Targaryen blood has been spilled. The unbelievable tension that has been building between Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) since the beginning erupted in a mesmerizing episode of House of the Dragon where secrets were exposed, Westeros’ ultimate power couple emerged, and someone was pushed way past their breaking point.
As its title, “Driftmark,” indicates, the episode takes place entirely in the ancestral home of the Velaryons where everyone has gathered for Laena’s funeral after her suicide-by-dragon last week. So even though Rhaenyra and Laenor left King’s Landing for Dragonstone to get away from Alicent, Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), and all the rumors spreading about how their children are bastards, everyone has been pulled back together almost immediately, and tensions are running higher than ever.
The funeral itself is practically a “previously on House of the Dragon” because it so efficiently summarizes everything you’d need to know, even if this was your first episode. Viserys (Paddy Considine) is grim and ailing. Alicent stares daggers at Rhaenyra, who holds her children tight. Corlys (Steve Toussaint) and Rhaenys (Eve Best) are devastated by their daughter’s death, while Laenor (John MacMillan) seems utterly broken by the loss of his sister. Daemon (Matt Smith) is… affected by the tragedy, but not so much he still doesn’t burst out into laughter when the Velaryon funeral rites include a speech about how “their blood must remain true.” Daemon doesn’t look at Rhaenyra and her brown-haired children, but everyone else certainly does. It’s so well-crafted that I assumed it was going to be the high point of the episode. I was wrong.
Things are tense all day, but it’s that night when all hell breaks loose. First, Rhaenyra and her uncle Daemon take a walk on the moonlit beach, and, as we all suspected it inevitably would, it happens: They fall into each other’s arms and have sex, becoming another in a long line of incestuous Targaryens. It is unquestionably icky, mainly because of the taboo and also because we’ve seen them interact when Rhaenyra was a child, but House of the Dragon tries to mitigate their new relationship as best it can. When Rhaenyra blames her uncle for abandoning her as a child, Daemon says he left because she was a child, indicating he purposefully stayed for her protection. Rhaenyra does all the instigating, showing more than enthusiastic consent, while Daemon hesitates. They make love tenderly, showing the two share real romantic affection for each other. Still, ick! If this puts you off the show, I understand, but man, do Emma D’arcy and Matt Smith have some impressive on-screen chemistry together.
Meanwhile, Viserys and Alicent’s second son, the mopey Aemond (Leo Ashton), sneaks out to finally get a dragon (since the egg he was given never hatched), and that dragon is none other than Laena’s now riderless Vhagar. I know the dragons in House are supposed to be bigger than Daenerys’ in Game of Thrones because they’re in their prime. But nothing in either series has ever given me more of a sense of the scope and monstrousness of a dragon than watching the incredibly tiny Aemond creep up to the utterly massive head of Vhagar. And when the prince rouses the beast and is about to be incinerated for his trespasses, Aemond stands firm, commands Vhagar to not kill him, and climbs on its back in an attempt to claim a dragon.
House of the Dragon makes Aemond’s first ride so harrowing I was certain the kid was going to die. Vhagar viciously tries to shake his impudent passenger off, and there’s a long portion where Aemond dangles from his saddle by his fingers. But eventually, he outlasts Vhagar’s bucking and tames the beast. The only problem is that Laena’s daughters Baela (Shani Smethurst) and Rhaena (Eva Ossei-Gerning) saw Aemond effectively steal their mother’s dragon, and they are understandably very upset about it.
The girls are waiting for Aemond when he lands, and Rhaenyra’s sons Jacaerys (Leo Hart) and Lucerys (Harvey Sadler) are with them. Things get out of hand immediately. The girls are upset and furious; Jace, still mourning the death of his real father Harwin Strong, becomes enraged when Aemond mocks him for being a bastard, and Lucerys gets caught up in his brother’s pain. A brutal four-on-one brawl breaks out between the kids, which is surprisingly even-matched as Aemond is the eldest and biggest among them. But as the blows fly and the injuries get bigger, Jace draws a dagger, Aemond knocks it out of his hand, and a scared, angry Luce picks it up and slashes his young uncle right in the face. Right through his eye.
Words can’t really do justice to what happens next; if you’re one of those people who read recaps before or without watching the episode, let me strongly suggest you bookmark this and read it later. Because what happens is everyone gets in a room and stands almost perfectly still and it’s some of the best television I’ve watched this year.
Aemond’s eye is lost, he has a giant, ugly scar on his face, and Alicent is horrified. Viserys demands answers, Alicent slaps Aegon (Ty Tennant) for getting drunk instead of being with his younger brother, and all the kids start screaming their versions of what happened. Alicent claims Rhaenyra’s boys attacked and mauled her son, while Rhaenyra says they were defending their honor after a vile insult, and Rhaenyra instantly knows she’s messed up because now she has to say, in front of the entire royal family and Viserys’ court, what the insult is.
Almost everyone has been too scared to tell Viserys that his daughter’s children are bastards, and the king has refused to let the few who weren’t voice the allegation aloud. But luckily for Rhaenyra, he also refuses to believe them, and so he furiously demands Aemond tell him where he heard this despicable treason. Aemond stares at Alicent but claims it was Aegon, and Viserys demands the same of his elder son. Aegon says, “Everyone knows,” and Viserys knows he must back down instantly or be forced to declare his wife a traitor and execute her. So, he demands everyone apologize and starts to storm off, hoping he can will the situation into being over.
He can’t, because Alicent wants blood. She demands a literal eye for an eye from one of Rhaenyra’s children. The court gasps in shock, Viserys thinks she’s gone mad (correctly) and refuses to grant her vicious request. Alicent doubles down and orders her Queensguard, Criston Cole, to take an eye, but even her lapdog refuses. So Alicent pulls a dagger from Viserys’ belt and lunges forward to get the eye her goddamn self.
Rhaenyra manages to grab the queen’s wrist, and the two struggle in front of their family, the king, and his royal entourage, one mother desperately trying to protect her children, the other desperate to exact revenge for hers. As they struggle, everyone just stops and stares in total shock, and Alicent gives voice to the hate that’s been burning her up from the inside. “What have I done but what was expected of me?” she cries. “Forever upholding the kingdom, the family, the law? While you flout all to do as you please?! Where is duty? Where is sacrifice? It’s trampled under your pretty foot again. And now you take my son’s eye, and to even that, you feel entitled.” And the miserable Queen stabs downward, cutting the arm of the Princess who didn’t deny herself happiness.
Alicent has her blood, but even she steps back, shocked at what she’s done. Unexpectedly, it’s the impressively pragmatic Aemond who defuses the situation, by claiming he’s perfectly fine. “I lost an eye, but I gained a dragon.”
There’s absolutely no going back now. The Queen has attacked the Queen-to-be, and sides have formed. As a proud Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) tells his daughter Alicent, he has no doubt they will prevail in time, confirming he has no intention of letting Rhaenyra become the Queen. And Rhaenyra knows, as mad as Alicent acted in front of the entire court, her position has been weakened immensely after forcing the rumors of her affairs into the light. Her husband Laenor knows this as well, and although he wanted to return to the fight for the Stepstones, he rededicates himself to Rhaenyra, their children, and her future succession.
But that’s not enough. Their bond is too tenuous and the rumors too public. So Rhaenyra asks Prince Daemon to marry her, not just for the affection they share, but because his former status as heir to the throne (before Viserys chose Rhaenyra and then finally had a son) will strengthen her claim. “We have always been meant to burn together,” she says, but there’s one problem: Laenor has to die. So Daemon does what Daemon does; he pays Laenor’s squire and lover, Ser Qarl (Arty Froushan), to murder him. And poor Corlys and Rhaenys are horrified to discover their son, their last child, has been killed and his body thrown in a fire.
Although Daemon murders a servant seemingly out of nowhere first, the scene is so fast—Rhaenyra and Daemon’s conversation about killing Laenor gets intercut perfectly with the murder itself—that I barely had time to register it. And I completely assumed Laenor was dead. Daemon wouldn’t think twice about it. And although Rhaenyra tells her husband he’s a good and kind man, I thought her capable of having Laenor murdered to help ensure her the crown. I was very disappointed about it, but this is the game of thrones, where you win or you die. As Rhaenyra herself says, it’s a ruthless plan, but her enemies will see her ruthlessness and think twice about crossing her. She doesn’t want to be a tyrant, but Daemon knows for her to rule, she must still be feared. Killing a good and kind man feels like a price Rhaenyra must be—and is—willing to pay.
The episode ends with a small, quiet wedding, done in High Valyrian, and the union of Westeros’ newest power couple. Meanwhile, Ser Qarl sits on a small rowboat, and a cloaked man jumps in it and the two begin their escape… which is when the camera reveals Laenor, head shaved, off to live anonymously with his lover in Essos.
The reveal that Rhaenyra didn’t kill her former husband to get a new one made me incredibly happy, although I certainly believe she’s capable of getting her hands dirty to become queen—I mean, RIP random servant, and now Corlys and Rhaenys believe both of their children are dead, although that’s also on Laenor. (Unless they knew about the scheme, but I do not believe they’d allow their son to just disappear and abandon his nobility.) But Game of Thrones needed the Starks, and House of the Dragon needs someone for us to root for as well.
The one problem with this fabulous hour of television is that it was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who co-created the series, but is leaving the show after its first season. He’s been an enormous part of the reason House of the Dragon has been so good, and while I completely understand his reasons for leaving, I worry the show will suffer for his absence. But that’s a problem for season two. For now, there’s nothing to do but marvel at what he’s accomplished so far, and wonder how much worse things can get before Viserys finally dies and the blood stops spilling and starts pouring.
- When the incredibly messy family drama goes down, Daemon just watches from the sidelines, and he’s absolutely radiating delight. Matt Smith keeps a small, amused smile on Daemon’s face that looks subtle—you can see it above—but you know all Daemon only wishes he had popcorn.
- There’s a really good scene between Corlys and Rhaenys sandwiched in all the craziness, where she forces him to accept the truth that Laenor’s children as not true Velaryon blood and they should give Driftmark to Laena’s eldest daughter instead. But in the end, the Sea Snake is so determined to ensure his legacy that he doesn’t care. “People don’t remember blood,” he says angrily. “They remember names.”
- Larys Strong, new Lord of Harrenhal, to Alicent on their ride home from Driftmark: “You want one of those kids’ eyes? I’ll give you all the eyes you want.” (I’m paraphrasing slightly.)
- Otto Hightower to his daughter Alicent, basically: “I would stab the eyes of a hundred of my grandchildren to get our hands on that dragon.”
- I don’t know if it makes things any better for people, but at the moment Viserys’ son Aegon is betrothed (or will soon be) to his sister Helaena. Targaryens gonna Targaryen. Shrug!
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