rhaenyra targaryen in house of the dragon

Ollie Upton/HBO

‘House of the Dragon’ ends its first season in flames

A queen is crowned, but it comes at a cost.

 

Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

Warning: This recap includes spoilers for the House of the Dragon season 1 finale.

At the end of the first episode of House of the Dragon, Viserys warns his 14-year-old daughter Rhaenyra about putting too much faith in their dragons as he’s about to make her his heir. “The idea that we control the dragons is an illusion,” he tells her. “They’re a power man should never have trifled with.”

For much of the first season, it’s easy to write Viserys off as a superstitious man or someone afraid of dragons despite briefly claiming Balerion the Black Dread; as he got older and his body fell apart, he could also be read as a senile one. But the season 1 finale, “The Black Queen,” argues that perhaps Viserys had a point as it’s the dragon themselves—and not the Targaryens riding them—who kicked off the Dance of the Dragons properly.

The first official blow (if you don’t count poor Lord Beesbury) comes at the end of a particularly tense finale that begins with bad news, a brutal stillbirth, and a queen’s coronation at a funeral. The Blacks may have more dragons—both paired with riders and those without riders—but the Greens won the first battle: In a brief battle in the sky, Aemond on Vhagar bested Lucerys Velaryon on Arrax. But unlike Luke’s death in Fire & Blood, it’s framed as more of an accident than cold-blooded murder.

An eye for a dragon and his rider

In episode 7, the two sides of Viserys’ family came to blows after a young Aemond Targaryen pulled a major faux pas by claiming Vhagar so soon after his rider’s funeral. It led to an all-out skirmish between kids, resulting in Aemond losing his eye thanks to Luke slashing it with a knife. Aemond might’ve said it was a price worth playing, but as Aemond got older, he never forgave or forgot Luke’s actions; he went as far as to antagonize the Velaryons during a toast on purpose.

It’s a slight that weighed so heavily on Aemond’s mind that, when both Aemond and Luke trekked over to Storm’s End to negotiate an alliance from Borros Baratheon, Aemond went as far as to demand Luke cut his eye out in payment. And when Luke refused to do so, Aemond chased the younger boy on dragonback in the middle of a storm, where few people could tell what happened.

“Watchers on the castle walls saw distant blasts of flame, and heard a shriek cut the thunder,” Fire & Blood stated. “Then the two beasts were locked together, lightning crackling around them. Vhagar was five times the size of her foe, the hardened survivor of a hundred battles. If there was a fight, it could not have lasted long.”

The result is the same: Luke and Arrax both die as a result of this skirmish. But the how and the who differ. While Fire & Blood frames this attack as Aemond using his much-bigger dragon to murder a young boy and his smaller dragon, HOTD aims for a tragedy beyond their control by having Vhagar draw first blood after Arrax spouted flames in the older dragon’s face.

It offers shades of nuance to Aemond, who’s painted as a kinslayer for the rest of his life for killing Luke in Fire & Blood. But the way Luke’s death plays out in the show asks the audience to believe that a man willing to chase and intimidate a teenager in the middle of a storm for his eye also would somehow not want him to die. That’s much more of a stretch.

The idea that two Targaryens not able to control their dragons and having that be the start of what tears House Targaryen apart is much more plausible, and it makes the dragon battles in future seasons all the more precarious. And the result is the same. Rhaenyra lost two of her children because of the Greens in a single episode, and she will likely want to strike back.

A battle of letters and restraint

Before the Greens land their first blow, the Dance of the Dragons is fought not with swords but with words, as Fire & Blood put it. Rhaenyra, first of her name, spends much of “The Black Queen” standing around the massive table cut-out of Westeros on Dragonston planning her means of attack.

For her, it’s not so much a matter of telling dragonriders to burn down cities but rather knowing which houses she has on her side. And that means sending ravens and envoys to the far reaches of the realm like Lord Grover Tully in Riverrun, Lady Jeyne Arryn in the Vale, and Lord Cregan Stark in Winterfell. And they know that other families like the Lannisters are already in the pockets of the Greens. Borros Baratheon is an enigma: He has familial ties to the Blacks through Rhaenys but he’s a very proud man—and not the one who swore an oath to Rhaenyra. This is why Luke is sent as an envoy while Jacaerys heads to the Vale and Winterfell while Daemon goes to the Riverlands. It’s one thread we’ll probably find out much more about next season.

The two Kingsguard members who are already on Dragonstone before the start of the war are put to the test. Daemon brings out his dragon and gives them the chance to choose a side now, reminding them that if they betray the Blacks, their deaths will be painful. But Otto Hightower is given the chance to walk away unscathed (for now) when offering Aegon’s terms for surrender instead of instantly being burned to a crisp.

Despite her council urging her to strike at every turn, Rhaenyra not choosing violence is an exercise in restraint which results in Daemon admonishing her in full view of her council—and again in private when Rhaenyra learns that her father never told Daemon about the prophecy guiding many of her actions. But that caution earns enough respect from Corlys Velaryon that he pledges the entire Velaryon fleet to her cause.

A season-long prologue

HOTD’s first season was intriguing and gripping and embedded us with the characters who ended up on opposite sides of a war. Like Game of Thrones season 1, it was a game of politics and characters standing in rooms more than a game of swords. It also sped through nearly 30 years of backstory—with time jumps being anywhere from a few weeks to a full decade between episodes—so that it could set us up for the start of the war. That decision makes the entire first season feel more like a prologue to the actual story the show wants to tell instead of an organic part of the show.

It’s a jarring approach and one that didn’t always work. Several characters we might’ve spent half a season with in some shows were introduced, lived, and died in a matter of minutes. Some characters aged through makeup, prosthetics, and recasting while others’ appearances (hello Matt Smith and Fabien Frankel) didn’t change. HOTD felt viewers were smart enough that it didn’t need to hold their hand but also seemed to expect that reporters and content creators would be ready to explain it to them if they didn’t get something.

The show also wants to make two of its protagonists, Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower, much more complicated than their book counterparts, which is a welcome change that raises eyebrows. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see HOTD take the book’s sexism subtext and make it text. On the other hand, Rhaenyra and Alicent are both complex characters, and so far the show is softening some of their more insidious decisions by obscuring what happens (Rhaenyra allowing Laenor to fake his death, albeit a welcome change) or taking the decision out of their hands (the small council planning a coup under Alicent’s nose), which flattens those characters’ complexity. 

The Dance of the Dragons will offer lots of heartbreak and spectacle, and a lot more war crimes. And while it’ll be some time before we see what happens next on the show, one thing is clear: By the end of it, nobody’s hands will be clean.

 
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