The succession game changes forever as Rhaenyra finds a suitor, regal battle lines are drawn, and we finally see the end of a character whose writing was on the wall.
“Will I be remembered as a good king?” asks King Viserys (Paddy Considine) late in this week’s episode of House of the Dragon, “We Light the Way,” weak and wearied from a stressful trip, leeches suckling on his body the way everyone in his kingdom seems to draw from his power. It’s an interesting moment, one that cuts to the heart of his fundamental novelty as a character: he’s a good man but an ill-fitting king, chiefly down to him lacking the ruthlessness that Westeros requires to survive. He’s conquered no one but also hasn’t been defeated. He’s neither famous nor infamous. He’s the Joe Biden of Westeros — that steady, unexciting hand at the wheel who’s not willing (or exciting enough) to rock the boat and make a name for himself.
Still, his worries about his legacy are at the core of the show’s concern, which has made the Game of Thrones prequel fascinating, if hardly more riveting than its flagship. It’s, first and foremost, a palace drama about the responsibilities of power and the sacrifices one must make to secure it — right down to giving up the ones you love. Even if you think you’ve cheated the game, it always comes back to bite at you.
In Westeros, marriage is cheap, a mere contract signed to ensure your name goes down in the history books. It’s so cheap we spend the opening minutes of this episode watching Daemon (Matt Smith), finally fully spurned by his brother and driven to marry Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) himself to reclaim the reins of power, full-on kill his lady wife Rhea Royce with an upturned horse and a stone. “I knew you couldn’t finish!” she shouts back, one final insult before death. She’s likely not wrong; he’s only got a boner for power (or, well, his close family members).
Rhaenyra, meanwhile, is having to make good on her father’s edict last episode, as they sail to Hightide to meet her new betrothed, Velaryon heir Prince Laenor (Theo Nate). She quickly figures out his deal along a walk on the beach — he clearly prefers, as she puts it, goose to roast duck, if you catch my meaning. (Think a high-fantasy version of “I like the wine, not the label.”) No matter; she has her own lover in the form of Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). She posits an arrangement: The two go through with the wedding for the sake of the kingdom (and Rhaenyra’s head), then “when it’s done, each of us dines as we see fit.”
It’s a notion Laenor’s lover, Ser Joffrey Lonmouth (Solly McLeod), greets with relieved glee as the two roll in the hay at Hightide. But Criston hardly takes it well: He tries (and fails) to convince her to run away with him, to forsake her dreaded responsibility to the crown. Rhaenyra, both seeking power and cognizant of the infamy rejecting it would mean, turns it down, and assures him that “a marriage does not have to be the end.” But for Criston, for whom it’s finally dawning that he’s broken his vow of chastity and forever sullied a commoner name he hoped to elevate, that’s not enough. “I’ve soiled my white cloak and it’s the only thing I have to my fucking name!” he growls at her.
Rhaenyra’s cavalier attitude about this arrangement, her grin-and-bear-it shrug, spells doom for at least one person by the end of this episode — her naive, hopeful assumption that she, as queen, will be able to take and keep lovers in the same way as her male predecessors. The show hammers this point home in numerous ways, and this episode is certainly no exception.
Even if you think you’ve cheated the game, it always comes back to bite at you.
It doesn’t help, of course, that many threats to her succession loom just around the corner. The newest, shocker, is Queen Alicent (Emily Carey) herself, reeling from the last words her newly-ousted father (and former Hand) Ser Otto (Rhys Ifans) gives her before leaving King’s Landing. When she becomes queen, he warns, she’ll have no choice but to kill her son Aegon to remove any potential claim to the throne. She’s torn about betraying her close childhood friend. Still, opportunity comes in the form of Lord Larys’ (Matthew Needham) reveal of the abortifacient tea delivered to her at the end of the prior episode. Perhaps if Rhaenyra is no longer a virgin, that disrupts her marriage prospects, thinks Alicent. Larys likens her to an exotic flower that flourishes in the Godswood: “Nature, such a mystery.” Without Otto’s shadow looming over her, Alicent might have the sun she needs to grow there herself.
And so she does, playing Westerosi Columbo as she seeks out Ser Criston for confirmation of the rumors that got Ser Otto ousted from the throne: Did Rhaenyra have an indiscretion that night in King’s Landing (presuming, as the rumor goes, that it was with Daemon)? Criston, brokenhearted, admits that yes, the rumors are true. He slept with her. Emily Carey’s facial journey upon this realization — one that both confirms her lack of fitness to be queen, but also shatters her preconceptions of who is responsible — is astonishing, her eyes darting back and forth as she floats between surprise, disgust, revelation, pity, and resolve.
But enough fanfare — on with the wedding! The Seven Kingdoms haul in (along with Viserys and Rhaenyra on their dragons) for a week of tournaments and feasting, summed up with a giant banquet in the hall of King’s Landing. It’s an enormous to-do, “a wedding for the histories” as Viserys claims; if he can’t go down in the stories as a great warrior, he can throw a rager at least. Too bad Alicent has declined to attend, her chair empty next to his.
Game of Thrones fans might be a bit nervous at such a gathering — big royal weddings steeped in controversy don’t tend to end well. And Clare Kilner (who directs this episode, as she did last week) layers on one layer of buried tension after another. First, Daemon swaggers in, the rumors he’s killed his wife wafting behind him; it’s clear he’s here to try to pull a Dustin-Hoffman-in-The-Graduate moment. Then Alicent finally appears, in a stunning green dress, deliberately cutting off Viserys’ big wedding speech. She’s subtextually declaring war — on Viserys, Rhaenyra, and the whole system that’s pushed her into this position. (We even see representatives from Old Town reassuring her of their allegiance, proof she’s got allies not aligned with her king’s.)
Then comes the dancing, a courtly pass down the aisles with the occasional ‘Hey!’ thrown in. This offers plenty of opportunity for small character moments, whether in line or out. Daemon’s ex-father-in-law calls him out for the loss of his daughter (“I’m positively bereft,” he purrs back with rolled eyes; what a delicious bastard). Joffrey, who’s clocked Rhaenyra’s lover, sidles up to Criston to congratulate them on their joint status as royal side pieces. And Daemon himself cuts in line to entreaty Rhaenyra in Valyrian; this isn’t what she truly wants, and he knows it. But as Rhaenyra teases him, their lips getting closer (and a shocked Viserys watching from afar), the explosion of violence we’ve been waiting for arrives — not as a sudden on-screen stabbing, but further away, obscured by the massive crowd on the other side of the hall.
With such death, the rats can finally come out to feast on what remains.
Clear the rabble, and we see Criston beating Joffrey to a pulp, overcome by the guilt of what he’s done and Joffrey’s promise/threat to keep each other’s secrets safe. It’s hardly the bloodbath of the Red Wedding, but it’s as personally devastating to Rhaenyra and Laenor, as Criston bashes Joffrey’s head in so hard it basically collapses like a watermelon. Most telling is the stunned silence from the entire crowd as Criston’s violent act breaks open the illusion everyone has been playing into: Laenor weeps at Joffrey’s body as the crowd files out.
The Wedding, it seems, must be done that night, as the immediate family corrals around the messy banquet hall, surrounded by crumbs and half-eaten bread. So we get one of those classic prestige-TV montages, as Kilner intercuts between a conflicted, dismayed Rhaenyra and Laenor’s shotgun wedding and Criston’s heartbroken bid to stab himself at the foot of the Godswood. He’s stopped by Alicent, though; what might these two get up to, now united in their fury at Rhaenyra’s wedding (and the opportunities she’s taken from them)?
They might have to find out soon, as Viserys’ failing body may well have caught up with him. He collapses at the altar, and we pan back to the pool of blood Joffrey left in his wake. With such death, the rats can finally come out to feast on what remains.
That’s So Raven(s):
- This appears to be the penultimate episode of this first leg of House of the Dragon, before Milly Alcock and Emily Carey are replaced by Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, respectively. I don’t envy the challenge ahead, especially D’Arcy’s; Alcock’s been fantastically wily and compelling in the role, so it’ll be a hard act to follow. But Carey, with her limited screentime, also impresses here, with that look in her scene with Criston as a series high thus far.
- Jayson Lannister to Viserys re: Alicent’s absence at the banquet table: Ladies be late sometimes, amirite fellas?
- You just know TikTok is gonna be chock-a-block with House of the Dragon dances all this week.
- Lord Corlys (Steve Toussaint) and Rhaenys’ (Eve Best) back-and-forth in the Hightide, contemplating the dangers for both their children if they were to be wed, is a stellar showcase for the both of them — a solemn portent of the chaos to come for their families.
- Seriously, no one in Westeros has a broom? Clean up that banquet hall!