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'House of the Dragon' season premiere: I told you the rats would be a whole thing

Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) on the famously pointy and rusty Iron Throne.
Ollie Upton
/
HBO
Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) on the famously pointy and rusty Iron Throne.

This is a recap of the most recent episode of HBO’s House of the Dragon. It contains spoilers. That’s what a recap is.

Welcome back to sunny Westeros, where the fire-breathing dragons run free and the serfs are nervous. If you need help re-orienting yourself to where things stand, vis-a-vis exactly whose noble kiester now sits the Iron Throne and precisely which royal chump got his fool self royally chomped, here’s a handy refresher. And if you’re in need of an even deeper dive, here are the recaps for every season 1 episode. Let’s get to it.

Brand new season 2 credits! Both the Game of Thrones and the House of the Dragon season 1 credits featured elaborate clockwork mechanisms that either telegraphed where a given episode’s action would take place (GoT) or helpfully traced the Targaryen bloodline over several generations — with literal blood (HotD).

We’ve switched to embroidery for season 2. I’m gonna go ahead and conjecture that what we’re seeing here is the handiwork of Queen Helaena, who’s always stitching something or another. Certainly seems like an all-consuming project, full of images so violent and literally blood-soaked they make the Bayeux Tapestry look like your grandma’s “Bless this Mess” cross-stitch sampler. Maybe that’s why Helaena always seems so distracted — it’s not centuries of Targaryen inbreeding, my girl is just hyperfocused!

As to what the credit-embroidery actually depicts, that there is the Targaryen Dynasty in all its bloody, ignoble glory. Call it the "Die, you!" Tapestry.

First we get the Doom of Valyria, wherein the Targaryen family’s ancestral homeland across the Narrow Sea was destroyed by fires and earthquakes. Next we see Aegon’s Conquest, in which the Targaryens who’d left Valyria before its destruction to take up residence on the island of Dragonstone proceeded to invade and conquer Westeros. We see Aegon I, aka Aegon the Conqueror; he’s the guy who united the Seven Kingdoms and built the Iron Throne, the Red Keep and King’s Landing about 130 years before the events of this season of House of the Dragon. Next we see the kings who came after him – Aenys, Maegor (the dude with the blade at his neck), Jaehaerys (contentedly holding up a sword alongside his queen, Alysanne) and poor dead Viserys, glowering out at us, flanked by the various scheming members of his royal family who’re posing like they’re at an Olan Mills.

Next we get stuff we saw happen back in season 1: Alicent in her green gown, the royal wedding of Laenor and Rhaenyra. Then we see the schism that House of the Dragon is all about — on the left, Aegon II on the Iron Throne; on the right, Rhaenrya on her throne at Dragonstone. Finally, we see the triggering act of the Dance of the Dragons — Aemond, astride Vhagar, chomping Lucerys and his dragon Arrax to bits over Shipbreaker Bay.

The North remembers. In case you forgot.

A raven flies north. A beauty shot of Winterfell. And a Stark’s voice over it all, whanging on about Duty and Honor, as is their wont, in that familiar accent clotted with thick Northern dipthongs. It feels like Homecoming Week, Westeros-style.

Jacaerys Velaryon (Harry Collett) and Cregan Stark (Tom Taylor) walk and talk at the Wall.
Ollie Upton / HBO
/
HBO
Jacaerys Velaryon (Harry Collett) and Cregan Stark (Tom Taylor) walk and talk at the Wall.

The voice and claggy vowels in question, this time out, belong to Cregan Stark, who’s Lord of Winterfell these days. He’s visiting the Wall, and taking an elevator ride up to its trendy rooftop bar, alongside Jacaerys — brother of the recently dragon-chomped Lucerys, son of Queen Rhaenyra. Jacaerys is on a mission — he reminds Cregan of his oath to defend the realm, and asks for Northern soldiers to rally to his mother’s cause and defeat the usurpers. Cregan agrees to send a bunch of elderly soldiers; no sooner has Jacaerys accepted this offer than he receives word of his brother’s death.

Cut to: Dragonstone. The great and good and always right Princess Rhaenys returns from patrolling Team Black’s blockade of the bay that’s cutting King’s Landing off from food and supplies.

She parks (moors?) her dragon Meleys at a kind of dragon loading dock – a new set created for season 2! She’s met by Daemon, who wants her to saddle back up so they can fly to King’s Landing together and take out Vhagar, the dragon that killed Prince Lucerys. Daemon also complains that the Queen’s been neglecting her duties, having disappeared as soon as she heard about Lucerys’s death. Rhaenys tells Daemon that the Queen needs to see her son’s body for herself. He tries to get a few digs in about her failure to eliminate the Greens when she had a chance to, because Daemon gotta Daemon. She refuses both to take the bait, and to accompany him on his vendetta, citing exhaustion. (Due to Rhaenys’ utter and abiding fabulousness, said exhaustion manifests as a slightly windburned cheek and single stray strand of white wig hair.) Rhaenys heads to her chambers to bathe and rest, because the war will wait, but self-care will not.

We don’t have to wait to figure out where Queen Rhaenrya disappeared to. She’s landed near Storm’s End, home of House Baratheon, the place Lucerys departed from just before suffering homicide-by-dragonjaw. She gazes at it intently.

On Driftmark, home of Rhaenyra’s allies House Velaryon, a recovering Lord Corlys inspects the repairs to his navy’s flagship. He exchanges a few words with Alyn, a shipworker. Alyn mentions his brother Addam. If you think this whole conversation seemed weirdly weighted with unspoken meaning, you’re not wrong. Watch this space.

Small Council, big problems

Switch to Team Green. At the Red Keep, Ser Arryk walks the battlements. (Remember: Arryk supports Aegon, while his twin Erryk supports Rhaenyra. Brother against brother! Ken Burns would plotz!) When a dragon is spotted, the soldiers prepare to defend the castle with scorpions. Which, just to be clear, are giant crossbow-thingies. If when you read “defend the castle with scorpions” just now, you pictured a bunch of soldiers pelting the dragon with mean-tempered-by-nature arachnids, put that right out of your mind.

Once they see that the dragon in question is hoary old Vhagar, flown by Aemond, they stand down. (This scene exists to show us that Team Green knows they’re working at a distinct dragon deficit, and have been making plans accordingly.)

King Aegon the Aess enters his sister-wife Helaena’s room, where one of their twins, the girl Jaehaera, plays by the fire. Heleana looks up from her embroidery (see what I mean? About the stitching?) long enough to tell Aegon that their other twin Jaehaerys, who is Aegon’s heir, is in the library. Also that she’s worried about the rats in the Red Keep. Look, I’ve been telling you and telling you that there’s a story reason why practically every character in season 1 mentioned the damn rats at one time or another. The payoff is coming. Not long now. Hold tight.

Dowager Queen Alicent and Criston Cole are together in her bedchamber, doing that thing that two people do together in bedchambers that isn’t sleeping or scrolling on their phones.

At the Small Council, it’s Bring Your Heir to Work Day, as Aegon encourages Li’l Jaehaerys to humiliate the obsequious Ser Tyland Lannister. These hijinks might distract you from the important information being conveyed in this scene, namely that: They haven’t yet heard if the North (House Stark) or the Vale (House Arryn) will join their side (spoiler: they won’t). But they do have the Stormlands (House Baratheon) behind them, and the Westerlands (House Lannister) and the Reach (House Hightower). In the Riverlands, however, many Lords of that realm are flying Rhaenyra’s banner.

Aegon, predictably, wants to burn the Riverlords to ash, starting with Lord Tully at Riverrun; Alicent and Otto, equally predictably, urge patience.

Lord Larys stops Alicent on her way out of the meeting and informs her that A: He knows about her and Cole, and B: He’s slaughtered the spies among her servants who were feeding information to Mysaria (remember her? The White Worm?).

 Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy) gazes into the depths.
Theo Whitman / HBO
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HBO
Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy) gazes into the depths.

Back to the shores of Shipbreaker Bay: Rhaenyra finds the remains of her son Lucerys and his dragon Arrax – and terrifies some locals in the process.

“The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is a source of dispute …”

In the Great Hall of the Red Keep, Aegon II gets down to the dull business of actually ruling a kingdom, but his every edict is quietly countermanded by Otto, who’s all about practicality and the needs of the realm and taxes and eating his broccoli and managing his 401k and just generally pumping the brakes on Aegon’s willfulness. This is noticed by Larys, who plants the seed in Aegon’s tiny, tiny mind that perhaps he should choose a Hand of the King who’s less of a frustrating fuddy-duddy; someone more in line with Aegon’s bold vision for a new Westeros.

Pay attention to the blacksmith in this scene who petitions Aegon to pay up already for the weapons he’s forged. That’s Hugh; he’ll be back.

Alicent upbraids Otto for undercutting her at the Small Council; they proceed to discuss Aegon and Aemond as if they’re just a coupla impetuous little scamps who’ll grow up, calm down and see reason soon enough. It’s not working; you can tell that neither truly believes this, and are both desperately trying to figure out their respective roles in this new, wantonly violent Aegon Era.

Team Black again: Lord Erryk finds Mysaria (she’s back) stowing away on a ship and brings her before her old lover Daemon. He’s furious at her for selling secrets to Otto, but she professes to being unconcerned with the weird little reindeer games played by the High Houses. Erryk asks Daemon to treat her kindly, which causes Daemon to lay into Erryk for not killing Aegon when he had the chance. Erryk, being a trained knight, neatly parries this verbal thrust by pointing out that he was sworn to defend every member of the royal family, and once they started turning on each other, his oath was rendered deeply, unresolvably moot.

Sonoya Mizuno as Mysaria.
Ollie Upton / HBO
/
HBO
Sonoya Mizuno as Mysaria.

Daemon’s not one to concede a point, but he’s spared from having to do so when Rhaenyra returns. She makes her way to the Painted (not actually Painted, technically Glowing) Table and receives updates: Daemon wants to fly to Harrenhal in the Riverlands and shore up the Riverlords’ support. Corlys’s naval blockade is preventing any supplies from getting to King’s Landing by sea. They await her orders.

Rhaenyra’s only got one – it’s the one and only line Emma D’Arcy gets in this episode, and they sell the hell out of it: “I want Aemond Targaryen.”

Daemon convinces Mysaria to supply him with information about the inner workings of the Red Keep in exchange for her freedom. There’s a fleeting moment when the show seems to suggest that Daemon will try to rekindle their relationship, but Mysaria, a woman who’s got her head on shoulders (at least for now) is having none of it.

Jacaerys and his cheekbones return from his recruitment drive, reporting that the Vale is with them, as is the North, before breaking down and needing a hug from his mommy. Aw. They grieve for Lucerys together.

The Aegony and the … more Aegony

Back in King’s Landing, Alicent lights candles for the dead in the Grand Sept. She even lights one for Lucerys, which is – almost literally! – the very, very, very least she can do.

Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and her candles.
Ollie Upton / HBO
/
HBO
Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and her candles.

Meanwhile, on Dragonstone, Rhaenyra and her court stand vigil around Lucerys’s funeral pyre. At one point Jacaerys hoists his brown-haired younger brother in his arms. That’s Joffrey Velaryon, he’ll be important later. (Also present, also important: The two kids Rhaenrya had with Daemon. They’re full-blooded Targaryens, and they’ve got platinum hair to show for it. Maddeningly, their names are Aegon and Viserys, which is confusing, but put that aside for now; we don’t have to worry about them quite yet.)

King’s Landing. The back entrance. Synchronize your hourglasses, people, because Daemon’s fixing to put Operation: I Want Aemond Targaryen into effect.

He sneaks into King’s Landing by bribing a burly soldier of his acquaintance who, in the book anyway, is called Blood. Together they hire one of the Red Keep’s ratcatchers to lead Blood into the castle through secret, rat-infested corridors. This ratcatcher? According to the book? Is called Cheese.

Yep. Blood and Cheese. Weirdest vaudeville act ever. Or the title of a grim n’ gritty Wallace & Gromit reboot. Or the result of a ghastly industrial accident in Camembert, France. Blood and Cheese, folks!

Cheese asks Daemon what they should do if they can’t find Aemond. The scene cuts away before his answer, which doesn’t seem even remotely ominous or anything.

Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) and Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell).
Ollie Upton / HBO
/
HBO
Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) and Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell).

Somewhere in the Red Keep, Aemond is making battle plans with Criston Cole. Their plan — to march a great host out of King’s Landing, with Vhagar as air cover, forcing the nearby castles to side with King Aegon II. Aemond frets that Queen Alicent and Ser Otto remain too willing to seek peace.

Otto shows up and, none too pleased to see them plotting, urges Aemond to “keep a grip on your impulses.” Which is a little like urging the grass to maybe deprioritize this whole “growing” agenda it seems so invested in.

Cheese leads Blood into the Red Keep. They’re not particularly stealthy, as they enter into the Great Hall, where a drunk King Aegon II is, rather unwisely, reclining on the famously pointy and rusty Iron Throne, surrounded by the Westerosi equivalents of Turtle, Drama and E.

Together Blood and Cheese make their way to the floor where the royal family lives, via a secret door in the room that Aemond and Cole were just plotting in. (This room seems to be Rhaenyra’s old bedchamber – it’s this same secret door that Daemon used to spirit young Rhaenyra out into the streets of King’s Landing, last season.).

Cheese captures Queen Helaena, holding a knife to her throat. Blood reminds him that Daemon’s orders were to take Aemond’s head – “A son for a son, he said.”

Cheese points out that the twins – the girl Jaehaera and the boy Jaehaerys, heir to the Iron Throne – are asleep in this very room. They ask Helaena which of them’s the boy. She (eventually) points. Blood suspects she’s lying – “She’d never give up the King’s heir so easily!” – but Cheese can see that she’s telling the truth. So emotionally intelligent, that’s our man Cheese for you.

They then proceed to kill and behead young Jaehaerys (Note: We don’t see this, but then we don’t really need to, as the show’s Foley crew goes full ham on the sound effects thereof. Kudos, I guess?) Helaena sweeps the still-alive and still-fully-headed twin Jaehaera up in her arms and flees. She makes her way through the entirely (Completely! Utterly! Inexcusably!) guard-free hallways, to Alicent’s bedchamber, where the Queen is busily, um, conferring with Criston Cole.

“They killed the boy,” Helaena says, in the precisely the same way you and I might say, “The caesar salad with chicken, please.”

Parting Thoughts

  • If you think that Lucerys’ body washing up on shore, and Rhaenyra so easily managing to find it, somehow strains credulity, I remind you that you are watching a show on which flying, fire-breathing dragons figure largely.
  • What are we to make of Helaena’s giving up her son Jaehaerys so quickly? She certainly seems to see her brother-husband Aegon for who he is. Maybe she saw a chance to end his bloodline? To, temporarily at least, “break the wheel?” 
  • In the book, Helaena’s choice is a bit more complicated, in that it involves a third kid, Maelor, not present in the show. End result’s the same, however.
  • King Aegon II is utterly repellent, yes – but Tom Glynn-Carney is having a lot of fun with him, so I am too.
  • I like that we’re getting to see more of Dragonstone this season. But it’s still not enough; holding out for an Architectural Digest tour.
  • Really thought the Blood and Cheese stuff would play out last season, but I have to admit it’s a hell of a way to kick off season 2. The murder of Jaehaerys will cast a long shadow over all eight episodes of this season … and beyond.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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