Season 1, Episode 4: ‘King of the Narrow Sea’
“You Targaryens do have queer customs.”
That was Alicent on Sunday night, winning the Understatement of the Week award. The abiding weirdness of the Targaryens, on TV, dates back to the early days of “Game of Thrones,” when we heard chatter about a Mad King and saw a different Viserys pawing his nude sister before marrying her off to a barbaric horse lord. Whenever a new one was born, we heard more than once, the gods flip a coin.
In Sunday’s “House of the Dragon,” the coins kept flipping for the ones who are already here. Daemon returned as a conqueror with a new haircut, seeming redeemed until he took Rhaenyra on her despoliation tour of the dirty old town. Rhaenyra again won our sympathies during the sad suitor parade before losing them by blithely risking her closest companion’s life, luring Ser Criston into her chambers for a game of hide-the-helmet. Viserys was magnanimous in his initial forgiveness of Daemon and then demanding in his suppurative midnight lust. (“The hour is quite late …” Alicent protested, but the king gets what the king wants.)
It all culminated in seeing a physically rotting ruler kick his hung over brother in the ribs for sleeping with his daughter in front of everybody in a brothel — and seeing said brother respond by asking to marry his niece in the name of family tradition.
So … yeah. Queer customs.
Admittedly, my untrained eye could not make out how far the incestus interuptus got before Daemon had a crisis of conscience. But the fact that I’m even parsing something like that means, with the Crabfeeder now dead and the Sea Snake pouting in Driftmark, we got the Full Targaryen this week. While there were Hightowers getting kicked around in various ways — Viserys began the episode down two fingers and by the end had lost a whole Hand — the entire hour-plus was devoted to dragon-flavored psychodrama.
This is, more or less, what we were promised. Before the season, the showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik (Sapochnik has since departed) indicated that “House of the Dragon” would be a more straightforward melodrama compared to the peripatetic, realm-hopping “Game of Thrones.” (So far, I miss the structure of “Thrones” almost as much as I miss its humor, mentioned last week.) Sunday’s episode was pure soap opera — illicit liaisons, secrets, family betrayal, literal palace intrigue. True to the maximalist tendencies of “Thrones” storytelling, the strategy seems to be that if you’re going to make a soap, you might as well make it as operatic as possible.
Return to Westeros in ‘House of the Dragon’
HBO’s long-awaited “Game of Thrones” prequel series is here.
Many scenes were hard to watch, but look, let’s just give a disclaimer now that applies to this week, previous weeks and all the weeks to come: This stuff is objectively gross. Uncles “coupling” with nieces is gross; sore-covered old men bedding teenagers is gross; sex slavery is gross; child brides are gross. For all the squeamishness the age differentials and so on inspire, we’re all checking modern moral standards at the door, to a certain extent, if we want to go along with this story.
But the grossness is also partly the point. While Targaryen rulers believe themselves to be nobly motivated by Aegon’s prophesy about the darkness to come, mentioned in the premiere (more on this in a minute), “House of the Dragon” is ultimately about the decline of a convoluted, deeply inbred clan whose power is enabled by their access to the world’s most fearsome weapons. While I doubt the show will take us all the way to the beginning of “Game of Thrones,” this story is headed ultimately toward a king who is insane to the point that he wants to burn everyone and is killed for it. He is followed a couple of decades later by a daughter who eventually traces a similar path.
So it is about the long collapse of a dynasty (pending whatever Jon Snow, née Aegon Targaryen, does in his planned sequel, though empire building doesn’t seem to suit him). And things that undo dynasties include ineffective leaders, infighting and moral corruption allowed by unchecked power. The inbreeding is key to the downfall as probably the primary cause of the Targaryen madness described by the coin-flipping maxim. (At the very least, it keeps the madness in the family.) So that downfall is what we’re watching, blow by icky blow.
Rhaenyra’s hour-of-the-owl adventures forced her to finally bow to her own dynastic responsibilities. She will apparently be marrying Laenor Velaryon, whom we saw torching Crabfeeder soldiers last week, thereby bringing more dragons into the family and presumably shoring up the rift with his father, the Sea Snake, who has been playing footsie with the Free Cities.
“I can be a remedy for your political headaches,” Rhaenyra sneered to Viserys.
“You are my political headache!” he responded. (Paddy Considine and Milly Alcock, old acting veteran and relative newcomer, have a great dynamic onscreen.)
A final indignity arrived in the form of a cup of morning-after tea, prepared by the Grand Maester. It was a bitter reminder that even when Rhaenyra isn’t being forced to “squeeze out heirs,” as she put it awkwardly to the heir-squeezer-in-chief, Alicent, her womb still belongs to the realm.
As for Daemon, he took the king’s kicks and insults in stride, probably because it’s what he expects for himself. Daemon arrived in the throne room this week as a conquering hero, the King of the Narrow Sea, as the court honored his success in the Stepstones. But respectability fits him like a bad bone crown (or driftwood, or whatever it was made of). By episode’s end he was facedown in the same room, battered, banished and probably still half-drunk, which seemed like a return to the natural order of things.
I don’t care where you go, “as long as you are gone from my sight for good,” Viserys said. We’ll see how long that lasts.
But the biggest loser this week was Daemon’s eternal rival, Otto, the Hand who finally overplayed himself. (Last hand pun, I promise.) The Targaryen Brothers don’t take bad news well, as we were reminded when Daemon bludgeoned the messenger in the Stepstones. On Sunday, it was the Hand who had his head handed to him.
Otto has been steadily working to marginalize Daemon and Rhaenyra in order to establish his grandson Aegon as heir. But even so, he clearly knew it was a dicey business to share his White Worm intel with the king — it’s one thing to malign a man’s degenerate brother, but insult his daughter’s honor at your peril.
Sure enough, Otto’s “discomforting truth” blew up in his face, as the gambit opened the king’s eyes — helped by Rhaenyra’s demand that Otto be let go — to the extent to which his Hand had been jerking him around. After Aemma’s death, Alicent had been “a calculated distraction,” Viserys said. “I only now realize how well calculated it was.”
All that remained was for the king to remove the pin and send his father-in-law on his way. (The next family nameday party should be fun.) Which meant that for all her ill-advised sneaking, drinking and fornicating, Rhaenyra survived another week as heir to the Iron Throne.
The question is, will stripping Otto of his responsibilities neutralize the threat he poses as an inveterate plotter? Or just give him more time to fine-tune his plotting? We all know about the trouble that can come from idle Hands. (OK that was definitely the last one. …)