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House of the Dragon reminds us there are no normal families in King’s Landing

Power makes all relationships impossible in episode 4

A screenshot from HBO’s House of the Dragon. Rhaenyra is holding her arms behind her back and looking up at Daemon, who is holding his hand out to inspect the necklace he gave her, which she is wearing. Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

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Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

At the end of the day, House of the Dragon is a family show. Not in the sense that it’s “safe for the whole family,” of course — but it is, more than anything, about one family, and how power begins to warp it beyond recognition. After the big spectacle of last week, and the kingdom-wide politicking of prior episodes, House of the Dragon slows down and narrows its focus to the three Targaryens at the center of its grand story and the people closest to them. And given the time to watch them closely, the series makes it clear that they are all unprepared for how rapidly things are changing, and it’s changing them in unsettling ways.

House of the Dragon has a lot of ground to cover, so it’s a bit surprising that it’s able to devote nearly an entire episode to what’s effectively a walkabout. After Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) spends a day doing her least favorite activity — granting an audience to an endless stream of suitors from across Westeros — her uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) returns bearing a crown for his exploits against the Crabfeeder in the Stepstones.

It’s a provocative entrance for a man who absolutely loves drama, but it’s also a feint. Daemon makes a show of bowing to his brother, Viserys (Paddy Considine), who welcomes the wayward Targaryen home with open arms. This sets the stage for the bulk of the episode, when later that night, Daemon sneaks a set of civilian clothes to Rhaenyra so they can go on an adventure through the seedier streets of King’s Landing. Together the pair wander a mass of humanity where street performers, vendors, and sex workers ply their trades, and what begins as a bit of thrill-seeking fun takes a dark and strange turn when Daemon leads Rhaenyra into a brothel, and the two nearly have sex before Daemon, at the last minute, leaves in what looks like frustration.

It’s from this scandalous moment that House of the Dragon finally starts to bring the compellingly fucked-up family dynamics it has quietly set up to the fore. The first is, obviously, Daemon and Rhaenyra, a pair that has been fond of each other from the start, even though they are also rivals for succession. Rhaenyra’s side of the equation is a simple one: She’s someone who has been brought so close to escaping her lot in life as a woman in a medieval society as the named heir of Viserys, but is in constant danger of it being snatched away. She is also a teenager, desperate to assert her will and fulfill her desires — something she cannot do as a princess.

Daemon Targaryen sitting back with a glass of wine, just chillin Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Daemon is a little more complicated, but not terribly so; he’s wildly selfish, but also too cowardly to fully take what he wants. This makes him difficult to read definitively: Does he genuinely have romantic feelings for Rhaenyra? (Probably not, though his fondness is likely real.) Was his ultimate goal to seduce her, have her seen in a brothel (mission accomplished), or was he just organically taking her to the place where he spends his days? Is he manipulative, or just pathetic? The power dynamics are clear, the motivations less so.

Later, when Viserys receives word of what happened between the two of them, Daemon makes a Hail Mary that may or may not have been the goal all along: Asking for Rhaenyra’s hand in marriage. The furious king denies him, and the two are once again on the outs.

Every relationship, it turns out, pivots on this one night. Alicent’s (Emily Carey) friendship with Rhaenyra — thus far one of House of the Dragon’s most compelling and still-untapped dynamics, with her now being Rhaenyra’s stepmom and all — unsuccessfully tries to compel Rhaenyra to fall in line like she did, to marry and stop courting scandal at every turn. Her father, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) then loses his job as Hand of the King not long after breaking the news of the scandal to Viserys. This isn’t because the king is shooting the messenger (at least not completely), but because Viserys is finally beginning to see that maybe his falling for Alicent was a manipulation, that his loveless nights with his new queen are the product of political gamesmanship.

Alicent and Rhaenyra confront each other in the garden. It’s very tense. Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

This is what happens when you’re on top of the world, sitting on the throne that everyone covets: Friendship is suspect, but family is distorted too. In Westeros, however, family is how power is built and preserved, and it must be forged with intent. This is the paradox every character must wrestle with: Family as a way to fulfill human need, and family as a way to secure power. Reconciling the two, it seems, may always be in conflict.

All of this is less immediately eye-catching as a dragon swooping in on a beach battle, but it’s just as tense, because that’s why those battles matter. It’s worth repeating that unlike in Game of Thrones, this show is set during a time where people have dragons. It’s about the machinations of nuclear powers, and no one, no matter how mighty, wants to go to war with someone who can scorch the earth around them, win, lose, or draw. So battles must be fought elsewhere: in brothels and bedrooms and very dry meetings. Relationships are reduced to tools and proxy warfare — which makes them all the more volatile, and a family conflict that much more dire.

It makes sense that this conflict, if allowed to deepen for long enough, could swallow the world in war.


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