The new episode of House of the Dragon is a thrilling erotic disaster zone

House of the Dragon episode 4
House of the Dragon episode 4 /

Watch our live stream discussion of “King of the Narrow Sea” right here.

We’re four episodes into House of the Dragon. We’ve seen a guy trip a horse with his lance, we’ve seen dragons stare each other down from across a bridge, we’ve seen a guy cut his way through an army and then drag the torso of his enemy onto the beach and look triumphantly into the camera, his face covered in blood. But I’ve never been so tense watching the show as I was tonight.

The title of this episode, “King of the Narrow Sea,” vastly undersells it. Sure, that’s part of it. Daemon returns from the Stepstones with a crown, one he willingly turns over to his brother. The two have a touching reunion that lasts for about eight seconds before Daemon f**ks it up again. The real action starts when Daemon — perhaps wanting to show his sheltered niece life outside the castle, perhaps wanting to marry her and take her crown, or perhaps both — whisks Rhaenyra away for a night among the rabble.

Right at the start, there’s a sense of otherworldly adventure to the proceedings, with Daemon leaving Rhaenyra a change of clothes and a map that leads her to a secret passage that leads out of her own room; book-readers know that the Red Keep is lousy with hidden passages thanks to Maegor the Cruel. Dressed as a boy, Rhaenyra cavorts through the streets of King’s Landing with her uncle, but even there she can’t escape being reminded of how controversial it was for her father to name her, a woman, heir to the Iron Throne. I loved the bit where she and Daemon take in a play about the battle for Viserys’ seat. The smallfolk cheer the loudest for Aegon and hiss when her name comes up. “Slander!” Rhaenyra yells, oh so discreetly. You can’t say she doesn’t have conviction.

House of the Dragon after dark

There’s a genuine sense of YA fairy tale intrigue to these sections; the upright princess getting a taste of the common life, Jasmine fleeing the palace in Aladdin, Mulan disguising herself as a man and going off to war. But this isn’t a YA story; it gets darker and weirder and it does it fast.

Daemon continues the night by taking Rhaenyra to a brothel, and it’s peak hours. Rhaenyra, who it’s possible has never so much as kissed a boy, hits an erotic wall. Daemon whispers sweet nothings into her ears about the pleasures of sex. They kiss. They start to undress. Eventually it becomes clear that Rhaenyra is more into it that Daemon, who backs away and storms off, possibly because he suddenly realized it’s wrong to take advantage of his young inexperienced niece as a way to get a claim to her throne. Or maybe he remembered he left the oven on, the episode smartly doesn’t explain itself.

Her curiosity unfulfilled and still flush with excitement, Rhaenyra returns to the Red Keep and blows past Criston Cole, who’s guarding her room and is shocked to see her come back in the front door; he stood outside her room as she closed it and went to bed, after all. At first Rhaenyra seems to just want to be alone, but when Criston is about to leave and get the captain of the guard, she invites him in. She takes his helmet, keeps it from him playfully. She kisses him. He kisses back. There’s a tender montage of the two of them removing all the layers of his armor, and Rhaenyra loses her virginity not to an uncle who wants her crown but to a friend who’s probably spent more time with her these last few years than anyone else in her life.

My favorite thing about Rhaenyra’s nighttime adventure is how little the episode judges her for it. Making out with your uncle is about as transgressive as it gets, and the episode doesn’t downplay that Rhaenrya wants this, or at the least, that she wants to continue exploring once it starts. But it lets her be curious, lonely, playful, bold and scared. It lets her want sex just for the fun of it, which is something that Alicent Hightower has probably never gotten to experience.

The mystery of Alicent Hightower, solved at last

Of all the main characters, Alicent is the one I’ve had the hardest time getting a handle on. In some ways, “King of the Narrow Sea” doesn’t do her any favors. She and Rhaenyra began the show as friends. Then Alicent married her dad and Rhaenyra resented her…for a while. Now they’re apparently on good terms again. I never have trouble telling where Rhaenyra is coming from — she was mad her friend married her dad and now she’s cooled off — but I never understood Alicent.

I understand her a little better now. She comforted Viserys after his wife’s death because her father told her to, she married him because he asked, and she goes to his room in the dead of night and has sex with him because he requests it, no matter how boring and uncomfortable she finds it. Alicent plays by the rules and does what she is told. That means she doesn’t get to have scandalous adventures on the Street of Silk; she gets to marry a man thrice her age and spend her teenage years raising babies.

I felt for Alicent here, I think for the first time. I understand that it can be hard to crack open a character who keeps their deepest thoughts and feelings to themselves, but I wish the show had managed to do it a bit earlier with her.

Lies, denials and hypocrisy: The morning after

Having kept on the straight and narrow path all her life, Alicent is still somewhat naive. After Otto gets wind of Daemon and Rhaenyra’s nocturnal adventures, he tells the king, and Alicent overhears. She goes to Rhaenyra first — again, apparently their friendship is repaired — and her friend serves her a full plate of half-truths and misdirections. Yes, Daemon took her out into the city, and yes, he took her to “a show,” but they didn’t have sex…which is true, but Rhaenyra omits that they would have had Daemon not pulled away. She also omits that she did have sex, just not with her uncle.

When Alicent reports to Viserys that Rhaenyra is still a maiden, she’s telling him the truth as she sees it, if perhaps embellishing a little for the sake of her friend. The back chunk of the episode is full of these half-truths, and the characters live in the cracks between. When Viserys confronts Daemon, for example, Daemon never tells his brother that Rhaenyra was willing to carry on with their encounter but that he broke it off, even if it might save him some face. Instead he asks for Rhaenyra’s hand in marriage and probably isn’t surprised when the king refuses him, angrily.

Later, after Viserys and Rhaenyra have their own conversation about what happened, Viserys fires Otto Hightower as his Hand, at his daughter’s urging. The reasons he gives check out: Otto wants Aegon on the Iron Throne over Rhaenyra and manipulated his daughter into marrying the king so as to get his own bloodline closer to absolute power. But Viserys already knew all this beforehand and kept Otto on as Hand, because was an effective advisor. He’s only firing him now because that was Rhaenrya’s price for agreeing to marry Laenor Velaryon, and he trots out these justifications to make himself feel better about it.

And there’s the final lie at the end of the episode: Viserys doesn’t believe that this daughter maintained her virtue, and sends Grand Maester Mellos to deliver her some moon tea, which is used to abort pregnancies. Viserys, like all the best characters on this show, is a bundle of contradictions. He wants to do the right thing but lies to himself about what that is. The show is not simplifying these characters to make them more digestible for a general audience. It’s delighting in their complexities and I love it for that.

Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than let a woman have sex without destroying her reputation

All these smaller hypocrisies are in service of one big one: that women are not allowed the same privileges as men. As Daemon points out, he and Viserys got around when they were Rhaenyra’s age and no one worried about it. As Rhaenyra points out, were she a man no one would call her succession into question even if she fathered multiple bastards. For women in his world, virginity is considered something sacred, whereas no one blinks if a man loses his. Viserys concedes that his daughter and brother are right, but doesn’t think it matters. He’s accepted this great unfairness about the world and tries to work within it.

But that unfairness still create fissures that can swallow families — and even countries — whole. I think House of the Dragon has done a good job of exploring these fault lines while not feeling like a “message show.” It gives the characters room to be themselves in all their strangeness, and it doesn’t blink in the face of a world of cavernous inequities. It’s a bold work of popular art painted on a large canvas, and it needs every inch of it.

This show is really good, you guys. It’s better than I’d hoped, and this is the strongest episode yet. Who would have thought the prequel to Game of Thrones actually stood a chance of being as good or better than its predecessor?

House of the Bullet Points

  • We begin the episode at Storm’s End, the seat of House Baratheon, as Rhaenyra entertains a long line of suitors. We never actually went inside the place on Game of Thrones, so this is cool. And if you’ve read Fire & Blood, you know that some important stuff goes down here, so consider this scene setup for later.
  • I didn’t like Daemon’s new short haircut when I saw it in the promo, but I forgot it was there about three minutes in.
  • In Fire & Blood, it’s only said that Viserys and Daemon quarreled about something before Daemon again departed the city. That was quite a quarrel. And it was different from the last one; Daemon was more chagrinned, less passionate. (Also hilarious, passed out on the floor of the Iron Throen room as his brother berated him.) The coldness made it harder to imagine how they could again repair their relationship.
  • In Fire & Blood, Alicent and Rhaenyra start off as friends and slowly grow into enemies. I’ve been surprised by how the show is taking more of a yoyo approach. So if they’re on good terms here, what drives them apart? Maybe all those half-lies catch up to Rhaenrya?
  • Mysaria makes a drive-by appearance here. She’s back in King’s Landing and nurses Daemon back to health after he gets out-of-his-mind drunk during his night out with Rhaenyra. Her accent was less hilariously awkward than before, perhaps because her scene isn’t very long. Also, note that Otto said that he got his information about Daemon and Rhaenyra from “the White Worm,” which is what Mysaria is known as in Fire & Blood. It seems she’s starting an information network and playing both sides.
  • So the dagger that Arya used to kill the Night King belonged to Aegon the Conquerer, and was around even before that. And if you put it in the fire you can read words on it like it’s the One Ring. House of the Dragon is a prequel about knives.
  • Like his daughter, Otto Hightower is kind of hard to get a handle on, although his goals are more transparent than Alicent’s. But ambitious as he is, he did seem quietly broken up about getting fired; that was some nice work from Rhys Ifans in that scene.
  • What do we want to bet that Viserys replaces Otto as Hand with Lyonel Strong?

Episode Grade: A-

Next. “The Rogue Prince” is a sleepy sophomore outing for House of the Dragon. dark

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