“Driftmark,” this week’s episode of House of the Dragon, featured perhaps the most intense battle on the show so far: a five-way brawl between children. What initially looks like a reprise of a training-ground scuffle in the previous episode suddenly takes a sinister turn as it keeps going further, until a horrible little boy loses an eye after a sweet little boy defends his brother with a knife. And because of this, the entire royal court is trapped in an R-rated speedrun of the NBC series The Slap as they spend the majority of the episode in the same room, trying to figure out what is to be done about it.
Part of what makes this fight so shocking is that we’ve just met these kids, so when Aemond and Aegon Targaryen confront Jacaerys and Lucerys Velaryon in a tunnel, we’re not entirely sure how things are going to play out — and House of the Dragon isn’t a show where pleasant things happen. The fight goes shockingly far, as Aemond grabs a stone and seems intent on killing Jacaerys before Lucerys leaps to defend him with a knife, blinding Aemond in one eye.
The fallout from this comprises the majority of “Driftmark,” as King Viserys must mediate the resulting conflict between Queen Alicent, Princess Rhaenyra, and all other offended parties. The dispute quickly stops being about the children and clearly becomes about the growing rift between Alicent and Rhaenyra, to the point that Alicent, wanting an eye for an eye, threatens to cut Lucerys’ out herself.
In some ways, “Driftmark” closely echoes “The Kingsroad,” the second episode of Game of Thrones. In it, the young heroine Arya Stark makes a new friend, Mycah, a baker’s son, who is subsequently bullied by the petulant and cruel Prince Joffrey Baratheon. When Arya stands up to Joffrey, he knocks her down, and her pet direwolf, Nymeria, bites his arm to defend her. What follows is a scene quite like the one in “Driftmark,” where the royal family and other involved parties attempt to resolve the dispute between the children in a way that will also remind the adults of their place.
But while the premise is similar, the episodes diverge in significant ways that further illustrate how House of the Dragon is a different kind of show than its predecessor. “The Kingsroad” ultimately resolves with Arya’s father, Ned Stark, being forced to make restitution by killing his daughter’s direwolf. It’s a gutting conclusion to a conflict that was effectively Game of Thrones in miniature, where good people are frequently devoured as long as they continue to defer to an inequitable system that rewards cold self-preservation that is indifferent to honor, no matter how much lip service it gives it. Yet despite its constant grimness, Game of Thrones did have a streak of optimism about it, believing that some of these kids would outlast the horrors, and perhaps even change the world for the better.
The children in House of the Dragon have no such rosy outlook. These kids are fucked. Aegon and Aemond are cruel, and while Rhaenyra is the show’s protagonist, and her children seem like sweet boys that won’t grow up to be bratty little hellions, there is no room for the optimism of the previous series. As far as anyone in that room is concerned, the throne is now empty, and sides must be taken for whatever comes next — and they are not above using children or murder to get it. Things are not going to go well when they all get back to King’s Landing, and even if little Jacaerys and Lucerys make it through with their goodness intact, it’s their lot to be at the center of a power struggle with no real good outcome, where no one has anything but selfish interests in mind.
By the end of “Driftmark,” Viserys is unable to reach a judgment that makes anyone happy, hoping everyone just makes peace. In doing so, he only deepens the rift that has opened up in front of him, and makes sure that his children (and theirs) are doomed to war.