‘House of the Dragon’ Season 1 Finale Recap: The Angriest Dragon

A stirring, often moving season finale included many of the show’s signature elements as it set up the war to come.

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By Jeremy Egner

Season 1, Episode 10: ‘The Black Queen’

It’s all fun and games until the dragons get angry.

In Sunday’s season finale of “House of the Dragon,” that rule applied primarily to Arrax and Vhagar, who took the airborne bullying Aemond had initiated farther than he intended. When the much smaller Arrax fought back against its tormentor by delivering a face full of fire — shades of his rider Lucerys’s de-eyeing of Aemond, the root of their rivalry — Vhagar retaliated with the chomp heard ’round the world.

But it also applies to Rhaenyra, who, now that Viserys is gone, becomes this story’s head dragon in charge.

She looked it this week, delivering her own baby before embracing her inner queen, showing grit and restraint as she stood up to Otto, Daemon and her hawkish advisers. Then, in a stunner of a final scene that saw her processing Lucerys’s death before turning back to the camera, the picture of grief-stricken, vengeful resolve, we saw that the war we’ve been anticipating since the beginning of this series had finally begun. (The episode was a showcase for Emma D’Arcy, who was brilliant throughout.)

The result of all of the above and more was a stirring, often moving season finale that included many of the show’s signature elements as it set up the conflict, known in George R.R. Martin’s “Fire & Blood” book as the Dance of the Dragons. There was thrilling dragon action, another brutal birth scene, another profane face-off between Daemon and Otto, another mature discussion between Rhaenys and the Sea Snake, this story’s most functional couple (the Sea Snake’s adventuring aside).

It all began with a truly terrible day for Rhaenyra, who early on learned that her father had died and that her former best friend had connived to steal the throne from her. Then she gave birth to a stillborn baby.

It was a rough start to a reign that was about to get even rougher. But first we watched the new queen grow into her role as she set aside her anger — unlike Daemon, who reminded everyone how temperamentally unfit for ruling he is — and began making plans to consolidate her support.

This mostly involved moving tokens around Dragonstone’s Painted Table, which you might recall as the site of Stannis and Melisandre’s shadow-baby conception in “Game of Thrones.” (In the lore, Aegon the Conqueror had the table built so he could plan his conquest of Westeros.)

It was Rhaenyra’s cool head as others agitated for war that convinced Rhaenys, a conspicuous holdout in the early scenes, to throw her support behind the new queen and, in turn, convince the healing Sea Snake to do the same.

His pledge of the formidable Velaryon fleet was Rhaenyra’s biggest coup, a reason for optimism as she planned to send envoys to secure the backing of three important houses: the Starks in Winterfell, the Tullys in Riverrun and the Baratheons in Storm’s End. Alas, that optimism was short-lived.

Lucerys carried the stink of tragedy from the earliest moments of the episode. The opening scene found him anxiously pawing at the table and fretting over Driftmark, which he was set to inherit once the Sea Snake sheds this mortal coil. “I’ll just ruin everything,” he told Rhaenyra. “I don’t want Driftmark.” (Luc, I have good news and bad news … )

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Later we saw Jacaerys pounding him into the sand during sparring practice. By the time Rhaenyra told Lucerys, “I expect you will receive a very warm welcome” at Storm’s End, things were starting to look pretty bad for him. Then when the camera lingered on his departure from Dragonstone, until the little boy on his little dragon faded into the night, I was sure he was a goner.

And that was before he landed and saw first Vhagar and then Aemond at Baratheon HQ. Rhaenyra wasn’t wrong: The eternally proud Lord Borros did seem happy to host a prince of the realm and his dragon. It’s just that a different one showed up first with a better offer, plus a sapphire shoved into his eye socket for extra dazzle.

Aemond, a walking grudge, taunted Luc first by land, ordering him to give up the eye Alicent long ago demanded at Laena’s funeral, and then by air. But once the dragons got the scent of combat in their scaly nostrils, both riders briefly lost control and that was that. The unintended consequence called back to Rhaenyra’s sage response to Daemon’s bragging about their superior firepower.

“When dragons flew to war, everything burned,” she said, referring to the battles of Old Valyria. “I do not wish to rule over a kingdom of ash and bone.”

I guess we’ll have to wait until next season to see whether, after Luc’s death, she’s still in the mood for wise council. For Rhaenyra, the season finale began and ended with the loss of a child. While the death of the infant was awful on its own, it also, in a clever bit of writing, served to show us Rhaenyra’s deep maternal grief in advance of Luc’s killing. (The showrunner Ryan Condal wrote the episode, which was directed by Greg Yaitanes.) That allowed us to fill in the blanks as she stood by the fire, her back to us and her subjects as she convulsed in anguish at the loss of her son.

Earlier, in her clear-thinking, strategic mode, Rhaenyra reminded Daemon of her responsibilities to unite the realm and of her even greater responsibility to humankind, as laid out by the Song of Ice and Fire. (He wasn’t into it.) In this she directly channeled her late father, who tried to unite his family to the end and spent his down time symbolically assembling a model of Old Valyria, a civilization fated to collapse.

Because Westeros still stands two centuries later, when “Game of Thrones” gets going, we know that whatever wars transpire next season and beyond, this realm will not totally collapse. But when Rhaenyra turned around for the last shot of this season, finally the angriest dragon of all, she looked ready to burn it all down.

The great and terrible ‘Dragon’

Will Rhaenyra burn it all down, in classic Targaryen fashion? That’s a matter for future episodes. But now that the first season of “House of the Dragon” is in the books, it’s worth pondering a different question: Was it any good?

There’s an annoying tendency for the discourse around, well, everything, but particularly pop culture to fall along hard binaries. Things are amazing or they’re terrible, the end.

When it came to “Dragon,” each week I heard from advocates on both sides. (Though with an average of around 29 million viewers each episode, according to HBO, many of the complainers seem to be sticking with it.) The truth of the matter, as usual, is somewhere in the middle.

Was the first season amazing? No. The narrow focus on one family and its tense arguments in dark rooms gave the series a claustrophobic feel that, though tonally useful in a story about people who feel bound by various restraints — related to gender, order of birth, royal responsibilities and so on — was increasingly wearying as the season went on. (For the record, I wasn’t as annoyed as others by the occasionally murky cinematography, but I get it.)

Another, more fundamental truth became clearer each week: This show just doesn’t contain the qualities that I liked most about “Game of Thrones,” at least not yet.

The scale; the kaleidoscopic travelogue experience of watching a captivating world be revealed, week by week; the narrative variety of a dozen different story lines and the thrill of watching them come together; the dark comedy; the cinematic set pieces and spectacle — “Dragon” had almost none of that.

Then there were the more granular problems, specific to the story and its structure. The frequent time jumps and the cast changes they necessitated had a distancing effect because viewers bond with performers, not characters. Gen Xers remember the dissonance of the two Darrins in “Bewitched” reruns and two Beckys in “Roseanne,” persistent TV punch lines of our youth. “Dragon” offered a similar sensation nearly every week.

The time gaps also resulted in seeing chunks of each episode given over to expository dialogue and in erratic characterizations. Alicent, in particular, was all over the place from week to week: loving Rhaenyra then trying to kill her, accepting her planned ascendancy and then usurping it. Their friendship and its convulsions are defining elements of the story, of course. But the quick glimpses we got of their evolving relationship, over decades, made it hard to emotionally invest in it.

I don’t blame Olivia Cooke. She adroitly juggled Alicent’s mercurial emotions and was convincing even when the show had her doing silly things, like attacking Rhaenyra with a dagger or misunderstanding Viserys’s dying words. The entire cast was terrific throughout.

Which leads us to the other half of the binary: Is “House of the Dragon” terrible? Far from it, and there are plenty of reasons to think it will get better as it goes on.

Whatever the flaws of the time jumps, the casting directors consistently found excellent actors to fill each iteration of the characters. Paddy Considine will be missed, but the other leads, particularly D’Arcy, Matt Smith and, more recently, Ewan Mitchell as adult Aemond, are captivating performers.

Battles and campaigns will take the show out of the castles that confined it for most of the first season — all those shots of the Painted Table perhaps doubled as a preview of the places we’ll go in Season 2. The conflict will also presumably boost the spectacle factor and eliminate the need for jarring time jumps.

So I’m bullish on next season. The most important thing, from a big-picture perspective, is that at its best, “Dragon” nailed the most appealing thing about Martin’s storytelling: the sense of history’s being driven by people and their recognizable, occasionally petty hopes, fears and flaws. Consider that the Dance of the Dragons has apparently just started thanks to the legacy of a fight between children many years ago.

Whatever the narrative threads and connections, the crucial thing “Dragon” shares with “Thrones” is its sense of mucky, earthy humanity, particularly when compared to something like “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” (I’m not here to start fights — I’m thrilled if you loved it, but it was just too oratorical and grandiose for me.)

Come for the dragons doing dragon stuff. Stay for the people being people. You could do worse on a Sunday night.

A few thoughts while we pull up the Spider-Man meme

One of the Cargyll twins showed up at the baby’s funeral to pledge his fealty to Rhaenyra and present her with her father’s crown. If it was really Erryk, who helped Rhaenys escape last week, then bully for the Blacks. (The subtitles said it was him, for what it’s worth.) If it was Arryk, who remained faithful to the Greens, then it is probably an infiltration ploy.

Note: I could have that backward.

Additional note: I’m not sure I care either way.

Rhaenys responded to Daemon and everyone else who wondered why she didn’t fry Aegon, Alicent and everyone else last week. There is probably a war coming, she said. “But that war is not mine to begin.”

Daemon reacted violently to Rhaenyra’s mention of Aegon’s prophecy, grabbing her throat, and it was a little shocking given their bond. But it encapsulated his anger and resentment at her for being in the spot, as Viserys’s chosen heir, where part of him still thinks he should be, even as his volatility in that moment exemplified why the king was right to remove him. “He never told you, did he?” Rhaenyra said. As in: Your own brother always knew he couldn’t let you rule.

“It is said that as Targaryens we are closer to god than to men,” Rhaenyra told her sons before their fateful flights. The fact that in 200 years, that motto will have been replaced by “When a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin” tells us that the seasons to come should be eventful.

We don’t choose our destinies, Rhaenyra told Lucerys, our destinies choose us. Bummer of a choice, Luc. And R.I.P. Arrax. So I guess the dragon score is now 12-4?

Alicent showed a bit of her father’s manipulative streak, sending a page from the history book she and Rhaenyra used to study together as a prop to be used during the negotiations.

All things considered, the Hightower offer was pretty good. And if Rhaenyra had taken it, Lucerys would still be alive. I wonder whether she will grapple with this or anything else before she goes nuclear next season.

What did you think? Is Rhaenyra ready to go off? Will she and Daemon be able to keep it together? Would you take Driftmark? Are you coming back for Season 2? Please share your thoughts in the comments, and many thanks for reading and weighing in this season.

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