Time moves quickly in Westeros, or at least in “House of the Dragon.” Six months have passed since the events of last week’s premiere, and the tendrils of fresh stories introduced at the start of the “Game of Thrones” prequel take root Sunday as the HBO drama returns with its second episode, “The Rogue Prince.” The stage is now set for all manner of regal treachery, underdog heroics and the wholesale slaughter of characters we’ve come to love.
The first season of “House of the Dragon” has the luxury of moving much faster than early installments of “Game of Thrones” simply because it’s not encumbered with introducing strange new realms, mapping complicated family trees and translating bizarre vernaculars. Anyone who’s watched the original series has at least a passing familiarity with the bad blood between houses — and where the bodies will eventually be buried, burned, mutilated and so forth. Connecting the dots between the two series is half the fun, but “House of the Dragon” does not rely on that game to make the drama fly. Men’s ruthless conquest of power, the resourceful machinations of women and the near absence of diplomacy are all set to propel this narrative.
Episode 2 captures early signs of unrest in Westeros: Pirate ships are threatening trade routes, dragging the Targaryens closer to a major war than they’ve been in for decades. Acrimony between gentle King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) his impetuous brother Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) threatens to spill over since Daemon was denied his place as next in line to the throne and was banished from King’s Landing by his brother. The prince flew away on his dragon, surreptitiously claiming the family’s ancestral castle of Dragonstone as his own. He also stole a precious dragon egg from House Targaryen, claiming that he’s entitled to the treasure because his soon-to-be second wife, prostitute Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), is with child (she’s not) and it’s customary to place a dragon egg in the baby’s crib.
The newly appointed heir to the throne, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock), has little power. She’s a girl, after all, and is still relegated to pouring wine for the men of the elder council rather than sitting at the table with them, making decisions for the future of the realm. She knows of her uncle’s transgression and the king has forbade her from getting involved.
She does so anyway — and her confrontation with Daemon on the bridge to Dragonstone is at once a stunning cinematic achievement and a nuanced scene between rival family members that draws its inspiration from “Game of Thrones’” more indelible moments. The King’s Hand, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), is already there with a small army demanding that the prince hand over the egg and vacate the castle. But Daemon is an intrepid warrior and — with former king’s guardsmen backing him and a dragon perched atop the cliff — Hightower & Co. are immediately outmaneuvered.
Until Rhaenyra emerges through cloud cover atop her dragon, that is. After landing on the bridge, the petite teen makes her way confidently through rows of armored, grown men until she’s directly in front of her uncle. Hand over the egg, she demands. He says he’s keeping it for his new wife. She reminds him that he’s already married. But he didn’t get to choose his first wife, he protests. She clucks her tongue, disregarding his complaint as though she were dealing with a toddler, and then gets to the point: She took his place in line for the Iron Throne. He’s mad. So go ahead, kill her. That’ll end this charade for good. Entrapped by his own posturing and hubris, he caves. She walks away, egg in hand.
It’s a quiet turn of power, a sign that she’ll be a formidable queen and proof that she’s already more cunning and fearless than her father.
Where is the king? Back at King’s Landing, mourning the death of his queen and newborn son while facing the pressure to choose a new wife. Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), head of House Velaryon and earner of the name “The Sea Snake” due to his history as the best sailor in Westeros, wants the king to marry his daughter. Never mind that she’s just 12. She’s a good match, on parchment, at least. Lord Corlys is the wealthiest man in the kingdom and one of the most powerful next to the king. He’s a direct descendant from the ancient House Velaryon, and that means something.
For 5,000 years, Valyria was the capital of the greatest civilization ever known in the land of Essos. (Westeros was an unexplored frontier by comparison.) Much of Valyria’s power was derived from taming dragons and using them to conquer surrounding houses and realms. But a volcanic eruption decimated Valyria centuries ago, wiping away its people and nearly all 1,000 of their winged beasts. The far-away House Targaryen and its handful of dragons survived the cataclysmic event and rose to power after the downfall of the Valyrians. A century later, they conquered Westeros and established the dynasty we see in “House of the Dragon.”
Though we’re just getting to know the king, he seems like a fellow prone to poor decision-making, and his choice of a wife in Episode 2 appears to be another bad move, one that sets a new political rivalry in motion. There’s also the mystery of what’s eating at him, literally. The king’s body is plagued with oozing sore spots, perhaps inflicted by the sharp edges of the throne. The remedy for the ailment on his finger? Soaking his hand in a bowl of maggots. (Did I mention it’s best not to snack while watching “House of the Dragon”?)
“The Rogue Prince” moves the story along exponentially and delivers on the drama, grandeur and smart discourse that “Game of Thrones” fans expect. And the girl who would be king is now a huge part of that intrigue.