TV Review: ‘House of the Dragon’ Season One Episode Ten: ‘The Black 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: Princess Rhaenys delivers the horrible news to Dragonstone that King Viserys has passed and Aegon II has been proclaimed King. Fighting an early pregnancy and a war obsessed Daemon, Queen Rhaenyra begins shoring up her supporters to keep the realm whole. Otto Hightower and his retinue offer terms to Rhaenyra from King’s Landing. Luke is dispatched to Storm’s End with disastrous consequences.
Review: It seems like just yesterday that we were all watching Milly Allcock’s Rhaenyra descend from the sky on Syrax to attend King Viserys’ Small Council meeting. Here we are now just two months later at the end of arguably one of the best first seasons of television ever. Last week’s episode covered the coup, but the real questions were how would Rhaenyra and Daemon react to the fallout and would the season finale live up the hype?
In recent weeks I’ve been struck by how excellent the cinematography is on this show and “The Black Queen” was no different, opening with the legendary Painted Table on Dragonstone. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of what’s at stake. Princess Rhaenys is of course the one to deliver the crushing news of King Viserys’ death and how Alicent and Otto have conspired to usurp Rhaenyra’s throne. How Rhaenyra and Daemon each react sets the tone for the rest of the episode. Daemon reacts with rage and disgust while Rhaenyra is so hurt and shaken to her core that it causes her to go into early labor. The dichotomy, the two divergent ways that Daemon and Rhaenyra react to this scenario, anchors this entire episode.
Eve Best’s Princess Rhaenys and her responses to Rhaenyra’s plight also become integral through this season finale. I respected that director Greg Yaitanes did not shy away from the inevitable confrontation between Daemon and Rhaenys. He wants to know why she didn’t burn him all and her response—that the war that will ensure from this treachery is justified but that it won’t be started by her—makes sense. At the end of the day, Princess Rhaenys may support Rhaenyra, but she ultimately did not begin this conflict, nor will she exacerbate the problem by throwing fuel on the fire. I think back to last week’s episode where Alicent stated that Rhaenys should have ruled not Viserys. While in hindsight I in no way think that Alicent was in earnest in her sentiments, it doesn’t make her claim any less true. It might have been better for the realm had Rhaenys been named Queen.
Also, again credit where it’s due to the editing in this episode as they do a magnificent job of cutting back and forth between the war that’s going on in the labor room and the war that’s going on in the actual war room. A major theme of this season has been body autonomy, whether it means having it stripped away or having your own body betray you. The latter is what is happening to Rhaenyra. While others, particularly Daemon, are plotting her potential war, she’s trapped by her painful labor. Yet even during this, Rhaenyra entreats Jace and Luke to take no action without her leave, something that Jace passes on to Prince Daemon who’s none too pleased. It’s clear that this is the exact moment Daemon’s been planning (praying? hoping?) for years and now that it is here, he’s chafed by the yolk of his own lady wife.
As much as Prince Daemon has a one-track mind when it comes to the throne he does one of the most rock and roll things I’ve seen him do all season. In an effort to show Prince Jace a thing or two about loyalty, he hauls the only two Kingsguard on Dragonstone outside and puts Caraxes in front of them, offering them to re-pledge their loyalty to Rhaenyra or die a clean death. Of course, he also promises them they will die screaming if they are playing Daemon false. It’s one of those moments that I was just on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen. As much of a psychopath as Daemon is you can’t help but admire and even cheer his badassery.
It wouldn’t be a House of the Dragon episode without a brutal birthing scene and “The Black Queen” episode is probably the most harrowing yet, with Rhaenyra giving birth to a stillborn daughter. The fact that she tries to do it all on her own, refusing her handmaidens’ help, seems to imply that she needs to be strong enough, independent enough, courageous enough to be a Queen. To be a Queen means to stand apart and make tough decisions. It’s also an attempt by Rhaenyra to exert some control over a situation that’s quickly spiraling out of control. Having said that, she should have accepted some fucking help from her handmaidens. I mean this scene was just painful to watch and I’m in awe of Emma D’Arcy here because I fully believed at one point, they were giving birth for real.
What impressed me about this episode is how much it echoes and is having a conversation with the first episode. Both Rhaenyra and Viserys lose prominent people in their lives (Viserys loses Aemma, and Rhaenyra loses Viserys) and also both lose a child in childbirth. It’s like Rhaenyra is walking her father’s path, seeing things from his point of view. And of course, in the middle of the funeral, Ser Erryk shows up bearing the crown of King Viserys and swearing his allegiance to the Queen. This is a supremely triumphal moment because in a moment of great sorrow, Daemon crowns Rhaenyra and everyone kneels before her as the Queen. Everyone except Rhaenys who still seems to be deciding if Rhaenyra is worthy of her obeisance.
At Rhaenyra’s first war council meeting it takes her a moment to get her bearing but when she does, everything that Rhaenyra’s trained for her whole life kicks in like muscle memory. Rhaenyra commands the room looking to evaluate her allies and yet Daemon appears to be the one in charge, already taking actions and planning to go to the Riverlands himself. You can see Rhaenyra is not pleased but at this point is unwilling to say anything. Daemon is acting like he’s wearing her crown. Of course, one of Rhaenyra’s lords finally brings up the 8000 pound flying lizard in the room, namely that the talk of men and troops is moot because she has dragons. Why isn’t Rhaenyra using them? Daemon clearly wants to, yet Rhaenyra sees them for what they are—nuclear bombs.
In the midst of this debate, Otto and his retinue show up with the two parties meeting on the bridge and Queen Rhaenyra once again descending on Syrax. Again, I love the symmetry here between the season finale and episode two. So many things have changed and yet so many things have stayed the same. This is the scene where Rhaenyra clearly starts to assert herself as Queen. She calls out Otto and his ilk for being traitors (even going so far as to fling his symbol of office over the bridge) but ultimately refuses to kill them or burn them all, much to Daemon’s chagrin. Otto sadly does make a good point in that every symbol of legitimacy—the Valyrian sword Blackfyre, the Conqueror’s crown, and the Conqueror’s name—all belong to Aegon II. It is a reminder that taking the Iron Throne will not be easy. Strategically was this the best move? Probably not. At the very least she could have taken Otto prisoner.
The subsequent war meeting after Otto’s interruption becomes volatile to say the least. Daemon naturally pushes for war, but Rhaenyra knows her histories, commenting that when dragons went to war, everything burned. Her goal is not to sit the Iron Throne no matter the cost but to keep peace in the realm and minimize bloodshed. Daemon loudly demands “What are you going to do about it??!!” which prompts Rhaenyra to clear the room. Clearly, she’s flexing her power which is necessary in my opinion. This isn’t Daemon’s crown it’s hers. Shockingly Daemon beings to choke Rhaenyra something I wasn’t expecting. It’s almost the act of a spoiled child. He’s not getting his way, so he reacts violently. The fact that he has no knowledge of Aegon’s dream and the Song of Ice and Fire is an indictment of his character. Viserys NEVER trusted him enough to impart Aegon’s secret because he knew how volatile Daemon could be.
In what may be the most riveting and vital scene of the episode (aside from the obvious) Corlys and Rhaenys finally confront each other after six long years apart. Laenor’s death caused Corlys to cope with his grief in the only way he knew how—war. Yet as Rhaenys points out this is no excuse as he essentially abandoned her to run Driftmark. However, it seems that his near-death experience has changed Corlys. In a moment of true self-awareness, he acknowledges how much his ambition has cost his family and decides they should declare for no one and retire to Driftmark. Ironically, this is no longer what Rhaenys wants. She’s seen how capable Rhaenyra is and wishes to support her claim and her children. Ultimately Rhaenys has found someone worthy of following, the only person who appears to be avoiding war and keeping the realm intact. Rhaenys ultimately convinces Lord Corlys, handing Queen Rhaenyra her first significant advantage as they now control the Narrow Sea, the Stepstones, and the Velaryon fleet.
The late, great American football coach Vince Lombardi had a saying that’s been passed down over the decades. “Everyone has a plan until they get hit.” I’ve been thinking about that adage a lot in the wake of Queen Rhaenyra’s decision to send Jace and Luke to treat with her potential supporters. I respected the fact that she made them both swear to go as envoys not warriors but just because you swear to do something doesn’t mean that the other guy is going to acknowledge or care about your oath. That’s abundantly clear when Luke arrives at Storm’s End.
Before we get into the Luke/Aemond debacle can we take a minute to discuss what an opportunistic, witless, douche canoe Borros Baratheon (Roger Evans) is? Not only does he look and act like the discount Wal-Mart version of Robert Baratheon, this bearded and illiterate rectal polyp acts like the House of the Dragon should engage in a bidding war for the Stormlands’ services. He’s so dishonorable and dismissive of Luke it’s enraging. Calling Luke “pup,” I mean come on man! At least he had the decency to honor guest right privileges and refused Aemond and Luke to spill blood in his house. Then again if your minimal requirement for being a decent a human being is to be just slightly better than Walder Frey, you may have other issues to address.
These final scenes are so tense and so well done. It’s a delicious slow burn that I can’t praise enough. I think this is the first episode where I really appreciate how massive Vhagar truly is. Arrax looks like a sparrow standing next to a 747 by comparison. Luke is clearly shaken up when he sees Vhagar, however credit where it’s due, Luke could have turned around and flown home, but he didn’t. He knew that Vhagar’s presence meant Prince Aemond was there too and he did it anyway.
As a fan of the book Fire and Blood I loved that we finally got to see the sapphire Aemond placed in his eye socket. Somehow this makes him look more intimidating and vicious, especially when he demands Luke take out his eye in payment of the one Aemond lost. This part is significant because when Luke refuses, it’s the first time we see Aemond lose his composure. He’s like a madman, screaming at Luke to take out his eye. It’s a subtle reminder that beneath that cool exterior is a tortured, raging creature.
The dragon sequence between Luke and Arrax and Aemond and Vhagar is nothing less than superb. It’s well lit, there’s a cat and mouse element, and they really played up the difference in size and maneuverability between Arrax and Vhagar. What I also loved is that what ultimately causes Luke’s death is not intentional malice from the Aemond but the simple fact that the dragons got out of hand. What an excellent decision by the showrunners. This reinforces what Viserys said in the first episode which is that the idea that the Targaryens control the dragons is an illusion. They are wild beasts at the end of the day. I also liked how Luke’s death clearly shook Aemond up. He did not intend for Luke to die but clearly just to scare him. What will be interesting to see next season is how Aemond chooses to spin this situation. Will he own it as an accident or as an intentional act that marks the first true casualties in the Dance of the Dragons?
Much like the showrunners’ story choice to present Luke’s death as an accident, I loved how they chose to break the news of Luke’s death to Queen Rhaenyra. Rather than it be some overwrought scene where she screams in agony the whole scene is slowed down and (other than music) plays out in complete silence. There were so many little nuances here like Daemon taking Rhaenyra’s hand, or Rhaenyra almost stumbling due to the news, or her turning to face the camera with a horrible look of pain, loss, devastation, and rage on her face. In case you’re not keeping score at home, this means that in a matter of a few days Rhaenyra has lost her father, her newborn daughter, and her second born son. While she’s so far been devoted to keeping the realm from burning and preventing needless bloodshed, I fear for how this latest act will affect Rhaenyra’s mental state and any subsequent actions she may take. Grief can make you do crazy, out of character things—trust me I know from personal experience.
This could be because of my favorable bias of the source material and subject matter but I would argue that House of the Dragon is not only the best show of 2022 by far, but it may also be the best first season of television ever. Every week was event viewing television for me, and I never felt like things dragged. Every scene felt like it had weight and purpose. Everything from the writing, the performances, the cinematography, the direction, the music—all of it was top-tier.
All hail House of the Dragon! May season two reign soon!
House of the Dragon Episode Ten ‘The Black Queen’ rates: 10/10 Balerions
House of the Dragon Season One Overall rates: 9/10 Balerions
I just finished the book, so I found myself comparing it to that. So far, they’ve done very well. I have to agree that this is pretty much the best television I’ve seen since the first season of GoT.