Episode 4 of House of the Dragon might be one of the most intimate and honest look at sexuality that we’ve seen from HBO’s Game of Thrones franchise.
Last week, we left off with King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) promising his daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) that he will give her the opportunity to choose her future husband, instead of forcing one upon her. This week, episode 4 of House of the Dragon, “King of the Narrow Sea,” opens with Rhaenyra meeting with possible suitors at Storm’s End, the seat of power of Lord Boremund Baratheon (Julian Lewis Jones). The first man we see approach the Princess is Lord Dondarrion, who seems to be older than her own father. Rhaenyra points this out, resulting in everyone present laughing at the old man. The second person to come to propose is a boy named Willem (Alfie Todd) from House Blackwood no older than twelve. Similarly to what happened with Lord Dondarrion, the boy is made fun of for his age, particularly by another young man from House Bracken. This culminates in Rhaenyra deciding to leave the place, but not before witnessing young Willem Blackwood fatally wounding Lord Bracken with his sword.
On her way back to King’s Landing, Rhaenyra and Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) are surprised by the arrival of Daemon (Matt Smith) on the back of his dragon Caraxes, as he knocks the Princess’ ship with brute force. Once inside the Red Keep, Viserys grants his brother an audience. Here, Daemon walks with the Crabfeeder’s (Daniel Scott-Smith) hammer and offers it to the King. This isn’t the only thing he offers, though. He talks about how his men of arms named him the King of the Narrow Sea after his victory against the Triarchy in the Stepstones. As a sign of respect, and seeking his brother’s forgiveness since he exiled him, Daemon takes his crown and gives it to Viserys. The gesture seems to work, for now, as the Targaryen brothers reconcile.
As a way to celebrate the return of The Rogue Prince, Viserys throws a small party at the Godswood. Almost as if their issues had completely banished, both brothers are jesting around who was their mother’s favorite. An uncomfortable feeling takes hold of Viserys and Daemon’s bonding moment when Rhaenyra approaches his father and uncle. She tries to congratulate Daemon for his victory, but Viserys seems bothered by her presence, most likely because she has sabotaged every marriage proposal that has been presented to her. Alicent (Emily Carey) attempts to salvage the awkward situation by inviting her brother-in-law to visit the gallery that has received new tapestries. Viserys disregards her offer on behalf of Daemon when he begins to joke how nobody wants to see the new tapestries. In perhaps an odd change of heart, Rhaenyra comes to Alicent’s aid to defend her from her father’s uncalled insults.
It feels like I’ve said this every week since the show aired, but Alcock and Carey continue to command the screen with their chemistry. Although there might still be some unresolved issue between the two, they deeply want to spend time with one another and rely on each other. For the first time since episode 2, they are finally being open about their emotions, how much they’ve missed one another, and what they are going through. They discuss Rhaenyra’s current search for a husband where she makes an honest mistake by commenting on how men only want to lock their wives in a castle to help them produce heirs. A position Alicent has been placed in by her father’s own ambitions. Alicent recognizes how lonely she’s been since marrying Viserys, going from being just another lady in the realm to the Queen and mother to the King’s children. She’s not allowed to be vulnerable anymore, just like Rhaenyra feels like a prisoner for not being able to do as she wishes and being unable to avoid marriage.
After everyone leaves the Godswood, Daemon and Rhaenyra remain: they have a straightforward conversation about marriage, love, lust, and pleasure. This isn’t the first time that House of the Dragon makes a point to showcase that there might be more to their bond beyond being uncle and niece. Their back and forth here, though, definitely makes it even more obvious as they continue to converse with a flirty tone. In between this odd pairing, a quite serious issue rises: that of motherhood. It is here where we get a glimpse at Rhaenyra’s psyche, as she points out how her mother was only made Queen to produce heirs, which is the very thing that led to her death. From here, we can deduce that Rhaenyra doesn’t want to get married and have children in fear that she will meet a similar end as her mother’s.
Viserys is then introduced to a fresh, new problem at hand during a meeting of his small council. Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) retells how Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) is planning to marry off his daughter to the son of the Sealord of Braavos. If successful to do so, this would position house Velaryon in favor with the Free Cities, potentially making them even more rich and powerful than they already are. This ain’t all, though, as this would mean Viserys would be forced to do the same with his own daughter, which would be the last thing Rhaenyra would want to be, a pawn in her father’s political gains.
Come night time, Rhaenyra retreats to her chambers that are being guarded by Ser Criston Cole. Once inside her room, the Princess is treated to a bag containing a disguise and a map of the Red Keep’s secret passage in order to help Rhaenyra escape to the outskirts of the castle. Outside, Daemon is waiting for her as they embark on a sort of a late night field trip. He allows her to drink alcohol in his presence and takes her to see a play satirizing the question of Viserys’ succession. Rhaenyra, although aware of the doubts the lords and ladies of the realm hold against her, doesn’t seem to be fully aware of what the common folk might think of her becoming Queen. That is until now, when Daemon challenges her to think outside the box and question what her people want from her, so she could one day please them once she sits on the Iron Throne. Daemon is often called power hungry, but for someone who is allegedly all about himself he sure does give decent advice to his family members. First Viserys in regards to Otto’s ambitions in episode 1, and now to Rhaenyra as he is seeking to make her care for the people she will one day rule over.
Things do go beyond a rebellious night for the Princess, as her uncle takes her to a brothel where we soon discover he plans to take her virginity in. One of my favorite aspects of episode 4, and the series as a whole, is how Rhaenyra’s storyline parallels Alicent’s. On one hand, we have the Princess who so desperately wants to gain control over her life, body and mind. This is quite clear to us when she begins to get a little too comfortable with Daemon, so far as taking charge over their sexual encounter, to the point that she drives her uncle away because he is umcomfortable that he isn’t the one in control, and because he knows what he is doing is wrong and just a way to get back at his brother for disinheriting him. In contrast, we have Alicent, who is stuck in a marriage she isn’t fully invested in. Her inner struggles are visualized when Viserys calls for her to join him in bed, so they can have sex, but Alicent’s disinterest is evident as she carries a cold face throughout the act. These are two women who couldn’t be in more polar opposite situations. Rhaenyra is secretly exploring her sexuality, as Alicent is forced to do her “duty.”
With Daemon backing down at the very last minute, Rhaenyra runs back to the Red Keep. For one reason or another, she doesn’t go back through the secret passages, and instead reenters her chamber through the main door where Ser Criston Cole is taking guard. He is surprised to see her, but Rhaenyra takes command of the situation once more and steals Criston’s helmet as she dares him to get it back from her. After running back and forth around the room, Rhaenyra kisses her loyal guard and they engage to finish what Daemon had originally started, but couldn’t proceed with his plan.
That same night, one of Otto’s spies informs him of having seen the Princess leaving the brothel shortly after her uncle. Almost immediately a plan starts sparking in Otto’s head: use this scandal as a way to persuade the King to exile his brother once more and change his succession to Aegon II, Alicent’s baby son. In the next morning, Otto proceeds with his plan. He tells Viserys about his daughter’s late night whereabouts, which the King doesn’t want to believe initially. During this encounter, Alicent is spotted hiding so she won’t be discovered eavesdropping. Perhaps for the first time ever, the dragon within Viserys is woken by the scandalous rumors about his brother and daughter.
Meanwhile, Daemon is being tended to by Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), as he is going through a tremendous hangover. He eventually goes back to the Red Keep, but is stopped by Ser Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish), as he commands his men of the Kingsguard to take the Prince to see his brother. In the throne room, Viserys confronts Daemon about his intentions with Rhaenyra. Weirdly enough, Daemon makes it seem as if he did actually had sex with his niece, when in fact he did not. This leads the King to exile his brother once more, but not before Daemon asks for Rhaenyra’s hand in marriage, so he could one day help her rule the Seven Kingdoms. Viserys sees through him, though, as he points out how he doesn’t care about Rhaenyra romantically, but as a way to get to the Iron Throne.
In the meantime, Alicent confronts Rhaenyra at the Godswood about what actually went down the night before. Through half truths and several lies, Rhaenyra manages to convince Alicent that nothing happened between her and Daemon. And although they didn’t cross the line and have sex, they still fooled around in the brothel, which she isn’t honest about. It is here where Rhaenyra realizes Otto has had people following her, as Alicent accidentally acknowledges that her father gathered this information through “reliable sources.”
In episode 4 ’s final scenes, Viserys has a heart-to-heart with his daughter about duty by using Aegon the Conqueror’s dagger, which has his “Song of Ice & Fire” prophecy engraved in. He urges her that in order to be a good ruler and do her duties, she needs to put aside her desires, that includes whom she wants to be intimate with. Tired of waiting for her to make a firm decision, he informs Rhaenyra that she will be marrying the son of The Sea Snake, Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nates), in an effort to unite the two most powerful houses in Westeros. Rhaenyra agrees to right the wrong her father created by not marrying Corlys’ daughter, but she asks for something in return: free Otto from his duties as Hand of the King after what he pulled on Rhaenyra, nearly destroying her reputation with such rumor.
Otto Hightower is called to meet with the King in private, with Viserys seeking to uphold his end of the bargain. He thanks his loyal Hand for his service to the realm, but informs him that his council won’t be required anymore. Here, Viserys makes what is arguably his wisest decision yet: he calls out Otto for his subtle manipulations, for tearing his family apart, for pushing his daughter Alicent into his lap when he was grieving the death of his wife, and for his ambitions distracting him from doing what’s best for the Seven Kingdoms. Rhaenyra might have won this round, but she doesn’t totally earn her father’s trust, as is evident when Viserys sends Grand Maester Mellos (David Horovitch) with a tea that will help the Princess get rid of any unwanted incidents following the brothel rumors.
One thing episode 4 helped me realize, or maybe I already knew it in the back of my mind but was blind to it, is that “Fire & Blood” is written from the perspective of people who were loyalists to the Hightowers (aka the Maesters of Oldtown). George R.R. Martin purposely makes characters like Daemon and Rhaenyra as dislikable and untrustworthy as they are from time to time, which is great because it’s a way for Martin to let us know that we shouldn’t trust what’s on the page. Of course Oldtown would benefit from making Daemon the villain in this scenario, and I love how the show is painting a much more human version where Daemon backs down because he knows he is in the wrong. He is using Rhaenyra to hurt his brother, which deep down Daemon isn’t capable of doing. At least not on purpose.
An aspect of Game of Thrones that certainly made the series feel more mean-spirited is its approach to nudity, sex scenes, and how women are exploited. Most episodes of the show were directed by men, so this doesn’t come across as a surprise. You can instantly see the difference with House of the Dragon, as you can tell that there are actual women behind the camera making creative and realistic choices. Director Clare Kilner’s intimate scenes aren’t used as weird methods to throw exposition, or to showcase how women are abused, but they are here to be exactly that: intimate. Its approach to sexuality is far more honest, as it portrays men and women as equals and what happens in a relationship where there isn’t a balance. Rhaenyra being in control of her body, while Alicent isn’t, is a great example of this. To add on this subject, the Daemon and Rhaenyra scandal, as much as I love our beloved Rogue Prince, is a great precedent of how men (both in medieval times and now) can get away with anything while women have to suffer the true consequences of their actions. Daemon will walk away unhurt by his actions, and Rhaenyra has to fight the allegations to protect her integrity.
I quite adored the changes from the book that were made in episode 4 as well. In “Fire & Blood,” it is written that Rhaenyra used to have a crush on Ser Criston Cole, but either he rejected her or she rejected him when one of them tried to seduce the other. Regardless of who was correct, Daemon enters the picture to comfort her and show her how to please a man. In the HBO series, the roles are reversed and Daemon is the one who rejects Rhaenyra, only for Cole to comfort her. Rhaenyra and Cole sharing an intimate moment will only make their relationship more complicated in the future. I feel by changing this around, Ser Criston Cole actually has motivations to do the things he does later on in the story. It makes the character richer and feel more alive.
What can we expect moving forward? Well, we can expect an angered and more power hungry Otto. I found it ironic how he and other small council members called Corlys a prideful man, when Otto is just as prideful, if not more. And it is Otto’s pride that helps start the war we will see play out down the line. If he would have kept his mouth shut about the succession, Rhaenyra would have never been named heir and his grandson would be the obvious choice to succeed Viserys. It’s this kind of character flaws and political intrigue that makes the audience as engaged as we are with the show.
Next week’s episode will mark the end of Alcock and Carey’s journeys as the younger version of these wonderful characters. I am sure we will be talking about them in the not so distant future, but for now I can’t help but dread saying goodbye to such great performers.
Episode 4 of House of the Dragon is now available to watch on HBO Max. Find out why you should be excited for House of the Dragon and come back next week for our next review of the series.