House of the Dragon series premiere recap: We need to talk about the Targaryens
Welcome to the House of the Dragon! You may be familiar with the Houses and the general geography of Westeros, but do recall that this is a world George R.R. Martin has constructed across decades, having penned elaborate, centuries-spanning histories rich in political intrigue, gory battles, and incestual bloodlines. As such, a voiceover at the beginning of the premiere helps us get our bearings.
Here are the takeaways:
- Near the end of the first century of Targaryen rule, the kingdom was at the height of its powers under King Jaehaerys I. Peace and prosperity have persevered for decades.
- The Targaryens commanded 10 adult dragons, giving them an edge over any army.
- King Jaehaerys I found himself in ill health and in need of an heir.
- He had no heirs. Both of his sons had died.
- To find a suitable heir, he assembled the Great Council of Harrenhal. Fourteen succession claims were heard, but only two were considered.
- The Council found Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best), Jaehaerys' eldest descendant, had the strongest blood claim to the throne. Second was Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), the next eldest.
- The Council ruled that the kingdom could not pass to a woman, nor through a woman to her male descendants, so Viserys was named the next King of Westeros.
We then fast forward to the ninth year of Viserys' reign, when our story begins. (This is, per a helpful note, 172 years before the death of the Mad King and the birth of his daughter, Daenerys Targaryen, so, you know, don't expect any cameos.) Here we meet Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (a sharp and appealing Milly Alcock), daughter of Viserys, and her dragon, Syrax. Her best friend is Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), daughter of Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), Hand of the King, who is prim and proper in all the ways Rhaenyra is flippant and free-spirited. They bicker, sure, but they remain close.
Rhaenyra's mother, Aemma, is pregnant. This is good news for Viserys, who needs a male heir of his own. He's confident the baby will be a boy — he's had prophetic dreams about it, he claims — but Aemma has concerns about her "miserable pregnancy." Across the last decade, she's lost five babies — two to miscarriages, two to stillbirths, and one to an early death. She fears the same could happen again. "I'm sorry if I've failed you," she tells her husband.
Rhaenyra, too, hopes it's a boy, or so she says. She believes it's the only thing that will make her father happy. Still, we know she's not interested in playing the traditional roles of the Westerosi woman. When her mother tells her that the discomfort of childbirth is "how we serve the realm," she says she'd rather swing a sword on the battlefield. Alicent is annoyed at Rhaenyra's ambivalence about the throne.
Besides, there's others who desire the throne more than her. Her Uncle Daemon (Matt Smith, the perfect mix of caddish charm and teeth-gnashing malevolence), for instance. The two display an odd, yet playful camaraderie when they meet in the Throne Room, where he sits comfortably atop the spiky, sword-laden Iron Throne. (Contrast his comfort with Viserys, who nurses multiple wounds from the throne, including a pus-oozing hole in his back that won't seem to heal.) Daemon believes he'll be next in line for the throne if Aemma's child isn't a boy. He would like that.
Daemon, distrusted by many in the King's circle for his brutish tendencies, is currently the commander of the City Watch. Believing his brother to be soft on crime, he rounds up his guardsmen for a blitzkrieg on King's Landing, which he says has "fallen into squalor" under Viserys' rule. "You're a pack of hounds!" he tells the bloodthirsty troops before siccing them loose on the thoroughfare for some gory eye-for-an-eye justice. Thieves lose their hands, rapists lose their balls, and killers lose their heads. It's brutal stuff.
Viserys isn't pleased with his brother, and a tense argument reveals that Daemon despises his wife, Lady Rhea Royce, heir to Runestone in the Vale of Arryn. He spends no time in the Vale, preferring to be close to the royal family in King's Landing. During their argument, he takes shots at Hightower, with whom there is no love lost. Daemon retreats to his companion, Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), who comforts him after his lingering anger spoils their tryst.
The denizens of King's Landing gather for a jousting tournament held in honor of Viserys' soon- to-be-born child. Aemma, we learn, is going into labor in concert with the tournament. Daemon, clad in elaborate dragon armor, trolls Hightower by challenging his son and using his joust to trip the young Hightower's horse, injuring him. Rhaenyra remains charmed by him, though it's Alicent for whom he asks favor. Rhaenyra, meanwhile, bestows her favor on a handsome Dornishman, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel).
Soon, Cole and Daemon square off. Daemon scores an early strike, but it's Cole who wins the joust. A seething Daemon challenges Cole to a contest of arms but it plays out much like their joust, with Daemon starting strong and ending up on his back. He's lucky he didn't end up like some of the other competitors, some of whom saw their heads axed to pulp following their battles. Regardless, Daemon refuses Cole's hand after defeat.
Meanwhile, Aemma's labor is going as badly as she'd feared. The maester tells Viserys that she's going to die, but that there's a chance to save the child. To do so, however, would mean cutting it out and inflicting tremendous amounts of pain on Aemma. Viserys, desperate for an heir, doesn't struggle long before asking them to cut out the baby. They do (in a punishing, ear-splitting sequence) and Viserys soon finds himself standing over the blood-soaked corpse of his wife, holding a baby that will be dead in just a few short hours. Aemma's suffering was in vain.
The question of an heir surfaces after Aemma and the child's funeral. Daemon is bandied about, as is Rhaenys, who's known amongst many as the Queen Who Never Was. Viserys scoffs at the idea of Rhaenys sitting on the throne — she's older than him, after all — and this upsets her husband Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint). A seafarer, he is also known as the Sea Snake and the Lord of the Tides. He is clearly undervalued in the court of Viserys, and his exhaustion with the state of the realm is evident.
Hightower, meanwhile, works to sabotage Daemon's chances. He recounts to Viserys an orgiastic party where Daemon appeared to be celebrating the death of Baelon, whom he called "The Heir For a Day." When confronted, Daemon can only say that we all "mourn in our own way." He goes on to call Viserys "weak," criticizing him for never asking Daemon to serve as his Hand. Viserys declares he won't be naming Daemon as his heir, ordering him to return to the Vale.
It's Rhaenyra he chooses. "I have wasted the years since you were born hoping for a son," he tells her. He goes on to lay out the two things any Targaryen ruler must know:
- A Targaryen mustn't believe the myths about them that pervade Westeros, namely that Targaryens are capable of controlling dragons.
- Aefon Targaryen foresaw the "end of the world of man" via a "terrible winter" than can only be survived with a Targaryen on the throne. This secret must be carried, protected, and passed down, he says. (We already know how all of that shakes out).
The episode ends with Daemon departing on his dragon, Caraxes, as the lords of the realm pledge their fealty to Rhaenyra. Something tells me he'll be back before long.
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A Game of Thrones prequel focusing on the dragon-riding Targaryens.