House of the Dragon’s latest episode presents the most substantial challenge for the show and audiences yet. In jumping the narrative forward by 10 years, the episode effectively functions as another series pilot (a notion that Miguel Sapochnik embraces in his behind-the-scenes interview) that (re)introduces the Targaryens and prominent Westerosi houses. Additionally, the episode must find compelling ways to convey the essential parts of the chronology that have elapsed between this episode and the last. More importantly, the episode must retain audiences’ engagement by highlighting the significance of the time jump, simultaneously weaving together the two time periods while effectively rebuilding the stakes to keep viewers engaged.
Where The Queen and the Princess undeniably succeeds is in the handing-over to the new roster of actors (Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra, Emilia Cooke as Alicent, John Macmillan as Laenor, and Nanna Blondell as Laena) replacing their younger counterparts. The intricate dynamics between these characters are given a fresh lease of life, and that is even more complimented by the debut of the younger generation of Targaryens and Velaryons (Alicent, Rhaenyra, and Laena’s children respectively). With only a handful of scenes between them, the younger cast does a fantastic job of creating compelling characters that I look forward to seeing further come into their roles in subsequent episodes. Despite that, the episode inevitably becomes a victim of the issues that have hampered the previous episodes. As the stakes begin to rise and the deaths (this is Westeros after all) begin to strike off the named supporting characters, the overall lack of time to get to know more about these people is seriously detracting from what would have been moments of intense tragedy and melancholy.
Ironically, despite the time jump, the events of The Queen and the Princess are far more naturally weaved together from the Fire and Blood source material, especially compared to last week, where the Green Wedding felt like a dramatic payoff to a near non-existent build-up. We pick up Rhaenyra’s story on the day she delivers her third son, Joffrey, as she and her husband begrudgingly present the newborn to a far slyer Alicent, and a far more decrepit Viserys. The tension of the episode comes as Rhaenyra faces renewed suspicion that all three of her sons (sporting uncharacteristic brown hair) were fathered by Ser Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr). Nowhere is this suspicion more vicious than with Alicent who, with only Larys Strong as an advisor, is shown through the episode becoming more desperate at getting her son Aegon (Ty Tennant), and later Viserys, to acknowledge the challenge this brings as Rhaenyra will seek to inherit the Iron Throne.
With no action sequences save for Criston Cole leading a sparring session with Aegon and the other princelings (and subsequent fisticuffs after deliberately provoking Ser Harwin), the episode shines yet again by establishing highly compelling character dynamics. New additions to the series are the genuine snippets of camaraderie between Aegon and his cousins (Rhaenyra’s other two sons); the unspoken understanding between Rhaenyra, Harwin, and Laenor that begins to cause fissures in their dynamic as more eyebrows are raised; and the dynamic between adult Laena and Daemon as they consider the best future for themselves and their two daughters. Moments such as these demonstrate – just as the introduction of Larys to the core roster of characters last week – how naturally great television can come from just letting characters breathe and build dynamics with one another.
Instead of doing more of this, however, Queen and the Princess repeats the issues of last week’s Green Wedding, jumping straight from establishing a dynamic to depicting its dramatic climax. As much as it irks me to quantitively compare the show to Thrones, I cannot help but ponder that similar dynamics and narrative arcs would have been fleshed out over multiple episodes during the show’s prime. The suspicions around Harwin become too prominent, resulting in Harwin and his father Lyonel depart King’s Landing, only to be assassinated by Larys upon their return. Laena’s third pregnancy puts her in a similar life-threatening predicament to Aemma in the season premiere (a poignant choice to have Daemon refuse the chance to save the baby if it meant killing Laena), only for Laena to take her own life by commanding her dragon to incinerate her. Had we not only just been introduced to Laena, and had we not only just had a chance to see Harwin’s character take the spotlight in the focus of the various plot lines, but these two moments would also be tinged with heartache and dread for the surviving characters going forward. As it stands, just as with the Green Wedding, the moments are decidedly underwhelming; it is difficult to feel for Daemon or Rhaenyra’s loss when we have only had a chance to get to know these characters throughout one episode. Knowing what will follow this part in the chronology, I am anticipating this will not be the last occurrence of this problem.
It is a shame that aside from the increasingly noticeable issues brought about by the plot’s pacing, House of the Dragon is still a very strong show. In a sense, the brisk pacing a lack of character development beyond the central cast is understandable if the show is being pitched more toward those unfamiliar with the expanse of George RR Martin’s lore. Naturally, not every character from every house needs the time to be fleshed out into highly nuanced characters with complex motivations and insecurities, and the show’s intention to center the core narrative around Rhaenyra over the Dance of Dragons is certainly the best way to creatively explore the underlying themes of gender roles, sexuality, and internalized misogyny. Fundamentally, I feel there was a critical underestimation as to how much both the lore, and the fans, relish the minute detail that comes with embellishing the smaller characters and parts of Westeros on the periphery of the central action. The marketing build-up to the season premier particularly focused on introducing the Hightowers and Velaryons, making one anticipate that the triarchy of families may be akin to the depth and intricacy of the Starks, Lannisters, and Baratheons in the first season of Thrones. Alas, none of the families aside from the Targaryens (and Alicent as the one exception) have had significant development throughout the season so far. The Velaryons, Hightowers, and Strongs have significant roles in Fire and Blood, however, their presence in House of the Dragon continues to feel auxiliary, with members of each family only having prominence in the plot when needed. As each episode progresses and the bodies begin to pile up, the underdevelopment of the majority of side characters feels like a disservice to the amount of detail that could have been adapted, or embellished, from the source material.