The season finale of House of the Dragon has officially landed, and only just as it truly took flight. Only ten short weeks ago the Game of Thrones fanbase was more than a little skeptical about this Targaryen-centered prequel. Afterall, the show simultaneously had so much to live up to and so much to repent for, as the original series had soared to the greatest heights before crashing and burning in what many considered a mess at best, a betrayal to fans at worst.
So, what is the official verdict? How did the first season of House of the Dragon and its finale fare, especially up against such high expectations?
One Thing After Another
Last week’s episode dealt entirely with Team Green and their slithery machinations at the Red Keep. If every story has two sides, episode 10 “The Black Queen” is our counterpoint to the Hightowers’ tale.
Our favorite incestuous power couple is enjoying a brief calm before the storm (so to speak). We as the audience know Rhaenys is hauling ass on dragonback, even as Rhaenyra gives her sweet son Luke a royal pep-talk and cradles her expectant belly. A reminder of how quickly things can change.
The show cuts to the chase, and so must I. Rhaenys minces no words to Rhaenyra: the King your father is dead and the Hightowers have usurped you.
There is no time for “I told you so”s (which Rhaenys would be entitled to) or “Hm, we should have seen this coming”s (which Daemon sort of did, but which Rhaenyra was oddly oblivious to), because this news shocks Rhaenyra’s system and immediately sends her into premature labor.
The show creators deserve much respect for this season’s unrelenting depiction of the very real horrors of childbirth – a topic not commonly shown, and certainly not so viscerally, but which has affected those with wombs for all time.
The first death of the day is an innocent child (and the last one will be as well). The show frankly glosses over baby Visenya’s death, or her meaning to Rhaenyra, but this can be pardoned from a cinematic perspective as it maintains momentum and focus not to dwell too long on one tragedy before another. This premature child is born, deformed (are those scales and a tail stump?), with an umbilical cord around its neck. She is woefully dead before she ever got a chance to live.
Rhaenyra willfully endures this labor alone, even as her servants try to intervene assistance. Meanwhile, Daemon avoids the situation, forming survival strategies even as his wife screams in agony and her dragon wails in psychic support. (The show does a good job of setting up Daemon’s motivation by simply calling upon the memory of his second wife Laena, along with her traumatic death due to a tragic childbirth.)
No time to waste. Get dressed. Burn the child.
The Black Queen
I really need to emphasize something – amid all of the fan discussion and critical takes I haven’t seen this discussed at all, so read this closely: It is not normal or reasonable to expect someone who literally just gave birth to do anything other than recovering, and that’s if the birth goes well. Yes, we’ve already seen Rhaenyra give birth and immediately dress for Alicent earlier in the season. That doesn’t mean she should have had to do it then, or ever again. Plus she just endured a stillbirth AND learned of her father’s passing. Most people would curl up into a ball of despair.
Rhaenyra does not. This is a powerful woman with more willpower in her smallest digit than any of us have in our entire being.
Ser Erryk Cargyll (not to be confused with his identical twin brother with the same damn name minus a vowel) arrives from King’s Landing, and presents Rhaenyra with her father’s crown. This crown hearkens back to King Jaehaerys and the visage of a peaceful ruler (in opposition to Aegon’s dramatic crown of the conqueror).
On the cliffs of Dragonstone, beside her dead child, Rhaenyra Targaryen is crowned Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, albeit with much less fanfare than her half-brother received at the Dragon Pit.
Into the Deep End
With no established small council, a chaos-driven husband, and no particular training aside from a few idealistic words from her father more than a decade ago, it’s time for Rhaenyra to prove her mettle as ruler.
Even as Rhaenys offers dire warnings against the Greens and Daemon mobilizes for violence, Queen Rhaenyra’s first impulses are those of peace. Although this approach proves to be a horrible mistake, we can respect her for embracing her father’s legacy before going full-dragon.
There is much to ascertain, and the stakes are high with no time for dallying. Daemon proves that he’s been preparing to protect his family, but is understandably frustrated at Rhaenyra halting his strategies (another instance where simple communication beforehand could have alleviated unnecessary complications later, but drama thrives on unhealthy secrets).
Otto Hightower arrives pompously, like he wouldn’t be a delicious meal for a dragon. To Daemon this is laughable, and could have (should have?) been easily taken care of with a matter of some swift violence. But between Rhaenyra’s restraint and Alicent’s message of peace, there is a whisper of childhood friendship that hopes to resolve things peacefully. Oh, you sweet summer child…
For all of Daemon’s faults – and there are many – he is battle hardened, with experience in war, death, and the depravity that resides in the hearts of humankind.
It is a glossed-over but meaningful moment that Daemon crowns Rhaenyra with his brother’s crown and bends the knee to her. His support of his wife is sincere, and shows a real shift in priorities from his younger self that yearned to sit the throne himself.
Still, Rhaenyra has almost no experience with ruling nor with war. Sure, she served as cupbearer and small council attendant for a time in her youth, but mostly ignored it out of angst before running away to Dragonstone for years while the Hightowers were able to secure their foothold as rulers of the realm.
Early in the episode, Rhaenyra tells Lucerys that she needed to earn her inheritance of the throne, as though such a thing has already come to pass. Badass as she is, earned the right to rule she has not. Had she been more active and present over the years, she could have easily secured allies, gained knowledge, and positioned herself for an easy transfer of power. It is very like her father’s classic avoidance behavior, but coping mechanisms aren’t excuses – in this way Rhaenyra is very much complicit in the events that are unfolding.
Meanwhile, Daemon has real solutions that he has worked hard to put into place. He probably assumed Rhaenyra would simply heed his council and give him leave to act according to his own plans. So, when she doesn’t, it’s no surprise that he reacts by choking her a bit before relinquishing. This in and of itself is a huge sign of relative maturity for this character, as well as his affection for Rhaenyra, as unhealthy as it is (I am in no way condoning domestic violence, but Daemon could have done significantly worse, and in the past perhaps he would have).
Look, a lot of fans have taken a fan-girlish liking to Daemon, and there is a lot of reason to be excited by this compelling character. But he’s never been a “good guy”, and he has never been a “tsundere” character, though many fans seemed convinced that he is.
Meanwhile, it is an eye-opening moment for them both as they realize Viserys revealed the Song of Ice and Fire prophesy to Rhaenyra alone. What a layer to add to fresh mourning amid a political coup.
In an effort to approach this conflict nobly, Rhaenyra adopts an attitude of even-headed diplomacy. This resonates with Rhaenys, and allows Corlys (who has long been absent and recently ill) to pledge his support. In a time when solid alliances are sparse, the Sea Snake brings a lot to the table; his control of the Step Stones brings a long awaited payoff that can greatly impact the Hightowers and turn the tides of power (so to speak).
Jace speaks up, the good lad that he is, offering himself and his brother Luke to fly out to speak with certain houses that have pledged their loyalty in the past. An all too brief pause, and Rhaenyra agrees; a sign of her naivety.
We won’t know what happens with Jace’s mission until Season 2, but little Luke’s short flight to Storm’s End is a doomed one.
Even if you haven’t read the books, this episode takes no pains to hide the writing on the wall. From a final goodbye between mother and son to a foreboding flight atop his youthful dragon Arrax, audiences should already have been feeling uneasy. Once Luke reaches the Baratheon stronghold, things read like a pure horror show.
The first dance between dragons
Everything about the episode from Lucerys’ flight to his final moments is uncomfortably tense. Slick rain, an uneasy dragon mount, a cinematic color palate hearkening death. And oh, what’s that in the distance? Just the largest dragon in existence, Vhagar, which belongs to Aemond Targaryen. Perfect, no reason to turn back. This feels like bravery in the true spirit of his trueborn father, the late Harwin Strong. Bravery is a virtue, but not always. The courage it took for Luke to see Vhagar, enter Storm’s End anyway, and deal with Borros Baratheon and Aemond while maintaining composure is incredibly impressive… and something that will never be known. Would that he were more cowardly, perhaps he could have survived.
We don’t see much of Luke throughout the season, but he makes the right impact in the time we have with him. Actor Elliot Grihault was a great casting choice. He really does seem like an innocent boy who is trying his best to be a good man, but who is, tragically, totally outmatched.
The dragon chase is one with no chance of escape, and we know it. Even as Arrax manages to briefly maneuver through a crevice too small for Vhagar, the youthful dragon unwisely acts against its rider’s commands. And with a single rebellious “Dracarys”, the fate of the boy and his dragon are sealed.
This scene enacts a kind of horror that has always been with us. Channeled from Godzilla to Jaws to Jurassic Park and beyond, monstrous jaws of a size beyond reckoning are a fear that’s easy to tap into, though perhaps never realized in such a brutal was as how Vhagar non-chalantly tore through a dragon and a child as though it were nothing at all.
Ewan Mitchell gives us a great moment in the aftermath. As much as he’s fought to build himself up as something to be feared, he is still a child, and has set events into motion that cannot be undone.
Peace is over. With Rhaenyra’s final, soul-piercing gaze and silent rage, we know this woman who has lost more than one can imagine within a single day is done playing at peace. The dragon has awoken.
Season 1 Post Mortem
We couldn’t help but compare the experience of watching House of the Dragon to Game of Thrones throughout the season, and in truth the series embraced that. But if we were to have watched House of the Dragon without ever seeing Game of Thrones, I am sure it would have received so many more accolades.
But as it stands, the first season was a mighty accomplishment, cementing Game of Thrones as a franchise. And, everything that has unfolded has deepened our relationship with the original show. I know that my appreciation of Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons has only deepened from understanding where her family came from. Sure, the Song of Ice and Fire prophesy is a bit benign when we know that Arya kills the Night King and Bran ends up being king. But overall, House of the Dragon pays lovely homage to George R. R. Martin’s world while trying to learn from its predecessor’s mistakes.
Still, House of the Dragon is in its essence different from Game of Thrones. This show is ultimately a Shakespearean tragedy focused on one family, as opposed to battling heroes journeys. The success of the season lay heavily on the cast, and the ensemble excelled across the board.
It is a shame that we have to wait so long for next season (probably about two years). But oh how good it feels to look forward to a Game of Thrones show again, with earnest anticipation.