Blood and Cheese and accidental murder: House of the Dragon's biggest weakness is getting harder to ignore

"A Son for a Son" adapts a key scene from George R.R. Martin's book Fire & Blood, but doesn't quite stick the landing. What happened with Blood and Cheese?
Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO
Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO /

The premiere of House of the Dragon season 2 is out now, bringing us back to the fantastical world of Westeros just in time for the most brutal civil war in its history: the Dance of the Dragons. In the coming weeks, we'll see rival factions of the Targaryen family tear the realm asunder as they war over who should sit the Iron Throne: Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D'Arcy), the daughter and chosen heir of the late King Viserys; or King Aegon II Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney), her younger half-brother who has usurped the throne under the guidance of his mother Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) and grandfather Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans).

The season 2 premiere, "A Son for a Son," doesn't see their armies take to the field quite yet. Instead, it mostly spends time setting up the chess board and allowing our many characters time to grieve their losses from the first season or debate strategy for the conflicts to come. But by the end of the episode, royal blood has been shed in a terrible way that is going to set the realm ablaze.

"A Son for a Son" features one of the single most shocking scenes of George R.R. Martin's book Fire & Blood, referred to among fans as Blood and Cheese. Blood (Sam C. Wilson), a former commander of the City Watch, and Cheese (Mark Stobbart), a rat catcher familiar with the Red Keep, steal into the castle and murder the crown prince Jaehaerys in front of his mother Helaena Targaryen (Phia Saban). It's a horrific scene, elevated by a tight focus on Saban's quiet performance as Helaena and the gruesome sounds of Jaehaerys' death as she flees for her life with her other child, Jaehaera, in her arms.

However, as a reader of Fire & Blood, I found myself let down. On paper, the Blood and Cheese incident works out pretty much the same as in the novel, with Jaehaerys dead, Helaena traumatized, and Blood and Cheese on the run with a severed royal head. But it diverges in the details...and unfortunately, this is one of those instances where the details make the difference between a good scene and a great one.

Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) and Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) House of the Dragon season 2.
Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO /

It also underlines House of the Dragon's biggest weakness: in this terrible war, no one is making awful decisions, they're mostly just victims of circumstance. Everyone is trying to do their best, and all the worst things that happen are the result of misunderstandings. We saw this last season, when Aemond's dragon Vhagar went out of control and chomped his nephew Lucerys Velaryon to bits. Yes, Aemond still took to the sky with ill intent, but it's clear he didn't mean to actually murder Luke. In the book, this death is left ambiguous since there are no witnesses; the show made one of Aemond's defining acts, the thing that kicks off the war itself, an accident.

Were that an isolated incident, it would be easy to overlook. But the show takes a similar tack with Alicent Hightower and the Green Council. In the book, the Green Council blatantly tries to grab power in the wake of King Viserys' death by putting his son Aegon on the throne even though he maintained in life that he wanted Rhaenyra to succeed him. In the book, Alicent is an eager participant in this, but the show gives her an excuse: she deludes herself tino thinking that King Viserys' final words were that their son Aegon should sit the throne.

At this point, House of the Dragon is becoming littered with these sorts of misunderstandings or accidents, and I think it's making it a worse story. I don't want to make it sound like I'm not enjoying House of the Dragon — I am, immensely — but I do think the show's reluctance to let people be awful onscreen is working against it. I also think it's at odds with the tone of Martin's works, since the author is pretty famous for consistently writing characters who commit horrible actions in a way that few others can. Yes, villains often don't view themselves as villains, but the more walls they keep around their emotions, the more fascinating they often become onscreen. House of the Dragon could still convey that these are conflicted people without always giving them some kind of emotional out to say they didn't really want to do the awful thing they did. Martin certainly doesn't.

When we look back on the series, Blood and Cheese is going to stand as one of the most egregious examples of this. In order to explain why, we need to discuss how it went down in Fire & Blood compared to House of the Dragon.

House of the Dragon season 2 Aegon Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney)
Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO /

House of the Dragon season 2 premiere ending explained

In House of the Dragon, Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) contracts Blood and Cheese to kill Prince Aemond (Ewan Mitchell). "What if we can't find him?" Cheese asks. We don't see Daemon's response (again, House of the Dragon is saving us from having to see a character say the awful thing), but it's implied that his orders are that if Aemond can't be found, any Targaryen prince belonging to the Greens will do.

The focus then stays tightly on Blood and Cheese, showing how absolutely insane it is for these two random dudes to sneak into the castle and try to murder one of the royals. I believed the tension and nerves of Blood and Cheese in these scenes. When Cheese stumbles across Helaena and the children, it's framed as an accident; Blood isn't even in the room when it happens, but in a different one fumbling with a rat trap to try and fool one of Alicent Hightower's handmaids. He only belatedly hears Cheese and Helaena's scuffle and realizes the rat catcher has stumbled onto a member of the royal family.

Blood and Cheese then debate which of Helaena's sleeping twins is a boy and which is a girl, since their orders are to kill a son — presumably, at least, since we didn't see Daemon actually utter the words. We can just table the fact that the idea of "a son for a son" doesn't make any sense considering that Daemon's initial orders were to kill Aemond.

Helaena tells them, honestly, which child is the boy. They then set to butchering young Jaehaerys in his sleep, while Helaena grabs his twin sister and runs, not so much as screaming as she bursts in on her mother Alicent having sex with Ser Criston Cole of the Kingsguard. She shakily tells her mother that "they killed the boy" before the episode closes on Alicent's shocked face.

That's how it works out in the show. It's compelling, and gruesome. But in the book, Blood and Cheese is an all-timer great scene that is far crueler.

House of the Dragon season 2 Phia Saban (Helaena Targaryen)
Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO /

How was Blood and Cheese different in the book?

In Fire & Blood, Daemon Targaryen never goes to King's Landing; instead, he contracts Mysaria to make the arrangements to have one of King Aegon's sons killed as revenge for the death of Lucerys Velaryon. He doesn't see how Rhaenyra reacts to Luke's death before making this call, since he's already at Harrenhal by the time Luke dies in the novel. And — this is important — it's meant to be revenge of the clearest and most brutal variety, plain and simple. "An eye for an eye, a son for a son. Lucerys shall be avenged," Daemon writes to Rhaenyra, reassuring her that the pain she feels over the loss of her child will be meted out to the Greens in kind. It is petty, and terrible, and meant to inflict suffering on their enemies to soothe Daemon and Rhaenyra's own wounds, rather than some form of punitive justice by attempting to kill Luke's actual murderer, Aemond.

The key difference is that, in the book, nothing about the Blood and Cheese incident is an accident. It is horrible, and malicious, and purposefully as cruel as it can possibly be. Blood and Cheese sneak into the Red Keep, up into the Tower of the Hand where Alicent and her father Otto Hightower have their apartments, since Maegor's Holdfast where King Aegon and Helaena live is too well-guarded. The other reason Blood and Cheese go for the Tower of the Hand is because they know that Helaena has a habit of bringing her children to visit their grandmother Alicent every night before bed. So they go there on purpose knowing all this, Blood strangles Alicent's handmaid, and then they tie her up, gag her, and wait for Helaena and the kids to arrive.

When they do, Blood murders Helaena's guards while Cheese captures her at knife point. It's here that one of House of the Dragon's major changes from the source material comes into play: in the book, Helaena and Aegon have three children, not two. The oldest are still the twins Jaehaerys and Jaehaera, who are both around 6 years old, but Aegon and Helaena also have a younger son named Maelor. The show has seemingly made the decision to cut Maelor, and that has a very particular impact on the Blood and Cheese incident.

Cheese commands her to choose which of her sons they'll kill: Jaehaerys or Maelor. Helaena begs them to kill her instead, but they insist they're there for a son, and a son only. If she chooses one to die, they won't harm anyone else; if she doesn't name a child, they'll kill them all. After more threats of violence to her and her children, Helaena finally chooses Maelor, her youngest. Fire & Blood speculates about her reasoning — whether it was because Jaehaerys was the heir, or she thought Maelor was too young to understand what was happening. But the end result makes it a moot point.

Cheese leans down next to Maelor, and whispers "You hear that, little boy? Your momma wants you dead," to the child. Blood then proceeds to murder Helaena's older son, Jaehaerys, instead. Helaena collapses screaming as Blood and Cheese take Jaehaerys' head and make their escape from the castle.

Ryan Condal
"House of the Dragon" Season 2 Premiere / Mike Marsland/GettyImages

House of the Dragon wants to display the sobering reality of war...but at what cost?

Many readers often compare the Blood and Cheese incident to the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones, when Robb and Catelyn Stark were murdered at a wedding by the conniving Walder Frey. And despite some innate differences, it's easy to see why: the level of shock is palpable and leaps off the page. George R.R. Martin has a knack for insanely brutal plot twists (just ask Oberyn Martell), and Blood and Cheese making Helaena choose which child will die only to murder the other one in front of her fits squarely into that mold.

But House of the Dragon showrunner Ryan Condal recently pushed back against this comparison, while also shedding a little light on the show's approach to violence and how that relates to Blood and Cheese specifically.

"[T]hat's one of the challenges making the show, is everybody's like, 'Well, where's your Red Wedding and who's your Cersei.' And so you're constantly in the shadow of that great original series," Condal explained. "So no, we just set out and try to tell our story as it happens. And [Blood and Cheese] has its own place in the narrative, and certainly, it's shocking and awful. But it's really more of a way of dramatizing how terrible war is and how quickly things can get out of control, particularly in medieval time periods such as this. So we're less interested in the shock value of it and more interested in the character experience through it, and then what happens to the characters as a result of it afterwards."

I can understand Condal's points, and I do think the show's focus on depicting the emotional cost of war comes through onscreen. I was genuinely surprised by how House of the Dragon leaned into showing Cheese and Blood's experience, conveying their nerves at pulling off such a daring assassination attempt. Cheese's hand shakes while he has the knife on Helaena, and he tries to back out when Blood pushes him to go up into the royal chambers themselves. These feel like believable human beings, rather than evil caricatures.

House of the Dragon season 2 /

But I think the way the scene played out actually made it far less effective then the scene as laid out in Fire & Blood. The dialogue no longer makes as much sense, such as the contradiction of "a son for a son" not matching with the idea of Aemond dying, or Blood telling Cheese they can't kill Helaena because she's "not a son," something that he says to Helaena herself in the book because she's begging them to kill her instead of her children. Alicent is also not in the room in the show, which is a baffling decision that feels like a huge missed opportunity. Instead she'll, what, have guilt because she was banging Criston Cole, who should have been on guard duty? I don't know that that measures up to the guilt and terror that would have happened if she had been there, watching it all and unable to stop her daughter and grandchildren from undergoing this horrible experience. Olivia Cooke would have crushed that.

And since I brought up guard duty, there's also the weird plot hole that there wasn't a single guard on duty in the royal apartments. Even if House of the Dragon tries to go with the reasoning that Criston Cole was who should have been guarding them and he abandoned his duty to be with Alicent, I still think it's a stretch that multiple members of the royal family were on that floor and there wasn't a single other guard to be found.

There's also the problem that since the show has made Helaena out to be a bit of a space cadet in the first place, it's hard to imagine how this shift will be as impactful for her character. In the book she was a quirky if somewhat normal person before Blood and Cheese, and a shell of a human being afterward. Time will tell how the show handles it, but even just in what we've seen so far from season 1 and the season 2 premiere, I'm anxious about Helaena's arc.

For as much as House of the Dragon is going all out to make these characters feel like real humans who are suffering through the terrible consequences of war, I think it lost sight of itself a bit with Blood and Cheese. It put too much focus on humanizing Blood and Cheese, rather than the agency and intentionality of their horrific actions. Saban delivered a great performance with the material she was given, but the fact that Helaena didn't so much as beg for her children's lives before going straight into shock felt like it rushed a crucial character moment. Perhaps that's more realistic — having never lived through a Blood and Cheese incident, I can only imagine — but I don't think it made for better television.

The thing that makes all this hardest to swallow is that most of the details the show altered are small, writing-related decisions, rather than the sort of things caused by obvious budget concerns or other production limitations. I was as mad as anyone else when Criston Cole beat Joffrey Lonmouth to death at a wedding in the first season, as opposed to killing him at a tourney in the book where it could reasonably be waved aside as a somewhat common risk of the games, but at least I could understand how the show might have needed to trim down costs by not staging an expensive event like a tourney. With Blood and Cheese, it's about minutiae being overlooked or changed, which somehow feels even more frustrating. But perhaps there's a reason...

House of the Dragon season 2 /

House of the Dragon wrote itself into a corner, and had to sacrifice Blood and Cheese to get out

I think a lot of the problems with the way Blood and Cheese went down are actually a result of decisions made elsewhere in the show. In Fire & Blood, these events happen on the literal next page of the book after Aemond kills Lucerys at Storm's End. There's no space to catch a breath. But the show had the unenviable task of finding a way to flesh out the time between Luke's death and young Jaehaerys' murder, since one happened during a season finale and the other a season premiere. That has inherently different pacing demands than a single chapter of a novel that conveys all the events at once in order to draw an intentional parallel between them. And of course, Helaena and Aegon's youngest son Maelor isn't around in the show, which necessitates changes to Blood and Cheese since in the book the whole scene hinges on there being two sons in the room.

There's also a possibility that even HBO might not have been super gung-ho about an outright child murder happening onscreen during the premiere episode of the season — which I do think was the right decision. As much as I wanted a more horrific Blood and Cheese scene, having Jaehaerys' actual death happen off-camera while the focus stayed on Helaena was a good call.

With so many other big, traumatic events coming in the rest of House of the Dragon season 2, I think Blood and Cheese may have ended up just being a lower priority than everything else on the horizon. After all, this is just the first episode of the season — we still have the Battle at Rook's Rest ahead, as well as potentially the Battle of the Gullet and some major events at King's Landing. There's plenty of room for heartbreak in the coming episodes. But given how gripping this scene is in Fire & Blood, I don't think there's much room for debate that the show's version is a downgrade, and mostly because of small decisions about the nuances of what happened on that fateful night in the Red Keep.

At the end of the day, my confidence in House of the Dragon as a whole is still very solid. This show has mostly been very successful at adapting George R.R. Martin's book Fire & Blood, and I've been really enjoying it. I only hope that sacrificing the effectiveness of Blood and Cheese leads to a stronger season overall once the dragons take to the sky and the war gets underway in earnest.

Next. House of the Dragon officially renewed for season 3!. House of the Dragon officially renewed for season 3!. dark

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