Cry Uncle – Rolling Stone

Come on — this is the Game of Thrones universe. You didn’t think we’d escape without a little incest, did you?

Inbreeding is a hallowed tradition in the world of House of the Dragon. Old King Jahaerys and Good Queen Alysanne, King Viserys’s grandparents and immediate predecessors on the Iron Throne, were brother and sister. Viserys himself married his cousin. And, of course, the Lannister siblings Jaime and Cersei would take up the keep-it-in-the-family mantle themselves decades later, driving Thrones’ entire course of events.

So it’s no surprise that when Daemon returns to King’s Landing — surrendering the crown he won in his conquest of the Stepstones, reconciling with his brother the king, and sporting a brand-new all-business haircut — his first act of celebration is to whisk his niece Rhaenyra out of the palace and into the streets. There, they can take in a play where the actors mock her claim to the throne…and make out in a “pleasure house” without consequence.

It is admittedly a darkly erotic thrill to watch the unconventionally beautiful actors Milly Alcock and Matt Smith play their roles as Rhaenyra and Daemon, as these characters slowly warm to the idea of getting it on in a semi-public environment. It speaks to the complexities of Daemon’s character that he backs off before the deed can be done — and to the burgeoning desires of Rhaenyra herself when she seduces her Kingsguard knight Ser Criston Cole as a replacement for her uncle. Both scenes — Rhaenyra and Daemon making out and stripping down in the brothel, Rhaenyra studiously stripping Cole out of his armor so that they can fuck in the Red Keep — have genuine heat.

But the consequences for these acts are enormous, and potentially beyond what any of the participants are willing to pay. Word of Rhaenyra and Daemon’s dangerous (though unconsummated) liaison quickly travels back to the Red Keep via a child spy in the employ of, of all people, Daemon’s paramour Mysaria. As she herself chides her lover, she’s no longer a common concubine — she appears to be a spymaster of some talent, and a primary source of intelligence for no less a personage than Ser Otto Hightower, the Hand of the King himself. (Her nickname is apparently “the White Worm”; cool nicknames are almost always a sign of success in Westeros.)

For all his ambition and his intent to see his direct grandson Prince Aegon seated on the Iron Throne in Rhaenyra’s place, Otto knows he’s playing with fire if he reports this news back to the king. There’s a beautiful moment when the camera simply focuses on Hightower as he quietly steels himself to approach his ruler with his findings; he clearly knows this is a make-or-break moment not just for him, but for his entire lineage, and actor Rhys Ifans finds exactly the right measure of fear and drive for the occasion.

The thing is, it’s really only a half-truth. Rhaenyra snuck out of the Red Keep and lived it up with Prince Daemon, yes. But the spy scooted out of there before he could see that they never did have sex.

Not that this stopped Rhaenyra from scoring. Spurned by her uncle — whether he does it out of fear or out of loyalty to Mysaria is hard to say — the randy princess returns to the Red Keep and promptly beds down Ser Criston, who’s as awkward as a schoolboy on the face of her confident advances.

Daemon, meanwhile, is literally dragged before the king for sullying Rhaenyra’s reputation. There’s a tremendous, gendered double standard at work here: Men like the Targaryen brothers are free to indulge themselves across King’s Landing, but even a rumor that a maiden like Rhaenyra has lost her virginity is enough to destroy her reputation and her politically all-important marriage prospects. (Since she’s already rejected nearly every young lord and knight in the kingdom, the problem is even more severe.)

Unfortunately, the truth is hard for any of the interested parties to ascertain. Rhaenyra swears to Queen Alicent that she never had sex with Daemon — which is true — and that Daemon never touched her — which is false. Alicent dutifully reports to Viserys that Rhaenyra swears her virtue is intact — which she never actually said, and which isn’t true, but the doer of the deed was Ser Criston, not Prince Daemon. The rogue prince himself lies to Viserys that he did indeed deflower the princess — pure bullshit, designed to provoke — and asks for her hand in marriage, a request Viserys instantly rejects while kicking the shit out of his severely hungover younger brother and banishing him from King’s Landing for good.

And so the characters who sit in judgement of the situation draw whatever conclusions they can. Alicent, still vestigially loyal to the young woman who was once her best friend, insists to Viserys that it’s not in Rhaenyra’s nature to lie, while Daemon would do so simply to “reduce” the king. Rhaenyra, who knows exactly who narc-ed on her, defends herself against the accusations regarding her alleged tryst with Daemon. Never mind the fact that she would have gone through with the act had Daemon been willing, or the fact that she wound up having sex with Cole instead.

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So an agreement is reached. On her father’s orders, Rhaenyra will marry Laenor Velaryon, the son of “the Sea Snake” Lord Corlys Velaryon, in order to repair the breach between the Seven Kingdoms’ most powerful families and reunite their Valyrian bloodlines. In exchange, Viserys agrees to remove the ambitious Ser Otto Hightower as Hand of the King, finally realizing that Rhaenyra is right in claiming that Otto aims to replace her with her half-brother Aegon as heir to the Iron Throne.

With zero bloodshed and only the briefest appearance of Daemon’s dragon Caraxes, this is easily the least spectacular episode of House of the Dragon yet. But it also feels, in its way, like the most important. At last, all the ruses have been dropped, and the ambitions of the various characters have been revealed.

Otto’s ambition is punished. So is Daemon’s. Rhaenyra’s position is confirmed, at the cost of her freedom to choose her own mate — a choice few women in Westeros are given in the first place. The ailing King Viserys, his body covered with open wounds from the Iron Throne, can go on ruling his fractured court, convinced that everything has been resolved. And Grand Maester Mellos offers Rhaenyra a drink that functions as a Plan B pill, making it clear that the tales of her exploits are a matter of common knowledge.

But the situation is obviously untenable. Rhaenyra came within a hair’s breadth of getting it on with her uncle, and succeeded in sullying her celibate Kingsguard knight. Daemon has been betrayed by Mysaria, who’s become a power broker in her own right. Otto has been kicked out of court, even as his daughter Alicent exerts more influence over her husband. The Velaryons stand to gain everything the Hightowers have lost. And it’s all rooted in the magnetic performances of the main cast, with Paddy Considine, Matt Smith, Milly Alcock, Emily Carey, and Rhys Ifans all shining while handling their most complicated material yet.

In short, House of the Dragon is a hoot. May its reputation last even longer than that Valyrian steel dagger of Viserys’s, which contains the Song of Ice and Fire and which, we believe, will eventually be used in the assassination attempt against Bran Stark and the killing of the Night King by his sister Arya. No matter the chaos, it all comes full circle in the end.

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