House of the Dragon Gave Us a Happy Family Dinner (Yes, Seriously)

House of the Dragon Gave Us a Happy Family Dinner (Yes, Seriously)

They were happy. For one unexpected, shining moment, the extended Targaryen family existed as one House, together, the past at least temporarily forgotten. And then the moment ended.

House of the Dragon Gave Us a Happy Family Dinner (Yes, Seriously)

“The Lord of the Tides” is a mostly excellent episode of House of the Dragon, but it’s also a lot. To begin with, it takes place after the second of the first season’s two time-jumps. It’s been six years since last week’s “Driftmark,” and while Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), Alicent (Olivia Cooke), Viserys (Paddy Considine), and Daemon (Matt Smith) are all played by the same adult actors, their children have aged up. Rhaenyra’s sons Jacerys (Harry Collett) and Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) are mid-teens, with Joffrey not far behind; additionally, Rhaenyra has two sons by Daemon, with a third child on the way. Viserys and Alicent’s kids Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) are either late teens or extremely early 20s, which will make them powerful adversaries for their nephews/cousins. (Let’s not take too close a look at the Targaryen family tree.)

Despite the time-jump and slew of new actors, “The Lord of the Tides” is primarily concerned with the same issue that plagued everyone last week: Who will be the next Lord of Driftmark? Technically, it should be Lucerys, as the second son of Rhaenyra and Laenor (Jacaerys will be busy being the Prince of Westeros). However, Corlys “The Sea Snake” Velaryon (an absent Steve Toussaint) has been badly wounded in the battle for the Stepstones, perhaps mortally, and his brother Vaemond (Wil Johnson) seizes the opportunity to take the title for himself — less, it seems, in a grab for power as much as it is to keep Velaryon blood on the Driftwood Throne. Unlike so many others, he’s done pretending Laenor fathered anybody, let alone Rhaenyra’s children.

The only reason Vaemond feels empowered to fight the normal line of succession is because Viserys has become so ill over the intervening years he’s bedridden and constantly drinking milk of the poppy for his pain, leaving Queen Regent Alicent and her father, Hand of the King Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), to rule in his stead. They, of course, have everything to gain by giving Driftmark to Vaemond, since it will delegitimize Rhaenyra’s children and her claim to the throne, thus paving the way for Alicent’s eldest son Aegon to become king.

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

So everyone has to return to King’s Landing to argue about who will be named the next Lord of the Tides. Upon arriving, Rhaenyra is perturbed to find the Red Keep’s Targaryen heraldry missing, replaced with the religious star of the Seven… whose symbol also hangs conspicuously around Alicent’s neck. But far more disturbing is the sight of Viserys. He looks like a plague victim, half of his face covered in bandages, his skin pasty and wounded, barely able to breathe, and clearly in constant pain. Daemon can barely look at what his brother has become.

Alicent, on the other hand, has no problem confronting her first-born son Aegon after discovering he’s raped a serving maid in a harrowing but thankfully non-graphic scene (we’ll speak more of this below). She slaps him and hisses that he’s no son of hers, but then continues her agenda of getting him on the Iron Throne instead of Rhaenyra. Aegon is even more of a lush than his younger incarnation, and obviously a hedonist with no interests other than satiating his own pleasures, no matter the cost to anyone else. He’ll be a terrible king, and Alicent knows it.

How’s Aemond doing, then? We meet him in the training grounds, thrashing Criston Cole in a swordfight. Seemingly gone is the dour, quiet boy we saw last week; instead, Ewan Mitchell puts a wild, mischievous gleam in his eye as if he’s looking for trouble, or looking to cause trouble. It’s incredibly reminiscent of the younger Daemon from the beginning of the series, and I imagine it’s intentional. He’s certainly far more formidable than his other brother in both the brains and brawn department, and capable of far more destruction, as we’ll see. He also smiles when the angry Vaemond arrives, knowing that chaos is on the way.

The wild card is Rhaenys (Eve Best), Corlys’ wife, the Queen Who Never Was, who expressed her desire to have her late daughter Laena’s children inherit Driftmark last episode. Since Rhaenys is still under the impression Daemon and Rhaenyra killed her son Laenor, she has no reason to do Rhaenyra any favours… until the Queen-to-be suggests her sons, Jace and Luce, marry the two daughters of Laena, Baela (Bethany Antonia) and Rhaena (Phoebe Campbell), which would get true Velaryon blood on the Iron Throne, just has always Corlys desired.

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

It’s a cunning plan, but it’s pure desperation when Rhaenyra returns to her father’s side that night before the claims are heard. She asks if Aegon the Conquerer’s “Song of Ice and Fire,” the threat from the north that could engulf the world if the Targaryens aren’t there to lead humanity into battle, is real. “But by naming me the heir you’ve divided the realm!” Rhaenyra cries, begging him to defend her and her son’s claim yet again.

The next morning, as the bells peal over the city — not King’s Landing, but Viserys’ model city, in a wonderful touch — Vaemond angrily presents his claim to Otto Hightower to be the Lord of the Tides should Corlys die (or have died of his wounds on the way home). Vaemond stresses the importance of keeping Velaryon blood on the Driftwood throne, saying Rhaenerya’s kids aren’t Laenor’s without saying it out loud. As Rhaenyra begins her plea, she’s instantly interrupted by the throne room doors opening, something I was sure was a ploy by Alicent and Otto. But no.

It’s King Viserys. He’s almost completely bent over, but he’s walking. He’s hobbling so slowly, but he’s doing it under his own power. Half of his face lies behind a golden mask. He shrugs away help as he inches his way to his Iron Throne and the music swells and it’s a wonderfully powerful moment to see Viserys return to his seat of power, and it’s even more emotional when Daemon is the one who helps his ailing brother those last few steps to the throne. Finally, the King has returned, and he sounds regal and commanding to everyone’s shock, saying he doesn’t understand what the problem is because this was settled long ago: Laenor and Rhaenyra’s second son Lucerys will be the Lord of Driftmark.

As the person closest to the current Lord, Rhaenys, Viserys asks his cousin what Corlys wanted and she puts it plain as day: Lucerys. And Rhaenys doesn’t fail to mention the planned marriages between her granddaughters and Rhaenyra’s sons. It’s such an immensely satisfying moment, and not because Alicent and Otto are thwarted; it’s great to see Viserys, as decrepit as he is, return as a simulacrum of the good-hearted, and mostly firm leader from the beginning of the series. He’s been in constant decline throughout the show, both in authority and physically, and everyone loves a comeback.

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Well, everyone but Vaemond. “I will not allow it!” he screams, practically declaring war against the crown. He breaks the taboo and calls Rhaenyra’s children bastards, to the shock of everyone, and the rage of Viserys, who wants Vaemond’s tongue. Then Vaemond takes it even further when he locks eyes with Rhaenyra and calls her a whore, right before Daemon slices the top half of Vaemond ‘s head off, just about the jaw. It’s incredibly gory, but it does offer the benefit that literally anyone can reach down, grab that tongue, and pull it right out.

This act of violence, preceded by vile insults, and intense political manoeuvring shouldn’t set the stage for a happy Targaryen family dinner, but, somehow, inexplicably, miraculously, it does. Although the exhausted Viserys has to be carried in, placed at the table to divide Rhaenyra’s and Alicent’s families, he has enough energy for one last gambit. He takes off his crown and his golden mask to reveal much of that half of his face is missing; it’s gruesome beyond words. “I want you to see you as I am. Not just as a king. Your father. Your brother. Your husband. Your grandsire.” He asks them to make some form of peace, if not for the good of the realm, but for ­him: “For this old man, who loves you all dearly.”

It’s a cheesy plea, it’s painfully earnest, and by god, it pulls at the heartstrings. Viserys is clearly not long for this world, and you could tell he would throw the crown away if he could just have one, happy family. And, somehow, it works.

Rhaenyra, haltingly at first, raises her cup to the Queen, apologizing for her role in their constant conflict, and expresses her desire to find common ground. Equally haltingly, Alicent raises her glass to Rhaenyra, saying, “You will make a fine queen.” There are more toasts. Music is played. Jace asks Helaena to dance. Everyone is happy, Viserys most of all. He can’t believe it.

And then Aemond raises his glass to toast his nephews, Jace, Luce, and Joffrey, calling them “good, strong boys.” Alicent tries to get him to stop, but Aemond repeats his taunt and it’s obvious he’s calling them the bastard sons of the late Harwin Strong, everything goes to hell, and the distressed, exhausted, despondent king is carried back to his quarters. When Alicent rushes to his side his quarters, his mind is going along with his health, muttering about Aegon and the “Song of Ice and Fire” and how a Targaryen must save the world.

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

In one sense, it’s an innocent mistake. Alicent assumes he’s talking about their son Aegon, not Aegon the Conquerer. Viserys has no idea who he’s talking to when he tells her, “You must do this.” The Queen has plenty of reason to believe her royal husband has asked her to crown their eldest, awful son. “I understand, my king,” she says, and Viserys dies, never knowing he has torn the realm apart yet again.

Of course, in another sense, it’s about Alicent suddenly finding a reason to thwart Rhaenyra and seizing it. Viserys’ ramblings were from a confused, dying man, while every time he was of sound mind — for years, including earlier that day — he confirmed Rhaernya as his heir. Any reasonable person would know what Viserys truly wanted. Anyone searching for power, revenge, or legacy, however, would find the sliver of justification they’ve desired to take it, and Westeros will pay a heavy price.

So here we are. The players are all here (and of their appropriate age). The sides have long since been drawn. The time is now, and the last thread holding the Seven Kingdoms together has snapped with the death of Viserys. It’s wild to think that these first eight episodes of House of the Dragon have more or less been a prologue for the war that’s going to engulf the realm and the rest of the TV series, presumably. It’s a bold decision and I think it’s a smart one, even if the show made two giant time-jumps and cast changes in three episodes. We’ve seen all the tiny decisions and chances and mistakes that led up to the Targaryen civil war that will become what’s called the Dance of the Dragons, and how easily it could have been averted if just a few things happened the other way.

Knowing all this is going to make all the war, bloodshed, and death to come for more tragic, futile, and ultimately powerful. Seeing these characters as children, however briefly, will make their loss hurt more, become some of them will inevitably die. Because this is a game of thrones, and we all what happens to the people who play.

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Assorted Musings:

  • Paddy Considine is an absolute superstar. Viserys’s speech to his family, as cheesy as it was, genuinely tugged on my heartstrings.
  • OK, the post-rape scene. I think it’s there to show how Alicent contradictorily loathes her monstrous son but feels duty-bound to install him as king, but as before, I want to listen to you. Do you think there was a better way to do it? Did you find it gratuitous?
  • Maybe I’m fixated on how similar Aemond looks and acts like Daemon, but I’m sensing a big showdown in the future.
  • I keep forgetting that Aegon is married to his sister Helaena, who has some great Cosmopolitan magazine-style sex tips for Baela and Raena: “Mostly he just ignores you. Except sometimes when he’s drunk.”
  • Regarding last week’s episode’s darkness: I get screeners from HBO, and unlike most of them, my copy of “Driftmark” was unfinished, had sound mixing issues, and was missing special effects. I assumed the lighting issues would be fixed along with the rest before the episode aired, which is why I failed to mention it.

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