House Of The Dragon Enters The Eye Of The Storm In 'The Princess And The Queen'

Queen Aemma wasn't exaggerating when she told Rhaenyra that the birthing bed is a battlefield. But what she didn't anticipate is the war that rages on for the Princess even after she's endured the pains of labor. Amongst other things, "The Princess and the Queen" is a reintroduction to characters we've just spent 5 episodes getting to know — because a week after we last spent time in Westeros, an entire decade has elapsed. The days of childhood folly are over and it's finally come time to reap to consequences of everyone's actions. After what I pray will be our last major times-kip of the series, we reunite with Rhaenyra just as she gives birth to her third child.

The birth is long, hard, and painful, which should come as no surprise (medieval medical practices remain very bad), though the concept of birth being uncomfortable seems to elude every single man that Rhaenyra encounters. But beyond that intensity, the opening scene is a brutal marker of time — connecting Rhaenyra to the parent she lost when "House of the Dragon" first began and showing how far she's come since expressing her fears of childbirth to Daemon in the gardens. This is the battlefield that Aemma promised her, but it's not the only place that Rhaenyra will be forced to fight. The heartbreaking center of this story is finally revealing itself and it's shockingly simple: parents doing their very best to protect their children. Status and power certainly go a long way, but with 3 kids of her own, Rhaenyra feels more vulnerable than ever.

One decade later, everything still sucks

Let's not bury the lede: this isn't just any other episode, this is the halfway point of the season and the one with the honor of introducing our new lead cast members, Emma D'Arcy and Olivia Cooke. Alicent (D'Arcy) and Rhaenyra (Cooke) are all grown up and in case you were hoping that a decade would be enough time to soothe their relationship tensions, then you should probably lower your expectations. This is Westeros! People hold grudges! Sometimes, people even start wars over those grudges! Alicent Hightower is on the verge of being such people. Seconds after Rhaenyra gives birth to her third son, a maid swings open the doors to announce that Queen Alicent would like the newborn brought to her immediately.

Generally speaking, when a family member gives birth, you pay them a visit, but the Queen very icily commands that the child come to her. It's such a vaguely threatening request that Rhaenyra decides to bring him herself. A protective mother from the very start, she bears the pain of having just given birth and carries her son around the winding paths and sweeping staircases of the castle, trailing blood in her wake. The reason for Alicent's odd request is quickly revealed: she wanted to confirm her suspicions that little Joffrey bears absolutely no resemblance to his supposed father aka Rhaenyra's husband, Laenor Velaryon (John Macmillan).

While Milly Alcock and Emily Carey are sorely missed, the transition to D'arcy and Cooke is shockingly seamless. Though 10 years have passed, these are inexplicably the same young women we once saw sharing laughs in the Godswood. Alicent is still the master of courtly manners while Rhaenyra's fierceness remains intact. At the same time, it's clear how the years have changed them: Alicent has found her groove as a commanding queen, making Rhaenyra even more unsure of her position at court. The gulf between them is wider than ever, and something much bigger than a lost friendship is on the line.

The worst kept secret in Westeros

What is it with Westerosi royals and their secret bastards? At least Cercei Lannister was slightly better at keeping her children's true parentage a secret — though even that eventually devolved into a convoluted war for the throne. 200 years before her, a very similar secret is being held up by some pretty shaky ground. Westeros' worst-kept secret is that all of Rhaenyra's children are bastards.

I'd just like to take a moment to point out that none of this would matter in Dorne, the best place in the seven kingdoms, where sexuality is fluid and bastards are just like everyone else. Alas, this is definitely not Dorne. But on the bright side, it's a version of Westeros ruled by a king who likes to avoid conflict no matter the cost — even if that means existing in a constant state of denial about who fathered his grandchildren. King Viserys (Paddy Considine), who is beginning to resemble a walking corpse, has somehow managed to squeeze out another 10 years of life. I'm guessing that part of his health plan is avoiding stress so instead of interrogating why his daughter's children bear a striking resemblance to Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr), the commander of the Gold Cloaks, he simply welcomes the child, congratulates Rhaenyra, and resumes playing with his models as always. But his wife doesn't share his accepting nature.

Alicent is fully embracing her Cercei Lannister era: gulping down wine, plotting against her enemies, and constantly rolling her eyes without even the thinnest veil of courtesy. Her feelings towards Rhaenyra remain bitter but it's no longer about a lie told in a panic so many years ago. Their rivalry runs so much deeper. Alicent sees her conflict with Rhaenyra as a fight for decency. I suppose that in her defense, by Westerosi moral standards, she has a point: the Princess has had children out of wedlock and is passing them off as someone else's. Technically, they aren't the rightful heirs. But Alicent's high horse is pretty damn flimsy once we unravel what being on her side entails.

The Green Queen plays her hand

For starters, it's not a great look that Rhaenyra has to drag herself up the stairs minutes after giving birth to defend herself against the Queen. And then there's the matter of the folks that Alicent surrounds herself with. Joining her in hatred for the princess is none other than the white knight himself, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel but with a haircut). Speaking of bitterness, the man has yet to get over Rhaenyra turning down his awful marriage proposal from 10 years ago. He speaks about her with even more venom than Alicent can muster — enough that he stops the Queen in her tracks with his bad language. More importantly is the fact that the pious queen has maintained her friendship with Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), who has a new gig as the royal torturer and ends the episode with some casual patricide.

So if we're to see things from Alicent's perspective, then the side of justice includes the bitter Ser Criston, whose honor is as selective and flimsy as its always been, and the conniving Larys Strong, willing to murder his own family members to please her highness. For all that she's learned, Alicent still has hints of the naive outsider we met when the series kicked off: she doesn't seem to fully grasp the dangers of playing this game until Larys kills in her name.

All of this is propagated on the concept that when the time comes, Rhaenyra will destroy every obstacle that stands in her way of ascending the throne. That might well be true, but isn't Alicent the one making her children into obstacles? Aegon (Ty Tennant) shows no interest in anything other than making fun of his dragonless brother and uh, masturbating out his window (this kid's going places). And for her part, Rhaenyra wasn't a big fan of baby Aegon because she feared that he might usurp her as heir, but even though he's now a walking-and-talking threat to her position, she doesn't exactly seem poised to murder him. She even proposes an engagement between Helena and her own firstborn son. It's a desperate attempt to mend her rift with Alicent but it's a sign that violence isn't even in consideration. But her olive branch is ignored and instead, Alicent doubles down, telling Aegon that his life is in danger if he doesn't recognize his own right to rule. And so the seeds of conflict continue to be planted.

'A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing.'

While Alicent talks to her children, Rhaenyra worries about her own. Brunette Targaryens are a pretty rare sight but not entirely unprecedented for viewers, re: Jon Snow. The bigger tell is the fact that these kids are all inexplicably white. And just because Laenor doesn't care and Viserys is in denial, doesn't mean that the rest of Westeros is willing to play along. It certainly doesn't help that Harwin makes a spectacle of himself by publicly coming to the rescue of his kids who are being actively bullied by absolute menace to society, Criston Cole. While Harwin gives us the satisfaction of seeing Criston getting absolutely bodied, he's the one who loses in the end. Stripped of his position at court, he's forced to return to his family's castle at Harrenhal — a move that very sadly leaves Rhaenyra alone in King's Landing.

I guess she's not entirely alone. Laenor might be her husband in name alone, but it's better than nothing, right? Except that he too is looking for an escape, dreaming of heading to the Stepstones to deal with the still stirring conflict. He gives some speech about how his blood yearns for warfare but Rhaenyra asks, then commands him to stay by her side. And that seems to end that.

It wasn't so long ago that Alicent complained about feeling alone at court, but now she's made friends and commands control in a way that Rhaenyra struggles to match. The tragedy of these women is that they share a very similar goal: they both want to protect their children from the other. This feel like one of those problems that could be solved with some good ol' fashioned communication ("I promise to threaten your children if you don't threaten mine") but given the way Alicent looks disgusted when Rhaenyra mentions their past friendship, I'm guessing a casual chat is nowhere on the horizon.

Targaryen insecurity

One potential ally for the Princess is surprisingly oceans away from her. Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) has come a long way since trying to kiss Rhaenyra at her wedding; he's fully f-ed off to another continent, where he hates the wine and misses home but refuses to admit it. As he sees it, there's nothing left for him in Westeros. Rhaenyra and Viserys have moved on from suffering his antics and Daemon himself has found a new wife in Laena Velaryon (Nana Blondell).

For the brief shining moments that we get to enjoy it, their marriage seems pretty happy. They put on an epic show of riding their dragons together, Laena constantly puts in an effort to boost her husband's bruised ego, and evidently, our previously impotent prince managed to give her two children with a third on the way. But the shadow hanging over them is that Daemon isn't half the man he used to be; miserable and self-pitying, he actually considers a long-term residence in Pentos, where at least they worship him for riding a dragon. But Laena doesn't share in his insecurity. She knows who she is and where she's meant to be. Unfortunately, she never sees home again.

In a repeat of the harrowing scene that ended Aemma's life, Laena's birthing complications lead to Daemon being posed the same dilemma: save the baby and doom his wife, or leave it up to the fates. Daemon lacks his brother's resolve (insert the echoing voice of Rhea Royce: "I knew you couldn't finish). With him unable to decide, Laena takes matters into her own hands. She ends her misery with the Dragonriders death that she once demanded, leaving the Rogue Prince with two daughters that I sincerely doubt he can raise alone.

The eye of the storm

While Daemon and Laena suffer their crucible, everyone else is confronting their own. Lyonel Strong is caught between honor and protecting his son. He tries to resign as Hand of the King — knowing he can no longer be impartial as an advisor — but can't bring himself to admit the truth to Viserys' face. Instead, he takes time off to bring his son home and that grave error costs him his life.

The Strongs aren't the only ones fleeing their troubles. After years of twisting at court, listening to the whispers, and watching Alicent hold sway with her father, Rhaenyra has had enough. Her marriage proposal rebuffed, she decides to move her family to Dragonstone, the ancestral seat of the House Targaryen. Her justification is a word of advice from Laenor: "the wise sailor flees the storm as it gathers." This mirrors words once spoken by Corlys Velaryon, but with a telling twist. Corlys told Viserys, "To elude a storm you can either sail into it or around it. But you must never await its coming." In his version, there's an option beyond just running away. And maybe it's the difficult road worth taking.

In leaving for Dragonstone, Rhaenyra might be doing more harm than good. Without her there to solidify her claim, weigh in on the small council, and make her worth known, Alicent will have an easier time winning people in her favor. Especially now that she's delving further into darkness thanks to the work of Larys Strong. Unbeknownst to Rhaenyra, the king suddenly needs a new Hand and Alicent has just the man in mind. The bigger issue with Laenor's allegory might be the fact that he assumed the storm is still brewing when in reality, they're already in the thick of it.

Stray thoughts

  • So what does it mean to be a Targaryen? It's a question worth asking, now that we have a bunch of blondes (and brunettes) running around, gearing up to be the next generation of royals. If Rhaenyra's kids are bastards and lack the signature silver hair, do they even count? Based on Aegon's prophecy, of course they do! "From my blood comes the prince that was promised." No matter who their father is, they have Targaryen blood. They even have the dragons to prove it — unlike Alicent's youngest son Aemond, who clearly feels like an outsider amongst the dragon-riding bunch. (That same insecurity is mirrored by Daemon's daughter Rhaena, in large part thanks to him.)

  • Imagine my surprise to learn that Daemon is a s*** father who ignores his child because she doesn't ride a dragon. Who could've seen this coming?

  • On that note, I'm absolutely thrilled that this show is finally delving into dragon lore. Dragon training! Dragon riding! Dragon bonding! Pigs dressed like dragons! Targaryens being depressed because they don't have dragons! Great, quality stuff. It almost makes up for the fact that we don't get to see Laena claim and bond with Vhagar, the ancient missing dragon that she obsessed over way back in episode 2.

  • The creators of this show are just huge fans of "The Departed," huh? They thought the finale rat was genius and decided to steal it for themselves. I expect that every episode will now end with a shot of a rat being very noticeable and symbolic.

  • This episode is stunningly directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who also directed the pilot. It's a perfect fit: the birthing scene and trip through the Red Keep perfectly mirror our initial introduction to Alicent and Rhaenyra, once a pair of giggling teenagers who have since become bitter rivals. Oh, how times change.

  • Harwin Strong and Laena Velaryon deserved better and I will eternally be upset that we didn't get to spend more time watching their respective relationships grow.

  • In general, this is the toughest time-jump to swallow and it makes me wish that the season had slowed down to fill in the gaps. It's not just about basking in the glow of Daemon's wedding or enjoying some happiness in the years-long relationship of Harwin and Rhaenyra — we never even see Larys interact with his father or brother before murdering them. The nature of those relationships feels like very important context! Speaking of the time gap, how the hell did Criston Cole get away with murdering a man in plain sight? Presumably, Alicent stepped in to defend him, but that's a conversation I would've loved to see.

  • Can you believe that there was ever a time when we found Ser Criston charming? Ugh. Watching Harwin dent his fellow knight's face was mildly distressing but also incredibly therapeutic.

  • Helena Targaryen is a very interesting kid with some very interesting stuff to say. If you've read "Fire & Blood," then I'm guessing your ears pricked when she was muttering to herself while Alicent and Aemond spoke. But if you haven't, then that scene might be worth a second pass.

Who is winning the Game of Thrones?

The world of Westeros may be continuing under a different title, but we are still playing a game of thrones. So let's take a moment to reflect on the episode's most prominent players:

WINNER: Larys Strong - Tragedy has befallen House Strong but weirdly, I get the feeling that Larys is gonna pull through. After years of stoking Alicent's anger and laying in wait as her ally, Larys finally found his moment. Though she didn't technically ask him to commit multiple murders on her behalf, the Queen is now indebted to this schemer whether she likes it or not. And lucky for Larys, as the sole inheritor of his family's fortune, he may have just become the Lord of Harrenhal. The most dangerous thing about this man is that we still don't really know his M-O. Did he murder his family so he could inherit their titles? Or is he just a fierce supporter of Alicent's cause? Is he embracing chaos a la Littlefiger? And what exactly does he want from Alicent in return?

LOSER: Rhaenyra Targaryen - Running away to Dragonstone is a bad look and indicative of just how little power Rhaenuyra has in King's Landing. Without Harwin around or her father actively on her side, Rhaenyra has become very vulnerable. Alicent has some very clear and powerful allies, and the Princess is desperately in need of her own.

WINNER: Queen Alicent - Becoming a murderer may not have been on her to-do list, but on the bright side, Alicent is conformably taking her place at court. As queen, she's an active participant in politics, attending small council meetings with her very own ceremonial ball. She speaks up without having to think twice and though Viswrys does shut her down when she crosses a line, she's comfortable enough in her position to do something like refusing Rhaenyra's marriage proposal. Alicent may have complained that no one is around to take her side, but we don't exactly see her suffer many losses. In the years that have passed, she only seems to have become more assuredly powerful.