond with Vhagar, the enormous ancient dragon she seemed fascinated by, as a girl, in her awkward chat with Viserys a few weeks ago.
I love a good entitled doofus character, and Ty Tennant made a strong debut as the adolescent Aegon. Fun fact: He is the son of Georgia Tennant, a veteran actor and producer, and David Tennant, the electric Scottish star of “Doctor Who,” “Broadchurch” and “Jessica Jones,” among others.
Harrenhal, the House Strong castle, has a long, colorful history in the lore. It was also the site of one of my favorite random “Thrones” subplots, when Tywin Lannister was based there during the War of the Five Kings and Arya was undercover as his cupbearer. I’ve said it before but so far in “Dragon,” I miss those kinds of delightful side trips.
“The Triarchy” is to this show what “Meereen” was to “Thrones,” in that every time someone mentions it, my eyes glaze over. On the bright side, you can’t bring up a giant Tyroshi general “who dyes his beard purple and wears woman’s frocks” and not show him at some point, right? So that’s something to look forward to.
What do you think? Does Larys fill the Littlefinger-sized hole in your heart? Did Rhaenyra make a mistake by leaving King’s Landing? And what’s with all the Red Keep rats? I assume they have some greater significance but am at a loss. Any theories?