I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we’re going to have to find something else to fill the void on Sunday nights from 9 to 10 p.m. ET next week. The season finale of House of the Dragon is probably the last we’re going to see of the show for about two years, and the wait is going to be especially agonizing given the tragic and enraging note it ended on.
We begin where we left off last week, as the Hightowers usurp the throne from Rhaenyra and crown her rapist half-brother—who doesn’t even want to rule!—king. Rhaenyra’s shock and rage at this development spiral out into a series of personal tragedies for her, starting with what appears to be a hellish stillbirth. (I get that they wanted to personalize Rhaenyra’s loss as much as possible, but did the production team really need to subject us to images as graphic as the posters anti-abortion protesters wield outside clinics??) Shortly afterward, even as Rhaenyra and her allies get their ducks in a row—including strategizing with the reanimated Corlys Velaryon to execute a lethal blockade on King’s Landing—the greatest tragedy is delivered at the end of the episode: Rhaenyra’s son Luke is killed in a freak “accident” by Alicent’s son Aemond.
The killing of Rhaenyra’s son, which she learns about in the episode’s final moments, will change everything. Throughout the episode, despite seemingly everything being taken from her, Rhaenyra refuses the advice of Daemon and other men urging her to go to war. After all, where it arguably counts the most, her side has the upper hand, with significantly more dragons than Alicent and co. Yet Rhaenyra remembers Viserys’s warning that dragons going to war with dragons would inevitably destroy the realm, which she’s determined to guard and protect rather than destroy for personal ambition. (She is, after all, the only living person to know the song of ice and fire—the prophecy that a great evil will strike from the north, and it’s the Targaryens’ duty to protect the realm.)
Rhaenyra seems further convinced by Otto Hightower’s gentle manipulation, appealing to the love that Rhaenyra and Alicent once had for each other in the hopes that it will avert war. He even produces a page torn from a book that Rhaenyra had given to Alicent in their childhood. If war has to happen, Rhaenyra determines, she won’t be the one to start it.
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There’s a throughline in all of this. In last week’s episode, Alicent fought her father tooth-and-nail to get control of Aegon and prevent Otto from killing Rhaenyra and her heirs. Rhaenys—even as Alicent and her family had committed the highest treason—refused to compel her dragon to kill Aegon on the spot. “A war is likely to be fought over this treachery, to be sure,” she concedes this week, “but that war is not mine to begin.”
The message here seems to be that women are innately superior rulers; they’re the only ones with the good sense and compassion to do everything they can to avoid war and bloodshed. And in an interesting reversal of roles, they hold all the power: Alicent holds Aegon over her father; Rhaenys could have wiped out the Hightowers with a single word; Rhaenyra holds the fate of the realm in her hands. For perhaps the first time in Westeros, women are in charge, and unlike men, in Rhaenyra’s own words to Daemon, they refuse to govern on the basis of anger and vengeance.
There’s a part of all of this that’s undeniably very cool: The show’s predecessor made a point of disempowering women or frequently making them cruel and stupid, a la Cersei, with every opportunity they had. But at the same time, is all of this rooted in paternalistic gender essentialism—women, the “fairer sex,” are gentle, and men are violent and bestial? Isn’t this show, at its core, a competition for most badass war criminal, between Alicent paying off her son’s rape victim and Daemon and Rhaenyra killing a random man to let Laenor Velaryon live his best life—and mostly to consolidate power for themselves?
I am morbidly curious to see what a vengeance-driven, ready-to-commit-war-crimes Rhaenyra will look like. She didn’t want to be the one to start the war, and because of Aemond’s utter lack of control of his enormous, geriatric dragon Vhagar, she doesn’t have to be! If you think she’s going to take the murder of her precious son lying down, just remember what happened immediately after Rhaenyra’s descendant, Daenerys, made this identical face in Game of Thrones season 8.
I’m sad to see Luke go; he was a brave little guy, loyal to his mother until the bitter end. And I’m even sadder to go without a new House of the Dragon episode for two years. I’ll be the first to admit I had reservations about the show at first, but the raw talent and charisma of actors like Matt Smith and Emma D’Arcy made it impossible to resist. Compared with its predecessor, HotD’s smaller, more intimate cast and prioritization of character development, strategy, and meaningful interactions over endless sequences of limbs being chopped and women getting raped has already made it infinitely more enjoyable to me than GoT—however hot a take that may be.
See you in 2024.