Tolstoy once wrote that “all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. It is a credo that George RR Martin, author of game of Thrones Series that will be adapted into his novels. And here, in the first episode, where house of the dragon makes a significant leap forward in time, the mantra is as true as ever. This is now the story of three deeply unhappy families.
The first of these families is led by Princess Rhaenyra (now played by Emma D’Arcy), who has just given birth to a child for the third time. Her marriage of convenience to Laenor Velaryon (John Macmillan) has required the reproductive skills of Ser Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr), the Hand’s eldest son. “Healthy?” she asks the midwife when the baby arrives. “Kick like a goat, princess,” the woman replies down to earth.
But the child, the (fake) father and mother are soon taken to Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke) for inspection. “Keep trying, Ser Laenor,” she whispers to the new father. “Sooner or later you might get one that looks like you.” The frost that had settled on the relationship between childhood best friends, Rhaenyra, and Alicent has turned into a deep layer of snow. Which brings us to our second unfortunate family, the King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and his Queen.
Viserys is literally falling apart. His plans for Rhaenyra’s succession are miraculously still in effect, but he is rapidly losing hair, skin, and body parts. He looks like he’s been put through a zombification filter. Despite this, he loves his daughter and chides his young wife for gossip. “The consequences of an allegation like the one you’re toying with would be devastating,” he warns. But bad for whom? If Alicent wants her eldest son Aegon (Ty Tennant, son of David, nepotism fans) to ascend the Iron Throne, she must get Rhaenyra out of the way.
The children do not feel well
The last unfortunate spawn is currently across the strait. Daemon (Matt Smith) has married Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell) and together with their girls they live a wandering life in the free cities. However, both Daemon and Laena long for home: Laena to see her brother and Daemon for the “strong Westerosi wine” (is that some kind of kinky nickname for his niece?). Her daughter Rhaena (Eva Ossei-Gerning) is concerned that her dragon egg still hasn’t hatched; a concern she shares with her, um, cousin (something like that, they’re Targaryens after all) Leo Ashton’s Aemond, who’s being bullied over at King’s Landing by the other royal children for being dragonless.
These children will no doubt play key roles as the series progresses. Rhaenyra’s two brown haired boys appear to be far less Targaryeny than Alicent’s two blonde boys (if you take hair color as a major genetic marker, which is what you do in Westeros). Things are heating up at the training yard (real-life echoes of Winterfell here), if not between the rival kids. Wet flannel ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) is still moping and feeling sorry for himself after Rhaenyra was rejected (“spoiled shit,” he calls her), but goading Harwin Strong about the princes’ lineage results in that his teeth are knocked out . Daddy Strong (Gavin Spokes) realizes that his grown son may have ruined the whole family’s chances of advancement. “His feeble shield alone stands between you and the executioner,” he warns his son of the king, who still denies, “a father’s willful blindness to his child.”
Get strong, get strong
But now, finally, the wheels of the plot rumble into motion. Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) is a key Queen ally and a downright nasty piece of work. He offers some death row inmates a chance to do his bidding in exchange for “mercy” (a grace that involves removing their tongues), and ends up burning his father and brother alive. This creates a power vacuum at headquarters, paving the way for Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) to return.
“We are one house and long before that we were friends,” Rhaenyra tells the queen, trying to finally shovel some of that snow away. She proposes a union between her children, but Alicent doesn’t want it. The forward time leap has left her tired and cynical. “How sweetly the fox speaks when cornered by the dog,” she says to her husband. With court options limited, Rhaenyra makes the decision to pack up her family and bring them to Dragonstone. A dangerous place in exile. “I should have left years ago,” she tells her husband.
Meanwhile, in a scene mirroring the opening, Laena will not survive the birth (if game of Thrones was famous for killing main characters, house of the dragon does a good job introducing her and killing her in the same episode). She sacrifices herself to dragon fire to save her unborn child, in a scene that would have been quite moving had we encountered the character for more than five minutes. But it leaves Daemon alone (and messy) again and another unhappy family.
“What are children but a weakness?” announces the evil voice of Larys in a final monologue. Now, after some scenery and reorientation for the audience, it’s time for politics and war to play out. But which of these uniquely unfortunate families will prevail?
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