Fire, Blood and a Stag Party – Rolling Stone

It’s not easy being king.

That’s been the story for poor Viserys Targaryen since House of the Dragon began, hasn’t it? Every time he seems to catch a break or make a decision, he winds up pissing off more people than he pleases. For a people-person like him, it’s a fate worse than the Seven Hells. And even though nearly three years have passed in Westeros time between last week’s episode and this one, things have only gotten worse.

For example, we see Viserys at the center of a massive, festival-like hunt in the royal forest called the Kingswood, in honor of the second birthday of Prince Aegon, his son with his much younger wife Alicent Hightower. (She’s already heavily pregnant with Baby No. 2 by the time we rejoin the action.) The assembled nobility and townsfolk applaud rapturously for the royal family — then proceed to spend most of their time badmouthing the king’s lack of action over his brother Daemon’s war for control of the seas, trying and failing to woo the still-unwed Princess Rhaenyra, and generally being pests.

Many of the king’s attendants — including his ambitious Hand, Ser Otto Hightower — are super-hype to report that a pseudo-mythical white stag has been spotted in the forest, an auspicious omen for young Aegon. A decidedly less enthusiastic Viserys responds by forcing some phony smiles and getting rip-roaring drunk. It turns out that long ago, he had a prophetic dream that he’d have a son wearing Aegon the Conqueror’s crown. Now he has no idea if he did the right thing by passing the monarchy to Rhaenyra. He’s so knackered by the time his minions catch a stag — not the white one of legend — that it takes him multiple stabs with a spear to kill the poor thing.

And oh, did we mention that he’s lost two fingers on his left hand to that wound he incurred from the Iron Throne? Yeah, things are not going great for this guy.

As for Rhaenyra, now 17 years old, she’s unhappier than ever, sensing the growing sentiment that her baby half-brother should inherit the throne instead of her. She races off into the woods on horseback with her sworn Kingsguard knight Ser Criston Cole hot on her tail. They wind up having a fine, exciting time together: Cole jokes that he’d be willing to kill her obnoxious suitor Lord Jason Lannister (Jefferson Hall, who also plays Jason’s twin brother Tyland), and the two of them team up to kill a massive wild boar that attacks their campsite.

And when that elusive white stag finally appears — not to the hunting party, but to them — Rhaenyra refuses to let Cole kill it, allowing the magnificent beast to live another day.

While Viserys is out there struggling, his estranged brother Prince Daemon is faring little better on a hunt of his own. He and his ally, Corlys Velaryon, are losing their war on the chain of islands called the Stepstones. Despite commanding Westeros’ most powerful navy, Corlys is outmatched by the enemy, who have the full support of an alliance called the Triarchy behind them. Daemon uses his dragon — a sinewy, snake-like beast called Caraxes — to torch their ships and troops. But their commander, the sinister figure called the Crabfeeder, and the bulk of his forces keep retreating into caves where the flames can’t touch them.

This causes dissent among the Velaryon ranks. Corlys’s son Laenor (Matthew Carver) — a leading candidate for Rhaenyra’s future husband, BTW — argues that Daemon is the only one with the guts to take the fight to the enemy. But the Sea Snake’s brother Vaemond (Wil Johnson) argues that Daemon’s recklessness is what got them into this unwinnable mess in the first place.

Then Daemon gets a message that changes everything. At the encouragement of Queen Alicent, who’s becoming a shrewd political operator even as she and her old friend Rhaenyra grow more estranged, Viserys finally offers troops and ships to help Daemon and Corlys win their war. The message merely enrages the rogue prince, who literally beats up the messenger.

Determined to win the war on his own, Daemon rows out to the Crabfeeder’s hideout, waves a white flag, and offers his sword…then promptly starts murking enemy soldiers left and right, drawing a hail of arrows which pierce his armor. Just when all seems lost, Corlys and Vaemond show up as backup, with Laenor on his own dragon, Seasmoke, raining fire from above. Daemon strides into a dark cave and comes out with the Crabfeeder — or what’s left of him, after the prince cuts him in half.

It’s an appropriately gory end for a character who, with his creepy mask attached to a face that’s a mess of scar tissue, seemed more like a villain in a slasher film than military commander. And it leads to one of the most memorable images of Daemon yet, as he wordlessly walks across the beach toward the camera, his blonde hair turned dark with enemy blood. (No doubt it’s a deliberate echo of Rhaenyra’s bloody hair after her battle with that boar.) Coupled with actor Matt Smith’s striking visage, it’s the stuff legendary characters are made of.

But other, less berserk players make strong impressions this week two. Actor Emily Carey is impressive as Alicent, a young woman growing more confident in her power but still determined to hold the family together. Considering the importance the show places on Rhaenyra, the Queen would seem like a natural bad guy, but Carey’s work humanizes the character.

Rhys Ifans, meanwhile, is appropriately cool and calculating as her dad Ser Otto. He’s finally coming out and saying what’s seemed obvious from the jump: He wants Viserys to name Aegon his heir, Rhaenyra be damned. An ambitious guy, he’s nonetheless being pressured by his own older brother, the even more powerful and grasping Lord Hobert (Stefan Rhodri). Ifans makes Otto’s delicate dance between loyalty to the king and to his own family look like the work of an old pro.

Even the more minor characters stand out. Hall is a hoot as the slimy Jason Lannister and as his anxious twin brother Tyland, who’s replaced Corlys as Master of Ships on the Small Council. And Gavin Spokes has a winning presence as Lord Lyonel Strong, seemingly the only member of the Council willing to give Viserys advice that doesn’t directly benefit himself or his house. (He rejects his own son as a suitor for Rhaenyra in favor of Laenor.)

Once again, Dragon’s combination of fantasy spectacle (it’s gonna be hard to shake the image of the Crabfeeder’s fate) and family drama proves that there’s a lot of life left in the old Game of Thrones formula. And with more time jumps likely on the horizon — both Milly Alcock and Emily Carey will soon be replaced by older actors as their characters age up — who knows what we’ll find after the next leap into the uncertain future?

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