TELEVISION: House of the Dragon, ‘The Black Queen’ (dir. Greg Yaitanes)

Where the penultimate episode of House of the Dragon‘s first season took place entirely in King’s Landing, the season finale returns us squarely to our nominal leads, the Targaryens who are holed up in Dragonstone. There’s extraordinary pace here, the episode picking up almost immediately after Princess Rhaenyra blasted her way out of King’s Landing, reintroducing Rhaenerys and Daemon in a moment of peace before they learn of Viserys’s death and the Hightowers’ power grab. Thereafter, it’s an arms race, but one which is marked by Rhaenerys’s steadiness and reluctance to escalate, rather than by the Hightowers’ pre-planned speed. It’s a steadiness that is commendable and makes clear whom the show favours, but – as ever in this world – it bodes ill for those who would govern well, rather than grab power quickly.

Smaug and Matt wanted to find the nasty little thief.

The headline here, of course, is that Rhaenyra’s choice to exercise prudence, particularly in wishing to confirm who her allies actually are before beginning a war, leads directly to first blood in the coming war being that of her son Lucerys. She sends Lucerys and Jacaerys to be envoys to the Arryns (whoop!), the Baratheons (whoop!) and the Starks (whoop!), on the basis that sending princes on dragons to ‘remind’ her bannermen of their oaths will send a clear message. It’s a clear, political strategy. But she’s depending on ideas of fealty and loyalty. The Hightowers have built their claim on treachery, and have acted not only more quickly, but with actual offers of money and marriage. And when Lucerys arrives at Storm’s End to meet the Baratheons, he’s already too late.

Aemond is already there, and the one-eyed bad-ass is already glowering in a corner. Poor, tiny Luke is well out of his comfort zone, and he’s promised his mother explicitly to be a messenger, not a warrior. He is given short shrift by Borros Baratheon, who is insulted that Rhaenyra hasn’t even made him an offer; he makes no bones about the fact that she has been out-bought by Aemond’s promises. But what begins as a humiliation for Luke becomes something far worse. The bitter, cocky Aemond demands that Luke carve out an eye in vengeance for his own lost eye; when Luke refuses and rides off in a storm, Aemond saddles his immensely larger dragon and follows him. The dogfight that follows is immensely tense – it sometimes feels like a Harry Potter Death Eater broomstick battle, but actually manages to conjure the tension of Jurassic Park as Aemond’s enormous dragon slowly emerges from the clouds. The fight here is massively uneven, but it seems momentarily that Luke has escaped, until his dragon takes matters into its own hands and attacks Aemond’s with a burst of fire. Aemond in turn is unable to control his, who veers up from the clouds and snaps Luke and his dragon into bits. The death of Luke could have been seen coming a mile off; what’s perhaps more shocking is that Aemond, for all of his callousness, absolutely did not want this, and the gravity of the situation emerges terrifyingly on his scared face.

Until this point, it had all been going rather better for Rhaenyra. The arrival of her crown from King’s Landing, borne by a loyal Queensguard; the return of Corlys from near-death to pledge his support for her; the consolidation of her army, all start setting things up nicely. They may be outnumbered in terms of armies, but they have far more dragons (Matt Smith gets a great scene as Daemon going to treat with the wild ones). And with Corlys, they’re able to starve out King’s Landing by taking the Narrow Sea. It’s a powerful position to be starting from, and Rhaenyra’s hope is that they might be able to do this without tearing the kingdom apart.

Rhaenyra is strong. When she hears the news of her father’s death, she miscarries, and Daemon’s belligerent warmongering is intercut with Rhaenyra passing her stillborn child along, refusing help from the midwives who weep for her pain and for her dead child. As in the intercutting of the first episode, the editing here reinforces the danger women experience in this world, the burden they carry, and the life they put on the line. Daemon may be headstrong, but it’s Rhaenyra who has the real strength, and it’s she who pulls everything together after a false start in which Daemon is trying to rush into bloody warfare. She marks herself clearly as a Queen, and seems to have the strength of personality to pull everyone together.

But the news of Luke’s death will hit hard. Classily, the news is delivered in silence by Daemon, and we aren’t given access to Emma D’Arcy’s face until the final moments of the episode, after she’s processed, and she turns around from the fire with a face full of fire. It’s an ill boding for everyone for next season. If Rhaenyra was the only one exercising restraint, then there’s now little if anything to prevent the Dragonstone army unleashing hell on Westeros. And with dragons on both sides, the potential fallout could be apocalyptic.


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