House of the Dragon - Episode 4 Review
Warning: The below contains full spoilers for Episode 4 of House of the Dragon, which aired on HBO on Sept. 11. To refresh your memory, check out our review of last week's episode.
Nobody is happy with what they’ve got in this week’s House Of The Dragon. A parade of royal malcontents complain about their lot in life with, relatively speaking, very little reason. There’s no torture, no murder, just a few boots in the kidney – and on a Westerosi scale, that barely registers as violence at all. This is The Crown with dragons. Well, one dragon anyway, swooping past in an opening scene to remind us that the show has a budget, before soaring away and leaving people to talk in rooms for the rest of the running time. Look, they had to recover from the outlay on stunts and visual effects last week for that battle scene. Time to get back to politicking and worrying about women’s private parts for yet another episode.
That’s not a joke: we’re again dwelling on women and reproduction – specifically Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) this time, since Alicent (Emily Carey) is having a break between pregnancies. The episode opens with the heir on tour as the noblemen of the realm, too young and too old, make their case to marry her. Rhaenyra struggles to maintain any level of decorum while listening to their suits, a Bachelorette with no roses to give. She’s unconsciously fondling the necklace that Uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) gave her, and you don’t have to be Freud to know who she’s cast as the benchmark against which to measure these dodderers and whippersnappers.
Every Dragon in Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon
When Daemon returns, all swagger and with a fancy new haircut, it’s clear that these two – who, again, are UNCLE and NIECE – have the hots for each other. He gives her a disguise and takes her for a night on the town: drinking, carousing, and sex show in a brothel, your typical family outing. But when they both get turned on at the sight and start making out, it’s Daemon who pulls away.
Why he does so is interesting: he doesn’t later deny, when accused, that they did the dirty, so it can’t be about protecting her reputation. But it may nevertheless have been a cack-handed attempt to protect her virtue from his own desires, and if it is then that’s so much creepier. Does Daemon want to leave her a virgin so he can marry her as such? Is he waiting to make it all legal, once he persuades his brother to allow him a second wife alongside the “bronze bitch” he already married? If so he’s out of luck, because Rhaenyra is so fired up that she goes straight home and seduces Ser Christen Cole (Fabien Frankel). So she’s telling the truth when she later swears she didn’t have carnal knowledge of Daemon, albeit not the whole truth.
This whole icky episode is taken more-or-less from George R.R. Martin’s book Fire And Blood, which also sees Daemon teach his niece about sex with instructive brothel visits (in the novel she’s even younger) and which also sees Rhaenyra develop a searing crush on the Whitecloak. There’s a theme running through this episode about sexual freedom, with Daemon promising that Rhaenyra can do what she likes once she’s married, which he does with the blithe self-assurance of a man who’s absolutely sure no rules really apply to him.
What Daemon doesn’t mention is that if it’s treasonous to accuse the heir to the throne of having sex outside marriage (as Rhaenyra claims), it has also historically been treason for a royal woman to have an affair once she’s married: just ask Anne Boleyn. Sure, different rules might apply to Targaryen dragon riders, given that it’s her bloodline that’s important and not that of her husband, but if the reason we’re revelling in all this endless sexism is “these books are like medieval history” then, well, any shagging around is bad news for Rhaenyra. The Targaryens, when they arrived in Westeros, brought two radical traditions with them: a tradition of incestuous marriage, and a tradition of allowing women to rule and inherit. Guess which one they fought to maintain? It might be a more interesting and less creepy show had they gone for the other.
This is a strong Considine episode, with all Viserys’ pettiness and weakness fully on show.“
Rhaenyra’s brothel trip is contrasted here with the sight of Alicent disassociating while she carries out her marital duties with Viserys (Paddy Considine). She may have played for, and got, the crown, but whatever satisfaction Alicent has found in her social status or in doing her duty by her family and country, she’s rather a sad figure currently: a nursemaid, a bed companion on call, and a counsellor with the softest of soft power and no official role. She and Rhaenyra at least reconcile momentarily, which is a rare moment of genuine warmth in a show that often feels chilly, but she’s clearly lonely and isolated too.
In any case, Viserys doesn’t believe his wife or daughter’s denial of an affair with Daemon, or he wouldn’t send the maester to Rhaenyra with contraceptive tea. This is a strong Considine episode, with all Viserys’ pettiness and weakness fully on show. He seems warily pleased to be reunited with his brother, but of course his idea of manly bonding is to ridicule both his wife and daughter. He’s now covered in sores and cuts from his throne, a martyr to his wounds, and prone to swaying whatever way the wind blows. Or is he? Rhaenyra persuades him to ditch Otto (Rhys Ifans) as his Hand, claiming it’s the price of her agreeing to marry. When Viserys talks to Otto, however, the bitterness and anger he spits at him seems to be his own; we certainly don’t see Rhaenyra feed him all those lines. He seems to have been holding some sort of grudge since his own father’s death years before, and there is fury there beneath the easygoing exterior. It’s worth remembering, in moments like this, that Viserys was the last man to ride the great dragon Balerion, whose skull now rests beneath the keep. He has a real dark side here, and Otto is right to fear it. With the position of Hand up for grabs and Daemon exiled once again, there’s yet more instability to come.
This is not a bad episode, in the sense that there are lots of good actors here delivering well-written drama; it’s well shot and beautifully produced. But this show is beginning to feel a little one-note. There’s little comedy, and a real lack of human connection. Maybe we should blame the fact that so much of its development took place in lockdown; perhaps no one noticed that chronic loneliness, everywhere and for everyone, is not a human default setting. Each lead character here is deeply unhappy in their gilded cage. Viserys wants peace and quiet; Rhaenyra wants freedom; Daemon wants Rhaenyra (it seems); Alicent wants a little respect. No one’s enjoying themselves right now – even at the sex party. It might have been a good idea to write in some more fun side characters, people not mentioned in Fire And Blood who could add a little more lightness to proceedings. Martin’s source novel is a faux history, more framework than narrative, so there’s room to expand the basic facts more than we’ve seen to date.
Not to continuously compare the two – although the shared theme tune and Viserys’ repeated incantation of the original book series’ title invite it – but Game Of Thrones gave us a close-knit family of Starks to care about, and a funny, cynical onlooker in Tyrion Lannister, as well as all the serious people jockeying for thrones. Here it’s all royals and no perspective, and House Of The Dragon is already feeling a little flat as a result even before you get into its determination to treat women as breeding machines and not as human beings. Hopefully next week can pick up the energy, or at least give us some jaw-dropping drama to distract us.
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This story originally appeared on: IGN - Author:Helen O'Hara