Spoiler alert: this recap is for people watching House of the Dragon. Do not read on unless you have watched episode two.
‘If you wish to be restored as heir, you’ll need to kill me. So do it’
Where Game of Thrones horrified us with armies of the undead, the second episode of House of the Dragon begins with hordes of tiny, scuttling but somehow even more disturbing carnivorous crabs, seen tearing the meat from their shipwrecked, live victims while pirates haul away loot. These are the followers of the appropriately named Crabfeeder, that Myrish-born, Stepstones-dwelling marauder mentioned briefly last week who we’ll also glimpse at the end of this episode, masked like a mutant Mad Max villain and carrying out unspeakable acts of cruelty. It’s a short, sharp opening scene – but it’s also a breath of bracing, salty air after last week’s claustrophobic political machinations.
Of course, it’s not long before we’re back in the Red Keep and another meeting of the King’s Small Council, where Master of Ships Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), AKA the Sea Snake, rages at King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) about his lack of action against the pirates. But the king’s concerns lie closer to home: the recent death of a longstanding member of the Kingsguard has left an opening that must be filled, while six months after the death of his beloved queen, he’s slowly coming to terms with the fact that he must take another bride.
‘I would rather face the black dragon himself than mine own daughter of 15’
This matter of royal nuptials forms the backbone of an episode titled The Rogue Prince, and it illustrates in no uncertain terms the weakness at the heart of the realm. While in the opening episode Viserys’s reserved demeanour felt like calm steadiness, now we’re beginning to see that he is simply inadequate to the task of ruling, as Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) will later attest: “It was never my brother’s strongest trait, being king.” Viserys is reluctant to stir up trouble with the Free Cities by confronting their pet pirate, and even fears to speak to his own motherless daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) about their mutual grief, taking solace instead in his friendship with a more compliant teenage girl, Alicent Hightower.
But Alicent has other ideas, or at least her father, Ser Otto (Rhys Ifans), does, dispatching her to seduce the king – cautiously and cleverly – into a bond of companionship, and ultimately more. So while a marriage to his second cousin, 12-year-old Laena Velaryon (Savannah Steyn), might be more politically expedient, her father, Lord Corlys, is simply too blunt about it, all but ensuring that Viserys chooses Alicent instead. In the process he infuriates the Sea Snake and his wife, Rhaenys (Eve Best), driving them into the arms of Prince Daemon. Still, at least we don’t have to face the prospect of an ageing king marrying a pre-pubescent child.
‘Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne’
The other character putting her stamp firmly on this episode is Rhaenyra, and she’s a much bolder figure than her father, offering to fly down on dragonback to deal with the pirates and almost (but not quite) holding her own against the serpent-tongued Rhaenys, who warns the girl of danger should she persist in her ambition to become queen. She also gets to select the next member of the Kingsguard, picking young Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) for his combat experience, plus the fact that he’s a major hottie. The implication is that Rhaenyra will live to regret this choice, as dashing Criston is now officially off limits even to a potential queen.
It’s in the back half of the episode that Rhaenyra gets to spread her wings, in all senses. After storming off to the island seat of Dragonstone at the end of the opener, Lord Daemon has been brooding there ever since, scheming against his brother and dispatching cutpurses to steal the dragon’s egg that should have belonged to his nephew, the “heir for a day”, Prince Baelon. Denied the chance to go himself, Viserys sends his trusted Hand, Otto Hightower, to get the egg back – cue the episode’s most gorgeous moment, an ominous and murky CGI crane shot of Dragonstone in the mist, from beaches of black sand to the great keep looming atop sheer stone crags.
But Hightower isn’t half the diplomat the king thinks he is, and it doesn’t help that he and Daemon loathe one another. Blood is on the verge of being spilled when Rhaenyra arrives, swooping in on her dragon, Syrax, to save the day from disaster. Thus far it’s been slightly unclear who the real hero of House of the Dragon was going to be, the one decent character in whom we could really put our faith, the ancestor (or precursor?) of a figure such as Jon Snow. On the evidence of this episode, Rhaenyra is the prime candidate.
Fan reaction to the first episode of House of the Dragon seemed largely enthusiastic after the launch, judging from social media. But it was nice to see episode two widening the scope of the action and setting up more potential conflicts. If this trend continues, I predict we’re in for some nasty shocks and surprises in a few episodes’ time.
That sweetly written scene in the Sept of Baelor between Rhaenyra and Alicent made it clear that these Targaryens aren’t an especially pious bunch – the princess was ill at ease in church, and we’ve seen precious little of the seven gods and their minions. Where are all the scuttling Septons and shaming Septas?
Viserys’s fanboy fixation with intricate reproductions of ancient cities was a lovely touch – he’s a model railway enthusiast inadvertently elevated to the role of king. If there were garden sheds in Westeros, Viserys would be very happy hanging out in one.
Daemon’s consort Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) is starting to develop into one of the series’ most interesting characters: with hints of both Daenerys’s maidservant Missandei and Tyrion’s “camp follower” Shae, she’s clearly a woman who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to speak it.
Not a hint, which, given the aforementioned focus on age-gap marriages, was something of a mercy.
Again, very little. Despite some gnarly business with rotting skulls, the opening pirate battle was over by the time we arrived; and apart from the rattling of a few broadswords, the conflict on Dragonstone never quite took off. It’s coming, though. Sure as winter.
Random Brit of the week
He’s a cast regular rather than a one-episode random, but Rhys Ifans’s restrained performance as Otto Hightower continues to intrigue. The more time we spend with him, the more we come to realise that this bland, harmless demeanour must hide a heart of pure, Machiavellian malevolence. It’s surely only a matter of time before he does something truly awful.
• This article was amended on 30 August 2022 to remove the claim that the armies of the undead in Game of Thrones ate flesh.