For its eighth episode, House of the Dragon took a lesson from an HBO colleague. This summer, The Rehearsal enthralled audiences with its strange meta setup, as star Nathan Fielder staged elaborate rehearsals to prepare for difficult life events.
So with the death of a leader and a succession crisis looming—the very example of a difficult life event—Dragon decided to try the same trick. In “The Lord of the Tides,” Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake and lord of Driftmark, is on the brink of death due to battle wounds suffered in the Stepstones, and his succession plan isn’t totally clear: Is Lucerys, Corlys’s ostensible grandson through Laenor, next in line? Or should Vaemond Velaryon, Corlys’s brother, preempt Lucerys because the latter is probably the son of Harwin Strong, not Laenor?
Dragon answers this question six years after “Driftmark.” The many Targaryen children are all grown up, and Rhaenyra and Daemon have two young boys of their own. But the same questions that have troubled the Red Keep since the midseason time jump, if not earlier—did Rhaenyra flaunt her privilege by birthing children out of wedlock? Will people accept her as the heir to the throne?—remain. And with Viserys’s health failing, they’re more urgent than they have ever been.
The castle on Driftmark and title of “lord of the tides” are both important in their own right—but in this case, the squabble doubles as a proxy fight for the even more crucial succession to the Iron Throne. As Rhaenyra says, “He means to call into question Luke’s legitimacy, and by extension Jace, and by extension my own claim to the throne.”
Vaemond wants Driftmark for the sake of the Velaryon house—but Alicent and Otto Hightower are counting on this proxy fight paying off on a bigger scale, with the Iron Throne as the prize. It’s a rehearsal for whenever Viserys dies.
Alicent is already running things in King’s Landing, in all but name. “It’s not the king who sits the Iron Throne these days, good sister. It’s the queen,” Vaemond tells Rhaenys in the episode’s opening scene. She and her father, the reinstated hand of the king, lead Small Council meetings. They redecorate with seven-pointed stars to signify the Faith—which is conveniently headquartered in Oldtown, the Hightowers’ prosperous seat. They even “warm [Viserys’s] throne,” Rhaenyra criticizes—quite literally, in Otto’s case, as he sits on the great mangled chair while the royal court is in session.
On the day of the hearing, Otto takes that powerful seat as the interested parties make their cases, but a sudden commotion stirs the hall: The doors to the throne room open, and Viserys appears. With a golden mask covering half his face and a cane supporting his slow approach, he declares, “I will sit the throne today.” He shoos away a knight offering support, then tries to do so again when he stumbles on the steps—only to see his brother, Daemon, offering a hand after so many ups and downs in their fraternal relationship.
The entire procession—from doors opening through Daemon’s final placement of the crown atop Viserys’s head—is properly tender and a fitting tribute to Paddy Considine’s nuanced performance across the season. Between this sequence and Alicent’s arrival at Rhaenyra and Laenor’s pre-wedding feast, two of Dragon’s best scenes so far have centered on people dramatically entering rooms.
For Viserys, the question of Driftmark’s inheritance isn’t actually a question at all. The first line he utters after ascending the throne is, “I must admit my confusion. I do not understand why petitions are being heard over a settled succession.”
But Vaemond isn’t content with this quick dismissal. “Her children are bastards,” he yells about Rhaenyra, “and she is a whore.” Those are the last words he’ll ever speak: Daemon defends his wife’s honor and lops off Vaemond’s head in one stroke with his sword. Valyrian steel cuts clean.
(In The Rehearsal, Fielder’s experiments may have been ethically compromised, but at least they didn’t involve any beheadings.)
With Lucerys’s legitimacy—and by extension Jacaerys’s and Rhaenyra’s—reaffirmed, the family convenes for a group dinner, at Viserys’s request. The table hosts very little conversation before the king arrives; Alicent and Rhaenyra sit near the center, not talking, with Viserys’s empty chair forming a great symbolic gap between them.
But the icy atmosphere thaws when the king takes his seat and makes a stirring speech. “The crown cannot stand strong if the house of the dragon remains divided,” Viserys says in his best Abraham Lincoln impression. “Set aside your grievances, if not for the sake of the crown then for the sake of this old man who loves you all so dearly.”
At first, the family obeys. Rhaenyra, Alicent, and a couple of the children offer toasts; Alicent goes so far as to tell her former friend and current stepdaughter, “You will make a fine queen.” Music plays, and the room fills with laughter, genuine smiles—even from the always surly Otto—and an actual dance of the dragons, as Jacaerys and Helaena trot around the hall.
Yet as soon as Viserys leaves the table—as soon as that “old man who loves [them] all so dearly” leaves the room—Prince Aemond grabs the metaphorical microphone and the fragile peace disintegrates. Let’s stress the timing once more: As soon as Viserys leaves, his family trades grudging smiles for fists.
Aemond, who has seemingly grown (and aged) more than any of the other children over the six-year jump, barely speaks in the episode until this moment. He bests Ser Criston in a practice bout—though as he tells the Kingsguard knight, “I don’t give a shit about tourneys.” He’s ready for the real thing.
So with his father gone, Aemond drops the forced Guy Fawkes smile he’d adopted for most of the episode and offers a final toast. “To the health of my nephews,” he says, “Jace, Luke, and Joffrey. Each of them handsome, wise”—and here he pauses and gives a slight nod, as if to indicate, yes, he does want to continue down this path—“strong. Let us drain our cups to these three strong boys.” Or should that be “three Strong boys” with a capital-S, given the obvious double meaning behind his words?
Alicent’s and Rhaenyra’s two eldest boys—Aegon and Aemond on one side, Jace and Luke on the other—scrap, before Daemon and knights pull them apart. The house’s divide and its long-running grievances reappear, too entrenched to melt with some kind words and a meal.
And as the episode ends, King Viserys of House Targaryen; the First of His Name; King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men; Lord of the Seven Kingdoms; and Protector of the Realm, takes what might be his final breaths. If he has, the one thread holding the two sides of the family together has snapped, and the rehearsal will give way to the real thing.
That’s bad news for Rhaenyra, who’s on her way back to Dragonstone with her family at episode’s end. On the one hand, the rehearsal was not identical to the succession battle now at hand. Master of Laws Jasper “Ironrod” Wylde notes that in the case of Lucerys and Driftmark, “The Sea Snake has never formally named him as heir, if it comes to that”—whereas Viserys formally named Rhaenyra, and reiterated that decision time and again.
Yet with Alicent and Otto holding the reins of power in King’s Landing, that repeated declaration might not matter. If Viserys hadn’t intervened and the Hightowers had had their way, Vaemond Velaryon would probably still have his head and a giant castle to boot.
“If you wish me to bear” the burden of the crown, Rhaenyra pleaded to her father in this episode, “then defend me and my children.” When that defender is gone, there might be nothing left keeping her in line to the throne—or keeping the crown from descending into civil war.