‘House of the Dragon’ Season 1, Episode 7 Recap: An Ugly Game

This week’s episode wove an enormous amount of objectively bonkers goings-on into a mostly credible hour of drama, with one big exception.

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By Jeremy Egner

Season 1, Episode 7: ‘Driftmark’

And you thought your last family gathering was a nightmare …

Funerals are rarely happy occasions anywhere. But this week’s “House of the Dragon” reminded us — as the body of the deceased tumbled into the sea and her brother wandered in after it; as one cousin got inappropriately wasted; as another stole a dragon and then fought his half-nephews, breaking the nose of one of them and getting his own eye slashed out in return; as the drunk cousin accused his half-nephews of being illegitimate, breaking the seal on a dark (if open) family secret; as the sister-in-law took a dagger to her stepdaughter, who had just returned from sleeping with her uncle; as the parents came downstairs to find a man they assumed was their son burning in their fireplace — that things are a little extra in Westeros.

What a ride, huh? The fact that I went along with most of it — with one big exception — attests to the strength of the performances, to the ability of the episode writer (Kevin Lau) and director (Miguel Sapochnik) to weave all of the above into a mostly credible hour of drama, and to the fact that at this point, nothing seems out of bounds for this nutty family.

Along the way, we saw the dropping of several narrative shoes. For one thing, Rhaenyra and Daemon finally got together, their pairing on the beach (along with the existence of Daemon’s two daughters) suggesting that his performance issues are behind him for now, at least. Even more noteworthy: They later managed to pull off a cozy destination wedding with zero murders. (Though I’m not sure why they went to the pain and trouble of ceremonially mixing their blood, seeing as it’s mostly the same blood.)

Otto is back by the king and queen’s side, able to offer a hand in the molding of the would-be heir, Aegon the Ridiculous. Leave it to Aegon, by the way, to finally say the quiet part out loud regarding the Strong bastardhood of Rhaenyra’s sons. “Everyone knows,” he told Viserys. “Just look at them.”

And yet, even hearing it spoken plainly by his own son was not enough for the king to abandon his daughter.

Return to Westeros in ‘House of the Dragon’

HBO’s long-awaited “Game of Thrones” prequel series is here.

The minor miracle at the core of “House of the Dragon,” when it works, is how the recognizable family dynamics can make all of the objectively bonkers goings-on feel almost relatable. Most of us, I suspect, have been party to family secrets or some other inconvenient truth that people close to us have held at bay by the sheer force of their own denial. On Sunday, we finally got confirmation that Viserys’s is a kind of voluntary denial, born not of obliviousness but of a stubborn desire to hold the family together, even if the effort has been doomed to failure from the beginning of this story. (Such magical thinking, too, is a known family phenomenon.)

“This interminable infighting must cease, all of you!” Viserys shouted at the bickering relatives, bleeding kids and everyone else. “We’re a family! Make your apologies and show good will to one another.”

Such exhortations, at this point in the show, would seem inane coming from a less talented or less committed actor. Paddy Considine has always had a remarkable ability to telegraph multiple emotions and motivations simultaneously. As Viserys fades, his desperation to keep his family somewhat intact is both pitiable — any semblance of unity will surely die with him — and poignant, a kind of raging against the dying of the light for a ruler who senses that his efforts will be futile and his legacy a wash, at best.

Just as Viserys holds the center of the extended Targaryen clan, Considine does the same for the show itself. So I’m slightly concerned about what “Dragon” becomes when he and Viserys inevitably shuffle off the stage.

Because one problem with a story so overstuffed with incident and so singularly focused on one narrative — the “ugly game” of thrones Otto alluded to — is that all it takes is one misstep, one errant blade, to puncture and deflate the whole thing.

Which is what happened when Alicent charged Rhaenyra with that dagger, the “big exception” I mentioned earlier.

Alicent was apoplectic about her husband’s continued indulgence of Rhaenyra and understandably undone by Aemond’s injury. I was even almost willing to accept her crazy demand of a literal eye for an eye as a sign of her extreme distress in the moment — any parent, in Westeros or anywhere else, might say irrational things when confronted with her disfigured child. But the escalating silliness of her response, climaxing as the queen and princess traded barbs over the clutched dagger until Alicent finally drew blood, tipped the drama into farce.

I suppose the confrontation was designed to once again foreshadow the conflict to come between these women. After they were separated, the presumable competing factions stood facing one another: Rhaenyra, Daemon and the Sea Snake on one side, Alicent and Ser Criston on the other. It also revealed the fierce, potentially deadly intensity Alicent will apparently bring to the battle.

As for where that intensity came from, I guess we’re supposed to take it on faith that the 10 years we didn’t see instilled a murderous rage within her. As with Daenerys’s incineration of King’s Landing in “Game of Thrones,” it’s an odd turn that doesn’t really jibe with what we or anyone else have observed in the character.

“I’ve never seen that side of you, my daughter,” Otto said later. Neither have we, Otto. Neither have we.

A few thoughts while we give credit where it’s due

Alicent’s mad daggering notwithstanding, I did enjoy much of the episode, including an ending that took me by surprise. In letting Laenor escape overseas, the show departed from “Fire & Blood,” the George R.R. Martin novel, in which Laenor is killed by Ser Qarl. I rarely bring up things from the book because I assume most people who watch “Dragon” haven’t read it, so the show needs to stand on its own. In this case, changing the outcome was smart because it subverted readers’ expectations while also allowing the show to avoid TV’s stubbornly persistent tendency to treat gay characters as expendable.

Follow-up quibbles: Would some clothing and a necklace really be all it took to immediately convince Laenor’s parents that the faceless corpse in their fireplace was their son? You’d think there would be a birthmark or something. And wouldn’t Seasmoke’s magical dragon sense lead him to follow Laenor wherever he went, as we saw Vhagar do with his new rider, Aemond? I’m no dragon behaviorist, but it seems like that could blow up the whole plan.

Speaking of Aemond, Leo Ashton, the young actor who plays him, deserves credit for making him so convincingly unnerving from the beginning, with his disquieting dead-eyed stare. (I guess that will be 50 percent less of an issue, going forward.) The wound was ghastly, but Vhagar was a coup, as Aemond and Otto noted, and the kid seems born to wear an eye patch anyway.

The show responded to those of us who spent last week wondering, of Laenor and Rhaenrya, “Couldn’t they at least have given it a shot for the sake of appearances?” Apparently they did.

For argument’s sake, if Rhaenyra and Daemon have a son, he will also be Rhaenyra’s cousin, Daemon’s grandnephew, Viserys’s grandson and nephew, Alicent’s step-grandson and nephew, her sons’ cousin and half-nephew, the Strong boys’ cousin and half-brother and Daemon’s daughters’ cousin and half-brother. I wonder how many royal genealogists the Targaryens have driven to early retirement and/or madness.

Last week I wondered about the significance of the rats in the Red Keep. Now I’m wondering if one of them gave Alicent rabies.

What did you think? Am I being too hard on the queen? Were you happy for Laenor? Did Rhaenyra and Daemon’s wedding make you cry? We request the pleasure of your company in the comments.

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