TV Review: ‘House of the Dragon’ Season One Episode Six: ‘The Princess and the Queen’
Series Plot: Set approximately 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon chronicles the events of The Dance of the Dragons, the Targaryen civil war that nearly tore the entire Seven Kingdoms apart.
Episode Plot: After the birth of Princess Rhaenyra’s third son, questions arise regarding her children’s paternity. Queen Alicent implores her son Aegon to prepare to rule. Prince Daemon and his wife Laena contemplate their life in Pentos. Lord Larys makes a bold gambit to win Queen Alicent’s favor. Rhaenyra makes a life-altering decision.
Review: Well gentle readers the fateful day has come. We leave the great talents of Milly Alcock and Emily Carey behind and say hello to their replacements Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke. While both actors will certainly be missed, within ten minutes of “The Princess and the Queen” I knew that the characters of Rhaenyra and Alicent were in capable hands. Showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik publicly stated that episode six serves as a second pilot which is true. However, if any of you viewers believe there is a negative connotation associated with that fact, set your mind at ease. Even though several new actors have assumed previous roles, this is still House of the Dragon and the stakes have never been higher.
We begin the episode with Rhaenyra giving birth to her third son Joffrey and within moments of the delivery, Queen Alicent exerts an insulting power play, demanding Rhaenyra present the baby to her immediately. Rather than give Alicent the satisfaction of refusing her request, Rhaenyra, showing true grit, ascends several flights of stairs to greet Alicent accompanied by her husband Ser Laenor, now played by John Macmillan. These opening few minutes are a true testament to Emma D’Arcy’s acting ability and the type of person Rhaenyra has become. She doggedly soldiers on despite having just given birth. Incidentally, this is an extremely realistic depiction of childbirth including the afterbirth. Rhaenyra is clearly someone who’s been toughened by time and gained perspective as a mother herself.
In addition to Rhaenyra, we also learn a great deal about Alicent in these opening scenes (and throughout this episode). As soon as Rhaenyra arrives, she says, “You should be resting after your labors.” What a power-play mindfuck by Alicent. She knew exactly what she was doing. This is not the easily intimidated, easily manipulated Alicent we saw previously. Olivia Cooke’s Alicent is confident, commanding, and knows well the power she wields. Her endgame in all this was to see if Joffrey looks like Ser Laenor, which of course he does not. What an incredible parting barb to Ser Laenor by Alicent saying, “Do keep trying Ser Laenor, sooner or later you may get one who looks like you.” COLD. BLOODED.
Meanwhile with each passing episode, Viserys is looking more and more like the Crypt Keeper. He’s also willfully ignorant about the paternity of Rhaenyra’s children, going so far as to say Joffrey has Ser Laenor’s nose. Riiiiight. On a positive note, the relationship between Rhaenyra and Viserys seems better than it ever has been with the two sharing some tender moments.
The driving force behind this episode is who the father of Rhaenyra’s children is and as soon as Rhaenyra and Laenor return to their chambers, the answer becomes clear. Waiting for them is Ser Harwin “Breakbones” Strong, son of the Hand of the King Lyonel Strong. The captain of the City Watch doesn’t just hang out so he can hold the Princess’ newborn son. All of Rhaenyra’s children – Jacaerys known as Jace (Leo Hart), Lucerys known as Luke (Harvey Sadler), and Joffrey—all have dark hair and clearly DO NOT look like Ser Laenor. This is a marked contrast to Prince Daemon and Lady Laena’s children Baela (Bethany Antonia) and Rhaena (Phoebe Campbell). Rhaenyra and Ser Harwin have an easy-going chemistry between them. There’s a lot unspoken and their dynamic feels very much like an old married couple.
If you’ve been missing a bit of that sweet, sweet dragon goodness, “The Princess and the Queen” more than makes up for it. In this episode we get the most detailed look at the Dragon Pit so far as Jace, Luke, Aegon (Ty Tennant), and Aemond (Leo Ashton) participate while Jace trains his dragon Vermax. Sadly, the only one among them who hasn’t claimed a dragon is Aemond, a fact which the other three tease him about. They even go so far as to present him with a pig dressed like a dragon, which prompts Aemond to descend further into the Dragon Pit and almost get fricasseed. I have to say all the children in this scene come off as spoiled little shits. Then again kids can be cruel. I’m not excusing the behavior, it’s just a fact of life.
Alicent soon discovers the cruel joke the boys played on Aemond as it is brought to her attention amid teaching her daughter Helaena (Evie Allen). I have to say that Helaena’s personality is…odd. It seems like the showrunners are presenting her as being on the autistic spectrum. Not sure if there is going to be a reason behind this or some payoff down the line but it is a bit of an odd choice. In any case, Alicent brings this to King Viserys and not surprisingly he chalks the whole thing up to a “boys will be boys” situation. Alicent uses this incident as an opportunity to raise the question of paternity when it comes to Rhaenyra’s children. Viserys refuses to hear of it and is clearly deluding himself. It is willful ignorance but the perils of entertaining a truth all can see is just too much to bear.
Frustrated, Alicent voices her disgust to Ser Criston Cole. Cole has become Alicent’s sworn shield in the last ten years. He’s also monumentally bitter, likening Rhaenyra to a spider who flaunts her sins for all to see. Both are of the mind that honor and decency must prevail. Olivia Cooke expresses Alicent’s frustration superbly here. Proving that Rhaenyra’s children are bastards would be a huge coup that would advance Aegon’s claim. Unfortunately, the one person who could do something about it—Viserys—refuses to.
Unable to move Viserys, Alicent instead turns her eye towards her son Aegon. So, there’s getting caught jerking off by your Mom and then there’s getting caught jerking off by your Mom while you’re standing in the window in broad daylight for the entire kingdom to see. Whatever way you slice it, that shit is just hilarious. What isn’t hilarious is the very dire and severe talk Alicent has with Aegon. Speaking with Otto’s words she tells Aegon that he can’t be pulling this petty shit with his brother anymore. He must protect his own because when Rhaenyra comes to power, she will cut off any challenge to her succession. When Aegon attempts to say he won’t challenge her, Alicent overwhelms Aegon’s protests, screaming that his very existence is the challenge. This scene is incredibly important because up until this moment I feel like Aegon resigned himself to not ruling, especially with his aunt and three cousins in the way. This is now his mother not only giving Aegon permission but telling him to get ready. Alicent really puts the fear of the Seven in Aegon and it is a definitive turning point in his life.
Meanwhile, across the sea in Pentos Prince Daemon, Lady Laena (Nanna Blondell), and their children have seemingly taken up permanent residence. All four are Westerosi ex-pats living the high life at Reggio Haratis’ manse. In fact, Reggio offers him a permanent residence and a ton of gold to protect Pentos from Lys. It is a simple transactional exchange: gold for dragons. (Incidentally, it is important to note that Lady Laena now rides Vhagar, the largest and oldest dragon in the world. Credit where it’s due, Caraxes looks incredible, but Vhagar is a beast unlike any we’ve ever seen. She’s clearly old but I wouldn’t want to fuck with her. Daemon comes off bored, almost depressed and Laena confronts him directly, saying how she wants to return to Westeros and specifically Driftmark. As the blood of old Valyria, she wants more than the life of a rich dilettante. She wants to die a dragon rider’s death. Be careful what you wish for…
It is important to note that this episode is very much about how Rhaenyra and Alicent’s strife, prejudices, and hate are being passed down to their children. A clear example of this is in the training yard where Aegon, Aemond, Jace, and Luke are training. Criston Cole clearly favors Aegon and Aemond and in a cruel move pits Aegon who is older, stronger, taller, and quicker, against Jace. To Jace’s credit, he doesn’t back down getting assistance from Harwin Strong who must pull Aegon off of Jace. In a perfectly calculated move, Cole comments that Harwin’s interest is like a father to a son which causes Harwin to absolutely lose his shit and attack Criston Cole. This is EXACTLY what he wanted because it is a validation of the rumors. EVERYONE will be talking about it now. That was Criston Cole’s intent – sow discord and diminish Rhaenyra. And all of this happens in full view of King Viserys and Lyonel Strong.
Rhaenyra soon hears of the incident and uses the secret passageways to spy on Ser Harwin. She finds him discussing the incident with his father Lord Lyonel. It’s clear that both know of Harwin Strong’s “treachery” although neither speaks it out loud. They both know who the father of Rhaenyra’s children is. They’ve been protected for years by the King’s willful ignorance, but that shield is crumbling, and they both know it. At this point, Rhaenyra clearly knows she and her children are in greater danger than they ever have been.
Ser Laenor chooses this time to stumble in drunk with his newest paramour Ser Qarl Correy. Oblivious to Rhaenyra’s mood, Laenor is ecstatic that war is once again brewing in the Stepstones as he needs adventure and conflict. This is a fantastic bit of acting by D’Arcy because the more Laenor talks the more their face becomes a storm cloud. She calls him mad, stating that she needs him here to defend their family and that he’s lived the playboy life for ten years. Laenor isn’t having it which prompts Rhaenyra, as the heir to the Iron Throne, to command him to stay. It’s maddening to me how Laenor can be this obtuse about the situation he finds himself in. Also, hilarious line, “You’ve been off guzzling all the wine in Flea Bottom, and gods know what else.”
The first small council meeting of the second half of the season shows some clear changes. Grand Maester Mellos has passed, replaced by Maester Orwyle (Kurt Eglawan). Also Master of Coin Lyman Beesbury is losing his marbles. However, the most significant change is that both Rhaenyra and Alicent are full members of the council, and each has a good deal of influence. The political maneuvering is palpable in this scene with Rhaenyra coming off supremely cocky—until the end. In a desperate move, Rhaenyra apologizes to Alicent directly and seeks to repair the damage. Rhaenyra proposes marrying Jace to Helaena and mending old wounds. Rhaenyra’s actions are of course a calculated move to save her position and standing at court. While Viserys is all for it, Alicent says the wedding will happen over her dead body.
I’ve remarked multiple times that Lyonel Strong makes an excellent Hand because he provides sage council and possesses zero ambition or self-interest. It’s not surprising then when he attempts to resign as Hand of the King. Although Alicent and Viserys urge him to speak plainly when Lyonel speaks of a “shadow” over his house, he refuses to admit Harwin’s shame. Consequently, Viserys refuses Lyonel’s request and quenches Alicent’s momentary hope. Viserys does give leave to take Harwin back to Harrenhal to take up his rightful seat, however.
Just as Criston Cole has become a trusted confidant to Alicent in the last ten years, so too has Larys Strong. He’s the de facto Master of Whisperers, yet Alicent ends up being the one to tell him that Lyonel is taking Harwin back to Harrenhal. Larys comments that his father’s honor is like a millstone. Lord Larys clearly knows of Harwin’s indiscretions. In frustration, Alicent expresses that things would be much more to her advantage if Lyonel Strong was gone, and her father Otto was back. As Hand of the King, he at least would be partial to her.
Larys takes this opportunity to seize the moment believing the Queen’s wish to be a command. Freeing prisoners condemned to death (after taking their tongues) he sets them to burning Harrenhal which kills both Lyonel and Ser Harwin. Not only does this make him heir to Harrenhal, but it also puts Alicent in his debt. Larys has become a true villain here with his only concern being advancement. To her credit, Alicent is horrified by his actions but I think she’s more horrified with herself. She must know deep down that she condoned this and that allowing this to happen is not honorable or noble. In fact, it is leading her down a path away from honor. Larys has trapped her as well because the subtext is “If you ever reveal what happened you yourself will be implicated.” Larys expects a reward and believes this relationship will continue to be mutually beneficial.
In one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the episode, Prince Daemon is put in the same position his brother was in episode one. Lady Laena is unable to give birth and the doctor presents the option of cutting the baby out of the womb. Before Daemon can decide however, Laena leaves the birthing chamber and goes to Vhagar, demanding again and again that Vhagar burn her alive. Eventually, Vhagar sees the pain she is in and relents just in time for Daemon to witness the act. Laena dies as she hoped she would—as a dragon rider. What’s remarkable about this scene is that you see actual tears, actual sadness on Daemon’s face. I think he knew in that moment what kind of wife he had and how much he truly loved her.
The episode concludes with Rhaenyra making the difficult decision to move her entire family to Dragonstone. Things have become too volatile, and she fears for her life and that of her children. From a parent perspective I get it, but this is a profoundly stupid move. If you’re not at court, it makes things much easier for Alicent to usurp Rhaenyra if Viserys dies. How this will ultimately play out only time will tell.
Again, as the showrunners said, this feels like a second pilot, and I mean that in the best way possible. Cooke and D’Arcy are nothing short of excellent and the stakes are getting raised more and more with each passing week. Bring on episode seven!
House of the Dragon Episode Six ‘The Princess and the Queen’ rates: 8/10 Balerions