House of the Dragon Episode 4 Review: Oh no, incest

At the end of the day, House of the Dragon it’s a family show. Not in the sense that it’s “safe for the whole family,” of course — but it is, more than anything, about a family, and how the force begins to distort it beyond recognition. After last week’s big spectacle and the politicization of previous episodes across the kingdom, House of the Dragon it slows down and narrows its focus to the three Targaryens at the center of its grand story and the people closest to them. And given the time to watch them up close, the series makes it clear that they’re all unprepared for how quickly things are changing, and it’s changing them in alarming ways.

House of the Dragon he’s got a lot of ground to cover, so it’s a little surprising that he’s able to devote almost an entire episode to what is essentially a walkthrough. After Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) spends a day doing her least favorite activity – courting an endless stream of suitors from across Westeros – her uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) returns bearing a crown for his exploits against the Crabfeeder at the Stepstones .

It’s a provocative entrance for a man who absolutely loves drama, but it’s also a pretense. Daemon makes a show of bowing to his brother, Viserys (Paddy Considine), who welcomes the awkward Targaryen home with open arms. This sets the stage for most of the episode, when later that night, Daemon sneaks a set of civilian clothes to Rhaenyra so they can go on an adventure through the noisier streets of King’s Landing. Together the pair wander through a mass of humanity where street performers, vendors and sex workers ply their trades, and what begins as a thrill-seeking fun takes a dark and strange turn when Daemon leads Rhaenyra to a brothel and the the two almost have sex before Daemon, at the last minute, leaves in what looks like frustration.

It is from this scandalous moment that House of the Dragon is finally starting to bring to the fore the compelling fucking family dynamic it has quietly created. The first is, obviously, Daemon and Rhaenyra, a couple who have loved each other from the start, even though they are also rivals for the succession. Rhaenyra’s side of the equation is simple: She’s someone who’s come as close to escaping her life as a woman in a medieval society as the named heir to Viserys, but she’s constantly in danger of being taken. She’s also a teenager, desperate to assert her will and fulfill her desires – something she can’t do as a princess.

Daemon Targaryen sits back with a glass of wine, just relaxed

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Daemon is a bit more complicated, but not terribly so. he is wildly selfish, but also too cowardly to fully get what he wants. This makes him hard to read definitively: Does he really have romantic feelings for Rhaenyra? (Probably not, although his sympathy is probably genuine.) Was it his ultimate goal to seduce her, had he seen her in a brothel (mission accomplished), or was he just organically taking her to where he spends his days? Is he manipulative or just pathetic? The power dynamics are clear, the motivations less so.

Later, when Viserys gets word of what happened between the two of them, Daemon makes a Hail Mary that may or may not have been the goal all along: Asking for Rhaenyra’s hand in marriage. The enraged king refuses him and the two are once again on the outs.

Every relationship, it turns out, turns on this one night. Alicent’s (Emily Carey) friendship with Rhaenyra — so far one of them House of the DragonHer most exciting and untapped potential, now being Rhaenyra’s stepmom and all — she tries unsuccessfully to get Rhaenyra to fall in line like her, get married, and stop courting scandal at every turn. Her father Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) subsequently loses his job as Hand of the King shortly after informing Viserys of the scandal. This is not because the king shoots the messenger (at least not completely), but because Viserys is finally starting to see that maybe falling for Alicent was a manipulation, that the loveless nights with his new queen are the product of political games. .

Alicent and Rhaenyra confront each other in the garden.  It's very tense.

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

This is what happens when you’re on top of the world, sitting on the coveted throne: Friendship is suspect, but so is family. In Westeros, however, family is how power is built and maintained, and it must be forged with intent. This is the paradox each character must wrestle with: Family as a way to fulfill human need and family as a way to secure power. Reconciling the two, it seems, can always be in conflict.

All of these are less impressive than a dragon climbing into a beach fight, but they’re just as tense, because that’s why these fights material. It is worth repeating as opposed to Game of Thrones, this show is set in a time where people have dragons. It’s about the machinations of nuclear power, and no one, no matter how powerful, wants to fight someone who can burn the earth around them, win, lose or draw. So you fight must to be fought elsewhere: in brothels and bedrooms and very dry meetings. Relationships are reduced to tools and proxy warfare – which makes them increasingly unstable and in a family conflict that much more dire.

It stands to reason that this conflict, if allowed to fester long enough, could engulf the world in war.

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