“House of the Dragon” is no stranger to drama, but it’s taking things to a whole new level as Season 1 draws to a close.
With episodes that have so far included a fatal beating at a wedding and a child knife fight, Episode 8, “The Lord of the Tides,” provides some good-old fashioned pettiness — perhaps something to look on fondly in the weeks and years to come.
After the unexpected decapitation of Vaemond Velaryon (Wil Johnson), King Viserys (Paddy Considine) insists on hosting a family dinner for his ill-behaved lineage. The king can no longer pretend that everyone in the room likes each other, but he hopes that this one meal (his last) can do what no other did and unite them — that if nothing else, the sight of their patriarch clearly on his last legs will inspire some loyalty, humility, and love.
But Viserys’ last supper is unique enough in that it mostly avoids the kind of directness and violence emblematic of “House of the Dragon” and “Game of Thrones” before it. Characters throw daggers with their eyes and smirk to convey disrespect, communicating direct disdain only in whispers or innuendo. Viserys himself is part of this, calling the event a celebration of his grandsons’ betrothal (to his nieces) and conveniently ignoring that they all witnessed a decapitation mere hours previously. Who cares about Vaemond and his accusations when there’s food to eat and wine to drink? Let the lingering image of his tongue hanging out of his neck hole not spoil the evening’s “fun.”
“The Lord of the Tides,” written by Ellen Shim and directed by Geeta Vasant Patel, expertly propels the series narrative by keeping things personal. There may be a war afoot with seven kingdoms at stake, but “House of the Dragon” works best when it’s about quarreling brothers, estranged friends, and allies turned enemies. Many of those relationships and their ghosts have passed into the new generation of heirs, and the dinner sequence in Episode 8 lays it all bare.
Viserys’ eldest son Aegon is the messiest person at the table, a boy who in another universe must be the loudest villain on a Bravo series. How he gets away with repeated slights about Jacaerys’ (Harry Collett) sexual ability is unfathomable, especially since he speaks in barely a stage whisper. When Jace actually slams his fists down in anger, his mother looks truly perplexed, like she doesn’t know the boys hate each other and that Aegon is what’s known in Westeros as a “shithead.”
Passive aggression is all about stamina, and unfortunately Rhaenyra’s sons need practice. Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) haven’t fallen far from the tree of Alicent, whose tight-lipped, stony expression comes from years of practice — and everyone around her knowing that if they let her lose her cool she will not hesitate to slash a bitch. Alicent barely registers emotion this side of pulling a knife on her former best friend in Episode 7, using her cool exterior to cultivate fear, respect, and mystery — and by extension, power in the realm.
The only time she shows any emotion is when Rhaenyra thanks her for years of loyalty to Viserys and apologizes — not for anything specific, but broadly, for the love that has been lost between them, the strife between their houses, and the ongoing battle for power. Each episode of “House of the Dragon” further demonstrates how well the show excels at subtle character moments as well as epic battles and dragon flight — arguably moreso. Aegon’s mortified expression and muttered reply after Jacaerys toasts him speak volumes; here is a character who is all action and bluster, made small by the kind of graceful verbiage of which he isn’t capable — and he realizes that.
Which brings us to Aemond. His brother might be messy, but Aemond is a stone cold bitch, a petty prince — a burgeoning psychopath, if you will — and his mother’s son. He is the one to watch out for, the machinator, the mole. He waits until the peacekeeping Viserys goes to bed and then goes for the kill, getting under Jake’s skin without raising his voice or resorting to cruel name calling — except for one: Strong. His explosive word choice manages to be both a compliment and a condemnation which is lost on no one, to the point that it is Aemond who gets admonished for his speech and not Jacaerys, who literally punches him in the face.
It’s another stellar ensemble scene from “House of the Dragon,” and it concludes by passing the torch almost imperceptibly. With Viserys out of the room (and soon out of the picture), his wife and daughter have to be the grown ups now, moving past their tense history in order to rule the realm and lead their families. The old animosity has passed to their sons — but Westeros is a world of men, and the boys have far more power than their mothers ever did at the same age. With the old king dead, men of all ages will be trying to manipulate Rhaenyra, Alicent, and the succession, including their own families. Episode 8’s churlish dinner was a feast for viewers, but it may be the last of its kind.
“House of the Dragon” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.