‘House of the Dragon’ Season 1, Episode 8 Recap: Calamitous Ambition

This week brought the end of an era as the second sons, those overshadowed, resentful men of Westeros, instigated most of the action.

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By Jeremy Egner

Season 1, Episode 8: ‘The Lord of the Tides’

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about “Game of Thrones” is its ability to evoke real emotion over scenarios that, on paper, are weird and grotesque.

I’m thinking about the moving scene when Cersei and Jaime, partners in twincest, come together over their horrid, poisoned son Joffrey as he dies at his own wedding. Or about the compassion I felt for the 900-year-old shadow-monster birthing sorceress Melisandre, orchestrator of some of the show’s most appalling acts, when she collapsed into dust after fighting the good fight, for once. It’s a subtle reminder that whatever its other failings and prejudices, the human heart tends to be forgiving and sympathetic in the face of suffering and love.

I had a similar feeling watching this week’s “House of the Dragon,” when Daemon helped Viserys up the steps to the Iron Throne. The king gratefully accepted help from a degenerate, homicidal brother who is now also his son-in-law, with Daemon retrieving the dropped crown, the object of his desire from the beginning of the show, and placing it upon Viserys’s scabrous head for what they both knew would be one of the last times.

Of course, none of that works if Paddy Considine and Matt Smith, as well as the writers, hadn’t spent the past seven weeks creating a relationship in which mutual affection peeked through all the antagonism and indignation that otherwise defined it. And lest the poignant, nearly wordless exchange make you wonder whether true love and fresh dragon eggs have softened Daemon, a few minutes later we see him slice a man’s head in two.

The scene was also emblematic in an episode that was a swan song for Considine and Viserys (R.I.P.), but one in which the second sons, those overshadowed, resentful men of Westeros, instigated most of the action.

Vaemond Velaryon (Wil Johnson) lit the fuse on everything with his strategic, if ultimately unsuccessful (and then some) petition to subvert his older brother’s wishes and gain control of his house, castle and throne. Daemon was who first learned of Vaemond’s ambitions and eventually put them conclusively to rest with his sword. Aemond broke the fragile family supper truce by toasting his “strong” nephews, prefiguring battles that now seem imminent.

(You could also throw in Lucerys, for goading Aemond into his obnoxious toast by laughing at him. But I’m omitting him, for aesthetic reasons, because his name doesn’t rhyme with the others.)

Return to Westeros in ‘House of the Dragon’

HBO’s long-awaited “Game of Thrones” prequel series is here.

We picked up after another sizable time jump — at least six years have passed, based on what we were told about how long the Sea Snake has been gone — that necessitated another batch of new actors.

The early standout is Ewan Mitchell, as Aemond, whose face looks to have been chiseled from Valyrian stone with the sole purpose of appearing in a “Game of Thrones” show. There are also a couple of new heirs, courtesy of Rhaenyra and Daemon: a new Viserys to replace the one we just lost, as well as yet another Aegon to keep track of, curse the gods. (Plus a baby on the way.)

There’s been some redecorating, too, with the Targaryen banners in the Red Keep being replaced by Faith of the Seven iconography. It’s a sign that Otto and Alicent have no intention of leaving — House Hightower has close, longstanding ties to the faith — and plan to marshal religious forces and followers to their cause when the time comes.

They had hoped to add a navy as well. That was the beauty of Vaemond’s plan, as he saw it, to install himself as the Lord of the Tides, commander of the world’s largest sea force. While I’d like your support for my usurping, he told Rhaenys: “I don’t need it. The crown has good reason to take my side.”

“My cousin, the king, would have your tongue for this,” Rhaenys said. (Foreshadowing!)

“But it’s not a king who sits the Iron Throne these days,” Vaemond replied. “It’s a queen.”

We saw how that turned out. It’s hard to fault Vaemond for wanting his ancestral home to remain within the bloodline of his ancestors, even as his complaints about the calamity caused by the Sea Snake’s ambition were pretty rich as part of Vaemond’s own power play. (He also should have given them more thought, considering the calamity his own ambitions were about to bring him.)

As for his besmirching the king’s daughter and grandsons to his face (or the half that remained, anyway) … did you buy it? Anyone in the realm would know there’s only one way that goes, even if the king is too feeble to handle the dispatching himself. Does Vaemond really go from power-grab to death wish in a matter of minutes?

I’m not sure if his brazen blaspheming was intended to be a glimpse of his innate recklessness, or a product of his intense frustration with what he perceived as a profound injustice, or just a final impudent kiss-off from a fed-up second son, or what. Whatever it was, it set up one of the more memorable executions in “Thrones” history.

I complained at the beginning of the season about how part of the appeal of “Game of Thrones” was that it frequently showed me things I had never seen before on television, whereas “House of the Dragon” is overly reminiscent of its predecessor and other melodramas. So credit where it’s due: I’ve never seen such an expertly halved head before on TV or anywhere else.

The upshot was that Vaemond got to keep his tongue and the Sea Snake, wherever he is, got to keep his succession plan. And Rhaenyra’s latest ploy to strategically marry off her sons to relatives (this time Laena’s daughters, Baela and Rhaena, the boys’ cousins and stepsisters) means that Driftmark will remain biologically Velaryon, if all goes according to plan. (A big if, admittedly.) It’s as happy an outcome involving a bisected head as you’re likely to see.

All that was left was for the whole family to get together for dinner with grandpa one last time.

I described Viserys as circling the royal drain after his nosebleeds and fainting spells at Rhaenrya’s wedding bash. Somehow he went on to live more than 16 years after that, and looked it, missing big chunks of his head and spending his days getting lanced and scraped and floating in a milk-of-the-poppy haze.

After his heroic final appearance on an Iron Throne that never loved him, he deserved one last night with a family who mostly did, even as they individually pursued their own schemes and messed-up desires. They proved it by pulling together long enough to send him off with warm toasts and a nice final vision of his bastard grandson dancing with his creepy daughter.

I talked last week about the grace and gravitas with which Considine has anchored “House of the Dragon” from the beginning, so I won’t belabor it again here. I spent some time with him for an article before the season, and at the time he mentioned a late-season monologue as a particular source of pride, a moment when he “touched a bit of old Hopkins,” he said, referring to one of his acting heroes, Anthony Hopkins.

I assume he was referring to Viserys’s dinner speech, in which the king removed his golden phantom mask so his family could “see me as I am” and delivered one last plea for unity that is destined to ultimately be ignored.

“The crown cannot stay strong if the House of the Dragon remains divided,” he said. “Set aside your grievances, if not for the sake of the crown, then for the sake of this old man who loves you all so dearly.”

It was another objectively weird, grotesque scene, an entreaty to a murderous, deeply inbred family celebrating still more intermarriages as they prepared to have dragon-fights with one another in the near future, delivered by a one-eyed codger who is more rot than not. When Viserys sat back down and took a gulp of wine, I half-expected it to shoot out of his head in a dozen different places.

But if it touched a bit of old Hopkins, it touched me, too. Considine will be missed. May Viserys finally rest in peace while the realm goes to hell.

A few thoughts while we wait for the laugh track

Of course, Viserys being Viserys, he goofed things up on his way out of the mortal plane, revealing Aegon’s “prince that was promised” vision to Alicent in response to Rhaenyra’s question about it earlier. I’m not sure what use the queen will be able to make of it. I just hope the writers don’t turn it into some kind of wacky misunderstanding, the way they did when Criston accidentally admitted that he slept with Rhaenyra.

Speaking of Ser Criston, the guy has barely aged in almost 20 years. I guess armor and bitterness is good for the pores.

Rhaenyra, by the way, is still the master of the garden lie of omission. I swear I didn’t sleep with Daemon, she told Alicent years ago by the weirwood tree. I swear I had nothing to do with Laenor’s death she told Rhaenys this week, near the same spot.

Aegon, now played by Tom Glynn-Carney, has graduated from silly twerp to vile lout. (I was sorry to see Ty Tennant go.) When the servant reported his assault to Alicent, Olivia Cooke expertly juggled sympathy and cold manipulation. It was a gutting scene, particularly the quick but heartbreaking shot of the girl holding her payoff in one hand and morning-after tea in the other. (Geeta Vasant Patel was the episode director.)

Baela (Bethany Antonia), seen last week reaching for Jacaerys’s hand at the wake, seemed pleased with her engagement to the prince (now played by Harry Collett). But Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) was less enthusiastic about his own betrothal to Rhaena (Phoebe Campbell). After they all marry, they can add “spouse” and “in-laws” to the relations list.

Jot down Helaena’s (Phia Saban) lovely sentiments to use for your next wedding toast: “It isn’t so bad. Mostly he just ignores you, except sometimes when he’s drunk.”

Did you see Aemond after Daemon split Vaemond? (Might as well lean into the name confusion.) He seemed almost gleeful, as if relishing the thought of facing off with a worthy adversary. They also had a mini-moment later as the family dinner collapsed into acrimony. Seems like a showdown’s coming.

What did you think? Who would win in a Highlander duel between Daemon and Aemond? Will you miss Viserys? Fire away in the comments — if not for the sake of the crown, then for the sake of this old man who loves you all so dearly.

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