Nothing Is Holding Back ‘House of the Dragon’ Now
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Nothing Is Holding Back ‘House of the Dragon’ Now

Spoiler warning

Midway through the fifth season of Game of Thrones, Aemon Targaryen, the centenarian maester at Castle Black, advises Jon Snow to mature in his new role as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.

“Kill the boy, Jon Snow,” Maester Aemon says. “Winter is almost upon us. Kill the boy and let the man be born.” This speech gives the episode its title and sets in motion the series of events that will lead Jon to Hardhome, the site of Thrones’ most spectacular fight scene.

Sunday’s Season 2 premiere of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon twists that stirring sentiment and, in so doing, transforms both its message and the entire story of which it is a part. Queen Helaena Targaryen’s shocked “They killed the boy” is a scarring statement of fact rather than a confident command, the aftermath of trauma rather than the prelude to a glorious battle. It serves as the last line of the episode, fittingly named “A Son for a Son”—leaving viewers to marinate in the nauseating horror they just witnessed for a full week before House of the Dragon’s next episode airs.

Dragon’s Season 2 premiere functions much like Thrones’ pilot episode all the way back in 2011, which mostly introduced viewers to this fictional world and set the scene for further action—only to end with stunning, appalling violence against a child. The difference is that in Thrones, Bran Stark survived his fall out a window and ultimately became king; in Dragon, little Jaehaerys Targaryen, disputed heir to the Iron Throne, most certainly did not survive his beheading at the hands of two hired assassins, which makes this moment—the sort of showstopping scene for which Thrones was revered—even more grotesque.

But first, before the child carnage, Dragon invites viewers back to Westeros with a new intro decked out with Targaryen-themed tapestries and an opening scene set in the familiar, snowy clime of Winterfell and the Wall. As is typical of a season premiere in this franchise, “A Son for a Son” surveys the important players in the realm after the dramatic conclusion of Season 1, when King Viserys died, Aegon II and Rhaenyra received dueling crowns, and the mighty dragon Vhagar, ridden by Aemond One-Eye, killed Lucerys Velaryon and his dragon.

The new season opens with Rhaenyra’s son Jace at the Wall, recruiting military aid—in the form of 2,000 grizzled Northerners—from the Starks. It then zooms through the other key members of Team Black: Rhaenys with her dragon, Meleys the Red Queen; vengeful, fiery Daemon; Corlys with his ships; and Rhaenyra, who’s searching for her dead son’s corpse. The opposing greens are all in King’s Landing, for now: Aegon has taken to sitting the Iron Throne, while Alicent and sworn-to-celibacy Criston Cole have taken to, well, a different sort of sitting.

Civil war is imminent but ostensibly has not yet begun, even though first blood has been drawn. Rhaenyra “needs an army. War is coming,” Jace tells Cregan Stark in the opening scene. Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, Otto Hightower forecasts “eventual fighting,” and Alicent still speaks in conditionals: “If we loose the dragons to war, there will be no calling them back.”

That “if” will surely change to a “when” once all the characters learn what transpired in the darkness of the Red Keep at the end of the episode. Earlier, Rhaenys notes approvingly that Rhaenyra has “not acted on the vengeful impulse that others might have.” But finding Luke’s mangled body on the beach removes that caution; when Rhaenyra returns to Dragonstone, vengeance is the only motive on her mind.

“I want Aemond Targaryen,” Rhaenyra declares, and the episode emphasizes this singular focus by making these her only words across the hour. The rest of Emma D’Arcy’s performance as a grieving mother is delivered through facial expressions and tears, most poignantly in Rhaenyra’s reunion with her eldest son, Jace, who breaks down while imparting news of his successful alliances in the Vale and North.

The ensuing sequence is the most beautiful one of the episode, as director Alan Taylor cuts between Luke’s wordless, emotional funeral and Alicent’s prayers at a sept in King’s Landing. (Not that sept; this prequel takes place before the construction of Cersei Lannister’s future wildfire target.) Alicent lights a candle for her dead mother (presumably; she’s gone unnamed until now), for Viserys, and then—after a contemplative pause—for Luke. Alicent even names him “Lucerys Velaryon,” despite her prominent Season 1 role in fostering doubts about Laenor Velaryon’s legitimacy as Luke’s father.

Alicent still hopes to avoid “wanton” violence, she says. But what comes next, as Aegon carouses with friends in the throne room and Alicent and Criston continue their tryst in her chambers, can’t help but plunge the realm into full-blown war. It’s the manifestation of Rhaenyra’s desire for vengeance—and the on-screen depiction of the most heinous event George R.R. Martin has devised in the whole A Song of Ice and Fire corpus.

Daemon sneaks into King’s Landing, where he enlists a City Watchman and a Red Keep ratcatcher—called Blood and Cheese in the source text—to sneak into the castle to fulfill Rhaenyra’s command. When Cheese asks, “What if we can’t find him?” Daemon grins, and the camera cuts away, but his next instructions seem clear. Once the duo enters the castle, Blood reminds his assassin partner, “‘A son for a son,’ he said.”

Their search for a green son is shot like a horror film, with flickering candlelight; shadowy, abandoned rooms; and the clangor of a thunderstorm echoing from the stones outside. Eventually, Blood and Cheese stumble upon Helaena and her two royal children. The last the camera shows of the assassins is a large hand descending over the tiny face of 6-year-old Jaehaerys Targaryen—“He’ll be king one day,” a proud Aegon declares earlier in the episode—before it pivots to Helaena as she scoops up her daughter, flees the murder scene, and runs downstairs to find Alicent.

“They killed the boy,” Helaena says, and the episode ends, dangling over a cliff.

Thrones never shied away from depravity and in fact often took steps to amplify Martin’s most violent scenes on the screen. The first victim of the show’s Red Wedding is Robb Stark’s pregnant wife, who’s stabbed in the belly, whereas in the book, Robb’s wife doesn’t attend the wedding trap at the Twins. (In fact, Martin said a decade ago that book Robb’s wife would appear, still alive, in the Winds of Winter prologue.)

But Dragon actually tones down the horror of this vengeful murder. In Fire & Blood, the source text for Dragon, Blood and Cheese sneak into the castle and kill a maid and a guard; tie up Alicent, who witnesses the atrocity; and corner Helaena and the queen’s children. Crucially, in the book, Aegon II and Helaena have a third child, 2-year-old Maelor, in addition to the twins who appear in the show. Then Cheese asks Helaena which son—Jaehaerys or Maelor—she wants to lose:

“Pick,” [Cheese] said, “or we kill them all.” On her knees, weeping, Helaena named her youngest, Maelor. Perhaps she thought the boy was too young to understand, or perhaps it was because the older boy, Jaehaerys, was King Aegon’s firstborn son and heir, next in line to the Iron Throne. “You hear that, little boy?” Cheese whispered to Maelor. “Your momma wants you dead.” Then he gave Blood a grin, and the hulking swordsman slew Prince Jaehaerys, striking off the boy’s head with a single blow. The queen began to scream.

Dragon didn’t show the killing blow (though the sawing sound and motion were gruesome enough). It also excised the second son and the haunting “Your momma wants you dead” line, replacing it with a confusing aside in which Blood and Cheese can’t determine which of the two sleeping children is the “son” and which is the royal daughter, and they ask Helaena to point out the boy. (Why can’t they check themselves? One even says they could inspect the children’s anatomy before trusting Helaena instead.)

But the sequence is still supremely sickening, even in this tamer form. The meta-storytelling result is a prime example of how Dragon, in its second season, will more closely imitate Thrones at its monocultural peak. And the in-universe narrative result will likely be a stronger push toward war, as the greens seek vengeance for Jaehaerys, just as the blacks sought vengeance for Luke. The wheel of violence spins on, crushing ever more victims.

After Jaehaerys’s death, it’s clearer than ever that Dragon’s showrunners are trying to emphasize how avoidable the disastrous Dance of the Dragons was. This civil war stems from mistakes and misunderstandings, from Alicent’s “too many Aegons” interpretation of Viserys’s dying words to Vhagar’s unsanctioned chomping of Luke—with Aemond shouting in vain, “No, Vhagar, no!”—to, now, the murder of a son that Rhaenyra didn’t want killed.

“If we loose the dragons to war, there will be no calling them back,” Alicent says, hours before learning from her traumatized daughter that her grandson has been killed. But as the Targaryens’ feuding factions commit increasingly abhorrent acts of violence against each other, that warning can encompass more than just the dragons. Once the massive machinery of war starts rumbling, it will be all but impossible to shut down.

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