We’re now in the second half of House of the Dragon’s first season and quite a bit has changed, most notably the cast. The show jumps ahead by ten years in this episode, meaning Emily Carey and Milly Alcock as Alicent and Rhaenyra have been replaced by Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy respectively. With the birth of a new era, life and death take center stage in this week’s episode as the setup for a bloody conflict continues to unfold.
Despite the passage of time and new faces, the animosity between Rhaenyra and Alicent has not cooled, if anything it continues to smoulder. Rhaenyra opens up the episode by giving birth to her third son. The child is barely out of the womb when it’s revealed that Alicent has ordered the newborn child to be brought before her, without any prior consultation with the Princess. Rhaenyra, of course, obliges but walks the baby up to the Queen herself, despite literally giving birth moments before. Whether out of fear for the child’s safety or, more likely, a power play, she walks the baby up with her husband Ser Laenor in tow. Laenor reveals to the queen that the child will be named Joffrey, after his lover who died at the banquet we saw last episode. Even after ten years, Laenor is still harbouring feelings for his old flame and continues to set his sights on other pursuits, per the agreements of his marriage with Rhaenyra.
Despite being heir to the throne, Rhaenyra finds herself in positions and situations where she has no control. In many ways, she and Alicent have switched places. Alicent is now confident in her position as Queen, taking charge and gathering information as needed. She isn’t on the sidelines anymore and uses information to her advantage and adding it to her stockpile, knowing that her husband King Viserys, who is still alive after last week’s apparent death, won’t act on anything, a trait he’s exhibited all season thus far. She’s even brought in Ser Cole to be her personal Queensguard and despite his station, spits venomeous bards over the Princess’ name. But he’s clearly allied himself with the Queen.
Rhaenyra, on the other hand, continues to see power and influence slip away from her. Gossip follows the princess, as rumour (later confirmed) that her three dark-haired, fair-skinned children are actually the bastard children of Ser Harwin Strong and not her husband Ser Laenor, which would make their claim to the throne, well…complicated. It also puts her children at constant odds with the white-haired children of the King and Alicent, who comments to Laenor that maybe one day one of “his” children will look like him. The children are critical to the plot, despite being minor players, as the succession of the throne will be handled by this new generation, who don’t get along well together already. There are a lot of names here to keep track of and it can be disorienting, but so far the most important of the children seem to be Aegon II Targaryen and Jacaerys Velaryon, played by Ty Tennent and Harry Collett respectively. But despite the gossip, the King can’t or won’t speak of it, as the implications are too vile or treacherous to speak of. Some might say that this episode is boring or slow, but so much subtle character development and updates happen in this episode.
On the other side of the world, we find that Prince Daemon has married Lady Laena Velaryon and has two daughters, with a third child on the way. It’s a stark contrast to see Daemon living an almost domestic life and seems more or less happy but he’s not perse satisfied. He looks like a tiger in a cage, ready to burst and when the invitation to fight on the behest of Pentos, the area where he and his family are currently residing, in exchange for riches and comfort. Laena is quick to dismiss the offer but Daemon suggests they entertain the idea at the very least, suggesting the domestic life of reading historical accounts may not be the destiny the Rogue Prince had in mind. When Laena struggles with her latest birth, Daemon finds himself in the same situation Viserys did in the first episode of the season, kill the mother in an attempt to save the child.
Unable to give birth though, unlike Rhaenyra, and unwilling to put her destiny in someone else’s hands, Laena opts for suicide by dragon fire, leaving Daemon alone with his two daughters. Rhaenyra likewise finds herself alone towards the end of the episode when shame and gossip see Ser Strong leaving King’s Landing for Harrenhal, only to be betrayed and burned alive along with his father, the Hand of the King, on the order of his brother Larys the Clubfoot. Whether due to love for Alicent or playing a political game, he kills his own family to try and get her to reinstall Otto Hightower as Hand. We should all be watching out for this guy, as he’s definitely the Littlefinger of his time. Heck, his family even has ties to Harrenhal, the castle Littlefinger would take ownership over. But one has to imagine that having both Daemon and Rhaenyra without lovers again will set them on a crash course that could topple the already fragile house. Tired of gossip, Rhaenyra opts to move her part of the family away from King’s Landing and into Dragonstone, despite attempts at unifying the family through marriage. Now, the families are divided not only politically but geographically as well. Now, we just need the spark to light the powdered keg.
House of the Dragon continues to be a weird show in terms of production. I’m not sure if this is due to COVID or not, but something just feels off about King’s Landing. I think a key reason for this though is that the production isn’t filming in Dubrovnik, Croatia as they did with Game of Thrones. As a result, everything feels grey and flat, whereas King’s Landing in the original series felt dynamic and bright. Perhaps they settled for the darker visual aesthetic for narrative reasons, but it is bland to look at. Likewise, the architectural design of the castle feels different from the previous series. The show feels very “boxed in” due to so many scenes taking place in rooms or hallways with very few on-location shoots, as a lot of the outdoor shots in this show are shot in studio against a green screen. Game of Thrones was a nice mix of studio and on-location shoots and this show does feel too controlled and artificial as a result. Maybe I’m beating a dead horse with this comment, but it’s striking how inconsistent and bland the locations are in this show, compared to the older show. Here are two photos, the first from Game of Thrones and the second from House of the Dragon.
In the end, House of the Dragon is very much developing into a great series. Its earlier episodes may have felt a little rocky to me, but later episodes are using the information gathered from those earlier episodes to inform and dictate the ongoing events. I wonder how the rest of the season will play out considering the ten-year time jump. Will the show end on a direct setup for the civil war or, like season one of Game of Thrones, leave the battles and war as more of an off-screen event, while we focus on the characters? Time will tell.