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House of the Dragon season finale: The dragons come home to roost

House of the Dragon’s first season staved off war as long as it could.

Daemon and Rhaenyra Targaryen (Matt Smith and Emma D’Arcy) plan to take back the throne on HBO’s House of the Dragon season finale, “The Black Queen.”
HBO

This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon episode 10, “The Black Queen.”

So at last it comes to this: House of the Dragon’s gradual procession toward conflict finally results in open civil war with the season finale. “The Black Queen” sees Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) learning about her father’s death and then having to make the decision to fight for the throne while battling through a horrible premature labor triggered by her shock at the news. Yet, like Alicent before her, her wishes about whether to head directly into violence are completely overridden by all of the men around her.

I’m of two minds about this result. As a creative work, House of the Dragon’s first season has suffered from pacing issues and time jumps that often make the show feel simultaneously like a slog through endless conversations about succession and a history lesson with many pages missing. From that standpoint, the big conclusion could have happened at any time within the previous four or five episodes, and the only reason it didn’t is that the show had to be 10 episodes long. From this meta-perspective, it’s hard not to find the whole thing anticlimactic, even if the episode does culminate in an explosive moment that fans of George R.R. Martin’s book series have been anticipating.

Within the show’s context, however, things are a little more complex. I’ve argued throughout this season (and at least one of the show’s writers has agreed with me) that House of the Dragon is both a show that is in conversation with the year 2022 and a show that is actively engaged in deconstructing itself. From that standpoint, these 10 episodes haven’t merely been endless conversations about who gets to sit on the Iron Throne at all, but rather repeated small tests along a long, dark path that ultimately leads to the question of whether to, essentially, stage a coup. The episode arrives at a political moment in our own world when understanding how these rebellions begin feels less like an abstract thought exercise and more like a practical question. Yes, technically Alicent (Olivia Cooke) couped first, by placing Aegon on the throne before Rhaenyra could learn of her father’s death and return to claim the title she’s been promised all her life. But with “The Black Queen,” the show’s focus returns once more to the question of who this war is for and what the costs are.

The episode fixates on the individual choices that lead to the establishment of power, from moment to moment, in a way that shows clearly how sexism gets reified and weaponized against women, and how individual choices function as tiny but crucial cracks in the edifice of power. It also pauses along the way to let us see that every choice to affirm or deny the line of succession has a ripple effect, like the unexpected fallout of Alicent’s betrayal. This show is almost procedural, in a way, in that its concern is with incremental milestones rather than big, sweeping narratives. We get those, too, but as we see in this episode, they arise from all those smaller decisions — the ones that feel inconsequential in the moment but that can crystallize into decades-long grievances.

Rhaenyra, while in agony from her labor, declares that it’s Daemon’s war, but this seems just as willfully naive on her part as Alicent’s shock did in the previous episode. Daemon (Matt Smith) moves ahead with his plans to rally support for Rhaenyra’s claim to the throne despite her explicit instructions to the contrary. Perhaps hoping to sound out Rhaenyra’s son Jace (Harry Collett) about how far he’ll be willing to disobey his mother, Daemon asks him to watch while he uses his huge dragon Caraxes to extort loyalty from members of the King’s Guard. He’s sending Jace a clear message about how one obtains and maintains power. The political is always personal, though, and thus we get a heavy-handed, grotesque cross-cut between Rhaenyra’s excruciating, graphic miscarriage and a close-up shot of the dragon’s jowls, emphasizing the muddy link between state power and personal pain.

Once again, Rhaenyra has no time after her horrible labor to rest and barely any time to mourn and bury her stillborn child; despite grappling with her grief, she still seems to be considering her options carefully even as Daemon barrels toward war. When Otto (Rhys Ifans) arrives to deliver peace treaty terms, it’s Daemon who responds. Otto speaks, all too accurately, of Aegon obtaining an unearned legitimacy to the throne because he has co-opted the symbols of power. And what of the gentlemen’s agreements uniting the clans of Westeros behind Rhaenyra, in respect to the wishes of King Viserys? Otto hand-waves them away as “stale oaths.” Later in the episode, they learn exactly how sage this observation is.

Daemon is obviously ready to go to war, and if this were Game of Thrones, there would be no question that it wouldn’t only be his war: Rhaenyra has wanted this too much for too long, and the stakes have just become even more personal. But this is House of the Dragon, and so Rhaenyra, as both she and Alicent have done all along, pauses to ask the hard questions: Is the throne worth burning all of Westeros over? Is it worth risking the lives of untrained and innocent dragons, let alone countless innocent people?

When Rhaenyra attempts to present Daemon with these questions, he responds by abruptly choking her — a taste of what awaits her if she hesitates for much longer. We’re led to believe this is the first time he’s ever been violent with her, given Rhaenyra’s shock, but it’s a moment that feels inevitable rather than surprising. The audience hasn’t forgotten, after all, that (as decided by co-showrunner Ryan Condal) he coldly murdered his first wife. Daemon, while he puts on a good front, ultimately has always been violently self-serving.

The marriage between Rhaenys (Eve Best) and Corlyss Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) routinely reveals more of a true and equal meeting of minds than any of the other marriages we’ve seen in the series; yet even Corlyss acts on his own whims and desires without considering himself as one half of a partnership. Women universally struggle in this series to simply be allowed to have a say in their own destinies — Rhaenyra turns heads when she invites Rhaenys and her granddaughters to sit at the war council table with all the men; Rhaenys, who’s managed to wrest arguably the most personal freedom for herself after being turned into a pawn as a girl, still can’t get her own husband to see how his actions affect her.

Then again, everyone on this show has trouble grappling with ripple effects. Given that Rhaenyra and Alicent both spent decades delaying the conflict they’ve now arrived at, it’s hardly surprising that Rhaenyra also hasn’t fully realized how much of a struggle it will be to get the men of the realm to honor their “stale oaths.” They’re both still trying everything they can to delay war — but as we’ve seen all season, the men around them do what they want, often resorting to violence or manipulation when their wives don’t play along.

What Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) wants is to finally take his long-thirsted-for revenge against a boy half his age, Rhaenyra’s son Luke (Elliot Grihault). He finds his opportunity at House Baratheon, when Luke arrives hoping to curry a show of loyalty from a haughty Lord Borros. Instead, Lord Borros sneers at him for bringing nothing to bargain with, inadvertently giving Aemond, who arrived before Luke, the opportunity to pursue his vendetta.

Aemond declares that he wants to take Luke’s eye in exchange for the one he lost in episode 7. It’s unclear whether he really intends to stop at Luke’s eye, but it seems highly unlikely, especially since Luke has sworn to his mother that he wouldn’t fight while on his mission as a messenger. But dragons have their own wills, and once Aemond engages his enormous dragon Vhagar in pursuit of tiny Arrax and Luke as they try to flee him, the cat-and-mouse game easily turns fatal. Aemond seems horrified by this outcome, though what he hoped to achieve instead by sending the biggest dragon in the realm after one of the smallest is anyone’s guess.

Aemond, at least revealing a perspicacity most other characters on this show lack, immediately knows how far-reaching the consequences of this game will be. Back at Dragonstone, Rhaenyra, learning of her son’s death, finally descends, psychologically, to the title that’s been awaiting her all this time: the Black Queen.

The war is here, and all the players are finally ready to play their parts.