Queens of the Throne Age – Rolling Stone

The King is dead. Long live…who, exactly?

With the passing of Viserys Targaryen — valar morghulis, buddy — the big question posed by this entire first season of House of the Dragon has now become inescapable. Who will sit on the Iron Throne now that House Targaryen’s patriarch has finally shuffled off to meet the Seven? Will it be Rhaenyra, his firstborn child and official heir? Or Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), his son with Queen Alicent and likely the preferred candidate of the sexist pigs who populate the realm?

If this week’s episode (“Lord of the Tides”) teaches us anything, it’s that it doesn’t have to be a big fight, dammit! And ironically, it’s another struggle over succession that paves the way for a potential rapprochement between the two sides of the larger conflict that’s coming.

Set six years after last week’s installment, the hour-plus episode begins with bad news: Lord Corlys Velaryon, the seemingly invincible Sea Snake, has been gravely injured in battle and may not pull through. By rights, Lucerys Velaryon (Elliot Grihault), his grandson through his “late” son Laenor, should inherit his Driftwood Throne.

But Corlys’s prideful brother Vaemond (Wil Johnson) disputes the claim on fairly obvious grounds: Luke and his siblings from Rhaenyra’s marriage to Laenor aren’t Laenor’s at all, but the bastard children of the slain Ser Harwin Strong. And bastards, well —they can’t inherit shit. Vaemond knows that King Viserys is too sick to rule these days, leaving Queen Alicent and her father Otto, the Hand of the King, in charge. Since they bear little love for Rhaenyra, Vaemond figures they’ll grant the Velaryon fortress, fortune, and fleet to him. Easy-peasy!

And so the whole miserable troupe of Targaryens and Velaryons make their way to King’s Landing to settle the matter, including a pregnant Rhaenyra and her second husband, Uncle Daemon, who by now have two sons of their own. (Rhaenyra pointedly named them Aegon — yes, another one — and Viserys.) Vaemond gives his big speech, and Otto appears ready to rule in his favor.

Not so fast! Into the throne room staggers Viserys himself, wearing a half mask like the Crabfeeder to cover up his missing eye and rotting face. He requires help getting up the steps to the Iron Throne, and receives it from a surprisingly tender source: Daemon, who seems legitimately saddened by his big brother’s state.

The surprises keep coming. Corlys’s wife Rhaenys — no fan of Rhaenyra, whom she blames for Laenor’s apparent death — backs Luke against Vaemond. What’s more, she announces her and Rhaenyra’s plan to marry Luke and his older brother Jacaerys (Harry Collett) to Rhaena (Phoebe Campbell) and Baela (Bethany Antonia), her true-blooded Velaryon granddaughters. In response, Vaemond loses his cool…and, thanks to Daemon’s sword, the upper half of his head, after calling the boys bastards at the top of his lungs. Was he too angry to realize he was signing his own death warrant? Too proud of his Velaryon heritage to care? You make the call!

The dinner party that follows (for the survivors, anyway) is, at first, as awkward as every other Targaryen family gathering. But in the episode’s most shocking moment, Viserys removes his mask and reveals his hideous face, so that his family can once again see him as a human being, frail and decaying though he may be. With all the strength he can muster, he begs everyone to try and get along. He loves them all. Can’t they love each other?

Believe it or not, it does the trick. Rhaenyra apologizes to Alicent, who responds by straight-up telling her friend-turned-rival “You will make a fine queen.” That settles that! Jace and Aegon’s sister-wife Helaena dance together. Alicent and Rhaenyra laugh like the old friends they are. Even Otto and Viserys look happy, for once.

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Ollie Upton/HBO

True, things end on a down note. Luke, who put out the eye of his young uncle Aemond at the funeral years back, picks a fight by ordering the piratical prince a roast pg — a callback to the days when the other kids taunted him for not having a dragon to ride. Not to be outdone, Aemond (a striking and intimidating Ewan Mitchell) raises his glass to Jace and Luke and their little bro Joffrey, praising them as “strong,” i.e. a pointed reference to the surname of their real father.

A scuffle breaks out, but this time nothing important gets stabbed out or cut off. Rhaenyra takes her kids home to Dragonstone to end the fighting, promising her once-again bestie Alicent she’ll return on dragonback as soon as she can.

But we said conflict was coming, and we meant it, thanks to a mix-up in the failing mind of King Viserys. Mistaking Alicent for Rhaenyra late that night, he brings up the prophecy known as the Song of Ice and Fire — Aegon the Conqueror’s dream of the Prince That Was Promised (you know him better as Jon Snow), who will unite the realm against a common foe in the North. “You are the one,” Viserys tells Alicent, still thinking he’s talking to his daughter. “You must do this.” Unfortunately for pretty much everyone alive, he dies soon thereafter, leaving Alicent to assume the “Aegon” he mentioned is their son, and that he wants her to place the little shit on the Iron Throne to bring the realm together.

Yeah, best of luck with that.

All told, it’s another engrossing glimpse of the slow-motion train wreck that is House Targaryen. The time jump is, once again, seamlessly executed, and the recast younger generation make fine first impressions. Jace is handsome and happy and likely too naive for his own good. Aegon has traded his long locks for a much less becoming look and has grown soft from drinking, to say nothing of his apparently rampant sex crimes. The real standout is Aemond One-Eye, who towers over all the other kids and looks as cool, cunning, and potentially cruel as his uncle Daemon, with whom he has a brief but noticeable face-off.

The makeup and effects teams deserve special shout-outs for their gruesome work on Viserys’s face and Vaemond’s head, or what’s left of it. (Leaving his tongue intact is a particularly gross touch.) And with the king’s death, we must bid farewell to Paddy Considine, who has delivered one of the year’s finest performances as the monarch. After a lifetime spent trying and failing to please everyone, he dies believing he’s finally done so, with no idea how delusional that is; Considine makes his final hours both noble and deeply depressing, a fine encapsulation of the whole character.

Yet the show’s decision to utilize the Ice and Fire prophecy to once again weaponize Alicent against Rhaenyra, mere hours after they reconcile, is a much tougher sell. It’s possible Alicent is just hearing what she wants to, deliberately ignoring her dying husband’s obvious confusion and dementia because his garbled words match what she still desires. But if it turns out that she sincerely believes she and her son are the chosen ones, it replaces so much of the show’s careful character work with the blunt force of fantasy, a shaky foundation for the divided House. We’ll steer clear of issuing our own prophecies on the matter, though, preferring instead to just stay tuned.

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