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House of the Dragon: The rift is finally here

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All season long on House of the Dragon, we’ve watched the adults of the Targaryen clan slowly circle into two factions — the Greens, led by Alicent, and what will eventually become the Blacks, led by Rhaenyra. We only just met their children properly in the previous episode, halfway through the season — but in this episode, “Driftmark,” the younger generation abruptly takes center stage.

This episode gives us a pivotal moment in our build-up to what already feels like an inevitable civil war — and one twist involving a fake-out and a surprising fate for one minor character. But it also gives us a major shift from focusing on Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) to focusing on their children, the ones who will inevitably have to carry out the conflict they’ve each so far skirted around. “Driftmark” shows us a court that’s become so completely entrenched in its own in-fighting, distrust, and paranoia that a single spark could ignite the powder keg.

Instead of a tiny flame, however, the catalyst is a whole fire-breathing dragon.

The kids aren’t all right

It must have royally sucked to be a kid growing up in this court. At Driftmark (the seat of House Velaryon), where Viserys (Paddy Considine) and his court have assembled to mourn the death of Lady Laena, Rhaenyra’s kids have the disorienting experience of being unable to mourn their own father and grandfather, who also died in the previous episode — but who Rhaenyra can’t allow them to acknowledge as family. So on top of getting shunned, whispered about, and mocked by everyone else at court, their own mother gaslights them, insisting that they can’t go to Harwin Strong’s funeral because he is not their father.

She and Viserys both seem to believe that if they just keep insisting on this obvious lie, they can bend reality to their will. Instead, the years of lying, all while Rhaenyra has had three illegitimate sons who are clearly not her husband’s bloodline, have set Jace (Leo Hart) and Luke (Harvey Sadler) up for a terrible, vicious awakening to their real roles at court.

They get it when their rival, Alicent’s bullied second son, Aemond (Leo Ashton), tries to regain his dignity as the only prince without a dragon. While Laena’s daughters are still in mourning for their mother, he sneaks down to the beach and bonds with Laena’s dragon Vhagar, one of the oldest, largest, and mightiest dragons in the realm. While Aemond is flying around and having his big coming-of-age moment, Laena’s daughters are watching in horror as this upstart steals their birthright. When they confront him, along with Jace and Luke, things immediately get physical. After Aemond calls the boys “Strongs” — after, you know, their actual father — they read it as the insult it’s meant to be and attack him, with Luke ultimately slashing him with a knife and taking out Aemond’s eye.

Until now, the children of both houses have seemed completely uninvested in their parents’ fights. That’s partly because they’re oblivious kids, but also partly because until now, their parents’ fights have been conducted primarily through the rumor mill and passive microaggressions.

Viserys, again trying to make his distorted halcyon view of his court into reality, has always viewed the conflict between Rhaenyra and Alicent as petty. Even now when it’s spilled over into open conflict, he refuses to see the fighting as anything more than disruptive squabbling. Luke’s violence is an unfortunate accident; Aemond’s sin of openly challenging the boys’ parentage is by far the greater transgression. After Aemond says he heard the rumor of the boys’ illegitimacy from older brother Aegon, Aegon bluntly confronts his grandfather with the truth: Everyone knows Rhaenyra’s kids are illegitimate — just look at them.

So far, every major ceremonial event of this show has been disrupted in some way by an outburst of violence, but this is the first time the younger generation has participated, let alone instigated any of it. Although Aemond seems to be willing to let the hostility go for now, the rivalry this fight has created, between Aemond and Lucerys especially, will go on to fuel open hostility and violence for decades. While the kids may not have started the war that began with Alicent’s green dress, they’ll be the ones to finish it.

It’s probably no coincidence that Laena’s daughters, the twins Baela and Rhaena, will eventually play a major role in peacekeeping and in binding the kingdom back together while their Targaryen counterparts tear it apart. They are, after all, the only set of kids who’ve grown up away from Viserys’s court. They lack the special brand of indoctrination that has led to one faction being the party of reality distortion and the other faction being the party of power-hungry paranoia.

(The most touching moment of the episode, in fact, involves the twins being the only people in the room who can accurately read the room. In the middle of a tense and awkward funeral gathering, the twins, emerging from their own grief over the loss of their mother, recognize that Jace and Luke are also mourning their own father. Although they can’t give them words — because no one is allowed to acknowledge that the boys are in mourning — the twins silently move to comfort them. It’s the first and only time in the episode that anyone acknowledges that Jace and Luke have a reason to grieve. )

Meanwhile, the taking of Aegon’s eye has not only given the Targaryen children a reason to take up their parents’ vendettas; it has served to validate all of Alicent’s years of paranoid suspicions about the harm Rhaenyra and her clan could do to her and her children.

The paranoid style in Targaryen politics

Apart from its ongoing deconstruction of the patriarchy, House of the Dragon hasn’t really embraced full-scale political allegory, but in this episode we begin to see an outline of extremism taking hold of Alicent’s side of the Red Keep. Alicent has warned her children for years, as her father has warned her for years, that they won’t be safe if Rhaenyra takes power, and that the only way to prevent the encroaching threat to their well-being is to prepare for war themselves. Alicent has become subsumed by this fear, despite Rhaenyra repeatedly seeking reconciliation and showing every appearance of goodwill.

The fight between Aemond and the Velaryon (Strong) kids seems to temporarily jolt her out of the cloud of suspicion she’s created. After she grabs a knife and tries to take one of Luke’s eyes in retaliation for her son’s, impulsively slashing Rhaenyra’s arm in the process, the king rebukes her so strongly that she’s chastened. At last, she seems to be reconsidering all her life choices.

But just when she’s doubting whether a turn toward violence is really the path she wants, her father steps in. After Lyonel Strong’s death, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans, my gleefully deadpan love) has been restored as hand of the king, and he seems to have resumed his plotting and power-hungry scheming exactly where he left off. Instead of chastising her for almost stabbing one of the king’s grandkids during a funeral in front of hundreds of prominent courtiers, he seems positively delighted, and tells her that this is exactly the kind of mettle she needs to show if she’s going to be ready to fight in the coming war. There’s never been a moment when Otto hasn’t anticipated a war; he’s always looking ahead towards the violence he’s convinced is inevitable, like the Westerosi equivalent of a conspiracy zealot erecting a bunker.

Lest we think he’s just power-hungry and paranoid, however, he brings it back around to what is, at least ostensibly, the material point: Because of the fight, everyone at court now knows what kind of woman Rhaenyra really is — an adulterer. Recall, too, Alicent’s real dismay when she learned Rhaenyra had lied to her about losing her virginity. The Hightowers as a unit have learned to justify their obsession with self-preservation — which necessarily is about preserving power — by fixating on what they see as Rhaenyra’s immorality.

Something the show hasn’t addressed but which I find incredibly fascinating is that the Hightowers seem to have a long history of being fixated on both power and morality. That is, in the books, the Hightowers have long had a strict moral code which they’ve wielded as their primary weapon in the game of thrones. The clan is known for being deeply religious, and they’ve inexorably interwoven their fortunes with the country’s dominant religion, the Faith of the Seven.

The reign of King Aenys (three kings before this one on the Targaryen family tree) and later his cruel successor King Maegor saw a decade-long rebellion led by a sect of extreme religious leaders, an armed force known as the Faith Militant. In theory, the Faith Militant Uprising happened because the religious leaders of Westeros decided Maegor was an immoral polygamist from an immoral family of incestuous perverts. (Please enjoy this brief moment in Westerosi history when incest was a cultural taboo.)

But the moral outrage was really just a cover. The real reason was that the High Septon, the leader of the Faith Militant, was offended that Maegor married his niece but then cast her aside and remarried someone else. The High Septon was a member of House Hightower; like Otto, he too had suggested the king’s marriage as a way of consolidating power and papering over a dispute about succession. And, like Otto, when things didn’t go his way, he fell back on accusing the offending party of immorality. In both cases the immoral offender happens to be standing directly in the way of a Hightower’s path to power. (Maegor and Rhaenyra parallel each other as well, but fortunately that’s probably not on the syllabus until season two.)

We know that Otto’s insistence on taking the moral high ground is all just a decoy because he doesn’t bat an eye at his own moral quandaries, including pimping out his teenage daughter to the king or letting his daughter marry her kids to — sigh — each other. Morality to the Hightowers is only a mask for their real goal of attaining and maintaining power. But because of the aesthetic cover that their religious views provide, they’re adept at finding ways to frame Rhaenyra as their spiritual enemy as well as an existential threat. It’s not clear if she even realizes what a distorted version of her they’ve created by this point: To them she seems to be loose, immoral, impure, corrupt, and hungry for power.

This all matters greatly to the kind of faction the Greens will become, because if you’ll recall, Alicent’s supporters aren’t just standing behind her son Aegon’s claim to the throne for his sake or her sake. They’re also resisting the whole idea of a woman being qualified to claim the Iron Throne. So, again, the more the Hightowers can successfully spread the idea that Rhaenyra is spiritually unfit, the more they serve themselves.

That unfortunately means that Rhaenyra’s fateful decision at the end of the episode, which she makes in order to strengthen her own ties to the throne, is destined to backfire. The plan allows Rhaenyra to get rid of her husband, Laenor Velaryon (John Macmillan), and wed her uncle Daemon (Matt Smith), so that she can consolidate their side of House Targaryen and combine their resources. It’s not entirely clear whether they intend to straight-up murder Laenor or just help him fake his death and abscond to the Free Cities with his boyfriend, which he ultimately does. Either way, she and Daemon work out a plot which does result in the murder of a nameless expendable guard, and which allows everyone to think Rhaenyra murdered Laenor.

Rhaenyra’s goal — apart from getting to bonk her uncle — is to intimidate everyone with her power and ruthlessness. But with the accusations that Rhaenyra is immoral, the Hightowers have already laid the foundations to undermine whatever gains she’s made from this transaction. And given that in gaining Daemon she’s alienating the entirety of House Velaryon, Rhaenyra won’t have things easy from here on in.

True, she’s got two newly awakened kids on her side. But Alicent’s kids are waking up, too.

And thanks to Aegon, as Otto points out, as they barrel headlong into the made-up soon-to-be-real war they created entirely in their own minds, they’ve got a major advantage: One huge-ass dragon.

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