“I wasn’t ready to be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms,” Rhaenyra tells her young son Jacaerys, speaking about when Viserys first named her his heir, all those years ago. “But… it was my duty. And in time, I came to understand I had to earn my inheritance.” What Rhaenyra doesn’t know much more she’ll need to do to earn her crown—and how much it will cost her.
Much like “The Green Council” focused on Alicent, Aegon, and their allies at King’s Landing last week, “The Black Queen,” the season one finale, stays focused almost exclusively on Rhaenyra, Daemon, and their extended family at Dragonstone as they learn about King Viserys’ demise. The news comes from Rhaenys, who came directly from her escape last week, where she also informs everyone that Alicent and Otto Hightower had Aegon crowned in the Dragonpit in front of a crowd of thousands, doing everything possible to make his ascension look as legitimate as possible. Daemon immediately asks Rhaenys the question House of the Dragon fans have been asking each other since the end of “The Green Council”: Why didn’t you burn them all to death? The Queen Who Never Was has the perfect answer: “That war is not mine to begin.”
Daemon focuses the complicated sadness he feels at his brother’s passing into anger, and that anger is focused on defending Dragonstone from an attack by the Greens and preparing for war. But the devastating news her father has died and her throne was stolen sends Rhaenyra into dangerously premature labor that is, for my money, the most heart-wrenchingly gruesome scene in a show that’s been full of them. The child is stillborn, and watching Rhaenyra prepare it for the funeral pyre while still reeling from these other tragedies is devastating.
At the funeral, Ærryk #1—well, Erryk, specifically, the guy who helped free Rhaenys last week—brings Viserys’ crown to Dragonstone and vows his allegiance to her as Daemon sets it upon her brow, and those assembled kneel before the new Queen of Westeros… except Rhaenys, who only smiles her enigmatic little smile.
But Rhaenys is not Rhaenyra’s problem, or at least not yet. It’s Daemon, who’s taken charge ever since she first went into labor, despite her orders otherwise. The hotheaded Daemon doesn’t have his wife’s acuity, and more importantly, he’s ready for war, something she’s not quite sure she’s ready to commit to... yet. As Rhaenyra and her men gather around Dragonstone’s Westeros-shaped map/table, and start placing tokens on it to figure out whose support they’ll have, Daemon doesn’t even pretend to ask his Queen for her input when he announces his plan to take the Blacks’ 13 dragons (the Greens only have four) to King’s Landing and burn every traitor to ash.
Queen Rhaenyra doesn’t even have a chance to breathe before a ship arrives—a ship bearing a flag of the Targaryen family sigil of a three-headed dragon, but in green. It’s carrying Otto Hightower with terms of surrender. In a less fantastic episode, this would have been a stand-out moment, as each side comically refuse to recognize the other’s ruler’s title, leading Otto to ask, “Where s the Princess?” only for Rhaenyra to burst out of the sky on cue on the back of her dragon. It’s a near-perfect mirror to the scene on the same Dragonstone bridge, when Otto tried to demand Daemon return the dragon egg he had stolen, only for young Rhaenyra to fly in and take charge.
The terms that Aegon, Second of His Name, has sent “in his wisdom and desire for peace”—a line Rhys Ifans says without a hint of irony but with just enough weariness that he’s basically saying, “Yes, we all know Aegon is too stupid and horrible to be doing any of this, but custom must be observed”—are pretty good if you’re not someone lusting for war. The offer is that Rhaenyra keeps Dragonstone, Lucerys still becomes the heir of Driftmark, and her sons by Daemon get places at court, but Rhaenyra must renounce her claim to the throne and swear obeisance to Aegon, natch.
Rhaenyra calls him a traitor, rips Otto’s Hand of the King badge off his tunic, and tosses it over the bridge. That’s when Otto hands her the page from Alicent’s book that Rhaenyra ripped out back when they were children. “Queen Alicent has not forgotten the love you once had for each other. No blood need be spilled, so the realm can carry on in peace.” Rhaenyra does seem moved by the small—very small—gesture of friendship, but it’s the chance for peace that has her tell Otto Alicent will receive her answer tomorrow.
“When dragons went to war, everything burned,” she tells Daemon later that night as she wonders what her true duty to the realm is. Is it to fight for her right to rule to keep Aegon, Worst of His Name, off the throne? Is it to avoid war to keep the peace? Or is it to fulfill the prophecy of the Song of Ice and Fire?
What follows is a very strange but incredibly compelling scene, because when Daemon hears that phrase, he is utterly baffled by it. And when Rhaenyra begins to explain it, hoping to jog his memory, Daemon grabs her by the throat. Angrily. How much does Daemon truly hate mysticism? How much has he suddenly realized that his brother didn’t feel he could trust him with this massive secret? How jealous is he of Rhaenyra that he must dismiss it so harshly and physically? And why does Rhaenyra seem so chill about it?
Although Rhaenyra’s decided to take a day to answer, she’s not going to wait to find out who will stand with her if she decides to go to war. The first, it turns out, is House Velaryon. Rumors of the Sea Snake’s imminent demise have been exaggerated, and he’s ready to declare the Velaryon fleet will be at her disposal—a fleet that has also, finally completely conquered the Stepstones, and will allow the Blacks to block all sea trade into King’s Landing. That leaves the Starks of Winterfell, the Arryns of the Eyrie, and the Baratheons of Storm’s End as the remaining large Houses that swore their oaths to Rhaenyra, but, as Otto revealed, were also in talks with the Greens. So not only do their alliances need to be confirmed, but perhaps they should be reminded of the Blacks’ power, i.e., dragons.
It’s Jacaerys’ idea, actually. He volunteers to fly north on Vermax to visit the Starks and Arryns, while 14-year-old moppet Lucerys will head to the reasonably nearby Storm’s End on Arrax. Rhaenyra stresses that no matter her answer tomorrow she will not be the one to strike the first blow and tells her children to know they are serving as messengers, not warriors.
Ah, that classic Game of Thrones foreboding. Did you start to feel it when Rhaenyra went out of her way to tell her sons not to fight? Was it earlier, when you suddenly realized that Lucerys was getting an awful lot of screentime this episode? Or was it the very beginning, when he was silently running his hand along the Dragonstone table/war map?
The show only follows Luce as he flies in the rain to Storm End’s, only to find a dragon is already there. So is the dragonrider: It’s Aemond, who’s already made an offer to Lord Borros Baratheon, which included the marriage of one of his daughters. So Borros angrily sends the flustered Luce away, only for Aemond to ask “Lord Strong” for one of his eyes, just as Alicent had those years ago. Even Borros won’t consent to violence in his house, so he has his soldiers escape Lucerys to Arrax and they fly away. Or so they try.
Because Aemond follows on Vhagar. Vhagar, as you’ll recall, is the biggest dragon currently living in Westeros, and it absolutely dwarfs Arrax. It’s like Arrax is Princess Leia’s spaceship from the beginning of Star Wars and Vhagar is the Star Destroyer, an image House of the Dragon pointedly evokes when Vhagar sails over the younger. Aemond doesn’t want blood. He just wants to scare the shit out of the little twerp who cost him an eye, and Aemond does that marvelously well, coming at them from all directions, through the pouring rain, terrifying the young rider and dragon alike. Eventually, Luce can’t control Arrax, and Arrax can’t control himself; he spits fire at Vhagar, thinking he’s protecting himself. Discovering himself under attack, the larger dragon fights back despite Aemond’s commands to stop. And, without an iota of effort, Vhagar kills Arrax and Luce with a single, savage bite.
You don’t need to see the horror and fear on Aemond’s face to know how badly he’s messed things up. All you need to do is wait for the silent final scene as Daemon approaches Rhaenyra and leads her away from the table. You don’t hear what’s said, and you don’t see her face. Instead, it’s all in Emma D’Arcy’s unbelievable body language as Rhaenyra’s knees buckle, staggering at the news, and how the Black Queen twists in rage and pain and anguish to face the camera, declaring war better than the word ever could.
“The Black Queen” is such a good episode of television I’m questioning the necessity of my own existence. So many times while writing this recap I just wanted to say, “Look, you guys just gotta go see this part.” The acting in the show from Emma D’Arcy and Matt Smith is so unbelievably good, just like Olivia Cooke and Paddy Considine were in recent episodes, that my words can’t possibly convey it. Watch Rhaenyra and Daemon when they hear Viserys has died, and the multitude of conflicting emotions and realizations ripple across their faces as they process the news. Or go rewatch the incredible visual of the candles being put under the table-map, slowly illuminating it from within like the fire that will soon burn across the seven kingdoms. Or just remember how the episode begins with Luce at the table where the game of thrones is played, having no idea that he would be the first pawn taken out.
By itself, “The Black Queen” might not be the best episode of House of the Dragon’s first season, but as the final episode of that incredibly solid season? As the culmination of the story that’s been told over the last two and a half months, that became the tragic catharsis to the ever-building tension created by this wonderful series? It’s just about perfect.
- I’m going to give the episode MVP to Rhaenys, who informs Rhaenyra and Daemon of what went down, explains it wasn’t her fight, refuses to bow to Rhaenyra until Corlys arrives so she can talk with him about it even though she already knows she’s going to tell him to fight for the Blacks because if Rhaenyra’s kids aren’t safe their Velaryon granddaughters won’t be either, since they’re betrothed. And meanwhile, she’s just wildly amused at how the same shit that kept her off her throne is happening again but way, way messier. The smile Eve Best gives when she’s clearing the room so Rhaenyra and Daemon can argue is outstanding.
- If you’re wondering why Daemon went into the caves of the Dragonmont and sang a Valyrian lullaby to a dragon, that dragon was Vermithor. He’s one of the oldest and largest, second only in size to Vhagar, and has been riderless since King Jaehaerys.
- Okay, more thing about the choke. Is it me or does it seem to get sexually charged there for a bit? And really, Rhaenyra doesn’t seem surprised or upset or like she felt she was in real danger. I’m just saying if you asked me to guess their kinks, choking would be up there.
- Erryk (on the Blacks) is already itching to fight Arryk (on the Greens). Ærryk Fight 2024 confirmed!
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