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This week’s House of the Dragon plays with sex and perception

House of the Dragon Episode 4 (HBO)

Daemon plays some nasty games, as Rhaenyra comes face to face with the double standards of royal patriarchy.

Since last we checked in on the events of ancient Westeros (having skipped last week’s episode recap-wise), a lot has happened: Alicent (Emily Carey) has given birth to Viserys’ (Paddy Considine) son, Aegon, sure to present a real threat to Rhaenyra’s (Milly Alcock) claim to the throne — despite Viserys’ entreaties otherwise, provided she takes a smart, strategic partner to wed. Meanwhile, Daemon (Matt Smith) refused his brother’s begrudging offer of aid against the Triarchy, instead risking a devil-may-care fakeout that led to a brutal battle and Daemon slicing the Crabfeeder in twain. So much for the series’ presumptive big bad!

But in episode 4 of House of the Dragon, “King of the Narrow Sea,” we see that the true villain of this show is rumor and perception — and the effect it can have on even the most powerful. And what better weapon to manipulate perception than sex, Game of Thrones’ much-ballyhooed stock in trade?

This week’s episode is decidedly Horny in that old-school GOT way, but with some distinct differences. For one thing, the sex actually contributes to the story, rather than serving as titillating window dressing for all the boring talk of negotiations and power struggles. Each roll in the hay we see this episode — some taboo, some hardly consensual — means something to its players. The scene is about the sex, and the sex itself has effects that ripple out among the realm.

House of the Dragon Episode 4 Recap (HBO)
Ollie Upton/HBO

But before we get down and dirty, some placesetting: Rhaenyra is in the middle of a months-long tour of the kingdom, hearing entreaties for suitors across the land to wed her. They’re too old, or too young, or too impetuous — two of them break out in a fight, and the victor is a boy no older than twelve. (Squint closely, and you’ll see him vomit from the horror of what he’s done in the following shot.) None impress Rhaenyra, who calls it off early and comes home to King’s Landing.

Just in time, it seems, for Daemon to emerge from his victory, sporting a makeshift crown and a close-cropped haircut (thank god, this wig looks a bit better on him). He plops down a sword and quips to Viserys, “Add it to the chair.” Then, most unexpectedly, he bows: he’s here not to usurp power, but to show his support for his brother the King. Being the keen viewers we are, we know Daemon has other motives, but it’s a nifty way of keeping his brother (and us) on his toes.

It’s a destabilizing moment for Rhaenyra, too, not the least because she maintains that cunning chemistry with her uncle they’ve shared all season. The two speak High Valyrian to each other, trade trinkets, and share similar visions for the kingdom, all ingredients that make their scenes together crackle with especially dangerous energy. The two are outcasts, vagabonds, rebels to a dynasty that foists upon them restrictive norms. Rhaenyra, after all, must maintain her purity in ways that male heirs don’t have to; as the episode rightly points out, Viserys and Daemon were encouraged to sow their wild oats before settling down. Rhaenyra must save herself for the man she must strategically marry to secure alliances. By the weirwood tree, the two bond: Daemon purrs at her that “this is a tragic world,” and one must not be afraid of it. Rhaenyra expresses her desire to live in solitude. “A lonely existence,” Daemon coos. He’ll soon fix that.

House of the Dragon Episode 4 Recap (HBO)
Ollie Upton/HBO

That, of course, comes with a sneaky map and some peasant’s clothes, which Daemon sneaks in Rhaenyra’s room to lure her out, where the two roam the city streets to see how the other half lives. Alcock’s fantastic here, slyly impressed and enticed by the rawness of life outside the castle walls — people fucking in alleys, fire-breathing buskers, tightrope walkers. But the illusion is shattered with a small actor’s troupe, who playact her family story and all but predict Aegon will take the throne as Rhaenyra, being a woman is too “feeble.” Aegon, meanwhile, has two things needed to rule: “A conquerer’s name, and a cock.”

The more the night goes on, the more Daemon’s outing with Rhaenyra feels deliberate — both a chance to free his niece from the confines of her position and a way to undermine his brother’s rule. He takes her to a pleasure house, where Alcock’s lips curl upwards at the sight of men and woman taking pleasure in each other’s bodies. For a woman growing up in a society where sex is purely for procreation and continuing the bloodline, it’s downright liberatory to see such enthusiastic pleasure wrapped around her — a vibe she carries forward when Daemon starts to kiss her. (Claire Kilner directs this episode, and it’s already refreshing to see a woman’s touch on these sex-heavy episodes, showcasing a healthier attitude to sexuality than the historical brutality the showrunners often lean on.)

Of course, that touch is applied to some dubious encounters, reminders of how men use their sex as power over women. Intercut with Rhaenyra and Daemon’s incestuous encounter at the pleasure house (a scene whose details remain purposefully fuzzy and darkly lit), we see Viserys thrusting atop Alicent on their marriage bed, Alicent’s face frozen in complicit silence underneath her sore-covered king. Hers is the old way of doing things, stuck in a miserable cycle of opening up for hapless men who care not for pleasure. Rhaenyra’s vigor, meanwhile, gives her a chance to escape that cycle, and potentially scares even Daemon, as their encounter ends ambiguously, though heavily implied before any actual penetration were to occur.

Still, such a tryst lights a fire under Rhaenyra, who sneaks back home and plays a love game with her Kingsguard, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), eventually getting him out of his armor — at a teasingly glacial pace — for a night of lovemaking. For an heir apparent who’s been stuck in procedure and tradition for years, such a move feels like the one thing she’s managed to do for herself.

House of the Dragon Episode 4 Recap (HBO)
Ollie Upton/HBO

Unfortunately, that pleasure doesn’t last long, as her sneaky night out wasn’t wholly unseen. After all, Hand of the King Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) has eyes everywhere, and a pair of them caught Daemon and Rhaenyra at the pleasure house the prior night. Otto reports the news to Viserys with grave import (though how much of that is performative is up to interpretation). Both parties involved take decidedly different tacks to the accusations: Rhaenyra swears on her mother’s life that nothing happened (a lie, but not a total one, since we pick up on the fact that Daemon couldn’t get himself up to do the deed), while Daemon himself gloats to Viserys in the throne room that he did deflower his niece.

This is where we see the full extent of Daemon’s plan: come back with gifts and contrition, then bed Rhaenyra and force Viserys to let him marry her, thus giving him access to the throne. Lucky for the kingdom, it doesn’t work, as Viserys is just principled enough to shut that idea down. Incest may be an old Targaryen tradition, but it’s not one he holds to. He banishes Daemon yet again, his latest scheme thwarted.

But these events activate Viserys in a way we haven’t seen since before the pilot: He recognizes the impact his permissiveness has had on his daughter, pulling her aside to show her a heated dragonglass dagger, one we’ll eventually see kill the Night King in Game of Thrones. Rhaenyra may want to enjoy the fruits of being heir, but she will have higher standards applied to her. “The truth does not matter,” he warns. “Only perception.”

House of the Dragon Episode 4 Recap (HBO)
Ollie Upton/HBO

Not only that, he turns around and (metaphorically) kills the messenger, recognizing that Otto’s reporting of this incident is, at least in part, fueled by his own desire to see his blood (his grandson Aegon) on the throne. Removing Otto from his position as Hand isn’t easy for him — after all, he’s served the king well — but between this and the implication that he may have had the previous Hand killed so he could take his place, Otto’s machinations are just too self-serving to trust.

And so it goes that Hoes of the Dragon Episode 4, “King of the Narrow Sea,” uses sex and perception to shake up the dynamics of its central cast. Rhaenyra, in the rare position of being an impending female ruler, learned the hard way this week that she can’t get away with the same debauchery as her male contemporaries. She gets her brother banished, and now she’s forced to marry Lord Laenor Velaryon, son of the Sea Snake, to secure an alliance that will strengthen the kingdom — as is her queenly duty. As for her brief moment of freedom? That’ll be taken away as quickly as the Grand Maester can drop off some abortifacient “tea” that will eliminate any “unintended consequences.”

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CategoriesRecap TV
Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as one of the founders of the website/podcast Alcohollywood in 2011. He is also a Senior Writer at Consequence of Sound, as well as the co-host/producer of Travolta/Cage. You can also find his freelance work at IndieWire, UPROXX, Syfy Wire, The Takeout, and Crooked Marquee.

  1. ThaumielX72 says:

    I find it telling that she was not seen actually touching the unintended consequences tea.

    I believe the implication is it would render her sterile. Nice try, dad.

    I do believe, however, that the gloves have come off in hockey terms. The next action will not be romantic.

  2. Pingback:House of the Dragon Episode 5 Recap: "We Light the Way"

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