House of the Dragon S2E2 Recap: Too Many Empty Seats

“Rhaenyra the Cruel”

King Aegon reacts to the news of his son's death in House of the Dragon S2E2
Photograph by Theo Whiteman/HBO

The following recap contains spoilers for House of the Dragon S2E2, “Rhaenyra the Cruel” (written by Sara Hess and directed by Clare Kilner)

One of the justifiable concerns and complaints about Season 1 of House of the Dragon was the disorienting time jumps, character aging, actor swaps (while some stayed the same), and racing through the plot. In 10 episodes, the first season covered roughly 30 years of Westerosi history, which involved deaths, births, marriages, and more than one set of twins just to throw in an extra measure of confusion.

Compared to the slowly-paced first two episodes of Season 2, the first season seems like an all-out sprint. I can imagine for anyone watching Season 1 for the first time and then moving straight into Season 2, it might feel like when you’re running on a treadmill and then suddenly step off. Your body and mind still feel like they’re moving forward when in reality you’re standing still.

The first season almost served as an 11-hour prologue to get the series where it needed to be for war and the events ahead. The characters we see now should be the ones we have until their deaths or the end of the series (although some characters have not yet been introduced, more on that in the last section). While it can be jarring to compare the pace of these two seasons (Season 2 has covered less than a week so far), the second episode, “Rhaenyra the Cruel,” shows just how masterfully House of the Dragon can use its various characters and themes when it gives them time to breathe.

Alicent and Helaena ride in a funeral procession through King's Landing
Photograph by Theo Whiteman/HBO

Picking up immediately after word spreads of Jaehaerys’ cruel death at the hands of Blood and Cheese at the end of Episode 1, we are able to see the expansive reactions to this horrific news. King Aegon goes into full rage mode, destroying the model of Old Valyria his grandfather seemingly spent his entire reign creating. Alicent descends into the depths of guilt and shame that she was not only “coupling” with Ser Criston Cole while the murder took place, but also that he could have prevented it had he been at his post. Jaehaerys’ mother, Helaena, is simply speechless and in despair at being forced to choose which child would die and having been present when the beheading began.

Always the public relations spin-master, Otto Hightower sees this death as a means of gaining goodwill with the people of King’s Landing and the realm. His plan is to publicly drive a funeral procession around the city so the smallfolk can see the cruelty that Rhaenyra is capable of. Aegon will not be a part of it, but the realm’s most “gentle souls,” Alicent and Helaena, will accompany the body of young Jaehaerys.

Across the bay in Dragonstone, Rhaenyra is dealing with a political nightmare. As the leader of the funeral procession cries out “Rhaenyra the Cruel!” and Rhaenyra the Monstrous!” word spreads through the realm of the death, and that Rhaenyra was behind the atrocity. She demands to know how this all happened, and since Daemon has the world’s worst poker face, his smirk is all Rhaenyra needs to know he was the instigator.

Aegon presides over the small council with Otto, Criston Cole, and Alicent
Photograph by Theo Whiteman/HBO

With the pivot to a slower pace, Ryan Condal and company have time to give the audience an extended, masterful scene where Rhaenyra and Daemon argue about the path forward and whether they can actually trust each other. Rhaenyra says “I cannot trust you, Daemon. I’ve never trusted you, wholly, much though I wished to, willed myself to!” She tells Daemon “You thought ever and only of your own glory!”

In what is meant to be the greatest of insults, Daemon responds that Rhaenyra’s father “was a fool who sought greatness but shrank from spilling blood to achieve it. And I see you will suffer the same fate.” Their falling out ends with Daemon mounting his dragon and heading for Harrenhal, looking to gain allies either with words or with strength.

In King’s Landing, after Blood has been caught with Jaehaerys’ head in a bag and confesses that his accomplice was an unnamed ratcatcher, King Aegon hangs all the city’s ratcatchers and displays them on the castle walls. Otto is furious at this unsanctioned and ill-advised move and believes the deaths will cause a revolt against Aegon. The King, still furious that his heir has been murdered, removes Otto as Hand of the King and installs Criston Cole into the position, saying, “I wish to spill blood, not ink,” in a line taken directly from the Fire & Blood text.

Criston Cole is more than happy to oblige so that he can try and assuage his overwhelming embarrassment that he was in Alicent’s chambers and was thus unable to defend against the attackers. He orders a knight of the Kingsguard, Ser Arryk, to make his way to Dragonstone alone. There, he is ordered to impersonate his twin brother, Ser Erryk, who bent the knee to Rhaenyra and swore to defend her. Ser Arryk is sent to kill her.

Ser Arryk and Ser Erryk battle at Dragonstone
Photograph by Theo Whiteman/HBO

Arryk makes it all the way to Rhaenyra’s private quarters before he is discovered by his brother. The two engage in brutal combat with each professing their deep love for one another before Erryk takes Arryk’s life. After he saves Rhaenyra, Erryk falls on his own sword as absolution for not protecting Rhaenyra and for the shame that his brother is the one who attempted the assassination.

A War Between Dragons

(This weekly section will break down the most crucial part of the episode that impacts the Targaryen civil war.)

Two excellent scenes in this episode provide mirror images of movements that will have long-term ramifications on the war that is ramping up between the various sides of the Targaryen family. We got the best version of Tyrion Lannister’s quote from Season 1 of Game of Thrones: “A wise man once said a true history of the world is a history of great conversations in elegant rooms.” Two conversations (confrontations, really) will define the next steps in this story.

Daemon and Rhaenyra discuss the death and what they must do next.
Photograph by Theo Whiteman/HBO

After we were introduced to the animosity between Daemon Targaryen and Otto Hightower in the very first episode of this series, it was interesting to see them both lose the faith of their respective rulers at almost the same moment. Rhaenyra wants peace and banners to willingly come to her side. What Daemon gave her was bloodshed. What Aegon wants is bloodshed, but Otto’s plan is for funeral processions, PR campaigns, and face time with the common people. The different approaches Daemon and Otto take in this episode get them both exiled, with a extra shot of loss of trust.

I believe we will see Otto follow Alicent’s advice and head to Highgarden next to convince House Tyrell to remain loyal to King Aegon. Their wealth, strategic location, and armies will be key assets for Team Green. Daemon, on the other hand, is much more unpredictable. Untethered from Rhaenyra’s watchful eye, he may resort to any means necessary that either show: a) He is loyal to her and her claim to the throne; or b) He is the one who should be the rightful ruler of Westeros after so much time with Viserys and Rhaenyra passing over him and doubting his intentions.

Even away from Dragonstone and King’s Landing, what Daemon and Otto do next should have massive implications for who is best positioned to win the war when it is turned over to the dragons.

Who Danced Best with Dragons?

(This weekly section will look at who played the game of war the best within the episode.)

Despite being perhaps the biggest scumbag in Westeros, Criston Cole played the Game of Thrones very well and to his advantage in “Rhaenyra the Cruel.” He’s on the back foot from the very beginning after Helaena stumbled in on their pleasure session while a gruesome murder is happening down the hall. But he’s not letting some actual eyewitness testimony dissuade the fact that he is going to swear before the Small Council that he was in bed during the attack. What is truth anyway, am I right? What Helaena saw can just be spun as fake news or one of her crazy visions, can’t it?

Criston Cole and Alicent confront each other in her bedroom in House of the Dragon S2E2
Photograph by Theo Whiteman/HBO

Knowing Cole’s past, he might be very tempted to just shut Helaena’s mouth permanently if she were to try and stand in the way of his commitment to Alicent. We will see if it ever comes to that, but for now Cole is carrying a toxic mixture of guilt and rage inside of him, which forces him to make awful moves in this episode.

Needing some kind of scapegoat and way to make things right with the royal family, Cole confronts Arryk about his whereabouts on the night of the murder. When Arryk says he was guarding Aegon (as he should have been), Cole moves to the next tool in his kit, which is to question Arryk’s loyalty because his brother now is the ward of Rhaenyra. Wanting to both prove his loyalty to Aegon and also follow the direction of his Lord Commander, Arryk agrees to go alone on what is essentially a suicide mission. The trip has deadly results for Arryk but indirectly makes Cole the new Hand of the King. With Aegon wanting blood instead of ink, he screams at Otto, “At least Cole is doing something!” Aegon’s new Hand, he says, “will be a steel fist.”

The Hand will no longer wield quills, but rather weapons. In terms of the new power rankings of the people with the most influence in Westeros, Cole disappointingly is rising to the top.

What is Within the Dragon’s Egg?

(This weekly section will identify some of the plot points or surprises that hatched during the episode.)

  1. The double-sided secret affair that Alicent and Criston are trying to protect is becoming harder and harder to manage. On one hand, Criston Cole proclaimed in front of the whole Small Council that he was in bed when the attack took place and that other guards were responsible. On the other, Helaena saw the two when she fled the children’s room. Alicent attempts to talk to her about it, but Helaena dismisses it. Both Helaena and Alicent are headed to some deep, dark places, but how can Alicent and Criston continue to try and fool everyone when their relationship is becoming more commonly known?
  2. In their final conversation of the episode, Otto refers to Alicent’s son “who will take more kindly to instruction” and “who may yet help us in the weeks to come.” This is a reference to Daeron, who is serving as a squire in Oldtown, but who also possesses a dragon. Daeron is Alicent’s fourth child, who we have not yet seen in the show. This reference to him confirms his existence, ensures we will meet him at some point in Season 3 (according to Condal he does not appear this season), and more equitably tips the balance of which side owns more dragons. Daeron’s dragon Tessarion will play a role in the battles to come.
  3. In one of the series’ few deviations away from the royal families, we spend a scene with Hugh, the blacksmith who asked King Aegon for money in Episode 1 because he was part of the team developing the dragon-killing Scorpion weapons. Aegon promised payment but has not delivered it. Hugh, we learn, has a very sick daughter and he and his wife are struggling to acquire food, medicine, and the necessities they need to keep their daughter alive because of the blockade Rhaenyra set up with Corlys Velaryon and his fleet. In one more example of how House of the Dragon can be more meticulous, careful, and thoughtful with this season, Hugh may become a proxy for the smallfolk and how they respond to a war among different factions of the same family. The common people of the realm may still have a role to play in the inevitable war.

Written by Ryan Kirksey

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