House of the Dragon Just Set the World on Fire

By the old gods and the new, if “The Red Dragon and the Gold” didn’t have you on the edge of your chair—especially during its final 20 minutes—you may want to check your surroundings and make sure you’re not lurking just outside of reality alongside Daemon at Harrenhal. Episode four of House of the Dragon gave us rulers making decisions both snap and deeply considered; it gave us characters both regretful and not considering the consequences of their actions; and it gave us dragons doing dragon things. So many dragons!

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We open in the gloomy environs of Harrenhal, where Daemon is still doing a lot more “wandering in my mind palace” than “raising an army for my wife.” His latest dream of the young Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock, back again) sees her rising from the Iron Throne and walking toward him, saying “You created me, Daemon, yet you are now set on destroying me, all because your brother loved me more than he did you” in Valyrian. He slices off her head, and her crown goes clattering to the side, but she keeps talking: “This is what you always wanted, is it not?” When he startles awake, Ser Simon Strong tells him a raven has arrived. It carries news of Aegon’s army, which is on the march and has easily gained the support of multiple noble houses along the way (“that sad business with the usurpur’s son” was a key reason why, Ser Simon says; of course, he doesn’t know that mess was Daemon’s doing). As a result, Ser Criston Cole’s host has grown considerably, and Ser Simon thinks it’s unlikely Daemon will be able to raise enough men to face them  if they attack Harrenhal. 

“Let’s see what your Lord Paramount is made of,” Daemon replies as they head into a meeting with the nervously stuttering Ser Oscar Tully, teen grandson of the sickly Lord Grover Tully, Lord of Riverrun and the highest-ranking noble in the Riverlands. Daemon’s in no mood to deal with this powerless emissary, and tells him everyone would be better off if Ser Oscar would hasten his inheritance by hastening his grandfather’s death. A feather pillow would do quite nicely, Daemon suggests. The kid is aghast at the very idea of even considering this, and Daemon—who seems like he’s finally ready to start on that whole army-raising thing—stalks off in disgust.

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Eve Best and Steve Toussaint as Rhaenys and Corlys. ©Ollie Upton/HBO

On the docks at Driftmark, Rhaenys seeks out Alyn of Hull. She knows he’s the sailor who saved Lord Corlys’ life, but as she touches his face she comments on how “comely” he is. “Your mother must have been very beautiful,” she says with more than a hint of sadness. When Corlys walks up, Alyn scampers off, grateful the awkward interaction can end; it’s clear there’s more going on here than Rhaenys wanting to meet the man who rescued her husband. “I know who he is, Corlys,” she says, and adds “Alyn’s past is no fault of his,” noting that there’s no reason to keep him hidden. Corlys’ response is testy, but Rhaenys isn’t there to give him a hard time about his relationship with Alyn (and Alyn’s mother). She’s been summoned to Dragonstone, where the Small Council is growing extremely restless in Rhaenyra’s absence; only Rhaenys (and the audience, of course), know the queen was off making one last attempt at peace by sneaking into King’s Landing to meet Alicent. 

Speaking of, we see Alicent in her chambers, nervously turning a dragon figure over in her hands before accidentally breaking it—a callback to the moment early in her relationship with Viserys when she had a broken dragon repaired to soften his heart toward her. It might even be the same figure. The Grand Maester enters, carrying a special brew we all recognize as the tea women in Westeros take to prevent or end an unwanted pregnancy. (Alicent pretends it’s for someone else, but we know the truth.) Before the Grand Maester leaves, she asks him—since he was there as her husband’s health rapidly declined at the end—if he thinks Viserys wanted Aegon to succeed him. Clearly, her clandestine chat with Rhaenyra is weighing heavily on her mind. But if the religious man has any opinion on the matter, he’s not going to share it, and simply tells her he doesn’t know. After he leaves, she grimaces and gulps the medicine.

On Dragonstone, the Small Council is indeed in disarray; the intel on Cole’s movements is thin, Daemon is MIA, the old men are snippy and sarcastic, and Jace and Baela are sarcastic right back. It falls to Rhaenys to be the calming voice of reason, but the council doesn’t respect her either. At that moment, Lord Corlys enters and he’s clearly the most commanding leader of the bunch, but nobody can act without Rhaenyra present.

In the Crownlands, we get an up-close look at what Cole and company have been up to: stomping their way around, menacing smaller houses into bending the knee to King Aegon II—and beheading any lords who support “the whore of Dragonstone.” When Cole receives a missive from King’s Landing, then tells Ser Gwayne Hightower they’re heading for the coast, Ser Gwayne snootily tells him that’s not the right direction to reach Harrenhal. Twist! They’re not going to Harrenhal after all. There’s a new plan afoot—and we learn all about it when we shift to King’s Landing, where another dysfunctional Small Council is meeting. Aegon is losing his mind screaming at everyone, but Lord Larys calmly tells him their situation is just fine, even without controlling Harrenhal. “I need to be informed of these things,” Aegon bitches. Then Aemond pipes in to tell his brother that Ser Criston is marching on Rook’s Rest, and everyone who’s read Fire & Blood leans in a little closer.

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Ewan Mitchell as Aemond. © Ollie Upton

For the benefit of everyone in the room (and the audience), Aemond explains the situation: Rook’s Rest might be a small castle, but its ruler, Lord Staunton, is on Rhaenyra’s Small Council—and more importantly, it’s just across the water from Dragonstone. If Cole takes Rook’s Rest, Dragonstone will be cut off by land. There’s an uncomfortable moment as Aegon realizes Aemond and Cole have been strategizing behind his back, while the rest of the Small Council vigorously averts their eyes from the brothers. Aemond switches into High Valyrian to insult him (“imbecilic lickspittles” is certainly a turn of phrase), then goads him into coming up with a better plan. Aegon can’t, of course—as the subtitles hilariously reveal, he can barely speak High Valyrian; Aemond’s bemused, dismissive “hmm” in response to this blatant ineptitude is also hilarious—so Rook’s Rest it is.

Upstairs, Alicent is feeling the effects of her anti-pregnancy potion, so of course this is the moment that Lord Larys—who notes the empty tea vessel brought in by the Grand Maester, and immediately clocks what’s going on here—stops by to see why she wasn’t at the Small Council meeting. He updates her on what transpired but also pokes her about how worried she must be for Ser Criston Cole’s safety. “Ser Criston is the Hand of the King,” she says stiffly. “We should all pray for his victory and safe return.” He also notices with interest that she’s reading one of Viserys’ books of Westeros history (looking up the Prince That Was Promised, perhaps?). When Larys asks if she thinks “the voice of history” is why he changed his mind, and whether she now doubts her late husband’s intentions, Alicent can only say “the significance of Viserys’ intentions died with him.”

At haunted Harrenhal, a restless Daemon roams the halls, spotting an illusion of Aemond before bursting into room occupied by a character we’ve seen previously, but have yet to actually meet: Alys Rivers. The name means she’s a bastard (“Once you get to know me you’ll find I’m not so bad,” she shrugs), and she’s something of a healer, mixing up potions with an easygoing manner as she launches into a lesson about Harrenhal’s dark history. When Daemon says she’s a strange woman, she says “I’m not a woman at all. I’m a barn owl, cursed to live in human form. He almost smiles! But when she starts probing into his reason for being at the castle (she’s onto his resentment about Rhaenyra being the boss instead of him), he calls her a witch. But he drinks the concoction she hands him to help him get some much-needed sleep… and comes back to his senses at a table with Ser Simon and other men, including Ser Willem Blackwood, who’s there to lend support to Daemon’s army but is visibly confused by his demeanor, which is both hostile and loopy. At one point, Daemon looks at the woman serving wine and thinks he sees Laena, his late second wife.

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Matt Smith and Gayle Rankin as Daemon and Alys. © Ollie Upton/HBO

We cut back to another meeting of men, this time Aegon’s Small Council, who are nattering on about how the dragons are devouring a lot of livestock, the money supply is dwindling, and Team Black’s blockade has restricted imports, but at least Cole’s efforts have been admirable so far. “You bore me,” Aegon huffs. “You all bore me.” Then he flounces out of the room.

Back upstairs, he finds Alicent shuffling through his cabinets. She’s looking for more of Viserys’ history books; Aegon, who’s definitely not big on reading, says he had them removed. She can tell her son is in a tizzy, and asks what’s wrong, more out of obligation than concern. “They don’t care what I think,” he whines. “What thoughts would you have?” she replies, before reminding him that wearing a crown doesn’t immediately mean he has any wisdom to back it up. At this point, she can’t hold back her weary amusement that this petulant idiot that she spent her entire life trying to maneuver into power turned out to be such a fuck-up. “It was my hope that, once enthroned,” she chuckles, “you would honor the burden of your new duties: be silent, and strive to learn from the more studied minds around you, in the hope that you might be half the king your father was.” When he asks her what she wants him to do, she simply tells him “nothing.” Doing nothing is the best he can do. And she’s right, of course. Will he listen? Well…

With 20 minutes left to go in the episode, Cole’s army arrives at the seaside castle of Rook’s Rest and prepares for battle. Why yes, Ser Gwayne, they’re going to attack during the daytime! He’s just as surprised, albeit far less delighted, than the legions of House of the Dragon viewers who were Game of Thrones fans and suffered frustration and eye strain thanks to that show’s deep, abiding love of extremely dark battles. 

But before the fighting breaks out, there’s a brawl of a (slightly) more polite nature to get through: Rhaenyra has returned to Dragonstone, and everyone, especially her son Jace, is cranky about her mysterious absence—especially since they keep receiving worrisome news about how massive Aegon’s army has become. Jace gets even angrier when he learns she went to King’s Landing to meet with Alicent. “I inherited 80 years of peace from my father,” she snaps back. “Before I was to end it, I needed to know that there was no other path. And now I do.” The path is this: “Either I win my claim, or I die,” followed not long after by “there are those who have mistaken my caution for weakness. Let that be their undoing.” While she’s eager to ride her own dragon to Rook’s Rest, the Small Council talks her out of it; instead, Rhaenys volunteers (nay, insists) to ride out on Meleys. 

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“But mommmm! I want to go to the battle!!!!” (Tom Glynn-Carney and Olivia Cooke as Aegon and Alicent.) © Ollie Upton/HBO

In King’s Landing, a petulant Aegon storms around—oh, that can’t be good—and House of the Dragon ramps up its battle anticipation by intercutting between different scenes: Rhaenys getting ready to leave, Aegon donning his armor and going to his dragon, Cole’s army approaching the castle at Rook’s Rest, and Rhaenyra explaining to Jace, who’s still in a salty mood, about the Song of Ice and Fire. The Targaryen sitting the Iron Throne isn’t just a ruler, she tells him—they’re a protector, destined to unite and lead the people of Westeros against a common foe (we’ve seen ‘em: Game of Thrones’ White Walkers). This war is not just about a crown. It’s about saving the future.

Then, the battle begins. And it’s worth reiterating: IT IS DAYLIGHT. WE CAN SEE EVERYTHING. As arrows begin to fly and cannons move into position, Rhaenys and Meleys come into view, high in the clouds. Cole has anticipated this and we hear him give the order: “Make the signal!” A chain of horn blasts begin to sound as Meleys starts setting fire to Aegon’s army; deep in the trees we see… yep, that can only be the extremely large outline of Vhagar, with Aemond a tiny figure on his back. But wait! Wait wait wait? Who’s that flying overhead? Why, it’s Aegon, riding Sunfyre, barging right into Cole and Aemond’s battle plan. “Idiot,” Aemond mutters in High Valyrian, and tells an eager Vhagar to wait. Just as annoyed as his rider, Vhagar flops his humongous head down to the forest floor and snorts in disgust, air billowing out of his outrageously oversized nostrils. On the ground, Cole is similarly furious, especially when Ser Gwayne shrieks in his face about what a dumb plan this is. It’s not the plan. But it is most certainly what’s happening, so Cole rides out and rallies his men for battle, acting like Aegon’s arrival was prearranged, rather than the annoying intrusion it actually is.

While Rhaenys/Meleys and Aegon/Sunfyre do battle in the sky—using fire, teeth, claws, wings, and everything else a dragon has at its disposal—the men on the ground slowly realize the biggest dragon anyone alive has ever seen, Vhagar, is rising up from behind the tree line. Everyone looks scared out of their minds except Cole, who is very clearly thinking to himself “Thank the gods!” In fact, that’s exactly what Aegon says when he realizes his brother has come to join the fight… but his look of relief turns to horror when Aemond gives Vhagar the unmistakable order: “Dracarys!”

A shrieking Sunfyre plunges to the ground in the woods beyond the battlefield; it happens at a distance, but you have to imagine Aegon is shrieking almost as loudly. Meleys and Rhaenys are flying in the other direction when Rhaenys looks back and decides it’s time to go again. From the POV of the men on the ground, you can see just how much of a size difference there is between the two dragons, and the two beasts become a swirling ball of flames and scaly body parts high above the battlefield that then briefly thunders to the Earth, squishing whoever is unfortunate enough to be in the damage path. We see Cole go down, then the screen fades to black before returning for some slo-mo battle violence. In the air, Rhaenys and Meleys share a glance before making one last pass over the smoldering field. They’re flying over the castle when suddenly Vhagar swoops up from behind the cliff face, clamps his huge-ass jaws around Meleys’ neck until she’s dead, then drops her body from a great height. Rhaenys gazes upward as she falls, sadly but peacefully accepting her fate. Aemond gazes down, a look of satisfaction crossing his haughty face, and we fade to black again.

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Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) looks to the skies. © Theo Whiteman/HBO

But there’s one more sentence we need to punctuate before episode four can end: where’s Aegon? Cole flickers back to consciousness and takes in the scalded wasteland that now surrounds him. Soldiers have been reduced to piles of ash inside their armor; a dead dragon is conspicuously draped across the castle in the distance. Also conspicuous: a giant plume of smoke emanating from the trees. That’s where Cole staggers in search of the fallen king. And he’s not the first one there: Aemond, his sword ready to plunge into…something… is moving through the burning trees ahead of him. When he calls out, Aemond stops doing whatever he was about to do—something that comes into focus when Cole sees that His Grace is lying motionless on the ground next to a gurgling Sunfyre. Cole falls to his knees as Aemond stalks away. Is Aegon alive or dead? It’ll be next week until we find out.

New House of the Dragon episodes arrive Sundays on HBO and Max.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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