House of the Dragon Letter Reviews: Episode 5

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<i>House of the Dragon</i> Letter Reviews: Episode 5

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review House of the Dragon each week in a series of letters.

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Josh,

Let’s get right into it with the murder of Rhea Royce by the coward Daemon Targaryen. Did he spook the horse on purpose? Did she just get scared and spook the horse herself when she realized that Daemon’s alternative to killing Rhaenyra was to marry her, and that in order to marry her, she had to die first? Did he know exactly how she would get injured if he indeed intended to spook the horse, and did he think nobody in the Vale would suspect him, the bad husband who never consummated his marriage and clearly didn’t like his wife? Was the segue from him about to bash her brains in with the rock to the fish head being chopped off perhaps TOO subtle?

It may not surprise you to know, Josh, that this isn’t how GRRM wrote it. In his histories, Rhea Royce did perish by falling off a horse (after nine days of illness), but Daemon was nowhere to be found. He returned immediately upon hearing of her death, though, and tried to claim all the wealth of House Royce for himself.

I say all this not to be a nitpicker, or to make the argument that every plot point in the show must follow the text exactly, but…doesn’t GRRM’s version just feel more real? And didn’t the TV version just feel forced and strange and mostly inexplicable? And the most he ever has to answer for his fairly obvious crime is later, at the wedding, from a guy who gives up almost as soon as he makes the accusation?

I guess my point is that I think this week’s episode was probably the weakest we’ve seen yet in the sense that nothing really made a ton of sense, right down to that bizarre wedding scene when Criston Cole loses his s*** when Laenor Velaryon’s lover (not going to bother to learn his name, poor fellow) basically just says “you keep sleeping with your royal and I’ll keep sleeping with mine.” Following the bludgeoning, though, comes the weirdest and maybe funniest moment of all, when they decide to go ahead with the wedding, the groom bleeding, in the blood-splattered rodent-infested hall with food everywhere. Not only that, but there’s a near-suicide scene with Criston Cole by the Weirwood that is played for all the world like it’s happening simultaneously, and then Alicent is in both scenes.

It just seems…not great. But I will say, on the positive side, I still kind of enjoyed watching this episode despite the plot and good sense seeming to fall apart at times. The marriage scene was intense, for all its nonsensical component parts, and there was something very interesting about watching Viserys’ continued descent into ill health. The best scene of the whole episode, for me, came on this very topic, when Otto Hightower gave his daughter one last schooling before heading off into semi-exile. “He’ll not live to be an old man,” he says of Viserys, then lays out exactly how things will play out once Rhaenyra becomes queen, from Westeros challenging her rule to the point when she’s forced to murder Alicent’s children in order to secure her place.

This is a great transition moment for Alicent, who knows her father is right and knows that the last remnants of her childhood are gone, leaving her with nothing but tough choices and a bitter kind of realism to guide her. I’ll miss Otto!

We also became more familiar with Larys Strong in this episode, aka “The Clubfoot” (per GRRM’s writings), who emerged as a sort of Petyr Baelish analogue, and a strategist to be reckoned with. This sort of schemer character is, I think, a welcome arrival in King’s Landing, because frankly there are only so many Targaryens we can tolerate here before we need an outsider to shake things up. And it’s no coincidence, I imagine, that he finds himself alone with Alicent at the very moment that her father leaves town. Here we see the budding of what could be an important alliance.

The slowest part of the episode, though, was all the drama on Driftmark with House Velaryon giving Viserys a terribly cold reception, considering they’re about to get what they always wanted, and then a lot of discussion of names. Didn’t do it for me.

So all in all, Josh, this felt like a semi-compelling episode with some intriguing new developments, while at the same time, somehow, being a complete and total mess. Contradictory, but I stand by it. What did you think?

—Shane

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Shane,

I think this was the most successful episode yet in making me hate all the characters a little more, with the possible exception of Rhaenyra, who thought she had maneuvered her fate quite nicely in a way that I couldn’t really begrudge her. But who knew that Ser Criston was suffering from debilitating guilt for breaking his vow of celibacy that could only be fixed by breaking all the rest of his vows? Or that Daemon really was just an uncomplicated psychopath? Or that Alicent would feel betrayed by a lie that should have also made her think her father’s spy was lying and that Rhaenyra was mostly telling the truth?

Yes, I agree, this was the weakest episode yet. And to learn that they’ve taken what was a believable turn of events in the Vale—a horse-riding accident—and turned it into uxorcide (yes, I had to look what murdering one’s wife is called), tells me that the writers didn’t learn anything from our reaction to Evil Daenerys. Not that Daemon has been super likeable, but arcs like Jaime Lannister’s redemption are what made Game of Thrones compelling. Watching a bunch of royals and their sworn protectors act like idiots isn’t as entertaining.

And thank you for bringing up the weird flashback of Ser Criston during the wedding. All I could think of is, “Why is he still alive?” And, “Why isn’t the Queen at the wedding?” And “Oh, she is at the wedding so I guess this is a weird flashback.” Those are not the thoughts you want to be having when you’re just asking to be swept up in a fantasy world of dragons and political intrigue.

So yes, I’m glad that Clubfoot Larys has some Littlefinger/Varys vibes going on, though I can’t imagine who he’d even have to match wits with in this bunch. The moral to the story seems to be that the King should have sucked it up, been a creep and married a 12-year-old, and everyone would have been happier.

You’ve mentioned a few differences between the book and the show—all of which have made it seem like the book would be more enjoyable. Anything you can point out that the show is getting right that might help me appreciate what I’m watching more? Or any other big differences that are bugging you?

—Josh

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Josh,

There are no other really big differences that are bugging me, and frankly no differences at all would bug me if they were done for the right reasons and without forcing silly plot points down our throats, a la Daemon in his Star Wars cloak using the force to murder his wife and nobody seeming to notice. As far as things the show gets right, I do think there were a few in this episode, like the neat wedding entrance scene with Alicent dressed in green as a symbol of Hightower wrath, the whole conversation with her dad, and the performances of Considine, Emily Carey, and Milly Aycock generally. With the way Viserys’ health is fading, it seems likely we’ll lose Considine before too long, and he’s been an absolute rock, and Carey and Aycock were tremendous casting choices for young Alicent and Rhaenyra…both of whom we’re losing immediately.

So even the “compliments” I muster, apparently, are laced with negativity, because the show will likely encounter some difficulty keeping itself upright while losing two of its best performers next week and the third by (you’d think) the end of the season at the latest. The looming question is whether we the viewers will be able to really care about the dance of dragons when the king who has anchored the drama is no longer around, and when we have to forge relationships with two totally new actors…if not characters. One thing Game of Thrones had going for it is that the story took place in such a limited time span that the aging of the actors was just fine; HotD doesn’t have this luxury at the start, though it likely will going forward, when the action starts to get compressed into shorter stretches.

Which leads me to a point we’ve at least hinted at before, which is this: Can we enjoy this show as a sort of flawed bonus entry into the ASOIAF universe, knowing it will never reach the dizzying heights of its HBO predecessor? After I wrote the first email above, I went to a few different Reddit pages to see how the hardcore fans were liking it, and was surprised to see that what criticism existed was mostly mild, and they were pretty much all in on new episodes. I think this is what distinguishes a true believer fantasy fan from someone like me, and maybe you; any new content to them is like manna, and they’re more geared to see the positives. Whereas I’m not really a fantasy guy, I liked GoT because of its amazing plotting and story, and what I see now just looks like an occasionally enjoyable drama with serious flaws that, were I watching it for the first time, probably wouldn’t capture me for very long.

Although there is another way to look at that, and in fact it’s a fascinating question to me—is there a chance that HotD could actually seem better to us if we’d never seen GoT? On one hand, sure, it obviously benefits from the association with GoT and the world it built, and captures our attention and has a little room to maneuver based on those reasons. On the other, there’s a really high standard in our minds from the first show that might actually make things tougher for HotD. What if our sense of “we’ve seen this before, but better” actually hinders us from appreciating the good parts of HotD?

I’m certainly not saying this is true, but it’s an intriguing question to me…and one that’s hard to answer, since we can’t Eternal Sunshine our memories of GoT. In any case, I’m curious to see what you think Josh, and also in general just get your appetite for how you feel about committing your time to this show over the next five week.

Finally, there’s one last scene I want to talk about, and it was a good one: Criston Cole trying to convince Rhaenyra to run away from him and leave the impending drama behind. It feels like he’s one of the few characters who really gets the mess they’re all in, and I saw this as her once chance for true freedom. She had to give it up, of course, but I did like that they included this scene; a chance to give us a glimpse, albeit brief, of a world in which Rhaenyra wasn’t chained to her family and her fate. It made me feel real pity for her.

—Shane

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Shane,

Our collective relationship with Game of Thrones and how it affects enjoyment of House of Dragons is indeed hard to unravel. Through those first six seasons, it was the show I most looked forward to. And even with its disappointing final stretch, there were amazing scenes—ranging from quiet discussions between two iconic characters to battles so epic each episode felt like a movie. But at the same time House of the Dragon faces an uphill battle to reach those highs, it also benefits from eight seasons of world building.

When we meet Jason Lannister, we already know all about his family tree, about the wealth of the Lannisters and the opulence of Casterly Rock. When Ser Criston talks about sailing away to Essos, we immediately can picture what life would be like there unburdened by Westeros tradition. And when we see Alicent stop the king in his tracks as she walks in with her green dress and hear that green calls Hightower banners to war, we know that Oldtown, the most ancient and biggest city in the Seven Kingdoms, stands with her.

I think that’s a bigger advantage than it is disadvantage of the show, and one of the reasons I’ve mostly enjoyed it so far. It does feel like bonus content, but it still can frustrate. And yet I still want it to succeed on its own terms.

So to end on a more positive note, even if I’m annoyed at what feels like sloppy character motivation, this still feels like event television—something that’s worth breaking down with you each week. And yes, that scene where Ser Criston tries to convince Rhaenyra to run away together was a highlight. Imagining the princess, like her future kinswoman Daenerys, having adventures in the Free Cities offered a glimpse into what she was passing up—whether out of duty or a hunger for power. And this was also the week where Alicent came into her own in a stunningly dramatic fashion.

So here’s hoping the show can also come into its own as we enter the second half the season with back-to-back episodes directed by Miguel Sapochnik.

Until then…

—Josh

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Follow Shane Ryan and Paste founder/editor Josh Jackson on Twitter.