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House of the Dragon scorched earth with a single shot of Rhaenyra

Everyone loses in House of the Dragon‘s game of thrones

Emma D’Arcy in HBO’s House of the Dragon as Rhaenyra Targaryen stands in a cloak with a golden crown on her head Image: Ollie Upton/HBO

“When dragons fly to war,” Rhaenyra cautions her husband, Prince Daemon, “everything burns.”

Throughout the season finale, only the newly crowned queen alone seems to understand the gravity of choosing to push back against the usurpation of her crown. She alone weighs diplomatic options up to and including capitulation rather than risk plunging Westeros into a war unlike anything it’s ever known. Against the warmongering of her bannermen and consort, the provocations of her old enemy Otto Hightower, and even the temptation of the godlike destructive power her faction’s dragons afford her, Rhaenyra stands firm. Emma D’Arcy brings a tremendous subtlety to Rhaenyra’s struggles throughout the episode, from their wry, wondering smile at Lucerys’ fear of his future responsibilities to their expression of mingled loss and hope at receiving proof of Alicent’s continued love in the form of a childhood memento. Peace holds the promise of love, of children, of honoring her father’s peaceful legacy and belief in the Conqueror’s Dream. War risks all.

Emma D’Arcy stands in front of the Painted Table Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Yet the world, as Rhaenyra tells her middle child, has no regard for our plans. First, a painful and draining miscarriage costs Rhaenyra her unborn daughter. Watching the sweat-soaked and bloody woman cradle the deformed body in her arms, it’s hard not to think of it as an omen of things to come, a shadow cast by all the innocents whose lives a war between the rival monarchs would undoubtedly cut short. The war also drives a wedge between Rhaenyra and her husband, exposing Daemon’s violent insecurities as he confronts both his own immaturity and his jealousy over his wife’s closeness with his late brother, the king. The scene in which Daemon assaults his queen is one of the season’s most upsetting, a showcase for Matt Smith’s ability to simultaneously seethe and dissociate from his surroundings. It’s an ugly contrast to the warmth between Lord Corlys and Princess Rhaenys, who even in conflict share an evident warmth and solidarity. No such understanding is forthcoming from Daemon, and it seems Rhaenyra risks her marriage by holding back from the bloodshed he craves.

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen, facing off against Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower and Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in HBO’s House of the Dragon Image: Ollie Upton/HBO

Director Greg Yaitanes frames this parade of loss and unrest with painterly precision, and the episode’s color grading is among the series’ best so far, with rich, dark reds and sickly grays predominating against backdrops of dramatic black and bleach-light blue. “The Black Queen” takes care to directly associate the Targaryens with their dragon through artful framing and intercutting. During Rhaenyra’s difficult labor we see flashes of Syrax bellowing in sympathy with her rider. When Daemon menaces the knights of the Kingsguard, Caraxes’ massive head fills the frame behind him, a scene echoed by a later sequence in which Daemon rouses the ancient dragon Vermithor and the two appear reflected in each other’s eyes, twin incarnations of heedless power and destruction.

The episode’s visual language asks us to consider who exactly is calling the shots here. Is it the Targaryens, driven as much by old grudges and infatuations as by any larger sense of duty? Is it the dragons themselves, which, like the proverbial blade, incite to violence by their very existence? The answer, as much as one can be extricated from the tangle of guts and screaming that closes out the episode’s centerpiece action scene, is that the worst of both parties has the rudder. The venal pettiness of the royal family, the outsize power their dragons afford them, and their total lack of experience with real violence and its consequences come together in a literal lethal collision. Watching Aemond and Lucerys scream in terror as their dragons, pushed too hard by Aemond’s cruel game of chicken, turn on one another is a gut-wrenching sight, and Yaitanes builds tension during their airborne encounter with brutal, hard-hitting precision and a physically harrowing sense of speed. When the final explosion of blood and gore hits home it’s almost a relief, until you start to think about what comes next.

 A dragon flies toward Storm’s End on HBO’s House of the Dragon Photo: HBO

Rubber meets road, the idea of a peaceful resolution to the succession crisis goes to shreds in the space of an instant, and Rhaenyra is left gutted by betrayal and grief. She’s lost not only her son, but her sense of safety in her marriage and her chance at any kind of rekindling of her connection with Alicent. At the same time she’s gained bannermen, the crucial support of House Velaryon, and the allegiance of a further knight of the Kingsguard. Even before she learns of Lucerys’ death, marching to war has become much more plausible. D’Arcy’s last look into the camera is haunting, a surer portent of things to come than any prophetic dream or lofty speech about the good of the realm. Throughout the episode we see Rhaenyra push again and again for peace, for the uneasy and often disappointing path of compromise. But what lies waiting under Dragonstone, its ragged wings furled in the dark, its furnace breath scorching the cavern walls? What beast by firelight shines reflected in Daemon’s eyes even as he shines in its own?

We know what’s coming. Vengeance. Justice. Fire and blood.