House of the Dragon Episode 1 Recap: A Contested Birth

To listen to even snippets of Game of Thrones’ beloved theme played once more is an event each stirring and terrifying. There’s a probability, nonetheless slim, that this story will re-capture the ability felt, on a borderline religious level, by hundreds of thousands of fans from 2011 to 2019 (and for much longer, through George R. R. Martin’s ongoing book series). But there may be the equal likelihood House of the Dragon, HBO’s latest Game of Thrones prequel series, will wither within the shadow of its predecessor, further stratifying the numerous fans its flagship series lost in its disastrous final seasons. HBO knows this higher than anyone: One other blow can be tantamount to blasphemy, smothering what stays of the legendary within the Game of Thrones Cinematic Universe.

House of the Dragon is the network’s long-awaited shot at retaining not only relevancy, but adoration. Initial critical responses are mostly positive, though mixed, nevertheless it’s fair to argue that the prequel’s full impact won’t be felt until its full first season unfolds. To that end, we’ll be recapping the series, not only to make sense of the overwhelming Westerosian world, but in addition to glean if HotD truly has the gumption to make lightning strike twice.

And so we start. House of the Dragon’s first episode begins with a heavy dose of exposition, delivered via solemn, British-accented voiceover. (At this point, the series is begging for comparisons to Lord of the Rings, which did the entrancing voiceover prologue a lot better.) Still, the message is relayed: As the primary century of the Targaryen dynasty sped into the second, the “old king” Jaehaerys I used to be forced to decide on a successor, on condition that his only biological sons had each died. He selects not his eldest descendant, Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best), but as an alternative opts for Prince Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), his eldest male descendant. “Rhaenys, a lady, wouldn’t inherit the Iron Thone,” reiterates Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), Viserys’ daughter, within the narration—in case there was ever any doubt this show is about sexism.


We then get a time skip to 12 months 9 of Viserys’s reign, 172 years before the birth of Rhaenyra’s ancestor, the long run Queen Daenerys Targaryen. Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), our adult narrator now rewound to her childhood years, is on dragonback. She alights down amongst the familiar red-roofed abodes of King’s Landing, where she meets her best friend, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), and her mother, Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke), who’s nine months pregnant with what the king is for certain will likely be a son.

milly alcock and sian brooke in house of the dragon

Ollie Upton/HBO

Sweating and sprawled across a litter, Aemma insists to the young Rhaenyra, “This discomfort is how we serve the realm.”

“I’d somewhat function a knight and ride to battle and glory,” Rhaenyra responds, aligning herself with the ranks of countless other tomboy protagonists so deserving of their TikTok spoofs.

Meanwhile, the king has concerned himself with more pressing problems with diplomacy. Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) is worried concerning the “growing alliance among the many free cities,” often known as the Triarchy, whose recent landing at Bloodstone is forcing out the pirates in the realm. Viserys isn’t sure why that’s bad news, but Corlys is worried about Craghas Drahar—the Crabfeeder—who’s taken on the title of Prince Admiral. Such a zealous swipe at royal standing could prove a threat to the Targaryen monarchy. But Rhaenyra, the king’s cupbearer, interrupts before Corlys can lay out his point further.

The council skips ahead to other worthy topics of debate, perhaps most pressing of which is Prince Daemon’s latest position as commander of the City Watch. Daemon (Matt Smith) is Viserys’ brother—and due to this fact a successor to the Iron Throne—but is unscrupulous at best, bloodthirsty at worst. He’s pouring seemingly limitless amounts of coin into reshaping the City Watch, and is unafraid to exhibit the Watch’s power with gleeful displays of violence rivaling the more controversial moments of his descendant, Daenerys.

We get a number of short hints at character insight: Under a heart tree in King’s Landing, Alicent lets Rhaenyra rest her head in her lap while she quizzes the latter in Westerosian history. (Alcock is fabulous at threading parallels between herself and Daenerys, while making Rhaenyra each more autonomous and more conflicted.) Within the Red Keep, Viserys has an objectively disgusting wound on his back inspected. (There’s a beautiful shot of a pus extraction, in case you weren’t paying close enough attention.) “Bad humors of the mind can aversely affect the body,” a maester tells Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), Hand of the King, who insists on keeping the king’s condition—whatever it’s—quiet.

It’s as if HBO’s nervous anticipation over the series launch is replicated within the pilot’s own mood. Everyone seems to be anxious, including Viserys, who visits his wife as she bathes. She reveals she’s lost five other children over the course of a decade: one died within the cradle, two were stillbirths, and two were miscarriages. “I’ve mourned all of the dead children I can,” she says. Viserys is empathetic, but not enough to be by his wife’s bedside when her labors begin.

Meanwhile, Daemon intends to show the town to “fear the colour gold.” He unleashes his City Watch upon King’s Landing, they usually maim, torture, and kill those they deem criminals with so little discretion that a two-horse cart is vital to tote the body parts in need of disposing. When the council gathers to debate his “impunity”—in addition to his ongoing absence from his “lady wife” within the Vale, Rhea Royce, a.k.a. the Bronze Bitch—Ser Otto chides Daemon. The latter takes swipes at Otto’s late wife, foreshadowing the brewing rivalry between them.

matt smith in house of the dragon season 1 episode 1

Ollie Upton/HBO

After a pep talk from his lover, Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), that evening, Daemon arrives the subsequent day at Viserys’ tourney, where the king proclaims to his people who Queen Aemma is within the technique of giving birth. Dragon, here, employs what Game of Thrones did first: weave essential diplomatic dialogue into scenes of increasingly startling violence. A Baratheon competitor insults Viserys’ claim to the throne; Rhaenyra and Alicent exchange gossip about Stokeworths and Tarlys and kids out of wedlock; Princess Rhaenys remarks on the 70 years which have passed since any so-called knights saw real war. But the true moment to look at for is when Rhaenyra asks about Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), a necessary figure within the Dance of the Dragons lore for his role in [redacted] and [redacted]. I’ll save the spoilers, but the purpose stays: You’ll need to keep watch over that handsome knight.

In his first joust, Daemon, ever contemptuous, challenges Ser Otto’s son, whom he unhorses with an inexpensive shot to the horse’s legs. But Otto doesn’t have much time to linger on this sting; he’s received news that Aemma’s labor isn’t going well, and so Viserys finally rushes to his wife.

Childbirth has all the time been a violent gamble for its bearers, especially before the dawn of recent medicine, but Dragon’s alternative to depict a gruesome C-section, sans anesthesia, with such an unflinching eye is a fancy one. The gore just isn’t inaccurate, but neither is it sparing. As Aemma screams, the camera whizzes backwards and forwards between her writhing body and the clashing spears of the tourney. The parallel is so obvious, so on-the-nose, it’s equally nauseating and exasperating.

Although Viserys is presented as a Ned Stark type—good-hearted but easily subverted—I find little sympathy for him as Aemma registers the sacrifice her husband’s willing to make. Her shrieks for mercy are ignored as she’s dragged to the middle of the bed and sliced open, the partitions of her abdomen pulled apart with gloved fists.

Dragon has promised less “gratuitous” violence than its predecessor, but this continues to be a Thrones prequel. Gratuitousness is embedded in its DNA. The franchise’s accuracy to medieval violence might, arguably, legitimize its depiction. But I’m not so convinced the world isn’t already all-too aware of the bloody horrors women have endured in bed or on the surgeon’s table, all within the name of sex and reproduction, whether forced or desired. There are few issues as obvious, as divisive, as modern. What’s Dragon attempting to say here that’s interesting, insightful, and even remotely novel? I hope, whatever it’s, it’s higher distilled in future episodes.

On the tourney field, Criston and Daemon duel, with Daemon forced to yield after a premature celebration of his prowess. Today is a losing day for the Targaryens, as Aemma quickly succumbs to her blood loss and the babe dies hours later. Viserys, mourning, is seemingly unable to command the dragons to burn his wife’s body, and so it’s Rhaenyra who must give the command made iconic in Thrones: “Dracarys.” Dragon fire.

The council immediately dives into deliberation over succession. (This franchise is, in any case, called Game of Thrones.) At this point, Daemon is first in line, however the council fears his rule would “destabilize the realm.” Rhaenyra is the biological heir, but one frustratingly lacking in male genitalia. Within the midst of this debate, Otto calls for Alicent, in hopes she might cheer a mournful Viserys. This, I discover a curious request so soon after Aemma’s death. Otto seems a real friend to Viserys, nevertheless it’s inconceivable to read his summoning of Alicent as anything apart from a ploy for a Hightower to turn out to be Queen Consort. Alicent’s face says as much. “Go to him. Offer him comfort,” Otto instructs. “In his chambers?” Alicent asks, her cheeks twitching. “You would possibly wear certainly one of your mother’s dresses,” he adds. In Viserys’s chambers, she tells the king what she wished someone had said when her own mother passed: “I’m sorry.”

emily carey in house of the dragon season 1

Ollie Upton/HBO

Elsewhere, Daemon partakes in an orgy—what, you expected to get through a Thrones episode without an orgy?—during which he toasts to Viserys’s son, “the Heir For a Day.” Livid, Viserys summons his brother to the Iron Throne, whereupon Viserys sits with a sword at his side. He castigates Daemon for touting his own rise during his brother’s time of grief, but Daemon is desperate to spar. “Ten years you’ve been king, and yet not once have you ever asked me to be your Hand,” he spits. The considered it is sort of laughable to Viserys, but Daemon insists he sees Otto’s ulterior motives clearly—as, now, has the audience. “You’re weak, Viserys, and that council of leeches knows it,” Daemon tells the king. “All of them prey on you for their very own ends.”

Viserys, now seemingly out of spite, tells Daemon there will likely be a latest heir to the throne, and Daemon is to return to Lady Rhea in Runestone. Daemon—already plotting his next move—departs, and as Viserys leans back on his throne, he slices his finger on certainly one of its blades. (Despite the dour mood of the scene, I needed to laugh at how poorly House of the Dragon has deployed the art of subtlety so far.)

And so begins the Dance of the Dragons. Viserys reveals to his daughter that she is the brand new heir, but that she should consider such power no mere privilege. The Targaryen empire is robust, but only insofar as its dragons allow—and dragons are notoriously difficult to regulate. As the homes pledge fealty to the named heir, Rhaenyra looks on, pondering of the long winter her father warned—what Game of Thrones fans will recognize because the second Long Night, fought over and against within the flagship series. A Targaryen must sit upon the Iron Throne when that winter comes, Viserys insists, fulfilling the legend often known as A Song of Ice & Fire (also the name of Martin’s major book series).

As a similarly famous HBO show once taught us, it’s all connected. Dragon wants us to feel Thrones in every breath and backdrop, but in addition to tell apart itself as a heavy-hitter in its own right. To perform such balance can be a miraculous feat, one achieved by few spin-offs before it. But when Higher Call Saul has taught us anything, it’s that franchises can birth powerful subsidiaries—if their overlords know when to wield discretion.

Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers news and culture.

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