The Royal Rumble – Rolling Stone

A child runs across the moonlit sands. As the stars shine down into the ocean nearby, the boy approaches a dragon asleep on the beach — Vhagar, massive and ancient, the largest and oldest animal in Westeros. Determined to seize what he feels is his birthright, he braves the beast’s searching eyes and fiery gullet, climbing up the rope ladder to its back dozens of feet off the ground. Commanding the creature in an ancient tongue, he drives it into the sky, taking flight at long last. The boy shakes, tumbles, hangs on for dear life…but in the end, he stays in control. A child, commanding the most dangerous thing in the world.

That’s the mythic imagery and power around which this episode of House of the Dragon (“Driftmark”) centers: young Aemond Targaryen, the second male offspring of King Viserys — the son and heir of nothing in particular, as the old song goes — seizing control of his late aunt Laena Velaryon’s legendary reptilian steed. If only it were all this poetic and magical. Unfortunately for Houses Targaryen and Velaryon, Laena’s funeral and the events that follow mostly play out like a slow-rolling disaster. Alliances are formed, old friendships are severed forever, and the realm will likely never be the same.

In other words, it’s a royal family gathering in Westeros. What else did you expect?

From the start of Laena’s funeral, at which the entire families of King Viserys Targaryen and Lord Corlys Velaryon are gathered, things go poorly. Laena’s widower, Daemon Targaryen, spends the entire ceremony eyefucking back and forth with his niece, Princess Rhaenyra — that is, when he’s not openly giggling at the whole “we come from the sea and to the sea we return” spiel from Laena’s uncle Vaemond (Wil Johnson). And when Rhaenyra manages to finally look away from the guy, she sees her once-upon-a-time friend Queen Alicent staring daggers at her.

The young generation fares little better. Laena’s daughters, Baela and Rhaena, are devastated by the loss of their mom. Rhaenyra’s own sons are reeling too: Elder brother Jacaerys mourns the death of his secret biological father, Harwin Strong, while Lucerys struggles with the notion of mortality itself. Alicent’s neurodivergent daughter Helaena spends the service playing with spiders, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she’s been betrothed to her own brother, the horny, young drunk Aegon.

Things get even worse as night falls. Viserys retires early, due to his increasingly debilitating illnesses. Rhaenyra and Daemon sneak off to screw under the stars beneath the bleached remains of a shipwreck. (Note that unlike past encounters, in which Daemon stripped Rhaenyra and she later stripped Ser Criston Cole, they share the task of taking off each other’s clothes, suggesting an equal relationship has been formed.) Rhaenyra’s husband Laenor, so devastated over his sister’s death and burial at sea that he waded into the ocean himself, is nowhere to be found, finding comfort in the arms of his boyfriend Ser Qarl Correy.

Then Aemond claims Vhagar, and that’s when all seven hells break loose. When he rides the massive beast back into the castle courtyard, he’s greeted by Rhaena and Baela (who are furious he “stole” their late mom’s dragon), and Jacaerys and Lucerys (who are backing the girls up). A truly vicious fight ensues, in which pretty much every kid takes a whupping, culminating in little Luke Velaryon literally stabbing out Aemond’s left eye with a knife.

If you thought their elders would calm things down, think again. In a scene that feels very much like an echo of the second episode of Game of Thrones — where Cersei Lannister hauls Sansa and Arya Stark before the king to account for shitty little Joffrey Lannister’s injuries — the assembled lords and ladies, princesses and princesses, kings and queens, and Kingsguard knights try and largely fail to determine who’s at fault for the fracas. Rhaenyra pins the blame on Aemond, who called her sons bastards; it’s an obvious fact that has become the entire realm’s job to deny. Alicent demands an eye for an eye, calling on her sworn protector Ser Criston Cole to maim young Lucerys. (The lunatic nearly does it, which shows you how much he’s in the tank for his patron.)

Then shit really hits the fan. Stymied, Alicent grabs a dagger from Viserys’s belt and lunges at Lucerys herself, stopped only by the intervention of Rhaenyra, who incurs a slash on the arm. “Now they see you as you are,” the blonde snarls at the brunette — not inaccurately, given all that the Queen has done to undermine the Princess.

Viserys calls it all off, his royal command still holding some authority despite his infirmity and the growing divisions in his family. From here on out, he orders, anyone caught spreading the “slander” that Rhaenyra’s sons are illegitimate will have their tongue cut out. Note: He’s staring right at Alicent as he says this!

But it’s okay, as far as young Aemond One-Eye is concerned. “A fair exchange,” he proclaims the whole bloody affair. “I lost an eye, but gained a dragon.” Man, try getting this kid to eat his vegetables, do his homework, or wash behind the ears ever again.

What follows is a twist that’s a marked departure from author George R.R. Martin’s source material, Fire & Blood, and it’s arguably an improvement. As the royals return to King’s Landing with their three dragons in tow, Laenor apologizes to Rhaenyra for his absence the night before, declaring his newfound commitment to their sham marriage. Rhaenyra smiles and proclaims him a good and decent man…then promptly proposes marriage to Uncle Daemon!

With surprising self-control, Daemon notes that for their marriage to take place, Laenor would have to die, polygamy having been verboten after the death of Aegon the Conqueror nearly two centuries earlier. So be it, Rhaenyra seems to say; wouldn’t they then be properly feared by the realm they hope to rule?

Sure enough, we then see Daemon bribing Ser Qarl and murking a Velaryon guard. Qarl then challenges his boyfriend Laenor to a swordfight, claiming the prince consort had always looked down on him. Minutes later, Qarl is MIA and Laenor is found burning up in the hall’s fireplace, leaving his dad Corlys and mom Rhaenys devastated.

But even as Rhaenyra and Daemon say their Valyrian vows in front of their very, very confused children, Qarl rows out to sea…in a boat with Laenor on board, his trademark white locks shaven clean off. Together, they head across the Narrow Sea to Essos, where they can finally live together in peace.

Is the episode jam-packed, almost to a fault? Yes. Squeezing all these events into the space of 24 hours, give or take, is a narratively efficient decision for sure, but you wind up wishing that certain storylines — Laenor’s relationship with Qarl, Rhaenya’s with Daemon’s, or even Alicent’s with her father Otto, who’s returned to court to be Viserys’s ambitious and dubiously loyal Hand once again — had more room to breathe.

But, as Aemond might say, it’s a fair exchange. The sex and violence, the incest and intrigue, the patriarchal plight of the queer and the female, and, of course, the godlike young Valyrians riding giant freaking dragons: isn’t this what we come to Westeros to see? Complaining that there’s just too much of it all is a bit like worrying that you got too much candy while trick-or-treating on Halloween. Feast on these relatively low-stakes, low-body-count hijinks while you have the chance, folks. It’s likely to get a whole lot nastier.

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