The third episode of House of the Dragon certainly puts the “fire” in A Song of Ice and Fire. The episode begins with a tableau that’s equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as injured foot soldiers loyal to Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) and Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) lie howling in the mud at low tide. A grotesque figure, masked and lumbering with a hunched gait and long, greasy tufts of thin hair, approaches one of these writhing men.
That masked man’s name is Craghas Drahar (Daniel Scott-Smith), also known as “The Crabfeeder” for his propensity to leave his enemies staked to bloodstained shores so they can suffer a long, painful death being eaten alive by sea creatures. The fallen soldier defies this monstrous shape, telling him to just wait until his prince arrives with a dragon to burn them all to ashes. And Daemon Targaryen does indeed come through in a flaming blaze of glory — but not before his poor, loyal swordsman gets nailed to a piece of driftwood and left to die.
At the risk of stating the obvious, war and military strategy are as essential to A Song of Ice and Fire as palace intrigue and pornographic descriptions of feast tables groaning with delicious food. The battlefield is where legends are born, alliances are tested, and the reputations of kings and queens are made and unmade. Game of Thrones took place during an era of violent upheaval, where everyone was always watching their backs and the power dynamics could be upended at any time. House of the Dragon, on the other hand, takes place in a climate that’s more like our own: The late days of a decaying dynasty, where those in charge have become complacent enough that they feel they can simply ignore any threats to their power, no matter how violent, until they go away.
There’s a popular notion that guerrilla warfare was not practiced in medieval Europe, the basis for Westeros and A Song of Ice And Fire. And Game of Thrones, more often than not, defaulted to formal clashes with long lead times. But just as nomadic bands of Vikings and Mongols used disorganized tactics and the element of surprise to raid castle towns throughout Europe, Craghas and his army of mercenaries are fighting a guerrilla war against the Targaryen establishment. They do so ostensibly for the right to charge tolls to merchant ships passing through this rocky series of islands on their way to the Free Cities beyond. But they fight with a ferocity and sadism that suggests that there’s more going on here than simple greed.
The Targaryens’ fleet of dragons make them the most powerful force in the known world, and centuries of power have made them arrogant. But despite possessing this ultimate trump card — not to mention more ships, weapons, and soldiers than their opponents — the war in the Stepstones has dragged on for three years. The key to the Crabfeeder’s strategy is to neutralize the Targaryen forces’ most valuable weapon by retreating into the caves that dot the rocky shoreline of the Stepstones, eliminating the Targaryens’ ability to wipe out his entire force with one whispered “Dracarys.”
And yet, King Viserys (Paddy Considine) refuses to engage with news about the war during his son’s name day celebration, telling concerned envoys that “it’s been three years. Surely this can wait three days.” He’s so sure that the Targaryens’ military might (i.e. dragonfire) can never really be challenged, he dismisses the seriousness of this threat from without. And, to be fair, the Targaryens are quite good at tearing themselves apart from the inside, too — there’s plenty to keep a king, particularly a soft-hearted one who tries to please everyone, busy at court. But if a handful of sellswords and a self-proclaimed prince with a crudely fashioned mask and nothing to lose could keep two of the great houses of Westeros (not to mention several dragons) at bay for years, what could a bigger and better organized enemy do with those same tactics?
By comparison, the proud Prince Daemon has much to lose. His title, his wealth, his reputation, and perhaps most importantly, his pride are all on the line. This entire war was spurred on by Targaryen pride, the result of an alliance made out of spite (another Targaryen character flaw) when Viserys married Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey) rather than his 12-year-old second cousin Laena Velaryon (Nova Fouellis-Mosé). And it’s spite that pushed Daemon to end the war himself before his brother’s forces could arrive, resulting in the chaotic impromptu skirmish that closes the episode. And, at least this time, Daemon emerges the winner, propelled to victory by Valyrian steel and his fiery Targaryen blood.
But although his intestines are being dragged through the mud, the Crabfeeder and his guerrilla forces have weakened House Targaryen and House Velaryon in ways that have yet to fully manifest themselves. They’ve exacerbated existing tensions within the ruling houses, and demonstrated a method for combating what otherwise appears to be an undefeatable force. And the ruling houses of Old Valyria are too busy fighting amongst themselves to spare a thought for the people who are dying on their behalf — not a great strategy for winning loyalty in the long term. Take the loyal soldier at the beginning of the show: Cackling with relief, he cheers on Daemon as the prince swoops over the battlefield incinerating Craghas Drahar’s allies and ships. “Save me, my prince!” he cries — only to be crushed under the mighty foot of the prince’s dragon.
Blinded by their own arrogance and complacency, the Targaryens have treated this war, the men who fought and died in it, and much of the wider world as disposable. Their only loyalty is to their own petty grievances and wounded pride, and they lack the imagination to picture a world where someday, someone else might sit on the Iron Throne. Whether they tear each other apart from within, or are ambushed by enemies from without, it doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that the Crabfeeder is very much no more. The Targaryens themselves have sown the seeds of their ultimate downfall on the shores of the Stepstones.