Spoiler alert: this recap is for people watching House of the Dragon. Do not read on unless you have watched episode five.
‘A dark day for the realm’
House of the Dragon is not Game of Thrones, that’s abundantly clear. This new series doesn’t have its ancestor’s geographic scope or grand narrative sweep; it doesn’t have its rambunctious sense of adventure or its scabrous humour. It’s limited both in its array of characters – they’re all noble, at least in the courtly sense – and in its locations. But what it does have is an ominous, trudging intensity, a feeling that awful things are coming not because anyone wants them to, but because they’re inevitable. It’s not exactly a barrel of fun – but it is increasingly compelling.
This doleful episode, called We Light the Way, suffers slightly in the wake of its striking predecessor, but there’s still plenty to chew on. It begins with a breath of fresh air: a rolling hillside, a swooping camera and a lady – Rhea of the Vale (Rachel Redford) – on horseback. There’s something of the Yara Greyjoy about her – she’s frisky and sharp-tongued. A new heroine, perhaps? Don’t be absurd. Within minutes she’s flat on her back, spine shattered by her own horse at the whim of her estranged husband Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), who hefts a bloody great boulder to finish the job. Just one more crime to add to this monster’s ever-extending rap sheet.
‘Is this how House Velaryon greets its King?’
Next we’re at sea, where choppy waves are causing King Viserys (Paddy Considine) more than a little physical discomfort. It’s surely impossible that the writers can have seen this year’s controversial Cannes film festival Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness before penning this episode, but the parallels of in-your-face oceanic vomiting are uncanny. Anyway, the King and his daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) are on a marital mission to Driftmark, island seat of those lords of the Narrow Sea, the Velaryon clan. But the welcome they receive is beyond frosty – you wouldn’t greet the tax inspector this way, let alone the ruler of the realm.
The mood thaws somewhat when Viserys reaches a compromise over marriage terms with Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) and his Targaryen wife, Lady Rhaenys (Eve Best), both of whom relish the prospect of seeing their potential grandchild ascend the throne. There’s even a certain warmth between the bride and groom to be, Rhaenyra and Laenor (Theo Nate) – childhood friends who have since gone their separate ways. The scene where they reach an “understanding” about their marital obligations was oddly adorable – she gets to keep boffing Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) and Laenor will carry on seeing his floppy-haired secret lover, Joffrey Lonmouth (Solly McLeod). The stage is set for a lavish wedding where everything goes exactly to plan, everyone has a lovely time and no one gets brutally face-smashed in front of the assembled guests. Sure, sure.
‘Let us leave it all behind and see the world together!’
You do have to wonder why they even bother to have weddings in Westeros, when they always seem to go so murderously wrong. The problem here is Ser Criston, who is less than thrilled at the prospect of becoming a glorified fuck-buddy for the next monarch, especially since it represents a major betrayal of his vows. A number of commenters pointed out last week that the consummation of Rhaenyra and Criston’s flirtations left the Kingsguard knight in a bind, powerless at the whim of his mistress. Well, he attempted to reclaim his power this week in increasingly desperate fashion, from pleading with Rhaenyra to abandon the throne and run away to Essos to sort-of-unintentionally revealing their tryst to Queen Alicent (Emily Carey), who wisely squirrelled this information away for later.
After all, Alicent was busy making moves of her own to regain some sense of agency, following a dire warning from her father, the outgoing Hand of the King Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), that Rhaenyra’s ascent to the throne would leave both the Queen and her children vulnerable. Further dark whispers from the scheming Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) – acting with or without the knowledge of his own father, the newly minted Hand, Lord Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes) – only deepened Alicent’s sense of unease. But at least she now has Ser Criston’s admission of guilt in her pocket, should things turn nasty – and perhaps even Ser Criston himself.
‘Marriage is only a political arrangement’
But first the wedding party, and a series of grand and not so grand entrances. The Velaryons put on the best show, sweeping down the stairs like a flock of proud birds, resplendent in their New Romantic finery. Prince Daemon opted for a subtler but no less impactful arrival, stalking into the room as whispers rose around him, forcing his brother either to make a scene or knuckle under and fetch a chair. Viserys, unsurprisingly, chose the latter. Finally, it was Alicent who set tongues wagging, both with an emerald green dress – the battle colours of her house, according to Larys – and with her interruption of her husband’s speech, a power play that left Alicent looking more regal and determined than she has in the series thus far.
Then, after the speeches, music and dancing! Or at least, a disturbingly avant-garde approximation of both: the droning cacophony seemed to lack either a sense of rhythm or any definable tune, while the dancing largely involved waving the arms about and shouting “Hey!” at random intervals. No wonder Ser Criston lost his rag. The confusion as to what, exactly, was spooking the guests was superbly handled – we assumed it involved Prince Daemon, who had just attempted to make a final move on his betrothed niece. But no, it was the love-struck Kingsguard, lashing out dementedly at his brother-in-paramourship, leaving Joffrey horribly beaten on the floor. Of course, the wedding ceremony still went ahead, as the rats lapped up the blood – though whether the bride’s father survived remains to be seen. Given how hard Viserys hit the deck in those final moments, it seems unlikely.
The Velaryons have to be the most glam family in Westeros – not just the glittering frocks and platinum locks, but the decor: their castle of High Tide was kitted out like an oceanic goth’s mad fantasy, with helmeted skulls, painted ships and candles by the thousand.
Dubious casting alert: are we really expected to swallow the idea that shifty Larys Strong is the son of Viserys’s new Hand, Lord Lyonel? Because from what we can glean online there’s about a seven-year age gap between the two actors, and you can see it.
It was a pleasure to witness the return of Jason Lannister (Jefferson Hall) – and to catch a glimpse of his identical twin brother, Ser Tyland – if only to see the open contempt on Rhaenyra’s face as he approached the dais. If Ser Otto was right and the realm does rise up against her, that dismissive sneer might cost many lives.
Another chaste week, though those raunchy tapestries in Alicent’s quarters did get one more look-in. Seriously, how can she eat breakfast in there? And what about poor little Aegon?
Again, the episode was topped and tailed with broken bones – first the back of Lady Rhea of the Vale and finally the face of poor Joffrey Lonmouth, smashed to a bloody pulp by the enraged Ser Criston.
Random Brit of the week
Speaking of young Joffrey, he may not have lasted long in Westeros but we’ll be seeing actor Solly McLeod again very soon, playing the title character in a four-part ITV adaptation of Henry Fielding’s lusty 18th-century picaresque novel Tom Jones, due on our screens before the end of the year.