House of the Dragon – Keeping Up with the Targaryens

“I think I called the midwife a cunt.”

The thing about Game of Thrones is that if they can use the C-word, they absolutely will. The magic of HBO 👌

We’re kicking off the second half of House of the Dragon with a 10-year time jump going into episode 6, “The Princess and the Queen.” New faces, same characters, a lot to catch up on; some rapid new developments, and a crucial phase change toward the looming civil war. The vibes are bubbling to a boiling point. But, believe it or not, this might be the most content these characters have ever been and perhaps will ever be???

HELLO, EMMA D’ARCY AND OLIVIA COOKE

Baenyra Targaryen 😍

I was low-key dreading this cast change because I had grown attached to Milly Alcock and Emily Carey’s portrayals. To be fair, Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke were cast first (and it was the latter’s involvement that had me dusting off Fire & Blood from my bookshelf), so this was always coming. Fortunately, the handoff from adolescent to adult version is quite seamless.

I have been team Olivia Cooke since Sound of Metal’s killer intro, but I gotta say, I did not expect Emma D’Arcy to be so regal and so freakin’ gorgeous in the role. Every line read is archaic and poetic (and sumptuous) to my ears. But I have already pledged my sword.

There’s a version of HotD where this is the first episode of the season. The character who would suffer the most in that instance is Alicent Hightower. I think Alicent would read as another Cersei pre-GoT timeline, or like Margaery Tyrell if she had lived to Season 7. With Emily Carey’s lay-up beforehand, Cooke gets to weave a complicated tapestry of someone who never wanted power in the first place; she just wanted to be a dutiful daughter and friend, and winds up discovering her agency in the game as a consequence. Everyone has fucked around with Alicent, and they are about to find out via the might of Olivia Cooke.

I was Team Rhaenyra in the first half, now I am Team Alicent from this day on. We’ll see how long I can commit to this bit.

GREENS & BLACKS – JUNIOR VARSITY DIVISION

We meet the rest of the major players in the Dance of Dragons. Rhaenyra’s dragonlings: Jacaerys, Lucerys (Lucario was RIGHT THERE), and Joffrey. Then there’s Alicent’s dragonlings: a little bit older (and masturbatory) Prince Aegon, Helaena, and Aemond.  Rhaenyra and Alicent’s children get some meaty and tragic roles in the war to come, so of course there’s foreshadowing.

A sword training session becomes a dragon forecast for the future. Coach Criston Cole and Coach Harwin Strong make their allegiances to the boys known for all at court to see—except for an ailing King Viserys who just sees what he wants to see. Criston goads Harwin into revealing himself as the father of Rhaenyra’s children, Maury Povich-style, and Harwin takes the bait. So while it was a satisfying beatdown in the courtyard, it was a victory for Ser Criston – and a scene that makes it clear for the Targaryen children that they’re not all family.

A DRAGON ALONE IN PENTOS

We catch up with Daemon across the Narrow Sea, where we had first glimpsed Daenerys in GoT Season 1 – looking, wishing, and longing toward home. As Daemon points out to wife Laena, Valyria is long gone, and they are in a sense people who have no “ancestral” home, only points of harbor. It’s an interesting sentiment from someone who seemed to find his purpose at a certain proximity from the Iron Throne.

I think Daemon delighted in being heir to the king. Once that was taken from him, it was all he wanted (key trait of the rich and powerful – they want what they can’t have.) But really, my man just wanted his big brother’s attention. Seeing what became of Viserys with so many devils whispering in his ear on the small council, Daemon decided to quiet quit being a Targaryen altogether. He is perhaps the one character who has stayed true to himself that way by constantly burning bridges, starting fires, and only being on Team Daemon.

But, like one Jaime Lannister perusing the book of the Kingsguard in search of an honorable path, Daemon spends his time in a Pentos library reading about his own family’s history. Now that’s a mid-life crisis if I ever seen one. “A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing,” Maestor Aemon had said, so it’s no wonder Daemon is a consistent little shit in the family. Is he wondering what it means to be a Targaryen, or is he trying to carve a new path in the world—and a destiny beyond being the rogue prince? Daemon’s a girl dad now; he can’t be a bad boy forever.

One brother is on his way out, and another is finding a way back.

YOU ARE (MTV’s) THE CHALLENGE

If you had not been so relentless in advancing Aegon as heir…” Young Alicent had pleaded to her father in the last episode. We had watched Otto grind his heels into a benevolent daughter, now we have a mother grinding hers into a son. These are the moments where the time jumps are paying off immensely. You see what’s passed on from one generation to another.

What’s funny is that this whole heir business is a problem started by Otto Hightower. When Queen Aemma and baby Baelon died, Otto moved swiftly to secure the line of succession by steering the matter away from Daemon and onto Rhaenyra. But the old Hand didn’t put all his chips into that play. In the same first episode, Otto bid his daughter to visit the king’s chambers in his hour of grief. All of these things were in motion, and as the scope gets peeled back, we see that Otto isn’t the sole agent here either.

In episode 3, we see his older brother Hobert putting the pressure on dearest Otto. Knowing the war path we’re on, we start to wonder how far these whispers and murmurs go up the ladder of House Hightower. Otto had been Hand through Jaehaerys’ reign, so this maneuver was one of confidence, and patience. Now an heir of their blood is within reach of the throne’s steps, with their hand on the steering wheel this time.

Alicent passes onto her son word for word the responsibility she refuted from her father. She’s now owned up to Hightower’s cause; she’s become it to the point that she grabs her son’s face and shouts his destiny at him whether he wants it or not. Aegon might’ve had a squabble with his cousins—er, nephews—in the courtyard, but those battle lines weren’t always there. In the dragon pit, Aegon pulls a dragon prank on his own brother WITH Jacaerys and Lucerys’ help. In another House (or continent or timeline) the Targaryen children might’ve been the best of buds. But these conflicts that will come between them have been started by their parents and their grandparents and so on.

Whatever these kids could’ve become amongst each other is irrelevant now. It’s what their mothers and grandfathers and granduncles want that matters. Aegon isn’t an uncle or a cousin anymore; he’s the challenge. And so it’s Hightowers versus Targaryens, Greens versus Blacks, Real World versus Road Rules. If only we could get those reality-TV talking heads segments.

RHAENYRA’S FULL HOUSE

Where once we couldn’t imagine Rhaenyra being a mother, she now has three kids and is rather crushing the role. Alicent is teaching her kids about their mortal enemies across the Red Keep, while Rhaenyra is teaching hers love, warmth, and acceptance. Jacaerys and Lucerys get to be fighters, dragonriders, and kids most of all, with Harwin standing sentry as their biological father, and Laenor as not the step-dad, but the dad that stepped up. It’s the rare and wholesome family portrait in a world where houses rarely stand tall together. All of them, too, are stuck in a tower where none of this is the case elsewhere.

The episode’s opening series of continuous shots from Rhaenyra’s room to Alicent’s perfectly bring us up to speed on what the fraught dynamics are like. When Alicent demands to see Rhaenyra’s newborn at once rather than climbing down those steps herself, Rhaenyra makes the bullish move to bring the baby or die trying. Alicent then says to her ex-BFF upon entry, “you should be resting after your labors” minus the genuine concern. The tension since we last saw them toe-to-toe at the wedding feast is forever at a boiling point between these two, just barely masking their jabs through the thin veil of politeness. (Alicent reigns supreme here with her “do keep trying ser Laenor” mic drop.) We might’ve seen young Rhaenyra delighting in this passive-aggressive sparring since Alicent became her stepmother, but she’s had it up to here now.

In a way, Alicent and Rhaenyra have swapped (adopted?) the other’s mindset. Rhaenyra proposes a marriage between their children and she’s the one who sounds naïve, while it’s Alicent who holds her ground. Perhaps if her children were of Velaryon blood, Alicent might’ve begrudgingly accepted the union. But since they’re Harwin Strong’s – a love and affair that Rhaenyra’s been free to pursue all her life while Alicent has been confined to do her duty – it’s an insult. Here in King’s Landing, words and gestures are locked and loaded with the sins that came before, even more so between Alicent and Rhaenyra. At a certain point, the literal knives are bound to come out.

And so Rhaenyra makes a Daemon move by quiet quitting the business too. She leaves for Dragonstone with her all-inclusive family and awaits her inheritance. That naivete though might cost her her birthright.

GOODBYE, HARWIN AND LAENA

If this were a reality show competition, then Harwin and Laena got eliminated this week. It’s been interesting to see the reaction to these deaths, because the show cleaved off some fan-favorite storylines in doing so. For the most part, I’m on board with the change because the showrunners are keeping their eyes on the prize.

HotD glosses over Rhaenyra and Harwin’s romance because the only one that clearly matters to the writers is hers and Daemon’s. And, they’ve cut out Rhaenyra and Laena’s friendship in Fire & Blood altogether because they’re only invested in hers and Alicent’s once upon a time. There’s also a more overt rivalry between Harwin Strong and Criston Cole, but it appears that HotD is more interested in Daemon and Criston’s rivalry. (They clashed at the tournament then drew swords on the steps of Dragonstone. The seeds have been planted for a proper showdown.) Things are being streamlined and I’m interested to see how all of this pans out as opposed to how this lines up with the book.

My only gripe here is Laena. My girl CLAIMED VHAGAR, so it’s a bummer we didn’t get more of that dragon-riding action. Nonetheless, a dragon is without a rider, and one of Alicent’s children is on the prowl. For Daemon in particular, this is a crucial pivot point. He found himself in the same childbirth scenario as Viserys, and Laena valiantly went out on her own terms in one of HotD’s more impactful moments. Daemon, now, has every reason to stay in Pentos or none.

Rhaenyra, Alicent, Viserys, and Daemon are the main compass points for HotD, and in my mind that makes it a more focused show than it’s predecessor by comparison. It’s a bummer we lose characters like Harwin and Laena in the mix. Their lack of development is its own casualty, but the tradeoff here is that we see what all of this means in the context of our main characters.

How will Rhaenyra react to the news of Harwin’s death—and whether she’ll read it as some shit started by House Hightower? What will become of Alicent now that she realizes she’s playing with fire (& blood)? And what will become of my guy Daemon 2.0?

The Dance of Dragons inches forward with every second. In the words of Alicent, will honor and decency prevail? Or ruthlessness?

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