House of the Dragon – Stag Party

Last time we saw a king go on a hunt it didn’t go so well.

We are three deep in House of the Dragon and this viewer is still enthralled, but I suppose there were gonna be some bumps sooner than later. Another time jump, more characters tossed into the dragon pit, and a big battle that doesn’t quite fulfill two weeks’ worth of rampant teasing. Our favorite white-haired incestuous bunch is splintering though, and that’s what counts.

Where the last episode jumped ahead 6 months, “Second of His Name” fast-forwards to 3 years. Viserys and Alicent’s wedding is behind them, first-born Aegon II celebrates his 2nd name day, hence the title’s double entendre, and Rhaenyra’s world-ending angst gets a multiplier by the greatest doom the Seven Kingdoms have ever known – marriage.

HotD is priming us for a bigger time jump that lies ahead, which I’m excited for because that’s when the dragon head-butting gets really meaty and tragic. But it’s hard not to feel a lil bummed out about the things we just skipped over. (What was the wedding like? Alicent’s bachelorette party? Did Alicent try to name Rhaenyra maid of honor and Rhaenyra told her she wasn’t shit? Crazy Rich Targaryens, that’s my pitch.)

This is where Game of Thrones was at its juiciest—in the immediate fallout. There was excitement in seeing a character react to something BIG. Like when Daenerys found out Ser Jorah was a spy. Or when Cersei gloated over her little brother’s arranged marriage only to be swiftly blindsided by her own.

What HotD aims to do is show the fallout in specific time-capsule moments, which is the more economical approach. Less redundancies in storytelling, because how many times can we see Rhaenyra give Alicent the cold shoulder until she starts to seem bratty. This gives the truly axis-tilting moments their raw power by withholding elsewhere, while forever cranking up the tension. What we might miss in getting some MTV Real World drama, we look to gain ahead when the knives literally come out. The name of the game here is patience, so why not enjoy the party while it lasts?

We’re down in the Kingswood and on the hunt for a white stag. This rare animal sighting is a sign of a great ruler to come, so they say. House Baratheon dons the sigil of a stag and went on to destroy the Targaryen line for a time. (With the help of the Lannisters, no less.) Much like the red comet that everybody fussed over in GoT Season 2 (which brought the arrival of Stannis), perhaps there is no such thing as a good omen in Westeros, just stories men drum up for themselves.

When Viserys asks his daughter to join him on the hunt, Rhaenyra remarks that the stag’s dying squeal sounds like “screaming children.” Quick cut to Aegon in the next frame, his half Hightower ass makin’ a fuss. We love a sibling rivalry in its nascent stages, don’t we folks?

Rhaenyra’s ceremony in the throne room might’ve been two eps ago, but here it’s a distant memory. The king has finally been granted his son – a true heir, as all the lords and ladies gathered in the Kingswood see it. “No one’s here for me,” Rhaenyra says, a line so childish yet heartbreaking.

Well, Jason Lannister is here for her. Rhaenyra is “of age” for suitors now. Prince Aegon may be a diaper challenger to the Iron Throne, he’s also a reminder of what’s expected of her in the end: to produce children. “This discomfort is how we serve the realm,” her mother had told her in the first ep. Her father and, uh, stepmother try to make childbirth sound like a Disney fairytale, conveniently forgetting what killed Queen Aemma, and the fact that being a wife is a literal death sentence for Rhaenyra.

Rhaenyra’s all alone in such magnificent company—in a dynasty eager to look past her as soon as a baby boy came along. No surprise then that she runs away from camp, with Prince Caspian Ser Criston Cole dutifully fulfilling his vows as Kingsguard. At least she was on a horse, not Syrax.

Thing is, Rhaenyra’s not as alone as she thinks. Alicent may be with Viserys’ second child, but no one’s there strictly for her either; they’re here for her son. She looks just as alone in company as her once BFF. The only difference is that she knows this is a game played through decorum and appearances, whereas Rhaenyra isn’t interested in the sort. Alicent is the Sansa to Rhaenyra’s Arya. (Please bear with the names.) She might not want anything to do with Alicent, but Rhaenyra’s still got a friend who supports her.

She’s still got a father too. Viserys eventually apologizes for the marriage ambush and gives Rhaenyra the freedom to choose her own suitor: “Find one that pleases you, as I did.” The advice isn’t as heartwarming as he thinks. Viserys, though, did not come up with this on his own. Alicent incepted him—just as Otto is trying to get Prince Aegon named as new heir through her. She may not be pro-Hightower just yet, but is Alicent getting a taste for manipulation?

King Viserys downs a flagon of wine through most of this ep. (Rhaenyra said she’s DONE pouring drinks.) Who can blame him when he’s still fielding suitors for his daughter and just wants to vibe? Otto Hightower, in his sleaziest maneuver yet, suggests Rhaenyra marry baby Aegon – a proposition that hangs delightfully in the air. (Played to perfection by Paddy Considine and Rhys Ifans.) Otto called Corlys Velaryon’s proposal to daughter Laena an “overreach,” so this is plain lazy. Perhaps Otto is cracking under the pressure from his own brother Hobert.

Viserys is dwarfed by Hightowers all around. He confesses to Alicent that he only named Rhaenyra his heir to save the realm from Daemon, then he says: “What if I was wrong?” I don’t think he’s speaking of his daughter here so much as himself. What if he was the wrong pick for the throne? It could have been Rhaenys and none of this crown business would weigh so heavily on him. “I am forever doomed to anger one person in the pleasing of another,” he says at one point, hitting the nail of this whole ruling thing on the head, if not the hart.

The white stag, in the end, doesn’t show up for Viserys. It shows up for Rhaenyra, who goes through her own bloody awakening in the woods. She kills a wild boar because she has to. Viserys on the other hand is killing for sport, yet he can’t finish an animal that’s been hunted and tied up for him.

One brother buckles while the other comes into his own. Daemon makes good on his alliance with the Velaryons, but the conflict in the Stepstones drags on longer than anticipated. What renews Daemon’s appetite for blood? A Hallmark scroll from his brother that arrives 2 years too late. In true little shit fashion, he’d rather die alone than receive help from the crown.

This is where HotD throws characters like Laenor and Corlys’s brother Vaemond into the mix. No fanfare or closeups; they’re just sort of there. Then suddenly Laenor is swooping in with his dragon Seasmoke, which confused lots of viewers who didn’t know Laenor had his own dragon. This will be the real test for the show – how it handles bringing in new faces. GoT occasionally drowned in its own ambitious ensemble. HotD seems to be more honest about who’s protagonist and who’s supporting, who’s important here and who’ll become important later.

The Battle of the Stepstones isn’t quite Spoils of War 2.0, more Battle of Silence, which suits the chessboard just fine. It’s about the maneuver here, not so much the spectacle. (If HotD ends where I think it will end, then consider this an appetizer for what’s to come.) So while this beach battle didn’t quite live up to the rampant teasing, it is, however, making it very clear who’s really a foe versus an obstacle. Upcoming battles for House Targaryen won’t be so easily drawn on a map.

Sorry Crabfeeder, we hardly knew ye. Matt Smith is a rush of adrenaline this ep. He only has three lines in the opening scene, then is all physicality and violence to the end. (His Achilles run is glorious, just in time for football.) Laenor and Seasmoke pull some Nazgul action on the battlefield – a nice cherry on top of the pyrotechnics. The thing about “The Spoils of War” is that GoT waited 7 seasons to pull that off. As much as I want the showrunners to top that eventually, HotD has to earn it.

Three Targaryens were on the hunt in “Second of His Name,” but only two claim their prize. Viserys’ hunt in the Kingswood is revealed to be a farce, whereas Rhaenyra and Daemon get their baptism in blood. One’s is a trial by boar, the other by crab. (Mmmmmm.) If everybody’s out looking for signs, what does this rebirth mean when there’s only room for one on the Iron Throne?

Daemon is set to return to King’s Landing with his own crown. He’s won a great victory, while all the talk of Viserys is who will inherit the seat next—a seat that Viserys assures daughter Rhaenyra will be hers.

Take all the mental snapshots you can of the Targaryens back in King’s Landing in this next ep. The heads of the dragon might be going stag here on out.

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