Who really pays the cost when "House of the Dragon" dances

George R.R. Martin's book title promises destruction. This episode might make us regret wishing to see it

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 8, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Ewan Mitchell as Aemond Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)
Ewan Mitchell as Aemond Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)

The following contains spoilers for "House of the Dragon" Season 2, Episode 4

On paper the outcome of the first dragon dance in “House of the Dragon” is logical, dramatically speaking. It comes down to chess moves, one of the oldest and most revered games based on warfare. The queen is the most powerful piece on the board and with the right support, can easily take a weak king.

“House of the Dragon” never did much to sell us on the merits of Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney). The eldest son of good and dead ruler Viserys and Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) is arrogant, impetuous, and easily angered. He’s also stupid, as his younger (and wiser and taller) brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) shows everyone around the two of them by being smoother, smarter and deadlier in every way.

Aegon wants violence; Aemond wants victory. Aegon tells his small council to take contested lands with Vhagar, Aemond’s dragon and the oldest, biggest one in the realm. Aemond sagely offers, “This war will not be won by dragons alone, but dragons flying behind armies of men.”

Their half-sister Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D'Arcy), prides herself in being her father’s daughter. On Dragonstone her son and cousins have struggled to maintain control over a small council grasping for power during her unexplained absence, during which she sneaks to King’s Landing to sue for peace with Alicent. “I inherited 80 years of peace from my father,” she tells her wavering advisers. “Before I was to end it, I needed to know there was no other path. And now I do.”

The Song of Ice and Fire, the vision of Aegon’s namesake passed down in secret from one generation of Targaryen royals to the next, is a reminder that a ruler must keep the realm united. At its heart is the legend of a Prince That Was Promised, whom one famous Targaryen yet to be born believed herself to be.

Where that story promised salvation, this fourth episode delivers the fire and blood George R.R. Martin’s TV adaptation assures us is inevitable. “Game of Thrones” suffered from frustrating flaws, but its portrayal of the horror, blindness and claustrophobia of war remains unparalleled.

"House of the Dragon" fourth episode director Alan Taylor may not have helmed the most spectacular of those "Game of Thrones" sequences, but in addition to directing "Beyond the Wall" he brought us the first glimpse of Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal as hatchlings in the first season finale.

Here he partners with series co-creator Ryan Condal to give us this show’s first mid-air dogfight with dragons since Drogon and Rhaegal squared off with zombie Viserion in the Battle of Winterfell. That eighth-season battle turned out well for the good guys, all things considered. This dragon dance is extremely costly, as everyone from Rhaenyra to a pleasure house’s madam warned us it would be.

Critics teased this episode as one of the show’s best yet for a reason. Until now the principal characters have talked a good game about what dragons can do and sailed across the skies on theirs unchallenged. Rhaenyra’s uncle husband and king consort Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) took Harrenhal singlehandedly with the legendary dragon Caraxes, which wasn’t hard considering that it’s unguarded, crumbling and, oh yes, cursed.

House of the DragonFabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)While he navigates hauntings by his past regrets, his wife’s enemies are gathering forces in the North to march on Rook’s Rest under the command of Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) and Aemond to cut Dragonstone off from the Riverlands.

But both the Greens’ small council and that of the Blacks have been rendered ineffectual by either a deficit of effective leadership or its absence. After Rhaenyra leaves Alicent, her thwarted ex-bestie abandons her son’s small council to ride out the effects of an abortifacient, a risk that comes with boning the commander of the Kingsguard.

Between those developments, much of the episode is spent in conversation. A guilt-ridden Daemon hallucinates visions of lost loves he disappointed during his stay at the accursed Harrenhal, including child Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and his dead wife Laena (Nanna Blondell).

While he tries to maintain his grip he calls a few bannermen to declare themselves anew to Rhaenyra, including House Blackwood and Oscar Tully (Archie Barnes), the young heir to the Riverrun. Which is fine, but at times makes us wonder why it’s taking so long to get to the good part.

The queen is the most powerful piece on the board and with the right support, can easily take a weak king.

To be fair, only a few “Game of Thrones” battles take up most of their episodes. The asymmetrical nature of dragon-on-human or humanoid violence means most of those skirmishes are settled quickly. One of the series’ best, the loot train battle from the "Game of Thrones" seventh season episode “The Spoils of War,” lasts around 10 minutes from the moment Jaime Lannister and Bronn wrap their heads around what’s happening to its crispy finish.

Aemond brought that sequence to mind when he offered his counsel concerning dragons flying behind armies. On some level, he was also tipping his hand about his battlefield strategy, one that yields collateral damage he may not have planned for – or did, depending on how we interpret his response to an unexpected twist.

The loot train battle's success rested in its high emotional stakes; we didn’t want to see Jaime or Bronn roasted by Drogon, and nobody wanted Bronn to take down the dragon or its rider. The Rook’s Rest carries some of that emotional weight. Despite what Aemond has done, the writers make us care about him by way of Sylvi (Michelle Bonnard), the madam he returns to for empathy more than sex. While curled up in her lap, Aemond shows himself to be deeply scarred by the various tortures he endured as a child and admits paid back too severely by killing his small cousin Lucerys.

To this Sylvi says, “I would remind you only that when princes lose their temper, it’s often others who suffer. The smallfolk. Like me.” The Battle of Rook’s Rest bears that out.

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Ser Criston Cole marches there after sacking Duskendale and putting its lord Gunther Darklyn to death. Attacking Rook’s Rest, he expends lives in a wager that one of Rhaenyra’s dragons will show up, knowing Aemond is hiding with Vhaegar in a nearby forest.

Aemond and Criston’s bet nearly pays out. Rhaenyra in her nobility nearly flies to Rook’s Rest herself. “There are those who have mistaken my caution for weakness,” she says, a line D’Arcy delivers with the regal chill of a woman who’s had enough. “Let that be their undoing.”

House of the DragonEve Best as Princess Rhaenys Targaryen and Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)But when her council flinches at her suggestion that she fly out and spank her ex herself, another queen who was denied steps up. Princess Rhaenys, the Queen That Never Was (Eve Best) agrees to fly out with Meleys, Rhaenyra’s largest dragon. 

For Rhaenys this episode is a culmination of an arc defined by loyalty, stoic grace and power, but also forbearance. Best’s performance is a peerless work of interiority. Scenes in the hours leading up to this color in the mystery Best cultivates in Rhaenys by showing her to be a caring loyal figure.

“If dragons begin fighting dragons, we invite our own destruction,” Rhaenyra warns.

Whether in bed with her husband Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) or bringing him lunch as he oversees repairs to his fleet, she’s a character defined by depth of feeling and conviction. Empathy, too, which shows up as Rhaenys presses her cheek against Meleys neck before they head out to battle. This dragon and her rider have a link much like the one we witnessed between Drogon and Daenerys. Meleys turning to look at Rhaenys for assurance mid-combat, is both moving – which is saying something considering she’s burning alive – and among the saddest details we’ve seen yet in this series.

Aemond and Ser Criston expected Meleys or another dragon to make an appearance. The surprise is Aegon flying in on Sunfyre, a gorgeous dragon but no match for Rhaenyra’s. One probably didn’t feel much for Aegon as Meleys rakes Sunfyre across the chest and nearly bites through a wing. His mother and brother warned him to do nothing, and he didn’t listen.

So when Taylor announces Aemond and Vhagar joining the battle by showing the massive wyrm’s wings stretching above the nearby tree line while taking off, any fearful sensation instilled by that vision is entirely linked to Meleys and Rhaenys.

Once airborne Vhagar’s breath engulfs both his brother and his cousin as they’re locked in combat. He had to know that Meleys and Rhaenys would break away more or less unscathed. Maybe Aemond also knew the move would cripple Sunfyre, who tumbles into a nearby forest in a fiery heap with Aegon still attached.

House of the DragonTom Glynn Carney as Aegon Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)The Queen That Never Was could have escaped them, but honor compels her to steel her courage and reluctantly turn Meleys to attack her larger enemy. She gets in a few blows, but it’s not enough. Vhaegar ambushes Meleys, locking her fangs around the other's neck and biting down until Meleys expires, but not before locking eyes with her rider one more time.

As the dragon falls, so does Rhaenys, who lets go of the reins wearing a look of fear and resignation. Queen takes king. Then, tragically, knight — and prince — take queen.

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In the muddle, many smallfolk carrying the banners of their liege lords die screaming and in pain. This episode’s practical effects are fewer compared to the battlefield spectacles in “Thrones,” but Taylor’s cuts to black evoke the confusion and terror one imagines would be created by the concussive force of a giant dragon plummeting on top of a crowd.  Ser Criston is knocked unconscious.

Slowed-down moments show a temporarily grounded Vhagar crushing all the smallfolk in her path, friend and foe. The force of Meleys' body crushes Rhaenys along with part of the castle wall and the tower she flew in to defend. All this highborn posturing has a steep price in human lives, reminding us that viewing violence as entertainment isn’t a noble impulse.

But the other conflict in Episode 4 is generational. The younger royals wanted this fight. “I wish to spill blood, not ink! I wish to act!” Aegon had complained in the second episode. But Aemond knows he’s better at war and stealthy acts including possibly pushing aside his sibling

Ser Criston comes in time to see Aegon crushed beneath a badly injured Sunfyre and Aemond standing over him, either drawing or sheathing his blade. And Rhaenys and Meleys are lost forever, removing one of the few players on the board worth caring about.

“If dragons begin fighting dragons, we invite our own destruction,” Rhaenyra warns before dragons fighting dragons became the only way to secure her inheritance. We’ve wanted this battle since Season 1, so we can’t blame Condal for reminding us that sometimes our fantasy bloodlust claims those who least deserve it along with the ones who have it coming.

New episodes of "House of the Dragon" premiere at 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO and on Max.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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