NOTE: I’m assuming a fairly intermediate level of familiarity with the world of Westeros.
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
House of the Dragon
I’m mildly annoyed. I was all set to quit House of the Dragon after an unpleasant season with the consistency of broken glass, but then it pulled a Handmaid’s Tale on me (i.e., hooked me with the finale) and long story short I’m watching season 2.
I’m not summarizing every episode, so here’s the main points:
Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen is named heir to her father, King Viserys I, in a rage-fueled move overturning an implicitly understood precedent that Girls Don’t Rule. Her elevation doubles as a rejection of Daemon, Viserys’s younger brother, who – in the absence of any sons born to Viserys – was generally accepted as the heir to the Iron Throne. Despite Rhaenyra’s elevation, Viserys marries Alicent Hightower, daughter of the Hand of the King and Rhaenyra’s soon-to-be ex-best friend. Rhaenyra’s friendship with Alicent implodes in a hot second, and grows steadily worse as Alicent gives birth to two sons (Aegon II and Aemond). After a failed campaign to marry her off to a suitable lord, Rhaenyra marries her closeted gay cousin Laenor Velaryon. Meanwhile, Daemon murders his first wife and marries Laena, Laenor’s sister.
Ten years later, Rhaenyra has given birth to three sons (Jacaerys, Lucerys, and Joffrey), all of whom were fathered by Ser Harwin Strong of the Kingsguard. Despite swirling rumors regarding their parentage, they are officially considered the heirs to the Iron Throne after their mother, whose enmity with Alicent has grown stronger over the last decade. The tensions between the two families erupt shortly after Laena’s death, as her surviving daughters (Baela and Rhaena) are infuriated to learn that Aemond has unceremoniously stolen Laena’s dragon (Vhagar). Rhaenyra’s sons come to their defense, and the ensuing fight ends with Lucerys slashing Aemond’s eye with a knife. Fed up with her husband and her life in general, Rhaenyra helps Laenor run away with his lover Qarl Correy, then marries Daemon. After another six years, during which she gives birth to two more sons (Aegon III and Viserys II), Rhaenyra begins to reconcile with Alicent, but they are driven apart again when her father’s death enables the Small Council – led by Alicent’s father, Otto Hightower – to cancel Rhaenyra’s ascension in favor of Aegon II. Aegon’s supporters become known as “the greens” after House Hightower’s identifying color, while Rhaenyra’s supporters are known as “the blacks.”
On Dragonstone, Rhaenyra goes into premature labor upon learning that she has been usurped by her half-brother. Following the stillbirth of her child, she is officially crowned by Daemon when a runaway Kingsguard brings her Viserys’s crown; she also receives grudging support from Laenor’s parents, Lord Corlys Velaryon and Princess Rhaenys Targaryen, despite their well-founded suspicions that she is complicit in the seeming death of their son. While Daemon plans to bolster Rhaenyra’s firepower by recruiting more dragonriders, Rhaenyra reluctantly sends Jacaerys and Lucerys as envoys to the North and the Stormlands, respectively. Lucerys’s trip to the Stormlands goes badly awry when he runs into Aemond, who was sent to make a marriage treaty with the Baratheons, and their confrontation results in Vhagar killing both Lucerys and his dragon (Arrax) against Aemond’s orders. Rhaenyra, who had previously pushed for unity and peace, throws both to the wind when she learns of Lucerys’s death. In short, the greens have woken the dragon.
First things first: the show has, so far, been impressively faithful to Fire & Blood while making some reasonable additions to things that weren’t fully fleshed out in the book. The book is more of a summary than a story, which gave the show a lot of room to embroider. There have also been some changes in characterization, which I think were a good idea in view of how absolutely fucking awful everybody is in the book. The characters in the show aren’t saints by any means, but I like that Rhaenyra and Alicent start as friends rather than rivals. (Of course, having now finished the book, I have completely given up on any lingering hope for a Rhaenyra/Alicent romance.) I like that their relationship is more equal in the beginning; book Alicent is nine years older than Rhaenyra, but in the show they’re the same age. In general Alicent is better defined in the show, where she is also more prominent and seems to have greater agency.
Meanwhile Aemond, who 100% intended to kill his nephew in the book, is shocked when Vhagar ignores his commands and kills Arrax. I’m not sure how his character evolution is going to go, given where he ends up in the book, but I am at least glad that he still has room to be a child. I prefer to think of Aemond as a kid too young to understand that dragons are neither pets nor servants, because thinking of him as a full-blown Targaryen adult is too disturbing to contemplate. I’m also glad that Laenor survives – he doesn’t in the book – though I’m less pleased that his getaway plan required the murder of a servant. I suppose killing him would have been too much even for this show, which has already been accused of being too dark; and it would have made Rhaenyra impossible to root for, given that Laenor’s removal proceeded from her desire to marry Daemon. I’m not sure what qualifies as “too dark” in a universe that has given us the Red Wedding, Joffrey Baratheon, and Ramsay Bolton, but I will say that HotD has had a nastier edge to it than GoT, though I can’t really articulate why. It feels just slightly off, possibly because it’s built around one of the nastiest families in Westerosi history. In any case, I’m grateful that the show hasn’t yet knocked Rhaenyra off the rails, though I’m sure it’ll get around to it. Knowing the ending is both a blessing and a curse.
If there was one change I did not like, it was the direction of Larys Strong’s character. Larys is the club-footed son of Lyonel Strong, Hand of the King after Otto Hightower’s dismissal, and brother of Ser Harwin Strong. He mostly stays in the background for the first half of the show, becoming progressively more prominent – and concomitantly more annoying – as he worms his way into Alicent’s favor as her unofficial Master of Whispers. This might’ve been fine if he weren’t the kind of minion who deliberately twists his reigning sovereign’s every wish into something completely different. He is, for lack of a better word, a giant pain in the ass. In the book his motives and character are ambiguous, but in the show his own crippled foot has given him a pretty serious foot fetish, and he has trained Alicent to pay for his services by showing him her bare feet and then letting him jerk off in front of her. This is a level of degradation that Alicent did not deserve, regardless of her behavior after Aemond lost his eye, and if she doesn’t use this humiliation as a motivation to try to seize power for herself, I’m going to shriek. Rhaenys has already planted the seeds, and I will be very disappointed if Alicent doesn’t at least begin to contemplate herself on the Iron Throne.
In my last HotD post, I said there was no point to all this feminine pain if it doesn’t produce results, and I stand by that. I could have done without Daemon casually strangling Rhaenyra in the season finale, particularly in a show whose producers keep decrying the in-universe patriarchy without really doing anything about it. Maybe this is all just set-up for a more satisfying second season, given that the show has some room to diverge from the book, but the future doesn’t seem especially bright. The one thing I do know is that they’re stuck with Rhaenyra’s book ending, because it was revealed in GoT season 3. From where I’m standing, the journey hardly matters if the result is the same, but maybe they’ll surprise me. I certainly hope they will. I also hope future seasons will be smoother, because the biggest problem with the show thus far is that the pacing is awful. Not unlike the later seasons of GoT, in which time had its own ideas and Westeros shrank to the size of a postage stamp for the sake of expediting the plot, HotD seems to regard time as fluid. Eighteen years are packed into the first nine episodes, which somehow still manage to be slow as mud, while the tenth episode – which I genuinely was not expecting to get as far into the book material as it did – moves at the speed of light.
The show is also bogged down by a small army of side characters, who pop up like prairie dogs and disappear just as quickly throughout the season, only to pop up again at completely random times and in different roles. Daemon’s ex-mistress Mysaria, for instance, briefly mentions that she was once his captive, but nothing ever comes of that, and this revelation is limited to just the one line. She then goes on to become the White Worm, the most secretive informant in King’s Landing and the leader of a network of spies, but this transition takes place entirely off-screen. We mostly see her in spurts; the rest of the time, the show seems to forget about her. It’s jarring, and it doesn’t really work. The season as a whole feels less like its own thing and more like an extended introduction to the rest of the show, however many seasons it ends up being. It is a nine-hour prologue designed to provide the background and context for the actual story, which begins in episode ten. While the information contained in this prologue is important and cannot be skipped, there has to have been a better way to handle it.
On the subject of future seasons: I can’t imagine this needing more than two or three seasons total, but The Handmaid’s Tale somehow managed to spin one book into five seasons with a sixth on the way, so who fucking knows anymore. I really hope they don’t try to drag this out more than they need to. I don’t need it to be the next ten-year saga, I just need it to be good. I need it to fix the pacing and quit adding random details that don’t seem to have any point. The focus on the rats in the Red Keep might be more significant next season if the writers decide to include the Blood and Cheese chapter from the book, but other things are less clear. I still have no idea why Viserys suffered from so many open sores. Was it a disease, or was it a hint that he wasn’t meant to sit the Iron Throne? Was he rejected by the Throne, as happened to Rhaenyra in the book? If this is the case, what’s with the mask? Did he fall face-first on the Throne and spike his eye out? While we’re at it, where exactly are we going with this Song of Ice and Fire subplot, which is never mentioned in Fire & Blood? I don’t remember enough of the ASOIAF books to know if Aegon the Conqueror really did have this dream, or if it was a last-minute plot device added for the sake of excusing Alicent’s decision to override Rhaenyra’s inheritance, or if it was all just a cynical attempt to tie HotD to GoT’s apron strings and therefore remind us all to keep watching. All I know is that if I get so much as a whiff of the ice zombies who at this point in Westerosi history are definitely still asleep and I know that’s obvious to my fellow GoT fans but it still bears repeating, I’m out.
My ultimate conclusion is that the show is fine. I like the cast – particularly the Rhaenyras, both older and younger – and the dragons, and I’m onboard for season two. With any luck, it’ll be at least slightly less bumpy.
Fire & Blood
George R.R. Martin
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that reading the book between episodes was really helpful. The show really tries to explain itself, but it’s up against an intricate history with a host of characters major, minor, and barely mentioned – all with their own ridiculously detailed histories and family trees – and that’s all before it can even start telling the story that it wants to tell. Conversely, the show made me more enthusiastic about the book, which is a solid 752 pages of incest and murder. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how far I would’ve gotten with the book if I hadn’t had the show supplying me with mental images to go along with the very dry text.
Fire & Blood is a detailed account of the Targaryen dynasty as told by Archmaester Gyldayn, a terrifically boring in-universe historian with a weird ellipsis fetish. Gyldayn is a singularly irritating writer, but I have to admit that he’s thorough. His work both draws on and discounts elements of older accounts written by Grand Maesters Orwyle and Munkun, Septon Eustace, and Mushroom, Rhaenyra’s court fool, and, though the book is packed with information, it actually doesn’t suffer too much from rambling. Gyldayn’s history begins 300 years before the Song of Ice and Fire series, when Aegon the Conqueror flies the dragon Balerion to Westeros. He is accompanied by his sister-wives, Visenya and Rhaenys, who ride the dragons Vhagar and Meraxes, respectively. They eventually bring all of Westeros under their rule, with the exception of Dorne, and Aegon – now styled King Aegon I – becomes the first Targaryen king.
After Aegon’s death, the throne passes to his eldest son Aenys, son of Rhaenys, and then to Visenya’s son Maegor. When Maegor is found dead on the Iron Throne, the crown goes to Jaehaerys, Aenys’s oldest surviving son; he in turn passes it to his grandson, Viserys I, after losing both of his sons. From there, things proceed more or less as described above. Following a short, unpopular stint on the Iron Throne, Rhaenyra is overthrown and then murdered by Aegon II, who has an unsuccessful reign of his own before being poisoned. He is succeeded by Aegon III, also known as Aegon the Unlucky, the eldest of Rhaenyra’s two surviving sons. After the end of Gyldayn’s history, the throne goes down the list of the descendants of Viserys II, Aegon’s younger brother, until it passes out of Targaryen control with the death of Aerys II. Along with the throne, the Targaryens lose their dragons, the bulk of which are slaughtered during Rhaenyra’s reign, and it is only by sheer chance that three dragon eggs are sent to Essos, where they will later be gifted to Daenerys Targaryen upon her marriage to Khal Drogo.
I’m glad I read the book, but I’m also glad it’s over. The characters aren’t particularly likable, with a handful of exceptions; there are some good Targaryen rulers, but the rest are some combination of cruel, weak, or incompetent. The reign of Jaehaerys I and his sister-wife Alysanne is the highlight of the Targaryen dynasty, and then it’s straight downhill from there, which isn’t surprising considering the Targaryens’ well-documented habit of marrying each other. Even so, the book is still interesting, and I would like it better if the writing style weren’t so grating. Martin (or Gyldayn, depending on how much patience you have for this device) has a truly horrendous habit of inserting ellipses to stand in as pauses for dramatic effect, and I cannot count the number of times he claimed there was no point in elaborating on a particular subject, only to then elaborate on it for a paragraph or so. If there’s no point in talking about it, why are we talking about it?
My main takeaway from this read is that, while the book is useful as a reference, I’m not sure I would read it again in its entirety. It’s on the wrong side of 500 pages, and, after the action-packed Targaryen civil war, the ascension of Aegon III is an anticlimactic, foot-dragging letdown. The Targaryens are, as Rhaenyra says in the show, only human. They’re not immortal, and they’re not divine. She might not have known how truly she spoke, but time and this book have proven her right: the Targaryens lost whatever charm they had when they lost their dragons.