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House of the Dragon’s tense, awkward family reunion

Prophecies and fatal misunderstandings abound.

Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra in House of the Dragon.
Ollie Upton/HBO
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

We’re back in Westeros this week for yet another episode of Succession With Dragons, this time with no dragons but plenty of face-slicing, missing eyes, and epic misunderstandings.

Note: This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon, episode eight, “Lord of the Tides.”

“Lord of the Tides” serves us another significant time jump. Judging by the teens, who are yet again all played by new actors, we’ve edged forward about two years. The title refers to a conflict over who will be the next lord of Driftmark and the head of House Velaryon — a dispute serious enough to summon the whole dysfunctional family to King’s Landing to hash it out. The reunion sees one decapitation, one (offscreen) sexual assault, and the most awkward Thanksgiving dinner ever.

It might also have resulted in the murder, or at least the conveniently timed mercy killing, of a king.

Superficially, it might seem like this entire set of events is a giant detour. But there’s a lot happening in this episode, much of it obfuscatory. Last week’s episode drew criticism for getting a color filter so dark you could barely see the characters. This week, that visible obscurity has become verbal: Characters frequently talk past each other or around each other. More than once, a character says something prophetic, only to be completely overlooked or misunderstood.

At the same time, the narrative tilts into full-on sympathy for Rhaenyra and the Blacks, despite showing us arguably less than ever about who these people actually are and what they want besides power. Rhaenyra has a moment of Shakespearean existential crisis in this episode, in which she questions whether her purpose truly is to be ruler of the land — but it packs very little emotion because despite all this series’ attention to who will be ruler, it’s spent very little time trying to convince us who, if anyone, should be.

But before we tackle that giant question, let’s first clear up what actually happened in the episode’s final moments.

Prophecies and tensions afoot

It’s hard to describe how tense this episode is. Although very little actually happens, the whole time I dreaded every second onscreen, the way you might tense up and suffer through an actual terrible family reunion with your actual terrible family.

The stakes around whether Jace (Harry Collett) and Luke Velaryon (Elliot Grihault) will be recognized as legitimate heirs are huge — so everyone travels to court to duke it out. Alicent (Olivia Cooke) refuses to receive Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and Daemon (Matt Smith) personally and leaves them waiting outside in the cold, but she also has a more pressing matter to deal with: Her son and presumed heir to the throne, Aegon (now played by Tom Glynn-Carney) has sexually assaulted one of the maids. “You are no son of mine,” Alicent tells Aegon, and for the first time since his introduction we see him look visibly moved by something. “I try so hard, but it’s never enough for you or father,” he whines in response. Dude, all she wanted was for you to not be a serial rapist?

Rhaenyra finds her father (Paddy Considine) in bed and extremely ill. (We later discover Viserys’ mysterious illness has robbed him of an entire eye and most of the right half of his face.) Drifting in and out of coherence, he confuses Rhaenyra with Alicent, then calls Rhaenyra his only child. So now both Aegon’s parents have essentially branded him as a less legitimate heir than Rhaenyra, even though she’s the one whose legitimacy is constantly being questioned.

Rhaenyra begs Viserys to fight for her and her children’s claim to the throne, even knowing as she does that her children are the natural-born sons of Harwin Strong. She asks if he believes in the prophecy of Aegon I — the prediction known as the Song of Ice and Fire. In case you’ve forgotten about this plot point in between all the succession and dragons, this was the prophecy carved into the Valyrian steel dagger Viserys showed Rhaenyra early on. The inscription, carved in High Valyrian, describes Aegon’s dream of “the prince that was promised.” In this era of Westeros history, the prophecy is known only to a few people, carefully passed down through the centuries from ruler to ruler. (It’s also the title of the entire book series upon which the whole franchise is based, but you probably knew that.)

Viserys doesn’t respond to Rhaenyra’s question. Instead, he does something much better: He drags himself into the great hall and takes his seat to declare, one final time, that Jace and Luke are legitimate heirs. The Sea Snake’s brother Vaemond Velaryon (Wil Johnson), fed up with all these white people so brazenly gaslighting him about his own family, defiantly shouts to the world that Jace and Luke are bastards and their mother is a whore — and is instantly decapitated by Daemon.

Naturally, Viserys decides it’s the perfect time for a party.

The ostensible reason for the celebration is to toast the engagement of Rhaenyra’s sons to Daemon’s daughters (I can’t even do the incest math on that one, sorry, but here’s the family tree if you want to tackle it yourselves). The real reason is to provide Viserys one last opportunity to beg his family to reconcile. Rhaenyra toasts Alicent, who grudgingly seems willing to be ready to accept Rhaenyra as queen.

Alicent seems sincere; it’s possible she’s finally realizing Aegon will make a truly awful ruler, immoral and debauched. It’s more likely, however, that both women are putting on a good face to please Viserys. And it doesn’t really matter anyway because their kids are all fighting each other. The moment Viserys retires from the party, hopeful that at last he’s finally healed his family’s wounds, fighting breaks out between Jace, Luke, and Aemond (Ewan Mitchell), who taunts them repeatedly by calling them “Strong boys.”

At the end of this tense episode, the show pulls an epic bait-and-switch by having Viserys, on his deathbed, refer a confused Alicent to the Song of Ice and Fire, a prophecy she’s never heard. Now, confusing Alicent and Rhaenyra, he tells “Rhaenyra” he believes in Aegon’s dream — in the coming of the prince that was promised.

“It is you,” he says. “You are the one. You must do this.” In his mind, he’s affirming to an absent Rhaenyra that he believes she is the one who can unite the kingdom and carry on the Targaryen line to make the prophecy come to fruition.

What Alicent hears, however, is the king addressing her, referring to a dream involving Aegon — which she naturally thinks must be the king referencing his oft-mentioned dream of a son ascending to the throne. When he tells her, “You must do this,” she hears “I believe Aegon should be heir and you must make it happen.”

At dinner, Alicent seems to be at least considering accepting Rhaenyra’s rule as queen. Except then, she hears what she misunderstands to be the king declaring it her duty to unite the realm. To drive the irony home, the camera pans to the dagger itself, next to the king’s bed, the light shining directly upon the inscribed prophecy.

It’s all an epic, tragic misunderstanding — or at least it would be if any of that were true. But Alicent’s overtures toward reconciliation were most likely empty gestures to appease the king. We know this because after the banquet, Alicent’s maid shows up at the doorstep of Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno). We haven’t seen her in a minute, but she’s still spying away in King’s Landing. It’s not clear what she’s doing there, but it can’t be anything good. And if the legend and lore of Westerosi history are accurate, then Alicent has probably already decided to poison Viserys with whatever concoction Mysaria gives her lady-in-waiting.

If she had any doubts, however, her misunderstanding of Viserys’ words has given her a new, spiritual justification for all of the havoc she’s about to wreak in the name of securing the throne for her son.

Which brings us to the question: Do we still even want Rhaenyra to claim the throne? Should we?

No, really, should any of these people sit on a throne? How do we know?

There’s one easy answer to that: No one should be ruler, because empire is evil. But given that in this universe it will be a few hundred years before a dragon reaches that conclusion, that doesn’t really help us out here.

There’s also another easy answer: It should be the ruler who isn’t a rapist; that strikes Alicent’s son Aegon from the list. But that still doesn’t really help us fill in the blanks or help us understand how we got here, nor why Alicent’s sons are so awful. The constant recasting of actors doesn’t help with our understanding of all the new characters either. Between the recasts and the time jumps, House of the Dragon really feels like it’s adapting intermittent paragraphs from history books rather than weaving together a tight, character-driven narrative.

For example: We know that Alicent has evolved into a woman of deep complexity; she’s sincerely pious, and has stripped the castle of many of its traditional Targaryen symbols and replaced them with the iconography of the Faith of the Seven. She’s genuinely horrified by her son’s sexual predation, and, at least in earlier years, she was equally dismayed by her father’s relentless ambition. Yet we’ve also seen her make plenty of unethical, even cruel choices without batting an eye. But we’ve seen these choices only in brief; the larger question of how she evolved to be this way has yet to be spelled out for us. And all the jittery time jumps make it unlikely that we’ll get more than we’ve already gotten.

Simultaneously, the narrative clearly wants us to root for Rhaenyra and sympathize with Jace and Luke, much as the audience did with Jon Snow. But we didn’t sympathize with Jon Snow because he was a bastard who’d been picked on all his life; we sympathized with him because his character was established from the very first episode of Game of Thrones as kind, humble, and noble, despite being a bastard who was picked on all his life.

We’ve seen both Jace and Luke be forbearing in the face of repeated insults, kind of. We’ve seen Jace be dedicated to fighting well and Luke be dedicated to learning. We’ve seen them have a loving, supportive relationship with their real father, Harwin Strong, in the 30 seconds or so that he was actually onscreen. And we’ve seen that they have good relationships with their new fiancées, Baela and Rhaena, whom we also barely know.

That might be enough to establish a kind of default sympathy — but can we, should we, trust that the nation would be safer in the hands of a family headed by Daemon Targaryen than it would be in the hands of a family headed by the ruthless Otto Hightower and his rapist grandson? Rhaenyra thinks she’s mostly in control of her own life, but she’s consistently given Daemon everything he wants; would she really be in a position to say no to him, even if she were the one seated on the throne? Would her sons?

The obvious giveaway would be to see Rhaenyra in action — to see her rule. But so far, we’ve seen her exert very little leadership in any direction. For instance, there’s a third option in the question of Driftmark’s succession that no one even stops to consider — the title could pass to one of the late Lady Laena’s daughters. Rhaenyra vowed early on to create a new world order built on gender equality, but so far she hasn’t even been able to create a new order within her own immediate family.

And if the conclusion is this — that none of these people deserve to rule Westeros — then why do we care? What keeps us invested in characters who so far have mainly been presented to us as thin sketches? Until this episode, I would have said it was the conceptual deconstruction of power that the show is walking us through from week to week. Now, however, I can’t help but ask whether House of the Dragon ultimately has no greater appeal than dragons and strife.

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