Tuesday, September 26, 2023

House of the Dragon Season 1 Final Recap: The Dragons Come Home to Sleep

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This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon episode 10, “The Black Queen.”

So in the end it comes down to this: House of the Dragon‘s gradual rise to conflict eventually results in open civil war with the season finale. In “The Black Queen,” Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) learns about her father’s death and must then make the decision to fight for the throne as she struggles through a horrific preterm labor caused by her shock at the news. But, like Alicent before her, her wishes about whether or not to immediately resort to violence are completely ignored by all the men around her.

I doubt this result. as creative work, House of the DragonThe first season suffered from tempo problems and time jumps that often made the show simultaneously feel like a slog through endless conversations about succession and a history lesson with many missing pages. From that point of view, the big conclusion could have happened anytime within the previous four or five episodes, and the only reason it didn’t is that the show had to be 10 episodes long. From this meta perspective, it’s hard not to find the whole thing anticlimactic, even if the episode culminates in an explosive moment that fans of George RR Martin’s book series have been anticipating.

Within the context of the show, however, things are a little more complex. I’ve been arguing all season (and at least one of the show’s writers has… agreed with me) that House of the Dragon is both a show that talks about the year 2022 and one that is actively deconstructing itself. From that point of view, these 10 episodes have not just been endless conversations about who gets to sit on the Iron Throne in the first place, but rather repeated little tests along a long, dark path that eventually leads to the question of whether they’re essentially a coup. The episode arrives at a political moment in our own world where understanding how these uprisings begin feels less like an abstract thought exercise and more like a practical question. Yes, technically Alicent (Olivia Cooke) was the first to pull off a coup, putting Aegon on the throne before Rhaenyra learned of her father’s death and returned to claim the title promised her all her life. But with “The Black Queen,” the show’s focus returns to the question of who this war is for and what it will cost.

The episode focuses on the individual choices that lead to the establishment of power, moment by moment, in a way that clearly shows how sexism is glorified and weaponized against women, and how individual choices function as small but crucial cracks in the edifice. of power . It also stops along the way to show us that any choice to confirm or deny the line of succession has a ripple effect, like the unexpected consequences of Alicent’s betrayal. This show is almost procedural in a sense, in that it deals with incremental milestones rather than big, sweeping stories. We get those too, but as we see in this episode, they arise from all those smaller decisions—the ones that seem insignificant at the moment, but can crystallize into decades-long grievances.

Rhaenyra, in agony of her labor, declares it’s Daemon’s war, but this seems as deliberately naive on her part as Alicent’s shock in the previous episode. Daemon (Matt Smith) continues his plans to rally support for Rhaenyra’s claim to the throne, despite her explicit instructions to the contrary. Perhaps hoping to hear from Rhaenyra’s son Jace (Harry Collett) to what extent he will be willing to disobey his mother, Daemon asks him to watch as he uses his huge dragon Caraxes to command loyalty from members of the King’s guard. He sends Jace a clear message on how to gain and maintain power. However, the political is always personal, so we get a heavy-handed, grotesque cross-section between Rhaenyra’s excruciating graphic miscarriage and a close-up of the dragon jaws, highlighting the muddy link between state power and personal pain.

Again, after her terrible delivery, Rhaenyra has no time to rest and barely time to mourn and bury her stillborn child; despite struggling with her grief, she still seems to be carefully considering her options, even as Daemon goes to war. When Otto (Rhys Ifans) arrives to pronounce the terms of the peace treaty, it is Daemon who responds. Otto speaks, all too accurately, of Aegon gaining an undeserved legitimacy for the throne because he co-opted the symbols of power. And what about the gentlemen’s accords that unite the clans of Westeros behind Rhaenyra, respecting the wishes of King Viserys? Otto waves them away by hand as ‘old oaths’. Later in the episode, they learn exactly how wise this observation is.

Daemon is clearly ready to go to war, and if it was… Game of ThronesThere’s no doubt that it wouldn’t just be his war: Rhaenyra has wanted this too much for too long, and the stakes have only gotten more personal. But this is House of the Dragon, and so Rhaenyra pauses, as she and Alicent have all along, to ask the hard questions: Is the throne worth burning all of Westeros down? Is it worth risking the lives of untrained and innocent dragons, let alone countless innocent humans?

When Rhaenyra tries to ask Daemon these questions, he responds by abruptly strangling her – a taste of what awaits her if she hesitates much longer. We’ve been led to believe this is the first time he’s ever been violent with her given Rhaenyra’s shock, but it’s a moment that feels inevitable rather than surprising. After all, the public has not forgotten that (as specifically by co-showrunner Ryan Condal) he coldly killed his first wife. Daemon, while making a good front, has always been violently selfish in the end.

The marriage between Rhaenys (Eve Best) and Corlyss Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) routinely reveals more of a real and equal meeting of ghosts than any other marriage we’ve seen in the series; but even Corlyss acts on his own whims and desires without considering himself half of a partnership. Women generally struggle in this series to simply have a say in their own destiny – Rhaenyra draws attention when she invites Rhaenys and her granddaughters to sit at the war council table with all the men; Rhaenys, who has arguably managed to gain the most personal freedom for herself after being turned into a pawn as a girl, still can’t get her own man to see how his actions affect her.

On the other hand, everyone in this show struggles with ripple effects. Considering that Rhaenyra and Alicent have both spent decades delaying the conflict they’ve come to now, it’s not surprising that Rhaenyra also hasn’t fully realized how much effort it will take to persuade the men of the Empire. bring their “old oaths” to honor. .” They both still do everything they can to slow down the war, but as we’ve seen all season, the men around them do whatever they want, often to the point of violence or manipulation if their wives aren’t involved.

What Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) wants is finally to take his long-wanted revenge on a boy half his age, Rhaenyra’s son Luke (Elliot Grihault). He finds his chance at House Baratheon, when Luke arrives hoping to gain a token of loyalty from a haughty Lord Borros. Instead, Lord Borros mocks him for bringing nothing to bargain with, accidentally giving Aemond, who arrived before Luke, the chance to pursue his vendetta.

Aemond declares that he wants to take Luke’s eye in exchange for the one he lost in episode 7. It’s unclear if he really intends to stop at Luke’s eye, but it seems highly unlikely, especially since Luke swore to his mother that he wouldn’t fight during his messenger mission. But dragons have a mind of their own, and once Aemond deploys his huge dragon Vhagar to chase little Arrax and Luke as they try to flee from him, the cat-and-mouse game easily turns fatal. Aemond seems shocked by this outcome, but what he hoped to achieve instead by sending the biggest dragon in the realm after one of the smallest is a gamble.

Revealing at least an acumen that most of the other characters in this show lack, Aemond immediately knows how far-reaching the ramifications of this game will be. Back in Dragonstone, upon learning of her son’s death, Rhaenyra finally descends, psychologically, to the title that has been waiting for her all along: the Black Queen.

The war is here and all players are finally ready to play their part.

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