House of the Dragon Episode 1.03: “The Second of His Name” review
also “A sign of intelligence is an awareness of one’s own ignorance.” – Nicholas Machiavelli
Viserys (Paddy Considine) is a jerk. But he is a fool with power and he is not aware that he is a fool with power. I don’t expect him to think of himself as a fool, but I do expect him to assess the situations he finds himself in with some idea of what he knows and doesn’t know. I expect him to weigh his options and understand the potential consequences before making a decision. That he does it perfectly is not the expectation. Whether he is able to foresee whether he made the right decision or not is not the expectation. But he has to make a fucking decision.
Viserys lacks a genuine awareness of his shortcomings as a leader and therefore when he Is make a decision, it usually comes from a random point of view. He named Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) heiress to the Iron Throne, but as she correctly notes, he didn’t do it out of genuine support for her, or strategy for that matter. He did it because he wanted to reject Daemon (Matt Smith). And then, then what? He never understood what it really meant to name Rhaenyra as his heir. He never acted on political machinations that would make the first heiress a more palatable political proposition in this patriarchal society. He treated his daughter like a servant, then married her best friend (Emily Carey) and still hasn’t made a contingency plan for what would happen if he had a male heir.
Deep down, Viserys hates having to make tough decisions or have tough conversations, which would generally suggest that royalty probably isn’t the job he’s cut out for. And even here, when he stood at the High Council of Harrenhal with his wife Aemma (Sian Brooke), he had a choice to say no. He had a choice to say he didn’t want to be king, he wasn’t cut out for it, it should go to Rhaenys (Eve Best). But that, uh, that would have been a tough conversation and he couldn’t have that. So here we are with Viserys going on the royal hunt and not wanting to do any of the jobs he has, to some extent, chosen.
There are times when Viserys breaks through. He admits that it was his obsession with having a male heir that killed Aemma. He also admits that he married Alicent because he cared about her, even though it was politically the least rational choice. He firmly holds that Rhaenyra is his heir. He begins, after several years, to mend his relationship with his daughter and heiress, but statements alone do not win the game of thrones. And that’s where, despite the spectacle that closes the episode, the show really, deeply shines.
The Targaryen court embarks on a royal hunt and that hunt is structured around three elements. The first is Viserys’ drunken frustration with his reign spiraling out of control around him. The second is Rhaenyra’s isolation and pent up frustration that she’s been thrown aside without even a second glance because she now has a half-brother. The third, and less immediately notable, is the political maneuvering taking place all around the dragon’s political center. Each of these three elements is firing on all cylinders and this segment of the episode is an absolute bang. The character moments, the stares, the missed opportunities where some strike when the iron is hot and others forget to strike at all.
The moments that don’t work are the entire fight sequences in the Stepstones. The whole concept of a guerrilla holding more established armies has quite a long history in our world and in Westeros, most famously with the Dornish resistance to Targaryen conquest. But the concept of a guerrilla holding onto a single island when assaulted by an offensive force that includes dragons makes less sense, especially over a period of years. The action here is hollow and explosive and, except for some key relationships that will be built in the future, comes across as an insignificant distraction from the more interesting episode elsewhere.
Dragon House a tension between the political scenes which are its real backbone and the spectacle which game of thrones (largely for the worse) became known for. Outside of a few logistical issues, the Stepstones sequences don’t work because the Crabfeeder (Daniel Scott-Smith) and the other Lysene Pirates aren’t really characters. They are costumed actors and there is nothing about them that creates a sense of investment. There will be a number of fight sequences in this series going forward so there’s no shortage of the show, but it should be a show that audiences care about because the characters that involve them are, well, characters .
What doesn’t help is the Orientalism on display here. The trope of “we’re being attacked by eastern men over there” has been common in white western fantasy and has been for some time. Think of the Calormen (look at the name for a good second) in CS Lewis’s The horse and his boy. Or the savagely racist “evil brown men in turbans fighting elephants” in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. Orientalism and the exoticism of the Orient is part of the world of George RR Martin and if that is not the author’s intention (I don’t think it is) then it does not show up not as some kind of criticism because the perspective of the characters Orient is non-existent or at best minimal.
The Crabfeeder is a villain who does some truly awful things to his victims, but other than a cool helmet design, he’s not real, let alone a tangible, grounded threat. None of his men are characters either. They are just a replica of a simpler threat that wears turbans and knows how to shoot arrows. That’s it. If more Lysene characters are added down the road that will be great because otherwise so far it feels like a recreation of an old trope for no reason other than to have a bit of action for audience members , including some critics, who want more spectacle than conversation.
But the conversations are so good. That’s why I have such a strong idea of who these characters are, even characters who are so little on screen that they could disappear in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful. The dialogue can be poetic or simple, but what matters is the essence it retains, the weight. When Rhaenyra asks Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) if the kingdom would accept her as queen, he replies with a simple “They will have no choice but to do so”. It conveys his mindset regarding his relationship with royalty. It also conveys her ability to understand the nature of Rhaenyra’s position and how lonely she feels to have people she can be honest with. He communicates his confidence that she would even consider asking him such a question.
The scene where Criston stabs the boar attacking Rhaenyra and she finishes the job with unbridled fury. When she returns to the hunting party, drenched in blood, with the dead boar rolled on a cart behind her. This streak had a more thrilling effect than any moment in the Stepstones War. For the most part, the writers seem to understand the importance of characters versus empty spectacle and it feels more like an attempt to broaden the appeal for those who find the conversations boring. If the occasional shallow show pierces that depth, that’s fine, but they’d be wise not to make it a habit.
+ The photo of the hunting party returning to King’s Landing had a digital sheen that distracted from the capital as being an actual location
+ That Westerosi sailor yelling at Ceraxes to save him right before he gets crushed by the dragon’s foot is fantastic. What a great little detail.
+ War for the Stepstone is absolute nonsense, but Laenor (Theo Nate) on Seasmoke was awesome
+ No man offered to kill a man who was annoying me to gain my favor and I think that’s kinda rude, actually
+ “This man’s pride has pride.”
+ Hearing Alicent call Viserys “my love” is so uncomfortable
+ Viserys failing to kill the deer even when others held him down was reminiscent of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) failing to decapitate a man.
+ The chorus score accompanying Rhaenyra’s return to the hunting party is fantastic.
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