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'House of the Dragon' episode 4: Daemon and Rhaenyra, in league for palace intrigue

Daemon (Matt Smith) is crafty; his crown, however, is artsy-crafty.
Daemon (Matt Smith) is crafty; his crown, however, is artsy-crafty.

Truth in advertising; you love to see it.

If you've hung in with House of the Dragon up to this point, be assured that this week's ep is an unfailingly accurate representation of exactly what you've signed on for, and of what's to come. Namely:

Palace intrigue (read: secret doors, trysts, spies, rumors, scandal, lies). Explicit sexual pairings involving relatives who are closer to one another chromosomally than they are chronologically. The odd disembowelment. Bad wigs a-go-go.

That's House Targaryen for you, and that's what this show is, for now. Soon, but not very soon, it'll also be about all of that, plus a hell of a lot of dragons, which is something this episode does not do a good job of representing. In fact, the only dragon we see in action is one we've already added to our Dragon Watching Log Book: Daemon's dragon Caraxes, executing a fly-by jostling.

How many people does she need? Boremund Baratheon (Julian Jones), Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) hold open auditions for a prince.
How many people does she need? Boremund Baratheon (Julian Jones), Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) hold open auditions for a prince.

The prodigal jerk returns

But before that, we drop in on what will turn out to be the final date of Rhaenyra: The White-Blonde Ambition Tour. Only instead of Rhaenyra performing in a cone bra for the masses, it's a series of hopeful lords lining up in a humble, smoky throne room to plight their feeble, ill-fated troths.

(I first assumed that this was meant to be Storm's End, the seat of House Baratheon, given that that's Boremund Baratheon seated at Rhaenyra's side, walking her through the process. But as most of the suitors lined up before her are from Houses in the Riverlands — Frey, Mudd, Blackwood, etc. — I'd guess we're instead at Riverrun, the seat of House Tully.)

The elderly, pompous Lord Dondarrion of Blackhaven is blathering away about his castle's "deep, dry moat," like the shameless flirt he is.

Next up, Ser Squeaky Voiced Teen of House Simpsons. (Kidding: House Blackwood, technically.) He quavers out his pitch, and promptly gets trash-talked by a jerk from House Bracken. Which is a nice touch, as in the books, Blackwoods and Brackens have hated each other for generations. That hatred flares up anew in the throne room, and Ser Squeaky prevails, gutting Bracken like a river trout.

Rhaenyra's had enough of this sword-measuring contest, and cuts off the tour two months early. On her way back to King's Landing, her ship is overtaken by ol' Uncy Daemon, astride Caraxes, who gives her sails a love-tap as he passes by.

At the Iron Throne, a crowd gathers to watch Daemon's return. He's sporting a kicky new 'do — Jim Jarmusch by way of Johnny Bravo — and a crown of what seems to be bamboo and seashells. Now that he's conquered the Stepstones, they call him King of the Narrow Sea — but he promptly kneels before Viserys and gives up his crown. Don't feel too bad for him; that thing looks like he found it at a surf shop between the driftwood seagulls and the cage of hermit crabs.

Viserys welcomes him back. In the Red Keep's godswood courtyard, Viserys gets happily drunk and gassy and is thoughtlessly rude to his queen. Rhaenyra and Alicent get a moment together to admit how much they've missed each other, but not before Rheanyra also suggests that the queen's life of "squeezing out heirs" doesn't interest her. The hits just keep coming, but Alicent takes them all in stride; she's out here turning more cheeks than a plastic surgeon.

For now.

(Given Viserys's flatulence in the prior scene, there's a "squeezing out airs" joke to be made here, but let's us just soldier on, you and I.)

There follows a scene between Daemon and Rhaenyra in which Daemon urges his niece to see marriage as a political arrangement that leaves one free to pursue whatever pleasures one wishes. He doesn't quite waggle his eyebrows at her when he mentions "pleasures," but that's clearly the subtext. Then again, the guy's eyebrows are the same color as his skin, so maybe he does waggle them. Even in HD, it's impossible to say for sure.

Cut to: the Small Council. It seems that Corlys Velaryon is fixing to wed his daughter Laena (remember her? The 12-year-old in the white Harpo wig?) to the son of a Lord of the Free Cities, effectively turning his back on the Seven Kingdoms. (We get a nice quick shot of the perpetually worried Tyland Lannister looking worried, again, still, some more.)

"Marry me; you're little!" Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and Daemon (Matt Smith) get weird by the weirwood.
"Marry me; you're little!" Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and Daemon (Matt Smith) get weird by the weirwood.

Where did you sleep last night, and was she worth it?

In her bedchamber, Rhaenrya finds a bundle of old clothes and a diagram pointing out a secret door behind her bed. She outfits herself in pageboy drag, skulks through the catacombs and finds her way to Daemon, waiting for her in an inconspicuous hood and cloak that's hilariously conspicuous.

They make their way together into the narrow streets of King's Landing, which are alive with pyromancers and tightrope walkers and fortune tellers and drunks and peasants rutting away in alleys. It's exotic yet grimy: Cirque du Soleil meets Circus Circus.

They witness a playlet which lampoons the royal family, and the struggle for the Iron Throne, and Rhaenyra, mostly, rolls with it, even when the crowd boos the notion of naming a woman rightful heir.

This, by the way, is the showrunners telling us that she's possessed of the proper temperament to rule. A tyrant like GoT's Joffrey would order the players' heads on pikes, while a weaker ruler might sulk and stew that the people didn't love them enough. Rhaenyra, for her part, rolls her eyes and shrugs her shoulders, accepting that the common folk need their outlet. This, it seems to me, is the Goldilocks Response — it's just right.

Back at the Red Keep, Alicent tends to the growing number of Iron Throne ouchies that the king's steadily accruing, none of which seem to be healing well. She is then summoned to his bedchamber to lie back and think of Oldtown, as the king makes assiduous, dutiful, yeomanlike love to her.

This is offered in contrast to the presumptively more erotic goings-on between Daemon and Rhaenyra, who show up to a brothel, ditch their disguises and then proceed to ditch other items of clothing as well. After much to-ing and fro-ing, Daemon can't seem to coax his Caraxes out of the ol' Dragonpit, and abandons Rhaenyra, who makes her way back to the Red Keep. She's spotted by a street urchin, who skulks off to report this news to ... someone.

Rhaenyra invites Ser Criston Cole into her bedchamber, and there's a lot of nonsense involving the removal of his armor that plays like one of those montages in '80s action movies where the hero suits up for battle with extreme close-ups of weapons (LOCK! LOAD! SNAP! GUN! AFFIX! SNAP! ZIP! KNIFE! OTHER KNIFE! STILL ANOTHER KNIFE, FOR SOME REASON!). Only this one takes place in reverse.

This sex scene is offered up to us as one we're meant to see as more tender, more playful and even downright loving than that nasty business with Daemon. Plus a whole let less V.C. Andrews, for good measure.

Now ask yourself: Can you ever forgive her? Alicent (Emily Carey) confronts Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock).
Now ask yourself: Can you ever forgive her? Alicent (Emily Carey) confronts Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock).

The lair of the White Worm

Otto Hightower is summoned to the Red Keep gate, where "A messenger brings word from the White Worm."

Now: Book readers will know who the White Worm is, but the show doesn't come out and say it explicitly. Instead, here's what what we see:

1. The urchin reports to Otto what he saw.

2. The next morning, Daemon wakes up, hungover, in his old mistress Mysaria's place.

3. We learn that they are no longer together, and he speaks rudely to her.

4. While they are talking, the same urchin who saw Rhaenyra the night before and ratted her out to Otto shows up, and hands Mysaria some coins.

5. Not for nothing, but Mysaria's wearing white in this scene. Okay? Get it? People in the back?

Otto meets with Viserys in the king's bedchamber, where, I just now notice, the guy has hung some wildly explicit tapestries on every wall. Between his giant scale models that take up most of the room and the fact that he's given this really porny art pride of place, the show is painting a very specific picture of the king.

Viserys is that one creep in your college dorm who scored the only single on your floor when his roommate dropped out suddenly sophomore year. The guy who built models of German WWII aircraft. Fun-Takked Penthouse and Hustler centerfolds over his bed. Never went to class, but every so often you'd see him behind the dining hall hucking throwing stars at old mattresses. You know? That guy.

Otto stammers out the news that Rhaenrya was seen coupling with Daemon "in the bowels of a pleasure den" (Reader, I chuckled). The king refuses to believe it, and accuses Otto of scheming for the throne. Alicent overhears this ...

... and confronts Rhaenyra in the godswood. Rhaenyra denies the accusations and makes a great show of offense. (There's a nice bit of blocking here: As Alicent accuses Rhaenyra, she stands higher up on the hill leading to the weirwood tree, looking down at the princess. But as soon as Rhaenyra clocks that Alicent has no proof, and launches into her affronted denials, she climbs up the hill and turns on the queen, peering down at her. Seizing the high ground, morally and literally.)

Rhaenyra makes a choice here. She could simply say that she and Daemon didn't ... um, "couple," and she'd be telling the truth. But she goes further, swearing upon the memory of her mother that Daemon "never touched" her, which: lie. Snopes.com. Four Pinocchios.

Daggers and daughters: Viserys (Paddy Considine) cuts to the chase with Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock).
Daggers and daughters: Viserys (Paddy Considine) cuts to the chase with Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock).

The letter opener ... of DOOM

Daemon stumbles back to the Red Keep and is brought before the king, who confronts him with the White Worm's intel. Daemon, pointedly, doesn't deny that he and Rhaenyra had sex. He's not simply being a toxic lying creep, here; he wants Viserys to believe it, because he thinks it would make the king more receptive to his pitch to wed Rhaenrya.

The king ... very isn't. He exiles Daemon to the Vale, to rejoin his lawfully wedded wife. (Whom we haven't met yet, but likely will next week — she's the one Daemon referred to earlier as his "bronze bitch.") Real charmer, this guy.

Alicent, we learn, believes Rhaenyra, which convinces the king to summon his daughter to his porny, porny bedchamber. He shows her a dagger that once belonged to Aegon the Conqueror, which ties in to the prophecy he mentioned to her back in episode 1. It goes further, invoking the prophecy of The Prince That Was Promised. (Game of Thrones ended with Jon Snow being TPtwP, of course, but it's still possible that George R.R. Martin may go a different way in the books.)

Viserys orders Rheanyra to wed Laenor Velaryon, son of Corlys the Sea Snake (the kid who dracarysed all those archers in the Stepstones last week), thereby joining the Targaryen dragons to the Velaryons' vast fleet of ships. Rheanyra agrees but — still smarting from getting ratted out by Otto — insists that the king relieve his most trusted advisor of his duty.

Which the king does, removing Otto's Hand pin and giving him the Westerosi equivalent of a gold watch and sheet cake in the breakroom.

We end with Grand Maester Mellos entering Rhaenyra's bedchamber with a potion that will ensure she'll be able to fit into her wedding dress in next week's episode.

Parting Thoughts:

  • We're almost midway through the season, at which point we'll swap out Milly Alcock and some of the rest of the cast for actors who'll play their characters as adults. Alcock was given a lot to do this episode, and she nailed it all — especially that moment when Rheanyra realizes she can seize the upper hand as Alicent is dressing her down. I'll say it again: Alcock will be missed.
  • I have no idea why the series keeps going back to the prophecy nonsense. Sure, it ties the series into Game of Thrones, but we already know how all that stuff plays out. All it does is remind us how much less there is at stake now than there will be later, on an entirely different show.
  • We missed out on Viserys' marriage to Alicent; here's hoping we all get an invite to a real Seven Kingdoms royal wedding next week. The swag bags alone!
  • There's a civil war coming, but the cracks that will grow into the split that sets it all off are still surprisingly thin and spidery. We are in for a long haul, folks.
  • Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.