The penultimate episode of House of the Dragon’s first season makes one thing clear from its first frame, an empty throne shrouded in shadow: The dying breath of a wistful king is now as key a turning point within the Targaryen legacy as Aegon’s Conquest itself. We’d as well forget marking time in Dragon with the letters AC, and replace it with AV: After Viserys.
It’s because Viserys’s warning concerning the Song of Ice and Fire—and Alicent’s alleged misunderstanding of that prophecy—has immediate, resounding consequences. At its open, episode 9 lingers on several tableaus that impart a pain beyond mere melancholy: There’s an actual sense of foreboding flooding the silent small council room; the lonely, flame-lit corridors; the piano playing as a young, toe-headed boy delivers news of the king’s passing to Talia, the handmaiden. Talia, in turn, notifies Alicent, who seems genuinely distraught as she informs her father of Viserys’s dying wish. We all know, in fact, that the king’s little mix-up is the doh! of the century. But Alicent’s conviction seems true. Sure, might she be aided by a healthy dose of confirmation bias? Perhaps. However the tears in her eyes betray an earnest terror.
Together, Alicent and her father inform the small council that Viserys the Peaceful passed away within the night. “But he has left us a present,” Otto adds, his voice suddenly brightening. “Together with his last breath, he impressed upon the queen his final wish: that his son Aegon should succeed him as Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.” The council is quiet, immobilized, though only long enough for Jason Lannister to disclose that members of the council have already been planning this exact turn of events—the usurpation of the Iron Throne. Alicent is furious these schemes have taken place without her knowing, but good Lord Beesbury is angrier still. He accuses the council of treason, just for Ser Criston to silence him with a stone ball through the skull. (If we questioned the knight’s anger management skills before, this episode serves as a reminder that therapy needs to be free in Westeros.)
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Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Ser Harrold Westerling isn’t so thrilled about this turn of events either. As Alicent argues for Rhaenyra’s life to be spared, Otto insists her execution is the one method to ensure the soundness of the realm. (Alas, that pesky realm at fault once more.) Ser Harrold stays unconvinced, and refuses to take orders from Otto until a king (or a queen) is definitely seated upon the throne. Remember, he once served as Rhaenyra’s protector, back when she was generally known as the Realm’s Delight; it might be folly to think he’s abandoned his affections completely.
Alicent and the remaining of the greens are forced to work quickly. She scurries through the castle to assemble up her children; in the event that they had flashing neon targets on their backs before, they’ve grown substantially brighter. The one child missing, in fact, is Aegon himself, and his sister-wife Helaena hasn’t a clue where her neglectful husband has fled. But she repeats her prophetic warning from last episode: “There’s a beast beneath the boards.” Viserys all the time yearned for a dragon dreamer within the family. It seems an increasing number of certain that his daughter is one among them.
Still, that doesn’t mean Helaena can magically divine Aegon’s location, and so each junior and senior Hightowers rush to locate the erstwhile heir first. Otto employs the assistance of Ser Arryk and Ser Erryk Cargyll. (And also you thought having multiple Aegons was confusing!) Alicent opts to trust Ser Criston and her second son, Aemond, but only after imploring Criston with a very interesting turn of phrase. “Every thing you’re feeling for me,” she says, pausing before adding, “as your queen.” “I is not going to fail you,” he replies, holding her gaze. Are these two…? I mean…?
Together, Criston and Aemond search the Street of Silk as Arryk and Erryk stake out a baby gladiator ring. Back within the Red Keep, Otto insists the lords of Westeros bend the knee to King Aegon. Those that deny—and even waver—are promptly rounded up. On the gladiator ring, the Cargyll twins encounter one among Aegon’s bastards (“one among many, I wager”) in addition to one among the White Worm’s informants. The White Worm, in fact, is Daemon’s former paramour Mysaria, now a King’s Landing secret-keeper à la Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. She demands an end to child fighting in Flea Bottom in exchange for Aegon’s whereabouts.
And so Arryk and Erryk uncover a disheveled Aegon huddled beneath a chapel brazier, just for Criston and Aemond to confront the trio outside the constructing. A goofy little sword fight ensues—replay Cargyll and Criston dashing down the steps just a few times in case you want a great laugh—while Aemond captures Aegon and escorts him home to his fate, whatever the derelict heir’s lack of “taste for duty.”
Meanwhile, within the Red Keep, Rhaenys is locked into her chambers while Alicent oversees the embalming of her late husband. The Queen Who Never Was breaks out long enough to confront the previous Lady Hightower, who expresses her regrets “for the dearth of ceremony.” She pleads with Rhaenys to affix her side; whether Rhaenys believes that Viserys modified his mind or not, the purpose stays: Aegon shall be named king. “House Velaryon has long allied itself with the Princess Rhaenyra, and what has it gained you?” Alicent posits. “Your daughter dead, alone in Pentos. Your son, cuckolded. Rhaenyra’s heirs are none of yours.” She even invokes Corlys’s reckless pursuit of the throne, as he wastes away from an injury we’ve yet to see on camera.
Finally, Alicent appeals to Rhaenys’s own lust for power. “You must have been queen,” she whispers, and it seems, for a moment, she might need won an incalculable act of diplomacy. “You might be wiser than I believed you to be,” Rhaenys replies, but with steel in her voice. “And yet you toil still in service to men. You desire to not be free but to make a window within the wall of your prison.” A delicious line, and a perceptive one. Alicent has never imagined, let alone manifested, a reality outside the confines of men’s machinations.
So when the queen confronts her father after Aegon’s protected return home, it’s intriguing to find she resents Otto’s role in her current, tortured position. “Our hearts were never one,” she tells him. “I see that now. Slightly, I’ve been a chunk that you simply moved concerning the board. I wanted whatever you impressed upon me to want.”
Otto warns that Rhaenyra cannot live; if she does, her allies will gather to her cause. “My husband would have desired this mercy be shown to his daughter,” Alicent insists. Otto practically scoffs. “Your husband?” he asks. “Otherwise you, his daughter’s childhood companion?”
I paused here to check Alicent’s face, wary of her response. That is one among the primary times Rhaenyra and Alicent’s friendship has been mentioned by someone apart from the daughters themselves, and it’s addressed with an air of accusation, tinged with shame—as if a forbidden romance whose feelings linger still. Still, Alicent betrays no regret.
At the same time as she escapes her father’s chambers, the queen is to be humbled further this evening. She encounters Larys, who teases details about how and why Otto learned of Aegon’s hiding place before she did. Alicent sits, removes her shoes, and Larys speaks again, of an internet of spies operating for Otto’s profit inside the Red Keep. He pauses, and Alicent slips off her stockings, quiet but seething. The Clubfoot allows one other detail: Considered one of the spies is Alicent’s handmaiden, Talia—a fact many fans had already suspected, given the character’s inexplicable prominence in episodes past. They conform to get rid of her discretely, and Alicent lifts her feet as a reward, turning her face away as Larys masturbates. Dragon gleefully employs rampant incest and graphic childbirth scenes, yet little has made my stomach churn like this moment between supposed allies.
But episode 9 shouldn’t be to finish on such a note of defeatism. A very brave Cargyll, unable to “let this treachery stand,” barges into Rhaenys’s quarters and demands she follow him, should she wish to flee the Red Keep unnoticed. Together, they slip through the roads among the many common folk, only to be swept up within the crowds gathering outside the king’s coronation ceremony. Rolling into the scene in a carriage are Alicent and Aegon, the latter of which is definite his father never actually named him heir. “Don’t toy with me, mother,” he says, as she insists he show Rhaenyra mercy when he’s crowned king. He interrupts: “Do you’re keen on me?” Olivia Cooke’s response here is an easy classic, a delicious mixture of disbelief, fury, and affection. “You imbecile,” she replies.
Finally, Aegon is called heir before the crowds of King’s Landing. A murmur of disbelief ripples throughout the group as they process this unexpected news, but applause follows soon after. They’re pleased enough for the establishment to proceed: A person has all the time ruled upon the Iron Throne. As Aegon II is given the crown of Aegon the Conqueror, he lifts his sword into the air with the baffled delight of a baby unaccustomed to adoration. Suddenly, his power is made manifest, and Aegon is immediately addicted.
His glory shouldn’t be to last. In a scene that nods to Game of Thrones’s most famous (and infamous) episodes, corresponding to “The Winds Of Winter” and “The Bells,” the bottom splits from beneath the chapel, and a dragon rises through the dust and debris. The Red Queen, Meleys, approaches King Aegon with Rhaenys on her back, threatening enough to prompt Alicent sprinting in front of her firstborn son. But Meleys intends only to unleash a deafening roar, and the scarlet she-dragon lifts into the sky, taking together with her the Queen Who Never Was—and just a few scraps of Aegon’s dignity. An epic moment to herald Dragon’s finale, and an important one: With this move on the chess board, we will officially consider the Dance of the Dragons begun.
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Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books and fashion.