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House of the Dragon: season two, episode one recap – almost unbearably tense and bloody
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House of the Dragon: season two, episode one recap – almost unbearably tense and bloody

Spoiler alert: this recap is for people watching House of the Dragon. Do not read on unless you have watched season two, episode one.

‘You must accept that the path to victory now is one of violence’

Welcome one, welcome all: if you know your Vermax from your Vhagar and your Ser Erryk from your Ser Arryk, you’re in the right place. Twenty long months ago, we left the seven kingdoms of Westeros teetering on the brink of war. Aegon Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney) had just been hastily crowned, leaving the rightful heir, his older sister Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), exiled on Dragonstone and plotting her next move. Any plans she might have made were blown out of (or indeed into) the water, however, when a mid-air dragonback dust-up between Aegon’s younger, punchier, one-eyed brother Prince Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) and Rhaenyra’s plucky second son Prince Lucerys sent the latter tumbling to his death in the Narrow Sea.

Still mourning … Rhaenyra.View image in fullscreen

Well, nigh on two years have passed in our world, but in Westeros time has stood still: Rhaenyra is still mourning, Aemond is still smirking and poor Aegon is still trying to wrap his head around the whole “being King” thing. There has been one notable development, though: the theme music may be the same, but the opening credits sequence, which in season one comprised a murky series of blood-filled channels, has been replaced by a much more pleasing Bayeux-style animated tapestry, cementing the connections between the world of Westeros and medieval history, specifically the 12th-century war of succession in England and Normandy known as the Anarchy.

‘Duty is sacrifice. It eclipses all things, even blood’

In the previous recap, I expressed a hope that the second season would be less claustrophobic than the first, less confined to gloomy keeps and citadels – Westeros is vast, after all. For the first handful of scenes here, that wish appears to be coming true, as a raven wings its way through dense forests and across rocky moorland to the familiar castle of Winterfell.

There, riders are preparing for a march to the Wall accompanied by Prince Jacaerys Targaryen (Harry Collett), his dragon Vermax and Ned Stark’s distant but equally hard-bitten young ancestor Lord Cregan (Tom Taylor). Jacaerys has flown up there to discuss the war to come and the possibility of Stark sending men to fight it. Before they can get down to specifics, though, news arrives from Dragonstone – and Jace’s road trip comes to a screeching halt.

As does our time in the great outdoors. From there, the episode is largely studio-bound as one by one we are reintroduced to the key players in each faction: the Greens, led by the scheming hand of the king, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), and his daughter, the dowager queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke); and the Blacks, notably Rhaenyra’s uncle (and husband), the king consort Daemon (Matt Smith), and their longtime allies Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) and Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint).

Confined to Dragonstone, Daemon is restless, eager to take the fight to the Greens by ambushing Aemond and claiming “a son for a son”. But Rhaenys isn’t so sure: Velaryon ships have already blockaded King’s Landing and they are accruing more allies. Anyway, the queen is absent, searching for the remains of her child. The moment when Rhaenyra finally discovers the proof she needs, alongside the severed wing of Luke’s fallen dragon Arrax, is the first affecting moment of the season.

‘When the king speaks, your grace, all hear it’

God forbid! … Aegon tries to do the decent thing.View image in fullscreen

Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, siege defences are going up. Still smarting from the perceived treachery of his identical twin brother, Ser Erryk (Elliott Tittensor), the Kingsguard knight Ser Arryk (Luke Tittensor) tours the battlements, paying particular attention to the massive, dragon-spearing scorpion mounted on the city walls.

Inside the Red Keep, the formerly reckless Aegon seems to have been sobered by his unexpected coronation. He is trying, apparently, to be a decent father to his heir, Jaehaerys, and a decent ruler to his people, promising coin to the blacksmiths whose labour will keep his soldiers armed and offering to return the tithed flock of a struggling shepherd, until Otto points out that, if he keeps trying to do the decent thing, everyone will expect the same treatment. God forbid!

Elsewhere in the Keep, trouble is brewing. Alicent tries, but not very hard, to extract herself from an affair with the brooding royal-fancier Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) under the shrivelling gaze of her cold-blooded, club-footed adviser, Lord Larys Strong (Matthew Needham). As the loudest voice for restraint in the Green contingent, Alicent still harbours hopes that all-out war might be avoided – and a misstep like being discovered in bed with the lord commander of the Kingsguard is the last thing she needs. Nonetheless, as the folk of Westeros have learned many times, the royal heart wants what it wants – as do the royal loins.

‘She holds love for our enemy. That makes her a fool’

On the path to vengeance … Daemon is spurred on by one sentence from Rhaenyra.View image in fullscreen

On the Black side, the restraining voice is that of Queen Rhaenyra, whose emotional kinship with her former friend turned bitter rival is highlighted in a lovely scene cross-cutting between the immolation of Lucerys’s remains and Alicent lighting candles for the slain in the sept at King’s Landing. Little does Rhaenyra know that any hopes she holds for a bloodless conclusion are about to be shattered.

A single angry remark – “I want Aemond Targaryen” – sets Daemon on the path of vengeance. Acting on information provided by his former paramour and the erstwhile White Worm, Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), he tracks down a pair of likely thugs – a Gold Cloak and a rat-catcher – giving them coin and instructions to murder Aemond by any means necessary. And if they can’t find him? Well, that question goes unanswered.

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The erstwhile White Worm.View image in fullscreen

From there, it’s a case of finding out in precisely what way, and how horribly, this plan is going to go wrong. The scenes of the assassins sneaking through one plush royal chamber after another were almost unbearably tense: who would they encounter first and how bloody would it be? In retrospect, it was obvious: Aegon’s love for little Jaehaerys had been heavily signposted earlier in the episode, as had the parlous mental and emotional state of the child’s mother, Helaena (Phia Saban). The Sophie’s choice she was offered by the killers felt like a push too far – we were already witness to the murder of a child. Still, the consequences couldn’t be clearer: this means war.

Additional notes

It’s a pity that we (presumably) won’t get to see any more of easy-going King Aegon. His laid-back leadership style and gang of jack-the-lad courtiers were an unlikely pleasure in an otherwise miserable episode.

Alicent may cling to the idea that, with his dying breath, Viserys proclaimed Aegon as his heir, but few others believe it. This was a coup – and it seems that, as time goes by, more people are figuring that out.

Would a rat-catcher and his burly assistant really be able to gain access not just to the royal quarters, but to the throne room itself? Seems like a real lapse in security.

Why didn’t the maid with the intense eyebrows warn anyone about the muscly interloper who couldn’t work a rat trap? Is she a secret Black sympathiser?

Violence count

The murder of young Jaehaerys may have happened (just) off screen, but it was still horrendous – and made more so by keeping the focus on his mother’s distress.

Nudity count

Steamy … Ser Criston Cole.View image in fullscreen

They mostly kept their gowns and armour on, but there were still some steamy scenes between Alicent and Ser Criston, from heavy upskirt nuzzling to the final discovery by Helaena of the pair together in the dowager queen’s four-poster bed. Shouldn’t Ser Criston have been, I don’t know, guarding the royal princes?

Random Briton of the week

At a time when the representation of working-class voices in the film and TV industries is once again a hot topic – thanks in large part to this excellent article – it’s unfortunate that the first voice we hear in the new season is a well-spoken actor from Surrey doing his best Nuuhhrthern brogue. This is no slight on Tom Taylor, a perfectly fine performer, but it would be great if casting departments tried a little harder to find authentic voices.

Source: theguardian.com