House of the Dragon climbs to new heights with ‘Lord of the Tides.’
Following the series’ second – and purportedly last – major time jump forward, House of the Dragon’s latest is all at once: a powerful culmination of the broiling tension between the Targaryens, Hightowers, and Velaryons; a powerhouse of impeccable technical craft, direction, cinematography, score, and performances; a captivating character study of regret, resentment, mortality, and powerlessness; and a bittersweet climax to the show’s political intrigue. While the show has already been renewed for a second season and – having fair knowledge of source material – at least another to cover the events of the Dance of Dragons, it will not come as a surprise if the show is unable to recapture the gravitas and potent intimacy of emotional climaxes as those contained within ‘Lord of the Tides’.
When Corlys Velaryon is gravely injured (albeit off-screen – ironically befitting of the season’s treatment of the events in the Stepstones), the succession of his lordship at Driftmark is called into question. While the seat should – technically – pass to Rhaenyra’s second eldest Lucerys, the unspoken truth about his non-Velaryon paternity prompts Corlys’ fiery brother Vaemond to petition that the seat should pass to him. This is even more opportune for Vaemond – and consequently more perilous for Rhaenyra and husband Daemon – by the prospect that Viserys’ failing health means Alicent and Otto have effectively assumed control of the Iron Throne. Rhaenyra and Daemon arrive at the capital to find their welcome party non-existent (Otto even refers to them in a subsequent scene as ‘The Queen’s [Alicent’s] guests’), the Seven-Pointed star of the Faith in place of Targaryen livery, and Viserys addled and bedbound by milk of the poppy. Fans of the popular ‘Citadel Conspiracy’ will have lots of ammunition from this episode. Carrying on from previous episodes, the subtle nods and winks to aspects of George RR Martin’s wider lore (in this instance, the notion that the Hightowers, Citadel Maesters, and the Faith all originate from Oldtown and have deep-routed allegiances to each other) are well-balanced so as not to detract from the central drama.
What follows is a build-up to a phenomenal sequence in the Throne Room. Geeta Vasant Patel’s direction is sublime in capturing Rhaenyra’s desperation to find support for Lucerys’ claim. The pacing and tension build magnificently to reveal Viserys, fully garbed and hunched over a cane, coming to his daughter’s aid. It is this 3-minute sequence of Viserys hobbling up to sit the throne, with just three short lines of dialogue, it is the most tragically heroic moment in the HotD/GoT chronology. From Paddy Considine’s heart-wrenching performance that embodies the determination for his daughter despite his frailty, to the frustrated glances exchanged between Vaemond and the Greens, Viserys is finally presented as unambiguously ‘kingly’. While, from an audience perspective, this should not vindicate him for his previous failures as a leader, this final act of defending Rhaenyra is the ultimate tragedy of Viserys character and the complex relations he shared with Daemon, Alicent, and his various children. Thematically, it is clear that the ‘loss’ of Aemma – despite his complicity in her death – is the burden of grief that has spurred so many ill-fated decisions, and in ‘Lord of the Tides’ we see a resolution to that arc.
Of course, even this resolution is not without its own consequences and fallout. Following a bloody conclusion to Vaemond’s petition (and a wickedly cunning call-back to Viserys’ offhanded comment in Episode 1 to ‘let [treasonous tongues] wag’), the next set piece is a banquet shared by the central characters. Again, lifting very particularly from the book’s version of a similar event, Viserys commands the table to rekindle their bonds of affection, resulting in Rhaenyra and Alicent exchanging toasts. What reads on the page as an encounter laced with false politeness and feigned respect is instead delivered with utter sincerity between the two leads. It is a fitting change given the season’s establishment of the once-close friendship the two shared. The intimacy of the emotionally charged glances between Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke is exquisite in evoking the chemistry between Alcock and Carey in the premier, and not-too-subtly hinting at the ‘what-could-have-been’ romantic feelings for one another discussed by the cast and crew. While the scene does appear to rekindle the connection (albeit momentarily) between the two, Viserys’ exhaustion and premature exit from the room quickly lead to the deathly-quiet Aemond One-Eye (now played by the impossibly-sharp-chinned Ewan Mitchell) taunting Jace and Luke over their Strong parentage. Mitchell’s wicked charisma is mesmerizing; again, the subtle character work alluding to his respect for Daemon’s brazenness is a superb touch peppered in unspoken moments throughout the episode. The brief spat between the boys further reinforces Viserys’ tragedy at the fragility of the peace he exerts his final energies to achieve.
In another way, the show also is something of a tragic conclusion for viewers as well. This episode’s best qualities are from reveling in the political intrigue and increasingly troubled relations between the Westerosi households. Just as with Episode 7, the very best content from House of the Dragon has come from putting a large portion of the central cast into a room and allowing the intricate web of dynamics to play out naturally. From what I know of the Fire and Blood lore, ‘Lord of the Tides’ will likely be the last time all these characters are assembled in one place (and certainly the last time many will see each other alive). By the season’s end, the Dance of Dragons civil war will be in full swing, and at that point, I am cautious as to what role this type of political intrigue and contained family drama will evolve into. For certainty, there are many large conflicts, dramatic twists, and delicious one-liners in store, but there is no key event that all of the central characters will have to debate, negotiate, taunt, and scheme over. Nevertheless, Ryan Condall and the writing team have certainly proven themselves capable of delivering remarkable fantasy TV, but I for one am going to cherish the experience of watching ‘Lord of the Tides’. It is an undisputed new gold standard for the series going forward.