House of the Dragon is all about the Targaryens. It's about their peak of power, and it's eventually going to be about their fall. Houe of the Dragon's premiere episode, The Heirs of the Dragon, introduced us to a cast of new characters that will hopefully one day become as legendary as those who lived and died in Game of Thrones.
The second episode, titled The Rogue Prince, airs on HBO this Sunday.
House of the Dragon takes place nearly 200 years before the events depicted in Game of Thrones. That means those of us eager to check in with their favorite (surviving) characters are out of luck, as none of them have been born yet. (Though we may be in luck, as news of a Jon Snow-focused sequel series recently broke.) As House of the Dragon's name suggests, it's all about the Targaryens, who ruled Westeros for 300 years before "The Mad King" Aerys Targaryen was unseated by Robert Baratheon.
You are once again watching the throne. Be careful: House of the Dragon episode 1 spoilers follow.
We begin at the end
House of the Dragon kicks off with a pre-opening credits vignette that sets the tone for the chaos soon to ensue.
A narrator fills us in on recent history. King Jaehaerys Targaryen is among Westeros' most illustrious rulers: His reign lasted over 60 years, the longest ever. With both of his sons dead, Jaehaerys convened a council to decide who would be the heir to his throne. The deliberations of this council is the first scene we see -- House of the Dragon's equivalent to the White Walkers slaying Night's Watch men in the Game of Thrones opening.
There are two main contenders: Princess Rhaenys Targaryen and Prince Viserys Targaryen. Not content to allow a woman to rule, the council conferred the crown onto Viserys. The narrator tells us that the wise Jaehaerys' goal in organizing the council vote was to avoid a Targaryen civil war over the crown.
"The only thing that could tear down the house of the dragon," the narrator tells us, "was itself."
Afterwards, we get a helpful message onscreen that informs us that we've skipped forward almost a decade after that council decreed Viserys King.
"It is now the ninth year of King Viserys I Targaryen's Reign. 172 years before the death of the Mad King, Aerys, and the birth of his daughter, Princess Daenerys Targaryen."
After the credits, House of the Dragon reacquaints us with King's Landing. We see a silver-haired woman gliding along on a dragon, introducing us to Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, the daughter of King Viserys. After dismounting from her dragon, Rhaenyra links arms with Alicent Hightower, the daughter of Hand of the King Otto Hightower. She then takes us on a nostalgic walk through the Red Keep.
Rhaenyra enters into the chambers of her mother, Aemma ("Emma") Targaryen, who's pregnant and just weeks away from giving birth. Rhaenyra says everyone is thinking about the baby, but someone needs to take care of Aemma.
"You will lie in this bed soon enough, Rhaenyra," Aemma replies. "This discomfort is how we serve the realm."
In a reply reminiscent of Arya Stark, Rhaenyra shoots back with a grin: "I'd rather serve as a knight and ride to battle and glory."
We later see Alicent Hightower try to tutor Rhaenyra under a redwood tree, but Rhaenyra isn't in the mood to study. Alicent says Rhaenyra is always like this when she's worried, and supposes that Rhaenyra is worried she'll be overshadowed by Viserys' potentially having a son.
"I hope for my father that he gets a son," she says. "As long as I recall, that's all he's wanted."
She then says she's not interested in her position within the family -- all she's interested in is riding on dragonback, seeing the great wonders across the Narrow Sea and eating "only cake."
We stan Rhaenyra, our cake queen.
Game of Thrones' final seasons saw Cersei Lannister demand complete control of the crown. She was the queen; she was the Small Council. House of the Dragon immediately reminds us how unusual this was, as we're quickly thrown into a Small Council meeting that has illustrious lords crammed around the king's table.
Things get serious when Lord Corlys Velaryon, who commands the king's fleet, starts complaining of disturbances in the Free Cities, which Thrones aficionados will recall includes places like Braavos, Pentos and Volantis. Three of these cities are joining forces, calling themselves the Triarchy, and there's a chap called "the Crabfeeder" who tortures pirates by, well, feeding them to the crabs.
This important matter is brushed aside by King Viserys and his Hand, Otto. Instead, they begin to focus on the Heir's Tournament, a jousting championship held on the day of Viserys' child's birth. Viserys gloats that a big celebration is required, since he'll surely have a boy. Grand Maester Mellos says there's no way to tell what the sex of the child will be, but Viserys isn't hearing that.
"There's a boy in the queen's belly, I know it. And my heir will put all this damnable hand-wringing to an end. I know it."
Sure he will, Viserys. Sure he will.
What is a big family without a brooding uncle? One of House of the Dragon's opening scenes introduces us to Daemon Targaryen, who's recently been named leader of King's Landing's City Watch. Daemon has a chip on his shoulder: He's the younger brother of Viserys, so he's next in line to be king, but reckons he doesn't get enough respect on his name.
Rhaenyra meets Daemon in the empty Great Hall, where she finds him ominously perched on the Iron Throne. She asks why he's returned, since she never sees him at court.
"I heard your father was hosting a tournament in my honor," he says.
"The tournament is for his heir," she replies.
"Just as I said," he says with a smirk.
Daemon is obviously a troublesome guy, but he descends the throne and shows his niece a necklace with a pendant made with Valyrian steel. He gives it to her -- the Targaryens are a Valyrian bloodline -- placing it around her neck.
"Now you and I both own a small piece of our ancestry."
He cuts a less conciliatory figure a few scenes later as he riles up the City Watch. Daemon tells them they used to be a pack of stray dogs, but now he's trained them to be a pack of hounds. King's Landing is swamped in crime, but tonight, he says, its citizens will learn to "fear the color gold."
That precipitates the City Watch storming through King's Landing in an orgy of violence. Hands, genitals and heads are gruesomely chopped off, which ends up being a big headache for King Viserys. Otto Hightower is miffed, complaining to the king that a two-horse cart was needed to haul away the chopped-off limbs.
"The prince cannot be allowed to act with this kind of unchecked impunity," Hightower says to the king as they walk into the council room -- where they see Daemon at the table. Awkward.
Hightower and Daemon Targaryen get into it over whether it was an indiscriminate show of violence or a necessary removal of criminals ahead of the Heir's Tournament, which will see people from all across Westeros descend on the capital.
Hightower then gets on Daemon for not attending to his wife, Lady Rhea of the Vale. He says that Daemon hasn't been around the Vale in ages. "I think my Bronze bitch would be happier for my absence," Daemon says, and makes some unkind remarks about the relations between men and sheep in the Vale. Daemon then taunts Hightower for his own wife's recent passing, which swiftly enrages the Hand.
"My brother makes sport of provoking you," Viserys says to Hightower, "must you indulge him?"
Viserys chides Daemon for his violent zest. Daemon accepts and walks out of the Small Council meeting.
The takeaway here: The king's Hand does not get on well with the king's brother.
An ill king
King Viserys is not in perfect health. In one scene we see him slumped over a chair, with maesters attending to him. He has a gross, pus-filed gash on his lower back, which Viserys scoffs is merely a cut sustained from sitting on that most uncomfortable throne. An attending maester complains that the wound refuses to heal.
"Whatever it is," Hand of the King Otto Hightower says, "it needs to be kept quiet."
About halfway through the episode, the Heir's Tournament kicks off. It turns out the maesters got their timing spot on: Before the first jousts begin, King Viserys announces that Queen Aemma is in labor.
The tradition here is for the jousting knights to ask blessings from lords and ladies in the audience. The first we see is a Baratheon fellow asking for blessing from Rhaenys, who apparently is now known as The Queen Who Never Was. The Baratheon proved unlucky, however, as he's defeated by an enigmatic Dornish knight named Ser Criston Cole. Brutal.
The crowd cheers as Daemon Targaryen appears, riding his horse into the arena. He gets to choose which of the knights he wants to joust with, and points to a knight from House Hightower -- a knight that's the eldest son of Hand of the King Otto Hightower. Reminder: Daemon and Otto no likey.
Daemon defeats the Hightower lad and then, to add insult to injury, rides by and asks Alicent Hightower, Otto's daughter, for her blessing. She reluctantly gives it.
It's not long before the tournament gets violent; before knights get off their horses and start fighting to the death. "Queen That Never Was" Rhaenys, chatting with her Lord of Ships husband, Corlys Velaryon, complains that it's been too long since a real war -- that knights would act more honorably if they actually had to face combat.
Next up is Daemon against Ser Cole, the guy who beat the Baratheon. Cole unhorses Daemon in the joust, then Daemon demands sword-to-sword combat. Despite Daemon's reputation as a great warrior, he's bested by Cole. There's no bloodshed in their battle: Cole disarms Daemon, and Daemon yields.
In the middle of the Heir's Tournament, the King is informed of trouble. He rushes to Aemma's chambers to find that the baby is in breech and that attempts to turn the child the right way up have failed. The Grand Maester says the queen is fighting, but it may not be enough.
"During a difficult birth it sometimes becomes necessary for the father to make an impossible choice... to sacrifice one or to lose them both," Grand Maester Mello says. "There is a chance we can save the child," but the resulting blood loss is likely to kill the mother. "We must either act now or leave it with the gods."
Viserys evidently has little trust in the gods. He cradles Aemma's hand. "They're going to take the babe out now," he says, adding that he loves her. She begins to panic, asking what's happening and saying she's scared. Once she realizes what's happening -- once the Maester prepares for his first incision -- she begs for mercy, pleading him to change his mind. It's a tough scene.
The child is cut, and the mother left to die.
"Congratulations your grace," the maester says over Viserys' shoulder as the king weeps over his dead wife's body, "you have a son." Viserys names the boy Baelor -- but unfortunately he doesn't last long. In the very next scene, a funeral is being held for both Aemma and Baelor.
"I wonder if, during those few hours my brother lived, my father finally found happiness," Rhaenyra tells uncle Daemon. She gives the "dracarys" command and the bodies are burned in dragonfire.
After the funeral, the king finds himself at a Small Council meeting in which Otto Hightower, the Hand, implores him to immediately name a new heir. "Sea Snake" Corlys Velaryon says that Daemon is the rightful heir, but the Grand Maester says Daemon would destabilize the realm. Otto Hightower quashes the idea, saying it would be unwise to make a person with his own army -- the City Watch -- an heir.
"I made Daemon master of laws, but you said he was a tyrant," King Viserys barks at Hightower. "As master of coin, you said he was a spendthrift... putting Daemon in command of the city watch was your solution."
Hightower says Daemon should be kept as far away from the court as possible. Shortly after this, the Grand Maester implies that Daemon may plot to kill Viserys and take the throne. As Viserys dismisses the idea, we see that Daemon is peeping through a wall, eavesdropping on the meeting.
The Grand Maester says that in these circumstances, it wouldn't be improper for the king to name a heir. Hightower suggests Rhaenyra, as she's the eldest child of the king. The other lords scoff at the idea of a "girl" ruling, which would be unprecedented. Hightower says that Daemon would be a catastrophe as king and that breaking precedent is a small sacrifice in service of this.
"I will not be made to choose between my brother and my daughter," Viserys says.
In the very next scene, we see Otto Hightower embracing his daughter Alisont, who earlier in the episode was trying to tutor Rhaenyra. She mourns for Queen Aemma, and Otto implores Alicent to give Viserys a visit. She gives him an awkward "are you really asking me to do that?" look, but Otto assures her the king would just appreciate company.
Viserys is in his chambers, messing around with a clay model of King's Landing when she enters. She gives him a history book, and tells him that, when her mother died, no one ever spoke directly with her. She apologizes for his loss, and he gives her an appreciative look.
A Song of Ice and Fire
King Viserys said he didn't want to choose between his sister and his daughter. But that's exactly what he does in the final moments of House of the Dragon's premiere episode.
Otto Hightower tells Viserys of reports that Daemon, in a pleasurehouse, toasted his own ascendancy and mocked Baelor, the king's dead son, as "the heir for a day." Viserys calls Daemon into the Great Hall, where he confronts Daemon about the comments. "We must all mourn in our own way," Daemon says.
Viserys loses his composure, ferociously yelling: "You choose to celebrate your own rise... You have no allies at court but me, I have only ever defended you, yet everything I've given you, you've thrown back in my face."
Daemon shoots back that Viserys has just been trying to get rid of him for 10 years, and calls Otto Hightower a word that I definitely cannot publish. He says Hightower is self-interested, and that the king needs someone -- like Daemon -- to protect him from himself.
"I have decided to name a new heir," Viserys announces, "you are to return to Runestone and your Lady wife at once. And you are to do so without quarrel, by order of your king."
Daemon stares down King Viserys as treacherous music plays. As Daemon walks off, the king looks down at his own hand and sees that he's cut himself with one of the blades on the Iron Throne -- another cut like the one on his back that won't heal.
In the final scene, Viserys annoints Rhaenyra as his heir. As he speaks with Rhaenyra in the Red Keep, we see a montage of Westeros' lords -- including the Baratheons and the Starks -- pledging to support Rhaenyra as heir.
"I'm sorry, Rhaenyra, I have wasted the years since you were born, wanting for a son," Viserys says to her. "You are the very best of your mother. And I believe, as I know she did, that you could be a great ruling queen... Daemon was not made to wear the crown. But I believe that you were."
Viserys' anointing ends with a prophecy, passed down since the days of Aegon the Conqueror over 100 years prior.
"Aegon foresaw the end of the world of men. It is to begin with a terrible winter gusting out of the distant north. Aegon saw absolute darkness riding on those winds, and whatever dwells within will destroy the world of the living. When this great winter comes, all of Westeros must stand against it. And if the world of men is to survive, a Targaryen must be seated on the Throne. A king or queen strong enough to unite the realm against the cold and the dark."
"Aegon called his dream 'A Song of Ice and Fire.'"