It is not a spoiler to say that weddings in the Game of Thrones franchise don’t often end well. There was, of course, the infamous Red Wedding, where Robb and Catelyn Stark were murdered after the former spurned a marriage/political alliance with House Frey. Then there was the wedding of the horrible King Joffrey to Margaery (not Sansa), where he was poisoned during his feast. So, after the decision that Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) and Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nate) should be wed in last week’s episode, you truly shouldn’t be surprised to learn that their getting hitched did not go off without a hitch.
Although to be fair, even established marriages have a tough time in “We Light the Way,” as the episode begins with Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) bludgeoning his hated wife Rhea Royce to death with a rock and then pretending she fell off her horse. This is technically true, since Daemon caused her horse to rear up and fall on her, but then he finished the job himself. Now he’s free to wed a new wife and inherit Rhea’s riches, since she was the Lady of Runestone.
Even the overture to Rhaenyra and Laenor’s “courtship” starts ominously as Viserys (Paddy Considine) and his daughter travel to Driftmark to make (i.e., request) Lord Corlys “Sea Snake” Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) to accept the match between the two. Viserys looks rough. He throws up on the sea voyage, he’s coughing up more blood than ever, and is clearly weak and getting weaker fast. Corlys knows he has the upper hand because he commands the biggest fleet in Westeros, and feels the right to throw his weight around after Viserys snubbed his daughter Laena (Savannah Steiy) for Alicent (Emily Carey). He asks if Rhaenyra and Laenor’s children will have the father’s last name, as per custom, and the irritated Viserys agrees to it but with the caveat that whichever offspring inherits the throne will change their name to Targaryen upon becoming queen or king. It’s a good compromise, given that Viserys had backed himself into a corner.
On the plus side, Rhaenyra makes a very different proposal to Laenor as they take a walk on the beach. She spells out how this marriage can work for both of them. She knows that Laenor is gay, and she certainly wants to continue her dalliances with Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). Her thought is this: they make an heir, and then they can each “dine as we see fit” on other sexual partners as per a belabored metaphor about preferring broth as opposed to juice, lifted nearly wholesale from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.
Criston Cole, however, is not at all pleased to be dined on. During the voyage back to King’s Landing, the princess’ Kingsguard asks Rhaenyra to run away with him to Essos and marry him, something he feels somewhat confident she might choose given how much she’s complained about her lack of freedom. Instead, Rhaenyra rebuffs him by telling him she must prioritize her duty as an incipient queen. Milly Alcock’s excellent performance also conveys she has no intention of giving up the throne for a life of obscurity and powerlessness for a guy she’s just hooking up with. Cole is hurt, angry, and upset that he broke his oath of chastity to the Kingsguard, and Rhaenyra has no idea she’s just lit a fuse.
Meanwhile, at King’s Landing, trouble is brewing, and it’s being brewed by Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), the unexpectedly sly son of the newly-minted Hand of the King Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes). He asks Alicent if Rhaenyra has been unwell, all so he can slip the queen the news that Grand Maester Mellos brewed the princess a medicinal tea by hand upon the king’s order. Knowing what that tea could mean, Alicent has enough doubts that she summons Ser Criston Cole to question him about whether Rhaenyra had sex with Daemon. But since she’s too delicate to mention the king’s brother by name, Criston assumes she’s asking about himself, who definitely had sex with Rhaenyra that night. He quickly confesses, and that’s how Alicent learns that Rhaenyra lied to her face. Another fuse is lit.
When the Velaryon family arrives for the wedding and Viserys begins holding a seven-day celebration of feasting and jousting tournaments, Alicent is conspicuously absent from the king’s side. But guess who shows up? Why, Daemon Targaryen, who just got exiled from King’s Landing forever last week. But Viserys forgives his brother yet again—it’s probably easier than acknowledging what potentially happened between Rhaenyra and his brother—and invites him to the royal table.
It’s hardly the only drama happening on the first day of the week-long wedding party. Rhea’s cousin accuses Daemon of murdering his late wife. Jason Lannister (Jefferson Hall), Lord of Casterly Rock, makes a sexist joke to the king in front of Rhaenyra. And Alicent, without a speck of warmth in her eyes, makes a grand entrance timed specifically to interrupt Viserys’s big speech. And when she sits, she greets Rhaenyra coldly as “step-daughter,” and then refuses to look at her.
Like the royal hunt seen in “Second of His Name” a couple of weeks ago, “We Light the Way” showcases the over-the-top, hedonistic pageantry of medieval life to what must be George R.R. Martin’s immense satisfaction. There’s a ludicrous amount of food and wine, there are ornate decorations, and everyone (including a great many extras) wears the finest outfits the costumes cepartment could make. There’s even an elaborate dance that Rhaenyra and Laenor play out in front of the crowd, followed by a full dance floor of extras getting down. It’s a marvel to behold, at least before it all comes crashing down.
The problem is Ser Joffrey Lonmouth (Solly McLeod), Laenor’s lover, who realizes Criston Cole must be Rhaenyra’s lover by the upsetting intense way he’s staring at her while she dances with Laenor. Joffrey sidles up to his fellow sidepiece to commiserate together about their soon-to-be fulfilling lives as paramours to the wedded couple. Criston, having hoped to marry Rhaenyra and regain some measure of honor after breaking his oath disagrees, and by disagrees, I mean he beats Joffrey to death with his bare hands.
The way Clare Kilner, who did a great job directing last week’s extremely horny episode, stages all of this is just fantastic. When Rhaenyra and Laenor’s dance begins, all eyes are on her—Viserys smiles at his daughter, happy she’s finally doing her duty; Daemon gazes at her with his sardonic smirk, lusting for the power she’ll wield; and Criston ogles her with anger, pain, love, and self-loathing. After the group dance starts, Daemon cuts in with Rhaenyra and tells her to marry him, but Rhaenyra only taunts him and says to carry her away if that’s what he wants. It’s upsetting and gets increasingly tense, but so does everything else. Kilner uses quick, tight shots to intensify the anxiety building both in the viewer and the characters when the fight suddenly breaks out and none of us see who’s fighting. It takes what seems to be a very long time to reveal Criston and Joffrey as the combatants, although that’s being rather magnanimous to Joffrey, who mostly has the side of his face caved in, to Laenor’s heartbroken horror. (It is extremely gross.)
It’s all so horrible, in fact, that Viserys seemingly ends not just the party but perhaps the entire week of planned festivities. That same night, he has Rhaenyra and Laenor married in a small, extremely private ceremony in the throne room to avoid any more disasters. Kilner also does a marvelous job here; other than an establishing shot of the “happy” couple’s backs and a quick mid-ceremony peck on the cheek, the director keeps Rhaenyra and Laenor completely out of each other’s footage. As the High Septon talks about the unity being formed, Kilner shows it’s anything but, lingering on Rhaenyra the most as she struggles with Criston’s anger, Daemon’s advances, Laenor’s grief, Alicent’s fury, her status as heir, and her father’s increasingly ill health—which causes Viserys to collapses on the floor immediately after the ceremony. The last shot of the episode is a close-up of a pool of Joffrey’s blood and viscera, still lying on the throne room floor, as a rat comes forward to enjoy a free meal.
It doesn’t get much more ominous than that, but “We Light the Way” is all about people picking sides in the fight that will erupt the minute Viserys kicks it. The Velaryons have thrown their weight in with Rhaenyra, because it’s the only way their blood with sit on the Iron Throne. Alicent, furious at Rhaenyra’s betrayal and likely jealous the princess has been enjoying the freedom and happiness she’s long denied herself, is clearly preparing to grab the throne for her son Aegon against her husband’s wishes. And it looks like she’ll be joined by the despondent Criston Cole, who’s about to commit suicide when Alicent stops him, almost certainly recruiting the jilted lover to her side. Rhaenyra made two major enemies tonight, something that she will certainly regret when she takes—or, more likely, tries to take—the throne.
I think it would have been beneficial for the show to have taken more time to focus on Rhaenyra’s friendship with Alicent and love affair with Criston to make their rejection of the princess more powerful and poignant, but I understand why House of the Dragon kept it brisk. The show has already spent five episodes (minimum!) exploring the characters and the events leading up to the war of succession, so the conflict can have more resonance. It’s plenty. Besides, we’re halfway done with the show’s first season, and we still haven’t seen the main actors who will be playing Rhaenyra and Alicent.
The good news is that all that needs to happen for the war over the throne to get started is the death of Viserys. If tonight’s episode is any indication, he’s not going to make it past episode six, at which point this violent, tragic party can get started. And unlike Rhaenyra’s wedding feast, everyone in Westeros will be attending—whether they want to or not.
- Thank you to everyone who replied to last week’s recap; you were thoughtful and civil and I greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts and perspectives, especially regarding the tea. I’ve learned something I need to be more thoughtful and careful about, and I’m better for it. Thank you!
- Which side will Daemon pick? Well, he does some flirting with the Sea Snake’s daughter Laena, which would more or less put him in Rhaenyra’s camp. Plus, I think he’s got a better chance at wielding some kind of power if Rhaenyra becomes queen, given their… relationship. If he supported Alicent and Aegon, he’ll be completely supplanted by the male heir sooner or later.
- In Spartacus, the comparison between preferring women or men came down to preferring oysters or snails instead of broth or juice. Just FYI.
- When Criston confesses he had sex with Rhaenyra to Alicent, he begs the queen to kill him instead of gelding him. Just a quick, casual reminder of the brutality of the times!
- Joffrey, at least before he was beaten to death, was called the “Knight of Kisses.” I feel like that’s probably a homophobic epithet given to him by others, but a Knight of Kisses sounds adorable.
- Matt Smith is among an elite few who can say “I’m positively bereft” and convey how infinitely he does not give a shit. It was outstanding.
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