The pacing of House Of The Dragon is a curious thing, oscillating between a breakneck speed that hardly lets us learn the names of its players before it dispatches them and lethargic, plodding slowness. Maybe that’s what happens when you adapt one section of a fake history book rather than a series of character-driven novels, as Game Of Thrones did. In both modes, the show’s writers tend to leave some characters’ motivations opaque while exhaustively mining others.
In contrast to the flurry of last week’s episode, which hit the ground running after a 10-year time jump, the slow-moving “Driftmark” feels positively soothing—but not, unfortunately, all that interesting. The action unfolds over two days (and one very eventful night) on the titular island, where all the power players have gathered to mark the passing of one of their own.
Last week, Laena Velaryon committed suicide by dragon-fire after a difficult labor. Her reasons for doing this are up to viewer interpretation, because the show gives us very little to go on. Regardless, here we are at High Tide, Laena’s ancestral seat, as her uncle Vaemond (Wil Johnson) commits her body to the sea the Velaryons love so well. Basically everyone we’ve ever met on the show is here, with their sundry axes to grind in tow: Viserys, Alicent, and their brood; Rhaenyra, Laenor, and their kids; the newly widowed Daemon and his children; and Corlys and Rhaenys, mourning the passing of their only daughter.
And then there are the royal fam’s attendants—including Alicent’s dad Otto Hightower, who’s made a comeback as Hand of the King after the death of former Hand Lord Lyonel Strong and his son Harwin in a “mysterious” fire at Harrenhal. Larys Strong, the scheming second son who orchestrated said fire, is here too, as is Ser Criston Cole, Alicent’s pet Kingsguard. For a woman who once saw herself as a pawn in someone else’s game, the queen has a whole lot of allies these days.
Just like at a modern-day funeral reception, no one is happy to see each other, and everyone is behaving badly. Ser Laenor and Prince Aegon are both blasted drunk—the former because he’s reeling from the loss of his sister, the latter because he’s just a teenage dirtbag, baby. Sweet, foolish Viserys tries to mend fences with Daemon yet again, but his brother insists that Pentos is his home now. Rhaenyra sends Jacaerys and Lucerys to make nice with their grieving uncle and cousins. Lord Corlys tells Luke that he’ll rule High Tide someday, but his nephew isn’t interested. “If I’m the Lord of Driftmark,” he says, “that means everyone’s dead.” These poor kids.
This whole episode is a lesson in what happens when you raise children around palace intrigue, wanton violence, and petty jealousies. Both Jace and Aegon are being groomed for future kinghood by their respective mothers. Sensitive Jace is buckling under the pressure, especially since he’s learned the truth of his parentage. As for Aegon, Alicent’s constant insistence that he’s destined for greatness has turned him into a spoiled brat—and a bully to boot. Aemond, meanwhile, is the worst kind of second son; his older brother’s cruelty is half-hearted and casual, but Aemond’s has teeth—and by the end of the episode, he’ll have gained the power to do some major damage.
The boy who dreams of dragons has been hearing one all day. It’s Vhagar, the late Laena’s mount who was forced to immolate his mom, unleashing an unearthly keen that echoes across the seascape. Later that night, Aemond tracks the dragon until he finds him sleeping among the dunes. And this isn’t just any dragon: Vhagar is the oldest and largest dragon in the Seven Kingdoms—and a living relic of Aegon the Conqueror’s fabled takeover of Westeros.
Director Miguel Sapochnik conveys the sheer size of this legendary beast by showing him from Aemond’s point of view—so massive that the frame can only encompass his head and neck when the young prince wakes him from his slumber. Aemond nearly gets dracarys’d for his audacity; but he’s a Targaryen through and through, and Vhagar responds to the boy’s commands. In a thrilling scene that, let’s be real, we all started watching this show to see, Aemond climbs atop Vhagar’s saddle and hangs on for dear life as his mount flies straight up into the moonlight. What follows is a thrilling—and gorgeously CGI’d—sequence as boy and dragon dive and skim over the waves on a wild roller-coaster ride.
You’re rooting for Aemond by the time he lands in front of the castle, right up until Laena’s daughters confront him and we realize that he’s stolen the last piece of their mother they had. Vhagar was Baela’s to inherit, but Alicent’s boys were taught to claim anything and everything as their own birthright. When Jace and Luke get involved, the resentment between these kids goes nuclear.
Poor little Luke stands up for his cousins, and Aemond descends on the younger boy like a rabid animal. He prepares to brain Luke with a rock, but that’s not even the worst thing coming for him: Aemond names Rhaenyra’s boys bastards, taunting Jace with the title “Lord Strong.” In a skirmish that’s more West Side Story than Westeros, a knife winds up in Luke’s tiny hand—and the Kingsguard arrive just in time to see him slash open Aemond’s eye.
Rhaenyra doesn’t know about any of this, because she’s off having a romantic, incestuous stroll on the beach with dear old Uncle Daemon. This episode is the first time we’ve seen these two together since Emma D’Arcy took over the role from Milly Alcock, and the chemistry they share with Matt Smith is palpable. The pair dish about the ruins of their love lives, and an emotionally bare Rhaenyra makes her move. The two wind up makin’ love at midnight in the dunes of…Driftmark in a scene that, for all the ookiness of their last sexual encounter, is curiously tender.
They return to the castle to find everyone (except Laenor) assembled in the throne room like it’s the final scene of Clue—only the whodunit concerns who started the fight that ended in Aemond losing an eye. The ordinarily gentle Viserys is more thunderous than we’ve ever seen him, demanding the truth from his grandson over the shouts of Alicent, Rhaenyra, and their sons. That’s when someone addresses the largest elephant in a room that’s packed with elephants: Jace and Luke are bastards, and everyone has known it since forever. Viserys digs deeper into his denial, insisting that Rhaenyra’s boys are legitimate and ordering his two families to kiss and make up. (When is this guy gonna realize he’s not living in The Brady Bunch?) Alicent says no thanks—she’d rather go full Hammurabi and rip out Luke’s eye in exchange for Aemond’s. No one is into this proposal, not even her boy Ser Criston.
And Alicent, well, she’s fucking had it. She rips her husband’s Valyrian steel dagger from its sheath (more on that fateful knife later) and turns the blade on Rhaenyra. And speaking of chemistry: D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke are burning with it in a scene that seems like it could as easily end in a furious makeout session as it could a murder.
They hurl barbs at each other in front of every big macher in Westeros, spitting all the poison that’s been festering inside them for a decade and change. In an ironic echo of Luke’s earlier action, Alicent lashes out blindly with the dagger and cuts a long gash in Rhaenyra’s forearm. “Do not mourn for me, mother,” Aemond says as the queen stares at her former best friend in mute shock. “I may have lost an eye, but I gained a dragon.”
The next morning in her chambers, Alicent is horrified and ashamed of her actions. But Otto interrupts his daughter’s apologies to give her a pat on the back. He’s proud of her for stepping up to play the “ugly game” that he knows is the Hightowers’ only path to the throne. And now that they’ve got Westeros’ most legendary living dragon in their corner, the scales are tipped in their favor.
The maester is stitching up Rhaenyra’s physical wound, but the emotional one will linger. She has a heart-to-heart with Laenor, who swears to recommit himself to their family, even going so far as to send his lover Qarl away. She calls him an “honorable man with a good heart,” and hey—look at these crazy kids making it work.
Just kidding! On a balcony overlooking the sea, Rhaenyra approaches Daemon with an indecent proposal: The only way for her to strengthen her weakening claim to the Iron Throne is for the two to join forces Targaryen-style, which is to say with an incestuous marriage. “You and I are made of fire,” she says. “We were always meant to burn together.”
This is a canny political move—and very bad news for Laenor. With the princess’ reluctant blessing, Daemon pays Ser Qarl a hefty sum to publicly murder his lover. I know we’ve only heard you say, like, two lines, but I hoped you were better than this, Qarl. Turns out he is: The two manage to fake Laenor’s death. And as Corlys and Rhaenys mourn the passing of another child in the immediate wake of another, Qarl and Laenor, shorn of his trademark blond dreads, row out to sea—presumably toward a fresh start in Essos.
Meanwhile, Rhaenyra and Daemon have the most Targaryen elopement possible, complete with mild mutilation to lock down that fire and blood vibe. They kiss softly with only their kids and the officiant in attendance; and because this is Thrones world, we can’t help but root for these two incestuous murderers.
The back half of “Driftmark” is a true barn burner; but the episode is ultimately undone by the slow crawl of its first half, which consists of various people staring at each other, whispering threats, and rehashing information that we already know. House Of The Dragon devotes ample time to lovingly teasing out the dynamics between its headliners at the cost of building compelling character arcs for almost anyone else. What’s the vibe between Laenor and Qarl? What’s the source of Larys’ sociopathy? What’s Otto been up to for the past 10 years? Do Corlys and Rhaenys ever talk about anything besides her getting passed over for the throne? Perhaps the greatest strength of Game Of Thrones was its ability to build whole worlds behind almost every member of its sprawling cast—and it’s one that House Of The Dragon consistently fails to deliver on.
- When Viserys and Daemon see each other for the first time in who knows how long, the king says the gods can be cruel. “Seems they’ve been especially cruel to you,” his brother quips, which feels like a meta joke about how Paddy Considine looks like he’s fallen into a vat of community theater old-age makeup and Matt Smith looks like he’s somehow gotten younger.
- This week, on Helaena Targaryen Bug Watch: Our girl spends the funeral reception crouched on the ground with a spider crawling across her hand as she whispers what sounds like a spell about “dragons of flesh” and “dragons of thread” before shutting it inside a clamshell. We also learn that she’s betrothed to Aegon, who dubs her an idiot. What a lovely brother-husband he’ll make.
- Speaking of Aegon, actor Ty Tennant is the scion of real-life royalty—the Doctor Who kind: He’s the son of 10th Doctor David Tennant and the grandson of fifth Doctor Peter Davidson.
- The lighting in “Driftmark,” particularly in the nighttime scenes, is so dark that I had to turn all the lamps in my living room off to make out anyone’s face. It’s the same issue that plagued pivotal Thrones battle episode “The Long Night,” which was also directed by Sapochnik.
- The Valyrian steel blade that Alicent wields against Rhaenyra is the Chekhov’s gun of George R.R. Martin’s series. It’s the “catspaw dagger” that was used in the attempted assassination of Bran Stark in the very first episode of Game Of Thrones. It showed up again when Arya used it to execute Littlefinger—and later, to slay the Night King. Viserys gave us the download on its history a few episodes ago: It passed down to him through Aegon the Conquerer, and when heated, the blade reveals the prophecy of Thrones’ mythic “prince that was promised.”
- When Rhaenyra proposes to Daemon, she tells him that she “cannot face the Greens alone.” You’d be forgiven for not knowing what that means, because like so much other plot-pivotal knowledge, the show hasn’t told us about it. Book readers, however, will recognize it as the name of Alicent’s faction—a reference to the Hightower color of war that the queen and her sons are always wearing. Rhaenyra’s party will come to be known as the Blacks. In other words: Civil war, but make it fashion.