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House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 recap/review

We recap and review Season 2 Episode 4 of HBO’s House of the Dragon, where the dragons dance and bathe the realm with fire and blood. 

Spoilers below for Season 2 Episode 4 of House of the Dragon and Fire & Blood, obviously.  

Creators: Ryan J. Condal & George R.R. Martin
Number of episodes: 8
Episode 4 Release Date: July 7, 2024
Where to watch: Max

Harrenhal has always been a cursed place. At least that’s what Alys Rivers (Gayle Rankin), the mysterious witch who stalks the castle’s halls, tells Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) when he stumbles upon her in the middle of a sleepless night. According to her, Black Harren, the ironborn king who gave the castle its name, felled a grove of weirwood trees that once grew where the castle now stands.

The whispers of these heart trees, imbued with the spirits of those who lived long before Harren’s time, can apparently still be heard to this day. 

“A midwife’s tale,” Daemon says. 

“The very bed you sleep in was made from such a heart tree. Have you experienced anything…of note?” Alys asks. 

Daemon avoids the question, but we already know the answer. Season 2, Episode 4, “The Red Dragon and the Gold”, opens with Daemon plagued by another vision of young Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock), looking like her teenage self as she sits the Iron Throne and wears her father’s crown. She taunts him, hitting him where it hurts most. “You created me, Daemon. Yet now you are set on destroying me, all because your brother loved me more than he did you.” Daemon cuts off her head to silence her, but Rhaenyra’s decapitated head keeps speaking from the floor as she tells Daemon that this is what he always wanted. 

Daemon is awoken from his nightmare before he can respond; Ser Simon Strong (Simon Russell Beale), castellan of Harrenhal, tells him that a raven has brought news of Ser Criston Cole (Faben Frankel) leading an army across the crownlands, putting supporters of Queen Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) to the sword as they go. He brings Daemon to the main hall, where young Oscar Tully (Archie Barnes), grandson of the sickly Lord Grover Tully and heir to the rule of the riverlands, awaits him. 

Daemon, frustrated at Lord Grover’s infirmity and his own inability to muster an army for his queen, goes so far as to suggest that Oscar put a pillow over his grandsire’s face to speed along his inheritance. When Oscar balks at the suggestion, Daemon says that “House Tully is a fish with no head” and tells Ser Simon to summon the Blackwoods, who at least have proven themselves willing to go to war on Rhaenyra’s behalf.

Milly Alcock and Matt Smith in season 2 episode 4 of House of the Dragon
Milly Alcock and Matt Smith in season 2 episode 4 of House of the Dragon (Ollie Upton/HBO)

On Driftmark, Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) visits Alyn of Hull (Abubakar Salim), the shipwright put in charge of repairing the Sea Snake, the flagship of Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint). She says that she knew that Alyn saved her husband’s life during the fighting in the Stepstones some months earlier, but did not know that “[Corlys’] savior was so comely.” She seems to be scanning every inch of his face, and when Lord Corlys himself approaches and stands next to Alyn, it’s clear why: the two men are nearly the spitting image of one another, making Alyn a likely bastard son of the lord of Driftmark. Rhaenys nearly says as much, telling Corlys that his savior should be rewarded for his service, not hidden away because of a past that is no fault of his own. 

The two of them return to Dragonstone, where Rhaenyra’s small council is growing increasingly restless in her absence. For good reason it would seem, as Criston Cole’s army marches ever closer to their own castles in the crownlands. Cole tells the men of House Darklyn of Duskendale that they will be put to the sword if they do not declare for King Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney); when their lord himself refuses, Cole takes his head, but not before the old man tells him that his own death will come in kind. 

In King’s Landing, Aegon grows increasingly frustrated over his lack of control over his own small council. He is offended when his brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) reveals the plan that he and Ser Criston devised to take Rook’s Rest, an insignificant castle held by one of the lords on Rhaenyra’s small council. Aemond responds in High Valyrian so that only the two of them can understand, chastising his older brother for his focus on inconsequential matters rather than the war at hand. Aegon stutters out a linguistically muddled response, taking notice of his lords averting their eyes from the embarrassing spectacle. 

The king tries to confide in his mother, Dowager Queen Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), about his frustrations, but she has no time for them. “Do you think simply wearing the crown imbues you with wisdom?” She reminds him that the men who sit on his council earned their place, unlike him, and he should be humbly seeking their council and appreciating the sacrifices they made to put him on the throne. 

Since her meeting with Rhaenyra in the sept, Alicent has had to find a way to rationalize her own actions throughout season 2. The realm has descended into civil war because she misinterpreted a dying man’s final words. But, as she tells Lord Larys (Matthew Needham), it no longer matters whether she misinterpreted Viserys (Paddy Considine) or not. “Rhaenyra’s supporters will believe what they wish. So will Aegon’s. The significance of Viserys’ intentions died with him.” 

Alicent, now fully resigned to hand the gods have dealt, tells Aegon that while he will not even be half the king his father was, the best thing that he can do for the realm now is nothing. Aegon’s heartbroken face says it all, and it’s a testament to Glynn-Carney’s talent that he has turned what could be a one-note villain into one of House of the Dragon’s most layered, if not exactly sympathetic, characters. 

Back at Harrenhal, Daemon is beset by further hallucinations. He sees a vision of himself, wearing the clothes and eye patch of his nephew Aemond, walking the halls, when Alys’ sudden appearance snaps him out of it. She appeals to his unspoken frustrations, saying how difficult it must be to swear obeisance to a woman who was once a child that he bounced on his knee.

Matt Smith and Gayle Rankin in season 2 episode 4 of House of the Dragon
Matt Smith and Gayle Rankin in season 2 episode 4 of House of the Dragon (Ollie Upton/HBO)

She gives him a mysterious concoction to help him sleep, which he takes – but suddenly it’s the next day, and a disoriented Daemon now sits across from Simon Strong and Willem Blackwood (Jack Parry-Jones). It takes Daemon a good moment to catch his bearings, as he hallucinates a vision of his deceased second wife Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell), who he married partially because his brother would not let him wed Rhaenyra as he initially wished. 

As Daemon shakes this new apparition off, Lord Blackwood reveals that he is happy to pledge his men to Rhaenyra, having tried to woo her once as a young boy, which we saw in the previous season. House of the Dragon got a lot of flack in its first season for its various time jumps and episodes spent on set-up, but moments like Willem’s inclusion here in season 2 are showing the thought that went into every detail of that table setting, and how rewarding it can now be for attentive viewers. 

Rhaenyra finally returns to Dragonstone, explaining to her small council that she went to King’s Landing to treat with Alicent. Her son and heir Jace (Harry Collett) is particularly angry at this news, saying that she put their entire cause in jeopardy by doing so. Rhaenyra tells him that she needed to know that there was no possible path to peace before committing to war; now, like Alicent, she knows that this war will only end when either she or Aegon is dead. 

Jace insists that they send a dragon to intercept Cole’s army at Rook’s Rest. Rhaenyra agrees, but her council tells her that she cannot risk going, and Jace is too inexperienced in battle. A resigned Rhaenys tells her queen that she must send her and her dragon Meleys, and no one raises a word in objection. 

As both Rhaenys and a drunken King Aegon don their armor and mount their dragons, Rhaenyra calls Jace to her chambers and tells him of The Song of Ice and Fire, Aegon the Conqueror’s dream of a Targaryen ruler leading a united realm against the threat from the north. She tells Jace that they must win this war and unite Westeros, for “the horrors [she has] just loosed cannot be for a crown alone.”

Our attention turns now to the horrors unfolding at the Siege of Rook’s Rest, House of the Dragon’s first full-fledged battle sequence after a handful of skirmishes and duels. Season 2, Episode 4 director Alan Taylor, a Westerosi veteran at this point, does fine work here, even if most of the fight never reaches the visceral heights of the battles featured on House of the Dragon’s predecessor. However, there is one element of this battle that GoT could only boast once, which is dragon-on-dragon combat

As Ser Criston and Gwayne Hightower (Freddie Fox), Alicent’s brother, lay siege to the castle, Meleys appears in the sky, sending most of the attackers fleeing. Cole, however, is nonplussed, telling Gwayne that all is going to plan as he orders signal arrows shot into the air. A series of horns blast out, alerting Prince Aemond, who waits nearby atop the back of his monstrous dragon Vhagar. But just as he is about to take off, Aemond sees Aegon flying overhead on his own dragon, Sunfyre, and holds back. 

Eve Best in season 2 episode 4 of House of the Dragon
Eve Best in season 2 episode 4 of House of the Dragon (Ollie Upton/HBO)

Meleys and Sunfyre meet in the skies above the castle, Rhaenys’ more battle-hardened dragon easily gaining the upper hand. As Aegon struggles to maintain control of his injured dragon, Aemond and Vhagar finally appear – but to the king’s horror, Vhagar hits him with a blast of dragon fire, sending him and Sunfyre crashing into the forest below. It’s a wonderful subversion of expectations that nonetheless feels perfectly in line with Aemond’s character and the relationship between the two brothers.

As Cole rides across the battlefield to save his fallen king, Meleys and Vhagar collide, flame and tooth and claw intertwined in a vicious dance as they tumble towards the earth. Vhagar slams into the battlefield, the shockwave knocking Cole unconscious. Clouds of smoke and dirt obscure the battlefield as Rhaenys flies over searching for Vhagar, when suddenly the great dragon takes her and Meleys unawares. Vhagar’s jaws clamp around the smaller dragon’s throat, and Rhaenys is forced to watch in horror as the life leaves her dragon’s eyes. Vhagar releases her foe, and both rider and dragon alike fall to their deaths. 

So ends the Princess Rhaenys of House Targaryen, the Queen Who Never Was. 

Cole awakens to find himself surrounded by the burnt and broken bodies of his men, and credit must be given to Taylor for crafting some of the most hauntingly beautiful images of House of the Dragon’s season 2 as Cole stumbles his way across the burning battlefield. He comes upon the place where Sunfyre and the king crashed into the woods. Aemond has beaten him there, and for a moment it looks as if he has come to finish the job – but he simply sheaths his sword, seemingly more concerned with Aegon the Conqueror’s fallen dagger than his own brother. 

Cole approaches the broken body of Sunfyre, who is somehow still alive. King Aegon lies on the ground next to his dragon, unmoving. Cole falls to his knees as he surveys the horrific sight of his fallen – but maybe not dead – king. 

While Season 2, Episode 4, “The Red Dragon and the Gold”, ends with a heartbreaking character death that will undoubtedly shift the status quo of the show going forward, in other respects it can feel like the show is stagnating. The spectacle is excellent, but the character beats are starting to fall into recognizable patterns. While it’s fun to see Aemond put Aegon in his place for being an incompetent ruler, it feels like a repetition of a similar beat from a couple episodes ago where Aegon was also embarrassed in front of his lords. Ditto the umpteenth scene of Rhaenyra’s small council imploring her to act and questioning her leadership, which is all they seem to do, apparently. 

House of the Dragon Season 2 episode 5 Preview (Max)

It even feels like possible moments of character were pushed aside to afford runtime to the episode 4’s ending battle sequence; we really couldn’t get one last scene between Rhaenys and Corlys before she flew off to battle? It didn’t need to be something clichéd or treacly where they reaffirm their love for one another no matter what, as that just wouldn’t fit tonally into the world of House of the Dragon. However, their last conversation at the docks ultimately feels so inconsequential that it makes the end of their arc feel unsatisfying, and not in a way that feels purposeful. 

There’s still good to be found here. The first full-out battle between the dragons did not disappoint, and Rhaenys’ death should go down as one of the best in the GoT universe. The expansion of Daemon’s time at Harrenhal, which is given little to no specificity in Fire & Blood, is a great example of how the show has found ways to improve on its source material (even if the young Rhaenyra hallucinations are already starting to feel repetitive). With season 2 halfway over, here’s hoping that as House of the Dragon dives into the spectacle of full-fledged war, it doesn’t forget that the characters and their relationships will always be more fascinating than a dance of dragons.

Season 2 Episode 4 of House of the Dragon, “The Red Dragon and the Gold”, is now available to stream on Max. Read our reviews of Season 1 of House of the Dragon and read our recap & review of episode 5 below!

House of the Dragon season 2 episode 5 recap/review – Loud and Clear
We recap and review Season 2 Episode 5 of HBO’s House of the Dragon, where both sides lick their wounds and knives stab into backs.
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