Sunday’s episode of House of the Dragon featured a dramatic dragon bonding, a bloody showdown between a smattering of would-be heirs to the throne, a paradigm-shifting coupling, a murderous betrayal, a last-minute plot twist, and the clearest yet indications of the fault lines that will soon thrust Westeros and the Targaryen dynasty into civil war. Or so I have been told: While watching it, I couldn’t make out a damn thing.
As you too may have noticed during your own viewing, whatever your personal device, settings, and lamp-or-candle-or-dragon-light situation, the seventh chapter of the series, “Driftmark,” turned off all the lights. Roughly half the episode took place in the dark, in the moonlit—slightly, sometimes—hours after Laena Velaryon’s funeral. Some things I know for a fact that I saw: an unidentified blond head bobbing toward a growling shadow, two other blond heads rolling around in the sand with the progress of their heretofore literally unattainable consummation somehow still unknown, a scuffle between … people? … in Corlys Velaryon’s darkened hall, and a two-minute flickering supercut of what I’m pretty sure were noses as the royal progeny beat the daylights (midnights?) out of one another in some under-torched corridor.
There are answers, sure—mostly ones confirmed in later, lighter scenes. That was Aemond Targaryen (whoops: You do not, under any circumstances, gotta hand it to him) creeping toward a dragon—the big, bad, and suddenly riderless Vhagar, no less. It was Aemond, too, whose eyeball ended up on the wrong side of a dagger after he decided to rumble with four relatives at once. The swordfight in Corlys’s hall was an (key word) apparent assassination of Laenor Velaryon by Ser Qarl Correy. And yes, Uncle Daemon seems to have gotten over his ED.
HBO’s official line on the matter is that “the dimmed lighting of this scene was an intentional creative decision.” No matter that the singular “scene” in question spanned nearly 30 full minutes between the sun first dipping behind High Tide’s tower and daylight arriving the next morning. Nearly every setting shown within that window—beach, sky, corridor, throne room—is sketchy at best and outright unintelligible at worst. I made it just a few of those minutes before I made the creative decision to turn off every light in the room and watch the rest of the episode in total darkness. I doubt very much that I’m alone.
Game of Thrones, of course, infamously had its own incidents of extreme darkness. The most notable came in the final season, when “The Long Night” finally delivered a showdown between the Night King and the Thin Stark Line. Then as now, the howls from viewers that they simply would have preferred to see the action were met with brusque HBO defenses and the argument that any failure was on the dummies who couldn’t be bothered to get a nicer TV. “Get in, loser, we’re spending 15 minutes programming our consumer electronics before each new episode of television” is perhaps not a very compelling pitch for a show reaching 29 million viewers with each episode.
I’ll say this for “Driftmark”: As densely plotted as the episode was, at least the shadows weren’t hiding the last battle between humanity and a Big Bad coming off eight seasons of hype. Still, though: Creating a gloomy atmosphere is not the same thing as needlessly sowing confusion—a lesson that one would have hoped the Thrones brain trust might have passed down.
House of the Dragon has so far reveled in sumptuous visuals: the different stylings of the growing dragon brood, the elegant and increasingly political finery of the feuding royals, the vast world-building of a show cycling through castle after castle, the smirks and glances and jaw-setting that Dragon’s actors have used to set their characters apart in a saga defined by there being too many. Fleeting confusion about which Targaryen is sneaking up to which dragon is one thing. In a show as rich as this one, losing the nuance may be even worse. That’s true even, and perhaps especially, of the little things, which have done much to win over viewers skeptical of the Thrones universe after that series devolved into hamfisted swings. It was only upon rewatch on a laptop with the brightness turned all the way up, for example, that I caught the Vhagar birdstrike gag.
Please, HBO, let us watch the action. But if not, should the showrunners go back and “fix” all that murk, it would at least make for a decent rewatch.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the name of the castle in the episode and the relationship between Aemond and his four opponents.