Spoiler alert: this recap is for people watching House of the Dragon. Do not read on unless you have watched episode nine.
‘We grieve for Viserys the peaceful’
Following the death of a steady, venerable and generally well-liked monarch, crowds cram the streets before filing into a cold stone hall to pay tribute. As the ancient rituals are carried out, up to the throne ascends the monarch’s first-born son, an heir whose fitness for the role many hold in doubt, and who must win the respect of his people if he is to ensure the survival of his line. You couldn’t make it up, could you?
Yes, the king is finally dead – long live the king. If there’s a slight by-the-numbers feel to this penultimate episode (barring a handful of twists and one big late-in-the-day shocker) that’s because everything here happens just as a small group of crafty men wanted it to, having planned for this day much longer than we, or indeed their figurehead, Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke), were aware. Her claim that this was what Viserys asked for with his last, rattling breath is just the convenient icing on an already well-prepared cake.
‘There was no need to sully you with darkling schemes’
It begins, inevitably, with a small council meeting, nominally chaired by Alicent but really under the sway of her father, Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), hand of the dead king and presumably the living one, too. He already has most of the attenders on his side – and the one standout, Lord Lyman Beesbury (Bill Paterson), barely has the chance to voice his objections before he’s bumped off by Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), his head slammed into one of those odd little marbles that seem to be the Westerosi version of the conch from Lord of the Flies.
It’s a sign of just how far the once-noble Ser Criston has fallen – not only is he all-in on the Hightower coup, but he raises a sword to his own lord commander. He makes no objection, however, when Ser Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish) – disgusted by Ser Otto’s order to round up and kill Rhaenyra, Daemon and their children – breaks with tradition and resigns his post, opening the way for Criston himself to step in. Let’s hope that, like the equally durable Ser Barristan in Game of Thrones, Ser Harrold is able to slip past the plotters to join the other side.
‘Reluctance to murder is not a weakness’
But the kingmakers have one big problem – they can’t find the king. Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) was last seen bunking off into King’s Landing to indulge his filthy whims, so it’s up to the man-bun twins Ser Erryk (Elliott Tittensor) and Ser Arryk (Luke Tittensor) to track him down and drag him back to face Ser Otto, who wants to force the boy to issue the order for Rhaenyra’s head. The only ones standing in his way are Ser Criston and his unlikely sidekick Prince Aemond (Ewan Mitchell), emissaries of the more forgiving queen. But they’re at a disadvantage, given that neither of these young squares could tell a brothel from a boarding house (Ser Criston’s straight-faced statement that “every woman is an image of the mother, to be spoken of with reverence” was the biggest laugh in another humourless episode).
What follows is a wild goose chase through the capital, from upmarket cathouses to rancid fighting pits where gangs of pre-pubescents with filed-down teeth do battle for baying crowds. It’s a convincingly grimy setting, but the whole thing feels like padding – there’s never any doubt as to the outcome, only how long it will take and who will get there first. Still, the moral tug-of-war between the twins is nicely handled, Aemond’s potentially regicidal loathing of his unfit brother gets thrown into sharp relief, and it’s good to finally get a sense of what Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), AKA the White Worm, is up to. Turns out she’s a secret activist, using her woke mob of sex workers and palace informants to improve the lot of the little people by banning the practice of kid-fighting that we only just found out about. Right on!
‘None of this is a game’
And what of the rest of the royal court, those lords and ladies who were expecting to see Rhaenyra on the throne following her father’s death? Well, after a stern lecture from Ser Otto, the majority wisely decide to bend the knee, while those few that don’t are shuffled off to the dungeons, or worse. All that’s left is Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), but she’s locked in her quarters with no way to reach her dragon, Meleys. That is, until Ser Erryk shows up to free her, leading her out through hidden ways, only to find that the Gold Cloaks are driving everyone up to the Sept to witness the hasty coronation of King Aegon, Second of His Name.
The visual parallels between this public crowning and a certain notorious beheading two centuries later are impossible to ignore, with Rhaenys in place of the terrified Arya Stark, being propelled through the streets and up the steps of the Sept. But where Arya was helpless to aid her father when the executioner’s blade fell, Rhaenys takes advantage of the mayhem to pop off and fetch her dragon. As the newly crowned Aegon stands awkwardly before his people, he has no idea what destruction is about to rain down on him.
‘Have you never imagined yourself on the Iron Throne?’
This, of course, is what the whole episode has been leading to: the masonry-smashing arrival of Meleys and her rider, Rhaenys; the crowds of screaming smallfolk getting flattened; the shock on the faces of Ser Otto, Ser Criston, King Aegon and poor Alicent, who stands frozen as the dragon turns on her. Rhaenys’s decision not to burn the entire clan alive is slightly questionable – did she think back to a little chat she’d had with Alicent, about both of them getting shoved aside in favour of less deserving men? Is she unsure yet which side she’s on – after all, Alicent’s opponents did, as far as she knows, murder her son, Laenor. Or is she simply aware that, if she kills half the characters, there’ll be no show left?
• The whole business with Viserys’s final words and Alicent’s misinterpretation of them felt like a stretch last week, and even more so in the light of day. The queen isn’t stupid, she knew he was rambling. I suspect the writers thought they needed one more reason for her to swallow her misgivings and place Aegon on the throne, and this was the best they could come up with. Surely her motherly concern for the future of her children if Rhaenyra ascended would have been enough?
• It was a surprise to see Lord Lyman get knocked off quite so unceremoniously. As one of a small handful of actors in this show I could have named without looking it up, I expected the great Bill Paterson’s role to come into its own in future series.
• A few folk pointed out that Helaena Targaryen – Queen Helaena now, poor lamb – actually predicted the dragon attack earlier in the episode with her ramblings about “the beast beneath the boards”. Is she just eccentric, or has she been touched by the three-eyed raven?
• You almost – almost – felt bad for that snivelling rapist and unrepentant fatherer of multiple Fleabottom bastards, Prince Aegon, as he was being dragged to face the justice of being made king against his will. He won’t last long in the role, and he knows it.
A marble in the brain, a rope round the neck, a spot of swordplay between two mismatched members of the Kingsguard and a gang of pox-ridden kids going at one another in a scene that even the director, Clare Kilner, clearly felt was too horrible to depict in any great detail. Then, at the end, death from above: if we had any lingering sympathy for Rhaenys after the ascension of her cousin, the death of her daughter and the apparent murder of her son, it was all swept away once Meleys muscled into the Sept, squashing all and sundry beneath her mighty claws.
All we saw was a flash of the knee and a hand fumbling in the trousers, but that Blue Velvet-inspired scene of foot-fetishistic exploitation and masturbation between Alicent and Ser Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) was a real creeper – she needs his devious mind, but surely not that much?
Random Brit of the week
I was planning to write about the twin actors Elliott and Luke Tittensor, but then I took a look at their respective Wikipedia pages and … OK. So let’s turn our attentions to the White Worm herself, Sonoya Mizuno. Born in Japan, she was raised in Somerset and has a solid career both as a model and actor behind her, with appearances in music videos for Beck and Frank Ocean and supporting roles in everything from La La Land to Ex Machina. That accent may be … unusual … but she’s an enjoyably slippery presence as Mysaria.