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'House of the Dragon' episode 6: From here to paternity

Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Ser Criston (Fabien Frankel) discuss country matters.
HBO
Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Ser Criston (Fabien Frankel) discuss country matters.

This recap of House of the Dragon's sixth episode contains spoilers for ... well, for House of the Dragon's sixth episode. That's pretty much what a recap is. Proceed accordingly.

If you're just joining us, here are recaps of episodes one, two, three, four and five.

That wind you felt whooshing past your face as this episode opened is 10 years of story time, in which developments big (a whole new generation of privileged aristocratic jerks have arrived!) and small (Larys is keepin' on creepin' on) have come to pass. Daemon is still smirking his way through life, though he seems to have softened a bit, now that he's a family man, while Rhaenyra and especially Alicent have hardened — or at least, grown more resolved. Distilled, in a way.

Would it have been nice to see that process happen? To spend more time with Rhaenyra and Alicent as they found their new level, had their first kids? Maybe. There's certainly a sense that both of them have shifted from focusing on themselves and their respective stations to worrying about their kids. It makes sense, given how precarious the situations they've put themselves in remain; worry is the price of power. But I can't help feeling we've been denied the chance to see them grow into adults in their own right, instead of solely in relation to the men in their lives.

It's astounding; time is fleeting

Open on: Princess Rhaenyra's bedchamber. She's having her third kid. All boys. First there was Jacaerys (he goes by Jayce). Then there was Lucerys (he goes by Luke). Now comes li'l Joffrey (he goes by Braden). (Kidding! He's Joff. It's just funny how George R.R. Martin's high-fantasy monikers always seem to get turned into names you'd find on a varsity-lacrosse team roster. Welcome, Ser Cody! To arms, Ser Eli! Lord Zeke, hail!)

All three of Rhaenyra's kids have brown hair, which is notable because both Rhaenyra and her husband Laenor sport the platinum wigs, er, hair that testifies to their Old Valyrian bloodlines.

Also notable: Family friend Harwin Strong, captain of the City Watch, is a burly brown bear of a man who hangs around Rhaenyra and her kids a tremendous lot, trading long, smoldering (foreshadowing!) looks with her.

Laenor doesn't seem to mind, as he's preoccupied with his new horseplay-twink Ser Qarl Correy, and with being a hilariously lousy husband when Queen Alicent requests (read: demands) to see Rhaenyra's newest kid moments after he's born. "Was it ... terribly painful?" Laenor asks of the birth, which in his mind likely counts as empathy. (Actor John MacMillan is having a ball as the vain, feckless Laenor, who isn't the kind of character who tends to hang around long in brutal Westeros; enjoy this performance while you can, because I sure am.)

Such a ... strong resemblance: Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy) and Ser Laenor (John MacMillan) present "their" baby to the queen.
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HBO
Such a ... strong resemblance: Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy) and Ser Laenor (John MacMillan) present "their" baby to the queen.

It's a long, painful walk up a crowded staircase to deliver the kid to the king and queen — in a receiving room decorated with tapestries that, I'm happy to report, do not feature any genitalia at all.

Adult Alicent is one shaaaaady queen, greeting Rhaenyra with feigned surprise to see her, then calling everyone's attention to Laenor's decision to name the kid Joffrey (after his pummeled-into-puree first love, the Knight of Kisses) and finally remarking to Laenor that if he keeps trying, he'll eventually get a kid who looks like him. I know drag queens who couldn't work in three such sick burns in so short a time.

A couple other things to note in this scene: Ser Criston Cole isn't rotting in jail for the very public murder of Joffrey last episode; in fact, he's been promoted to the queen's personal guard. This bugs me more than it does any of the characters — including Laenor, mystifyingly enough — so I guess I have to let it go.

Also: the king's health is failing. All those Iron Throne cuts have led to the amputation of his left forearm, he's taken on a shuffling gait and a gray pallor Also his hairline has retreated; it's currently holding at "Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror" status.

The kids are all wrong

Cut to: The Dragonpit, where Jayce and Luke, along with Aegon and Aemond Targaryen, the platinum-tressed sons of Alicent and the king, are LARPing How to Train Your Dragon.

Specifically, young Jayce is learning to control his dragon. Welcome to the stage: Vermax! The show's fifth dragon! (Aegon's dragon Sunfyre gets a passing mention, but you know the rules: We don't count our dragons until we actually see them in the scaly flesh.)

There's meant to be some tension, here, as Jayce should be carrying the dragonriding gene on both his X (Targaryen) and Y (Velaryon) chromosomes; but his father's a Strong. Turns out, however, that mom's blood is good enough, and Jaecerys manages to get Vermax to make himself roast mutton for dinner.

Jayce, Luke and Aegon play a prank on glum Aemond, who does not yet have a dragon of his own. They...dress up a pig. No, it's not a particularly good prank, but it succeeds in sending young Aemond down into the bowels of the Dragonpit, where he's confronted by a dragon (sorry; couldn't tell which one — let me know if you could) who nearly immolates him.

Alicent listens as her daughter Helaena nerds out over some bugs; the queen is clearly bored silly. She has the look on her face my mom would get whenever I'd excitedly start explaining the difference between Sindar and Noldor elves to her. But as they're setting up Helaena as dreamy and prophetical, we should perhaps take note of what she whispers to herself as Alicent berates Aemond for going down into the Dragonpit, and assures him he'll get a dragon one day. Namely: "The last ring has no legs at all," and "He'll have to close an eye." Clip and save for your records.

Helaena (Evie Allen) says creepy things while holding creepy things as the queen (Olivia Cooke) looks on.
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HBO
Helaena (Evie Allen) says creepy things while holding creepy things as the queen (Olivia Cooke) looks on.

Viserys is working on his models as Alicent complains to him about Jayce and Luke, and wonders aloud why their dragon eggs hatched at all. The king doesn't want to believe that his daughter and heir would step out on her husband, so he tries to pawn Alicent off with a flimsy piece of horse-breeding mansplaining before warning not to repeat her allegation to anyone else.

Cut to: Alicent repeating her allegation to Criston Cole. Who compares Rhaenyra to a spider who "sucks her prey dry" and manages to sound both bitter and wistful as he says it.

"I have to believe that in the end honor and decency will prevail," says Alicent, because she hasn't read these books. (This is the second time the queen has invoked the lofty notion of "decency" — keep that in mind when we see where things stand at the end of the episode.) She mentions their need to "hew" to that ideal, and to each other.

We do not witness them sweatily hewing to each other, however. Not yet, at least. Because lord knows if they were gonna hew, we'd see it. In slow motion.

In a window that looks a lot like the one that, in 300 years' time, King Tommen would tossen himself from, and the one that Queen Cersei would often gaze out while cradling a goblet of wine, we find young Aegon, pleasuring himself. Different strokes.

The queen confronts him about the porcine prank, and has to remind him (and us, in the process) that their family needs to stick together, if they're to survive.

Daemon sits through a timeshare presentation

Cut to: The city of Pentos, across the ocean from King's Landing. Above a mansion on a seaside cliff, two dragons zoom about. There's Daemon Targaryen, astride good ol' familiar Caraxes, and suddenly...there's a giant, wrinkly old geezer of a dragon flying above him.

Welcome to the stage, Vhagar! Ridden by Laena, wife of Daemon!

Now. I said last week that Laena's dragon was a big deal, and here' why. Vhagar was one of the three dragons that the original Targaryen king Aegon I conquered Westeros with, over 100 years prior to the events on this show. She's the oldest, largest and fiercest dragon currently in existence. You might recall the then 12-year-old Laena asking the king about her whereabouts, on their cringey date back in episode two.

So while they don't show us how Laena became her dragonrider, they do make a big thing of it. We see Laena and Daemon using their dragons to flirt with each other mid-air, with a little pyromaniacal foreplay.

Later, at a lavish dinner, the Prince of Pentos offers to let Daemon, Laena and their twin daughters Baela and Rhaena live in the mansion they're now visiting in exchange for defending Pentos with their dragons, should the Triarchy seek to conquer it. (He mentions that the Triarchy have joined with Dorne, the southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms; this will likely become important later.)

Laena hates the idea, and longs to return to her ancestral home on Driftmark. Daemon seriously considers the offer, as he's evidently had his fill of shifting loyalties and endless scheming. He fancies himself a man of action, not words, but he's sorely tempted by the prospect of becoming a man of inaction.

"... the <em>Aristrocrats</em>!" Prince Aegon (Ty Tennant) leaves Ser Criston (Fabien Frankel) unimpressed.
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HBO
"... the Aristrocrats!" Prince Aegon (Ty Tennant) leaves Ser Criston (Fabien Frankel) unimpressed.

Back in King's Landing, Criston Cole is training the royal twerps in sword combat as the increasingly wizened king looks on. Cole favors Aegon and Aemond while treating Jayce and Luke cruelly, which is something their true father Harwin Strong notices, and takes issue with. When Cole not-so-subtly hints at Jacye and Luke's true parentage, Harwin proceeds to give Cole a small taste of the face-punchy medicine Cole gave to Ser Joffrey, years before.

When Rhaenyra learns of this, she avails herself of her bedchamber's secret door to eavesdrop upon Lyonel Strong berating his son for opening himself, and his House, to vile accusations.

Back in her bedchamber, a drunken Laenor stumbles in with Qarl and, after demonstrating an abstract and clinical understanding of female anatomy (get it?), declares that his aim to return to the sea to fight the Triarchy, who have started making trouble in the Stepstones again.

Rhaenyra, knowing exactly how vulnerable Harwin's actions have made her, forbids Laenor from leaving her side. We learn that Laenor knows exactly who the kids' real father is, even though Rhaenyra keeps lying to him. I don't love Rhaenyra's line about how she doesn't want Laenor "waggling his sword and winking at his sailors"— it's a little cheap; I like to think my gal Rhaenyra's classier and more clever than that.

The king could really use a Hand

Back in Pentos, a very pregnant Laena visits her daughter Rhaena, whose dragon egg still hasn't hatched. We get a bit of business about the difference between bonding to a dragon at birth, as Rhaena's twin Baela did, and bonding with one later on in life, as Laena did to Vhagar. We also get a glimpse of Daemon and Laena's relationship, which isn't great — as Daemon has taken to getting drunk and surly and holing himself up in the mansion's library, reading about ancient dragonlords.

"You're better than this," Laena tells him; to Daemon's credit, he seems even less convinced of this than I am.

In King's Landing, at the Small Council, Rhaenyra and Alicent tangle over matters of state, including the fate of the Stepstones, which have been left undefended. It's been 10 years since we sat at this table, and a quick look around reveals that Tyland Lannister is still officious and squirrelly, while old Lord Beesbury is well into his dotage and running on a 10-second Zoom lag.

Rhaenyra acknowledges the strain between herself and Alicent, and offers to marry her son Jaecerys to Alicent's daughter Helaena, uniting their families. The king loves this idea. Alicent does not.

(I confess I have no idea what narrative work the show thinks it's doing by giving Rhaenyra's leaking breasts a whole moment in this scene.)

Ser Lyonel Strong attempts to resign as Hand of the King, but won't come out and say why, where "why" equals "because my son is boning your daughter on the regular and everyone knows it but you." Alicent, cannily, pleads him with him to come out and say it, but he refuses, so the king insists he stay on. Lyonel asks for leave to take Harwin to the seat of House Strong, the massive, haunted, cursed and partly-in-ruins castle called Harrenhal. (We visited it way back in the beginning of episode one — it's where the heir to King Jaeherys was decided.)

Ser Larys (Matthew Needham) just creeps getting better.
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HBO
Ser Larys (Matthew Needham) just creeps getting better.

A frustrated Alicent arrives late to her regular dinner with Ser Larys Strong, who seems to have moved up in the world, and made a position for himself as the Queen's unofficial spymaster, gathering intel on friend and foe alike.

"The truth has many flavors," he tells her, while stuffing his face. Alicent complains that if her father Otto Hightower were still the King's Hand, he'd be able to tell the king the truth about Rhaenyra and get through to him. (This conviction of hers is entirely undercut by the fact that a couple episode back, she overheard Otto trying to convince the king about Rhaenyra and Daemon, and utterly failed to get through to him then.)

Alicent complains of having no one on her side, and that's all Larys needs to hear. He's off to the dungeons to recruit "a murderer, a deviant and a traitor to the crown" — that's three different prisoners, by the way, not one particularly accomplished and versatile bad guy. We get a shot of a symbol on Larys' walking stick, which looks to me like a cicada, maybe?

In exchange for their freedom, they must do a job for him. To ensure their secrecy, he cuts out their tongues. But he follows this up by giving them brooches that match the cicada symbol on his walking stick, so basically his security protocols are just all over the damn map. To say nothing of his symbolism, because cicadas are not exactly known for their stony silence, you know? Famously chatty insects, they. So this whole plan needs a top-down rethink, really. Hire an outside consultant, Larys. Get an objective view, you'll see what I'm talking about.

Burnt-out ends of smoky...minor characters

Back in Pentos, Laena is in labor, and it's going very poorly. Gerardys, the maester of Dragonstone, is looking after her. (The book tell us Daemon flew him in from Dragonstone on Caraxys; Pentos must have a really lousy HMO.) He gives Daemon the same awful choice his brother was given, back in episode one: The child or the mother.

Somehow (and this is by far the least convincing development so far, on a show that features fire-breathing dragons), in the six seconds Daemon and the doc are conversing, Laena manages to get out of bed and leave behind the many attendants who were swarming about her.

So I guess I can't really call them attendants, as they weren't really in attendance. Absentants, maybe.

In great pain, she stumbles out to the dragon...stable? Pen? Roost? The place where Vhagar is resting, anyway.

She commands the wheezy, rheumy old gal to burn her up with dragonbreath. Which she does, eventually, just as Daemon steps outside in time to watch the whole sad business go down.

Back in the Red Keep, Harwin says goodbye to his sons, one of whom — Jayce— realizes the truth.

Rhaenyra tells Laenor that she wishes to leave King's Landing's pit of vipers and live on Dragonstone for good — and that he can bring Qarl along for the ride.

Lyonel and Harwin Strong arrive at Harrenhal, followed closely by Larys's Cicada Taskforce. Who proceed to lock the two lords in their rooms and burn the whole place down.

Rhaenyra and Co. arrive on Dragonstone while Larys gets an extended voiceover about how children are "a weakness, a folly, a futility" and how "love is a downfall," and how a life unencumbered is the life for him. But the guy's such inveterate creep that I've no confidence he's speaking from a position of authority on the subject of relationships, you know? Like, this is not the guy to be giving that particular TED Talk.

RIP  Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr). His looks smoldered, now he does too.
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HBO
RIP Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr). His looks smoldered, now he does too.

A montage of images plays under this speech: Soldiers fishing Lyonel and Harwin's burnt bodies from the rubble, Baela and Rhaena mourning over their mother's burnt skeleton as Daemon (contain your surprise) fails utterly to comfort them; Viserys mourning over the wedding ring of his first wife, Aemma, while a rat scuttles over his fireplace mantel.

As Larys explains that he was simply acting on Alicent's request, and that Otto will now be reinstated as Hand of the King, she makes a show of pretending to be shocked and appalled. Decency, schmecency.

Parting Thoughts:

  • I do like all the nitty-gritty dragon-logistics business we're finally getting here: Training, bonding, their use as in-flight by-proxy foreplay between loving couples. Speaking of:
  • Welcome, Vermax and Vhagar! The official Dragoncount leaps to six! And in the process we get two ends of the draconic life-cycle: Petulant, snot-nosed whelp Vermax, and tired, cranky, over-it old gal Vhagar.
  • One thing to keep in mind: With Laena's death, Vhagar, the largest and fiercest dragon in the world, is now riderless. That's the kind of power vacuum that nature, and Westeros, abhors.
  • Yes, the rats in the Red Keep are a thing. There will be a payoff.
  • In the book, Laena dies shortly after delivering a stillborn son, collapsing as she's making her way to ride Vhagar one last time. Her suicide by dragon here is clearly a deliberate choice on the part of the showrunners, and it does lend her more agency than the book does, but holy cow that's some pretty dark agency, right there.
  • If you were hoping to find, among the next generation of Targaryens and Velaryons, an even vaguely sympathetic character who isn't an airtight argument against the aristocracy, keep looking. Though I guess Helaena's okay, in a moony Luna Lovegood sort of way.
  • The 10-year jump introduces us to Olivia Cooke's adult Alicent and Emma D'Arcy's adult Rhaenyra, and it feels like a jump. This Alicent is a lot less placid and soft-hearted than the one we met over the first five eps — so much so as to seem an entirely different character. Don't get me wrong, I love a character who acts instead of simply reacts, and 10 years in King's Landing no doubt changes a person, but there's some serious narrative whiplash happening, here.
  • Similarly, Emma D'Arcy's Rhaenyra has lost the cool, patrician haughtiness Milly Alcock served up. But then, we do meet her in the throes of labor, which is not a moment in one's life historically marked by impassivity. As the episode progresses, however, and she's continuously set upon by the willful, thoughtless actions of the men around her, we watch her struggling to return to the status she knows she should hold as heir to the Iron Throne. Her decision to leave King's Landing behind reminds us that the only way to win the game she's playing is not to play it at all.
  • The bloody death of Joffrey last week came in for online discussion, as it should have. "Bury your gays" is a dull, incurious, maddeningly persistent narrative trope. But this is not a universe in which any characters can be meaningfully expected to come to blissful ends. The show didn't do an adequate job of setting up Cole's assault on Joffrey, which is one reason it came of as gratuitous as it did; this episode's treating the whole incident with a shrug only compounds that feeling. I get that. But if you're now hoping that somehow Laenor and Qarl will successfully navigate this brutal, savage world unscathed in a way that literally no other couple has, stop watching now.
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    Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.