House of the Dragon Letters: Episode 8

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House of the Dragon Letters: Episode 8

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review House of the Dragon each week in a series of letters.

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Josh,

The deeper we get into House of the Dragon, the easier it is to see why HBO chose the Targaryen civil war among all the other contenders for the next show from the ASOIAF universe. They had their own succession battle play out, and while you and I both had misgivings early on, to the point that I wondered if they had made the wrong choice, my unabashed opinion is that the hot streak continued Sunday night with “The Lord of the Tides,” the third straight excellent episode that has completely turned things around for the show. I find it extremely rare for a show to limp to a so-so beginning and then turn great—you seen plenty of shows diminish over time, but usually a bad start is fatal—but the absolute unshakable strength of the story, once it got rolling, is plenty sufficient to paper over any cracks. Now that we’re on the verge of war, and the cracks that have shown since the beginning are widening into chasms, the show’s momentum is basically unstoppable, the actors are allowed to flourish, and suddenly the iffy dialogue and the head-scratching choices are gone, because all anyone has to do is just follow the rhythm of this ridiculously good drama.

We may as well start with Paddy Considine, whose watch has ended, but who saved his best for the final moment. He was the heart and soul of the early episodes, carrying HotD through its rough patches with a performance that captured the subtleties of his character—this is both a good king and a bad one, a strong one and a weak one—standing against the tides of history. Now, as he’s on his deathbed subsisting on milk of the poppy and barely coherent in his gauzy moments, and with the Hightowers poised to disinherit Rhaenyra in a sort of Driftmark workaround that will nonetheless set the precedent to disinherit her entire line when it comes to the iron throne, and with Rhaenyra herself up to her neck in desperation, Viserys manages to stagger out of bed and pull off one last heroic act to at least throw a small obstacle in the way of the Greens. The scene with him marching to the throne, and his dinner speech, and his last breath—”my love”—I found completely powerful. What else can you say except that from start to finish, Considine just fucking nailed it, and even though he looked like a combination of Gollum and the Phantom of the Opera at the end, he somehow outdid himself in his finale.

Of course, what makes all of this so good is that despite his acts of courage, for the real truth you have to go back to something Princess Rhaenys said by the weirwood, and trust in the fact that she’s seen it all: None of it matters. If it was up to Alicent and Rhaenyra alone, maybe there would be some path to peace, but the dinner scene was so strong because the two princes, Aegon and Aemond, each knew in their own way that this effort at peace was bad for them, and in a metaphor for what’s to come, the minute Viserys left they made absolutely sure to stir it up and provoke a fight. Aemond is the more impressive of the two, and the more terrifying, but even Aegon, the rapist who disgusts his own mother has a sense that this was the time to poke and prod and bring everything to a boil.

Speaking of which, one of my favorite really small moments came after Aemond’s “Strong boys” line—to which I say, well done—and Daemon has to stop the fight between him and Jace that would surely have ended with Jace losing…well, something. For a long five seconds afterward, Daemon and Aemond stare at each other, each of them slightly smirking, and it’s a true “game recognize game” situation. You can almost sense Daemon’s thoughts; he’s looking in a mirror. Not a perfect mirror, but close enough. And at the same time, both of them seem to realize they’re going to become mortal enemies, even though each of them would love to fight in battle alongside the other.

By the way, how good is Ewan Mitchell as the new Aemond? The casting prowess here continues to be amazing, and this is one of their best choices yet. He’s like Matt Smith, but a little more serious and thus a little more intimidating. When Lucerys laughed at him, I wanted to scream, “stop!” That laugh has to be one of the ballsiest and dumbest things anyone on the show has done.

Elsewhere, we get another semi-comic Daemon moment, when he beheads poor Vaemond Velaryon and drops the “he can keep his tongue” one-liner. Even funnier is how immediately calm he is afterward, putting his sword away and saying “no need, no need” as the kingsguard starts to disarm him. Again, the Daemon character has been kind of weird and inconsistent throughout—it’s still a poor man’s Jaime Lannister—but Matt Smith has continued to deliver on his half funny, half scary, half vaguely likable performance. (Yes, that’s three halves, but for a character this chaotic in the writing but still somehow compelling, I’m allowed a little wonky math.)

Complete side note: I am the only one who wants more bumbling dialogue from Lord Beesbury?

Moving on…

Actually, now that I’m on frivolous observations, three more. First, for all I compliment the casting, here’s a complaint: the new Jace actor kinda annoys me, and I can’t put my finger on why. Can you back me up on this Josh, or am I alone?

Second, I hope HBO’s next GoT show is a spin-off called “Arryk and Erryk,” after the Cargyll twins. We’ve only seen them for a few seconds, but I already want more.

Third, I always get a kick out of the sparring scenes like the one between Aemond and Criston Cole. The idea is that they have blunted swords, but in this particular fight Cole is swinging a mace at Aemond with such velocity that I don’t care if it’s made of paper (it appears to be metal and spike-y), any single hit to his body would, at the very least, maim him. It just makes me laugh that a normal sparring session involving the prince would be a life-or-death situation.

Finally, back on a serious note, I want to shout out Eve Best as Rhaenys. She’s been a very secondary or even tertiary character for most of the show, but she got to shine in “Lord of the Tides,” and was terrific both in witnessing Vaemond’s death rites, and even more so in her conversation with Rhaenyra. It’s another one of those characters who can lurk in the background, but where the casting is so strong that when her moment comes, she aces the exam.

So, kicking it back your way Josh, do you share my enthusiasm? Are you furious about the continued Westerling shortage? And what do you think we’re supposed to take from this episode?

—Shane

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Shane,

I was worried when this episode started with another seven-year time jump that the momentum of the last couple of episodes would be derailed again by more new actors, more gaps in the story and more of Daemon’s inexplicable lack of aging while time marches on for the rest of Westeros. But the second half of the season continues to be much better than the herky-jerky first half, even as we lose two more young actors who delivered fantastic performances as weird blonde Targaryens, Ty Tennant and Leo Ashton, not to mention the strong performances of Rhaenyra’s boys.

Paddy Consedine will be missed, but he was once again the heart of this episode, showing King Viserys’s grit and love in a pair of riveting scenes in the throne room and at the dinner. And the writing has sharpened as both Alicent’s and Rhaenyra’s motivations and complexities finally feel as deep as the king’s. Indeed, the dinner scene brought a temporary resolution and peace to the family that will make its undoing even more tragic. Neither woman is acting out of simple ambition nor hatred.

I will be a little disappointed, though, if the chief factor leading to war is the misinterpretation of the words of a dying man whose mind is scrambled by milk of the poppy. Surely Alicent isn’t going to assume that her rapist son is suddenly the Prince Who Was Promised because of Viserys rambling on his deathbed, right?

Speaking of her rapist son, the ambiguity of whether that tea was simply to make sure the poor serving girl didn’t get pregnant or whether that was a poison intended to ensure her silence was ominous. We’ve seen a darker side of Alicent on a couple of occasions now that feel like a precursor of things to come.

And yes, we need more Harrold Westerling! How do you continue to waste Graham McTavish? Give me more gruff veteran Kingsguards and bumbling Beesburys.

I wasn’t bothered by the new Jacaerys, but the Idiot of the Royal Family award goes to Lucerys for sending that roasted pig to his psychotic uncle in a callback to the boys’ prank on Aemond when he was dragonless. If there’s some level of love and respect among Alicent and Rhaenyra, the level of enmity among their offspring keeps ratcheting up.

So, are you fully team Rhaenyra now that her path to the throne is more out of responsibility than ill-defined ambition and Alicent’s sons have only gotten scarier? How much sympathy are we expected to have for the Greens now that King’s planned succession has only been made more clear?

—Josh

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Josh,

Yes, the closing scene with Alicent hearing what she either thought she heard or what she wanted to hear was weird and unnecessary. You can almost feel the writers going, “we need to give her another reason to betray Rhaenyra so she doesn’t seem too awful,” but honestly, the fact that her kids might get killed if Rhaenyra becomes queen is plenty enough for me. You know what else is enough? Her being ambitious. This universe is full of that, and I certainly don’t need Alicent to be the only pure character. I didn’t think she was pure before this!

Which brings us to another point you raised, the tea for poor Dyana. Like you, I had my suspicions that this was more than just a way to terminate a pregnancy…that the bag of gold was meant to ensure her trust, and the tea was a way to kill her. Then again, Alicent didn’t subtly threaten her before giving her the money, and you probably wouldn’t do that if you meant to kill someone. So I’m going to lean on this being just 98% horrific rather than the 100% that an ensuing murder would make it.

But let’s go back to the Prince That Was Promised. Clearly, based on the fact that Viserys referenced an earlier conversation with his daughter, he thought he was talking to Rhaenyra. Does that mean he thought Rhaenyra was TPTWP? Does every Targaryen think either themselves or their kids are the one? Or does he have a descendant in mind, in which case he’s maybe/kinda right re: Jon Snow, if we think Jon was TPTWP. In any case, he’s probably wrong, and he probably doesn’t know anything more than anybody else knows about Aegon’s dream.

That said, it’s certainly going to have ripple effects! Alicent has no idea about the prophecy—that part’s all a jumble to her—but she’s plenty capable of interpreting the message as an endorsement of Aegon (her son, that is) and a rejection of Rhaenyra. The fact that it’s the opposite isn’t going to make much of a difference, particularly with Otto Hightower driving the narrative. You can bet they’re going to act fast. And also, I think Rhaenyra’s promise to come back to King’s Landing “on dragonback” is going to happen in a different way than anyone (including her) thought.

To answer your question about my allegiances, it’s frankly pretty tough. The show does a really good job blurring the lines with almost every character. Take Vaemond—on one hand, he seems kind of like a jerk and a schemer, but on the other hand, he’s 100% right about Rhaenyra’s kids! And you can certainly understand him not wanting his family’s home to go to two randos and essentially end Velaryon rule over Driftmark. The same is true of all characters. Despite their flaws, I can find things I like in almost every character. I will say, though, that I’m most intrigued at the moment by Aemond. His development over the last two episodes, via two different actors, has been stellar, and for me he’s the most compelling character on the show. I’m praying for a one-on-one scene between him and Daemon at some point.

How about you? Where do your allegiances lie? And as someone who hasn’t read the source history, I’m curious where you think this is all going. If you had to guess how everything would play out, what are you seeing?

Also, Josh, you know what next week is: EPISODE NINE. As in, the episode when Ned Stark gets his head chopped off! As in, the red wedding! As in, the Blackwater! As in, the Battle of the Bastards! There is always something insane and jaw-dropping in episode nine, and I’m curious to get your prediction.

—Shane

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Shane,

I get your point about Vaemond, but if his only concern were Velaryons ruling Driftmark, he might have been put at ease by Rhaenys’s announcement that her granddaughters were betrothed to Rhaenyra’s sons, ensuring the Valaryon bloodline would continue. Regardless, he let his anger overrule any sense of self-preservation.

Episode Nine! I hope it becomes as iconic as those Game of Thrones episodes you mention, but I don’t really know what to expect. Both of the Strong princes have to die, I’d imagine, to keep the blond-headed Targaryens in line to rule. And I wouldn’t be surprised with the death of Prince Aegon the Rapist so that the much more interesting Prince Aemond has a line to the Iron Throne.

One thing we didn’t discuss is the reintroduction of my other favorite character, Mysaria—the White Worm. She’s left the brothel business for the information business and one of her spies is none other than Alicent’s servant Talya. She’s already betrayed Daemon once, unless Daemon wanted his brother to think he’d slept with Rhaenyra in order to marry them off. But her loyalties are a mystery at this point—an enigmatic shaper of the events to come in King’s Landing. I was so glad to see her back!

As far as teams, it’s natural at this point to root for Rhaenyra to take her place as the first Queen of Westeros, just as it’s natural to pull against Alicent’s awful sons and her scheming father. But I’m a simple man who would just like a few characters I truly care about, even if that means they get cruelly ripped away like Episode Nines past.

Until next week…

—Josh

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Follow Shane Ryan and Paste founder/editor Josh Jackson on Twitter.