“Words are wind.” Though no one ever says it in “The Black Queen,” the iconic Westerosi aphorism hovers over the episode like a fog. Rhaenyra Targaryen may be wearing her late father’s crown and she may be nominally the rightful heir; but “stale oaths,” as Otto Hightower says, are nowhere near as potent as a coronation performed before an audience of thousands.
While last week’s installment was dedicated to the Hightowers at the Red Keep, “The Black Queen” follows the Targaryens at Dragonstone. After escaping King’s Landing on dragonback, Princess Rhaenys arrives at the Stone Drum to give Rhaenyra and Daemon bad news and worse news: Viserys is dead, and Aegon was crowned before the old king’s body was even cold.
Daemon’s knee-jerk reaction is anger: He immediately accuses the Hightowers of murdering Viserys (which, given that his brother was basically a walking corpse the last time they saw him, is a bit rich) and calls Alicent a whore. We’ve seen a (mostly) gentler, more reserved Daemon ever since the 10-year time jump, but the monster we first met rises back to the surface with quickly.
Meanwhile, the shock of her father’s death and Alicent’s betrayal sends Rhaenyra into early labor—and House Of The Dragon gives us its fourth traumatic childbirth scene to date. Refusing the help of her maids and the maester, she pulls her stillborn child out of her own body in a gratuitously gruesome sequence that’s nonetheless masterfully acted by Emma D’Arcy.
In stark contrast to how Daemon handled his first wife Laena’s labor, he leaves Rhaenyra to suffer on her own, burying himself in his favorite pastime: war. He’s assembled a council to discuss the Blacks’ next move even as his wife screams for him from the floor above.
The unnamed baby’s funeral showcases how small the Dragonstone complement is, as the Targaryens and their crew stand on a cliff before the tiniest funeral pyre. Their number swells by one, however, when Ser Erryk Cargyll arrives and swears a new oath—not as a Kingsguard, but a Queensguard. And he brought a gift: Viserys’ crown, overlooked in favor of the crown of Aegon on the Conquerer the presumptive king now wears.
Daemon takes it from the knight’s hands and, as he did for his brother only a few days before, places the crown on Rhaenyra’s head and bends the knee. Everyone around him follows suit—all except Rhaenys, whose status as a free agent puts her in a unique position of power over both the Blacks and the Greens. But considering that her husband, the Sea Snake, has survived his battle injuries after all and is on his way to Dragonstone, that stalemate won’t last for long.
In short order, the newly crowned Queen Rhaenyra stands at the head of the Painted Table before her ad hoc Small Council. She’s still taking it all in (and of course, reeling from grief and physical trauma), but Daemon is all business. War is on the horizon, and war is his very favorite thing; so it’s no surprise he’s done his homework. What follows is the infodump to end all infodumps, as episode writer/creator Ryan J. Condal squeezes in enough information to make a grand maester’s head spin.
The long and the short of it: The forces at Dragonstone are small—enough to defend the castle, but not enough to go on the offensive—and their list of sworn allies is smaller. The group talks through which houses the Blacks can most likely win to their side (the Arryns, Tullys, Starks, and Baratheons) and which probably can’t (the Lannisters). (The more things change….) Full-on dragon fanboy Daemon lists all the fire-breathers each side has in their arsenal, the upshot being that the Greens only have four dragons to the Blacks’ 13. Finally, he suggests that they use Harrenhal as a base to mount an attack on King’s Landing. (Seems like setting up your HQ at the ancestral home of Harwin Strong, the not-so-secret father of Rhaenyra’s three not-so-secretly-illegitimate sons, is a bad move; but listen, I’m no battle strategist.)
Poor Matt Smith finally gets the chance to catch his breath thanks to the arrival of the Hand of the King. In a scene that’s a perfect mirror to the climax of the series’ second episode, Otto meets Daemon in the middle of Dragonstone Bridge to talk terms. And as in “The Rogue Prince,” Rhaenyra flies in on Syrax as a show of power—only this time, she’s on Daemon’s side instead of Otto’s.
The hand offers her Alicent’s terms: If Rhaenyra bends the knee to Aegon, she’ll get to keep Dragonstone, the Hightowers will acknowledge her black-haired sons as true-born, and her younger sons will be given positions at court. Daemon’s ready to start the war right then and there, but Rhaenyra tells him to stand down; she’ll take a day to think it over. Otto may be full of shit, but there is one thing the two have in common: They both loved Viserys, and neither wants to see the realm descend into the bloodshed the old king dedicated his life to keeping at bay.
The growing tension between Rhaenyra and Daemon comes to a head later that night, after the queen points out that having dragons doesn’t mean you should use dragons; in Thrones world, they’re essentially nuclear bombs, and even if their side won, she has no desire to “rule over a kingdom of ash and bone.” She cites the Song of Ice and Fire prophecy Viserys was obsessed with, and it brings out the old Daemon—the one who murdered his first wife without batting an eyelash. He wraps his fingers around Rhaenyra’s throat and says that portents don’t win wars; dragons do. It’s a chilling reminder that even if he bends the knee and calls her “your Grace,” Daemon’s hair-trigger temper and physical dominance could end her life as swiftly as any assassin’s blade.
In a marginally more successful marriage, Rhaenys reunites with Corlys at his bedside, and the two have it out. She accuses him of abandoning her in favor of adventure at sea and tells him of Vaemond’s death at the hands of Daemon. The Sea Snake wants to pack it in, declare neutrality, and live a quiet life on Driftmark with his grandchildren; Rhaenys points out that as long as Aegon is on the throne, Jace and Luke’s lives will always be in danger. Corlys is very understandably not into Rhaenyra, considering he believes her to have orchestrated his son’s death. But Rhaenys, easily the smartest person in the whole messy Targaryen/Velaryon/Hightower clan, says that her niece’s show of restraint amidst a crowd of war-hungry dudes makes her a horse worth backing.
The next day, the Sea Snake stands before the Painted Table and declares his allegiance to Rhaenyra—and with the power of the Velaryons on their side, the Blacks have a fighting chance. He’s finally pummeled the Triarchy and seized the Stepstones, which means they’ve got control of the Narrow Sea. His fleet can cut off trade and travel routes to King’s Landing, then lay siege to the Red Keep from the east. The queen says she won’t be the one to start a war, honoring her promise to Viserys to keep the realm united; but if the Greens throw the first stone, they need to be ready.
Rather than sending ravens to their prospective allies, Corlys suggests they send a couple of young princes on dragonback—Jace to Jayne Arryn in the Vale and Cregan Stark in Winterfell, and Luke to Borros Baratheon in the Stormlands. It sounds like a good idea at first; but the moment Rhaenyra hands letters to her sons and tells them they should be messengers and not warriors, it’s painfully obvious that things are about to go south.
In fact, “The Black Queen” couldn’t more clearly telegraph “Luke is going to die” if a herald shouted it from the parapets of Dragonstone. Rhaenyra and her second son share quiet moments throughout the episode, in which he talks about how reluctant he is to rule Driftmark and generally looks like a sweet, fragile baby bird. When his mother says that the Baratheons will give him “a warm welcome,” D’Arcy might as well have looked straight at the camera and announced his imminent death.
The episode gets even more heavy-handed as Luke lands in front of Storm’s End as literal thunder crashes around him. And his welcome, of course, is anything but warm. Borros is a cardboard villain, laughing dismissively at the young prince and calling him “boy.” The situation isn’t helped by Rhaenyra’s letter, which offers Borros nothing for his loyalty—not even a marriage pact. But you know who did make a marriage pact? Aemond “Crazy Eye” Targaryen, who’s standing near the throne with one of Borros’ daughters.
Aemond’s had this date with Luke ever since the latter slashed out his eye—and now he wants “Lord Strong” to cut out his own as a gift to Alicent. Borros tells them to take it outside, and they sure do. Luke takes off into the stormy sky on Arrax, a tiny dragon even by normal dragon standards; he looks like a hummingbird when Aemond flies overhead on Vhagar, the biggest dragon in the world. Fully cackling, the larger harries the smaller across the sky in a beautifully animated scene that must have blown through half of the season’s CGI budget. Eventually, both dragons wind up in blue sky high above the clouds, and both boys lose control of their mounts. Before Aemond can stop him, Vhagar chomps down on Arrax, sending pieces of dragon and rider falling down into the sea. This is what happens when you let children play with WMDs!
In the season’s final scene, Daemon delivers the news of their son’s death to his wife. (Don’t ask me how in the Seven Hells he even found out—perhaps via a raven named “Plot Expedience.”) We only see Rhaenyra from the back as she stands in front of a fireplace taking in this latest tragedy; this fresh grief wracks her body, and when she finally turns to the face the camera, she’s a woman transformed into something hard and deadly. And woe betide her enemies come season two.
The moment seems to be in conversation with Daenerys’ heel turn in the penultimate episode of Game Of Thrones, when she looks out over King’s Landing and makes the choice to burn it to the ground. But while that character beat felt like it came out of the clear blue sky, Rhaenyra’s doesn’t. In a matter of days, she’s lost her father, her baby, and now her teenage son, not to mention the Iron Throne. Whatever hell she unleashes next season, “The Black Queen” takes us there—even if it stumbles along the way.
- It stretches credulity that Rhaenyra would send her young sons off to treat with uncertain allies in the middle of a cold war without so much as a single knight to escort them. It’s a lazy bit of world-building clearly done to speed the season to its inevitable conclusion.
- Speaking of stretching credulity, Luke is meant to be 14 in this episode—the same age as Rhaenyra was when Viserys named her heir. House Of The Dragon seems to have wildly varying ideas of what a 14-year-old looks like.
- It’s worth asking why this series is so fixated on graphic depictions of women suffering in labor. In a single season, we’ve seen Aemma Arryn undergo a deadly C-section in unflinching detail, Rhaenyra walk the length of the Red Keep with her afterbirth still leaking from her, Laena Velaryon commit suicide after she’s unable to deliver her child, and now this episode’s self-administered stillbirth. It’s one thing to acknowledge the reality that childbirth sans modern medicine is extremely dangerous for both mother and baby; it’s another to wallow in the gory details the way this series does.
- Otto’s offer for Rhaenyra bending the knee includes naming her second-youngest son as King Aegon II’s cupbearer…whose name is, yes, also Aegon. I kind of wish she’d take the deal, because that would make a great sitcom.
- Near the end of the episode, Daemon descends into Dragonmont singing a song in what’s presumably High Valyrian, summoning a wild dragon from the dark that’s so big that it looks like it could be a match for Vhagar.
- Here’s easily the most fun piece of House Of The Dragon lore: The Lord of Riverrun whom Daemon hopes to win as an ally is named Grover Tully. According to Fire & Blood, his grandson is named Elmo, and his sons are named Kermit and Oscar. Yes, George R.R. Martin did name those characters after the Muppets.