House of the Dragon flickers back to life in deliberate, constricted season 2 premiere

The highly anticipated Blood and Cheese scene is a bit of a letdown in "A Son for a Son."
House of the Dragon season 2
House of the Dragon season 2 /

The first season of House of the Dragon ended with Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) killing his own nephew Lucerys Velaryon (Elliot Grihault) as the two flew above the castle of Storm's End on their dragons. (Well, technically Aemond's dragon Vhagar went rogue and chomped up Luke of her own accord. Put a pin in that.) The final image we get is of Luke's mother Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy) getting the news. Her body is racked with grief, but when she turns around, there's rage in her eyes.

From this we assumed one thing: it's on. The cold war that had been quietly simmering between the newly crowned Queen Rhaenyra and her newly crowned half-brother King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) was cold no more. Surely it was time to let slip the dogs of war...dragons of war, whatever.

But in the second season premiere, "A Son for a Son," we find our characters in a holding pattern, pacing the floor eager to act but unable to. Everyone feels constricted. Rhaenyra's husband Daemon (Matt Smith) wants to fly straight to King's Landing from Dragonstone and attack their enemies, but he can't. Rhaenyra herself is working through her grief over Luke's death, skimming the skies above Storm's End looking for her son's remains. In King's Landing, Aegon wants to take bold action as king, but is held back by his grandfather and Hand Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), who advises restraint; and his mother Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), who advises mercy.

All of this results in an episode that feels more sedate than I expected, although it yielded emotional depths on rewatch after I adjusted to the new rhythm. We get to know some of the characters better, and there are some tense moments as everyone waits on pins and needles for the other side to make a move. But overall, I wanted a bit more propulsion from our return to Westeros after two years away.

House of the Dragon season 2 /

House of the Dragon season 2 episode 1 review, "A Son for a Son"

For me, the highlight of the episode is unquestionably King Aegon II Targaryen. He's a young guy unused to power who suddenly finds himself Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. But unlike Joffrey, who became king and immediately started to abuse everyone around him on Game of Thrones, Aegon takes a stab at ruling justly and fairly, even if he's not good at it. One of the best scenes of the episode involves him granting petitions in the Iron Throne room willy-nilly only for Otto to explain why that's a bad idea, and then he has to walk it back.

There's tension as Aegon tests his boundaries. You can see the wheels turning in his head, like when spymaster Larys Strong suggests he boot Otto Hightower from his position as Aegon's Hand of the King. Does Aegon have the chutzpah to actually do that? I don't know, but I'm curious. Aegon brings his young son Jaehaerys into a Small Council meeting with him, and the kid starts pestering master of coin Tyland Lannister (Jefferson Hall). What is the protocol when the king's son is disrupting a war council? Do you tell the child to scram or do you indulge him for fear of offending the king? Tyland doesn't know. No one seems to know, and Aegon knows that they don't know, and he finds that funny. It's another good scene.

Aegon seems to be the only person onscreen having any fun, which is light from heaven in this group of miserable wretches torn apart from the inside by grief and regret. Aegon's mother Alicent is drowning her stress in guilty, secret sex with Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Criston Cole (Fabian Frankel), who's motives remain as inscrutable. I feel like it means something when Alicent helps him put back on his white cloak after an afternoon delight, but I'm not quite sure what. I wish some of these characters would take a page out of Aegon's book and say what they feel.

Meanwhile, Alicent and Otto call a truce after they were (somewhat bafflingly) at odds following the death of King Viserys. Alicent accepts that the path to victory means violence, although she insists that it needn't be "wanton." I guess that's what her putting the white cloak on Criston means; she's in denial that the upcoming war can be orderly and clean just as she's in denial that she can maintain her pious attitude even as she sleeps with the Lord Commender of the Kingsguard, who breaks his vows to be with her. She's more conflicted than anyone; at one point she starts scrubbing herself aggressively in a bathtub, a habit she developed in childhood that kicks in whenever she's anxious. She may not have any skin left by the end of the season.

The final member of the Green faction to check in on is Aemond, who is apparently letting everyone believe that he killed Luke entirely on purpose. He's another character waiting in the wings this week, making plans to attack his enemies but lacking the authority to execute least for now.

House of the Dragon season 2 /

Rhaenyra, Daemon, Blood and Cheese

Meanwhile, the Blacks are all waiting for Rhaenrya to get back from her search for Luke's remains and give them orders. In the meanwhile, Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) and Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best) maintain a naval blockade on King's Landing while Daemon pounds his head against a wall for wont of anything useful to do.

Rhaenyra eventually does find what little there is left of Luke, and takes it back to Dragonstone to be given a funeral. She has exactly one line in the entire episode, addressed to her Black Council: "I want Aemond Targaryen."

Like Game of Thrones before it, House of the Dragon doesn't really have a main character, but Rhaenyra is at the center of everything, and having her be disengaged from the plot for much of the premiere contributes to its sluggishness. To be fair, this is accurate to George R.R. Martin's book Fire & Blood, where Rhaenyra goes into a torpor following Luke's death. But after her red-hot glare at the end of season 1, I guess I assumed the show would eschew that arc. I feel like they set us up to expect Rhaenyra Unleashed and gave us Rhaenyra Unmoored. That said, Rhaenyra tugs on the heartstrings as she searches for Luke's body and later hugs her returning son Jace. Emma D'Arcy bleeds emotion and it got to me.

Rhaenyra's statement finally gives Daemon something to do. He conspires with the spymaster Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), lately burned by the Greens and in search of new allies, to find a pair of mercenaries who can sneak into the Red Keep and kill Aemond. Neither of these mercenaries are named, but readers of Fire & Blood will know them as Blood and Cheese, respectively a Hightower-hating brute in the City Watch and a Red Keep rat-catcher who knows the halls of the castle "better than the shape of my own cock," as he puts it. That's a line directly from the book, FYI.

The two aren't able to find Aemond, but they do come upon Queen Helaena Targaryen (Phia Saban) with her two children by King Aegon: the twins Jaehaerys and Jaehaera. Apparently, if Blood and Cheese were unable to find Aemond, Daemon was okay with them taking "a son for a son." The two kill little Jaehaerys while his mother picks up Jaehaera and flees, rushing through the halls of the Red Keep in a panic until she bursts into Alicent's room, where her mother is having sex with Criston Cole. "They killed the boy," Helaena whispers. We end on Alicent's shocked face.

Why didn't the Blood and Cheese scene work?

There was a lot of hype over this sequence before it aired — many fans have forecast this as House of the Dragon's Red Wedding moment, something that would shock the viewers into awe and despair. But I didn't feel much of anything when watching., at least not the first time I watched the episode. And I really think I should have.

So what went wrong? Maybe it was the fact that the scene was changed quite a bit from the book. In Fire & Blood, Blood and Cheese hunker down in Alicent's chambers waiting for Helaena to arrive with her kids, which she's known to do like clockwork so the children can say goodnight to their grandmother. There's no suggestion that they only settled on killing Jaehaerys after they couldn't find Aemond. You could interpret this as the latest in a series of puzzling storytelling choices that sand down the rough edges of the characters. Aemond killing Luke by accident is an example, as is Alicent constantly insisting that she's only supporting Aegon's claim to the throne because it was her dying husband's wish, rather than because she wants power. The show seems afraid that we won't like these characters if they act out of pocket, which I think is misguided. Let our problematic faves be problematic!

But I don't think this is an issue in "A Son for a Son." It makes sense for Daemon to go after Aemond, and it's pretty clear he has no problem if Plan B involves hacking off a kid's head. His terrible reputation remains intact. Plus, the book does suggest that Blood and Cheese may have been after King Aegon, but couldn't find a way to kill him given that he's always heavily guarded. And there is a scene where Blood and Cheese must cross the Iron Throne room, where we see a bunch of guards standing watch over King Aegon while he drunkenly faffs about with his buddies (yet another fun Aegon moment).

Another change is that, in the book, Alicent Hightower is in the room when Blood and Cheese kill Jaehaerys, her grandchild, and is helpless to stop it. But again, I don't think her being elsewhere hurts the scene. The show should be able to milk drama out of a mother watching her young son be brutally murdered, even if we haven't spent much time with any of the characters involved.

I think the failure of this scene comes down to the way it's staged. To start, it's hard to believe that Blood and Cheese can wander around the upper hallways of the Red Keep and meet absolutely no resistance. Yes, many of the guards are on duty protecting the king and Criston is busy in Alicent's bedchamber, but were there no guards left over to monitor the royal apartments? In Fire & Blood, Blood has to kill a couple to make sure they're not interrupted.

So we have to suspend our disbelief for that. More importantly, I don't think the show took the right approach with Helaena. Phia Saban is excellent as the horrified queen, but her reaction is small for the room. She doesn't scream or cry, as she does in Fire & Blood, nor does she beg Blood and Cheese to kill her instead of her children. At knifepoint, Blood and Cheese demand she tell them which of her twin children is her son, and she does. Jaehaerys dies offscreen, which I think is the only way to go — not even HBO is going to show a child being decapitated — but we don't see the horror of the moment reflected on Helaena's face. She grabs Jaehaera and scurries out of there.

Obviously I have no idea how a person is supposed to react when their young child is killed by strangers right in front of them in their own home. Saban and director Alan Taylor seem to have decided that Helaena goes into a state of shock, which sounds realistic. But this isn't reality; it's a TV drama, and I couldn't share Helaena's panic and terror without a bigger reaction from her, not when we've spent so little time getting to know her before this. The show seemed more interested in showing off the enormity of the Red Keep set than it did Haelana's pain. I may sound like a psycho for saying this, but I think I was more concerned for Cheese, who we learned was nervous about sneaking around the upper levels of the Red Keep, than I was for Helaena, into whose soul we got an insufficiently small window.

I have to add an addendum and say that I found the scene much more tense on rewatch than I did the first times. But it still didn't pack nearly the punch it should have.

Cregan Stark and Jacaerys Velaryon in House of the Dragon season 2.
Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO /

House of the Bullet Points

  • At the top of the episode, Rhaenyra's son Jacaerys Velaryon (Harry Collett) tries to get Lord Cregan Stark (Tom Taylor) to support his mother's claim in the wars to come. It's pretty much a glorified cameo for the young Stark, but it was fun to see the Wall again, and I liked the bit of lore about one in every 10 Stark men getting the "honor" of serving in the Night's Watch. If they have to draw straws for the position, obviously it's not as desirable a post as Cregan says it is. The dude who drew the short straw didn't look happy.
  • Another reason for the slower pace is that the show has to remind people who a lot of these characters are. You'd be forgiven for barely remembering the existance of twin Kingsguard brothers Erryk and Arryk Cargyll, played by real-life twins Elliott and Luke Tittensor. Erryk fled King's Landing to serve Queen Rhaenyra while Arryk stayed to follow King Aegon. I hope you saved a pin to put in this one.
  • Before he sneaks in at the end of the episode, you can see Cheese wandering around in the background of several scenes set in the Red Keep, a fun detail I only noticed on rewatch. Yet another reason I liked the episode more the second time around.
  • Rhaenyra finds Luke's body while out scouting on her dragon Syrax, and I liked how all the smallfolk who had pulled the remains out of the bay ran like hell as the dragon landed. Reviews of the season have mentioned that we spend more time with peasant characters this go-round. This might be the start of that.
  • Speaking of peasants, actor Kieran Bew briefly shows as a petitioner in the Iron Throne room. He's playing a character named Hugh, whom Fire & Blood fans know will become significant.
  • Speaking of peasants s'more, Corlys Velaryon speaks to a sailor named Alyn of Hull (Abubakar Salim), another character who will become more important later on. Open up that pin box.

Episode Grade: B-

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