The sixth episode of the first season of House of the Dragon was always going to be the trickiest. Beginning with a 10-year time jump after the dramatic end to Episode 5, “The Princess and the Queen” needed to accomplish a tremendous amount of stage-setting, almost like a second pilot episode.
This episode needed to introduce new characters. It needed to integrate new actors for a handful of characters, most notably the all-grown-up versions of the titular princess, Rhaenyra Targaryen, and queen, Alicent Hightower. And it simultaneously needed to catch viewers up on all the important developments over the last decade in Westeros—and all the changes in relationships and emotions that ensued, as well.
The result, as Dragon rounds into the back half of its inaugural season, is something of a mixed bag. Just as with a previous multi-year jump, the show’s seams are visible as it strains to fit all of those requirements into just an hour of screen time (or 67 minutes, to be precise). Yet at other points, Dragon still zips as effortlessly as peak Game of Thrones.
The most notable change—and the change most representative of that duality—comes in the character of Alicent, now played by Olivia Cooke, who embodies a whole new persona after the decade gap. Before the time jump, in “We Light the Way,” Alicent was just starting to make her first moves in the game of thrones; now she’s a full player, much more assertive in her conversations, ambitions, and politics.
People change a lot in 10 years—but the extent of Alicent’s swing, no matter how justified, is jarring on the screen. The timid girl who picked at her nails is long gone. Now, Alicent is an Edith Wilson in Westeros, flexing her position as queen, sitting in and essentially leading Small Council meetings, and even organizing Viserys’s personal appointments behind closed doors.
Clearly, the queen felt that she had to assume this more active approach. Even after a decade, she still feels isolated in the capital, asking Larys Strong at a private meal, “In all of King’s Landing, is there no one to take my side?”
Even Alicent’s mannerisms reflect this personality shift. The younger version of the character never raised her voice, but Cooke does so in multiple scenes in “The Princess and the Queen.” She yells at her eldest son, Aegon, and when Larys suggests Otto Hightower would not be an impartial hand to the king, she explodes, “No, but he would be partial to me!”
The new Alicent is also sarcastic in a way that Emily Carey’s younger portrayal was not; she taunts her rival’s husband, whose ostensible children look nothing like him: “Do keep trying, Ser Laenor. Sooner or later, you may get one who looks like you.” She is more self-assured, rhetorically asking Ser Criston Cole, “Have I lost my sanity?” because others do not act the way she desires. And when she interacts with or talks about Rhaenyra, her former best friend, her dominant expression is now one of contempt—the most dangerous emotion in any relationship.
At least Alicent exhibits some misgivings about the aggression on display from her few allies. She glares at Criston when he goes too far insulting Rhaenyra and blanches at Larys’s admission of murder. She’s changed, but isn’t yet completely submerged in a “you win or you die” dichotomy.
Other novelties in Episode 6 receive a smoother rollout. Viewers quickly get the measure of Viserys and Alicent’s male children, via strong “show, don’t tell” examples. (Their female child, Helaena, appears in only one scene and could use more development.) Aegon, the potential heir as the king’s eldest son, introduces himself like Roman Roy, masturbating out an open window above the city. He yawns out of boredom at dragon practice—as the camera enters the Dragonpit for the first time on the show—and pranks his brother. He leers at a pair of serving girls in the yard. A future King Jaehaerys this is not.
His younger brother also receives ample introduction. Aemond is a brash boy, quick to anger and easily offended. Most of all, he desperately desires a dragon of his own, which extends even beyond the typical Targaryen connection. “Your obsession with those beasts,” Alicent scolds him, “goes beyond understanding.”
Rhaenyra’s blatantly brunette children are younger and less developed in this episode, where their key role is as pawns in the drama encircling Rhaenyra, Laenor, and Harwin Strong. Although Rhaenyra married Laenor at the end of Episode 5, they had already agreed to pursue an open relationship that better matched their incompatible sexual orientations. Laenor still misses Joffrey Lonmouth—he names the son born in this episode after his dead paramour—but has moved on to a new lover, Qarl.
In the meantime, Rhaenyra—now played by Emma D’Arcy—has evidently fallen into the well-muscled arms of Harwin, the son of the king’s hand and the commander of the City Watch. All three of her children look a lot more like Harwin than Laenor, which makes the truth of the matter obvious to everyone at court—everyone, that is, except King Viserys, who’s now missing a whole arm and remains willfully blind to the reality of his grandchildren’s parentage.
“People have eyes, boy,” Lyonel Strong, the hand of the king, tells Harwin. The same should hold for the audience, because the conflict between Rhaenyra’s duty to her marriage and her affinity for the father of her children is clear in all her scenes.
Yet some story lines are less successful, inducing a sense of whiplash because of how quickly they expand a character’s role only to limit it once again, all in the span of a single episode. Harwin fits into this category as well. He had barely any lines in the first five episodes, and now, in just an hour, is revealed as Rhaenyra’s paramour and the father of her children, beats up Criston—still serving in the Kingsguard despite committing a public murder last episode—and dies in a fire at Harrenhal.
The subplot in Pentos is an even worse offender. Viewers have only truly engaged with Laena Velaryon twice before this episode: when she’s 12 years old and a candidate to marry the widowed king, and when she briefly dances with Daemon at the pre-wedding feast. Yet now, she’s a dragonrider, atop the absolutely immense Vhagar—“the oldest, largest, most terrible dragon in the world,” according to Fire & Blood—and Daemon’s wife. She’s the mother of two children. And then she dies, in a confusing sequence that ends with her choosing to perish in a bath of Vhagar’s flames.
That’s a lot to adjust to in such a short span. The time jump lessens the impact of Harwin’s and Laena’s deaths, because while Rhaenyra and Daemon, respectively, have been with their partners for a decade, viewers have had scarcely any time to know them or understand their place in the world.
If the showrunners were always going to structure their show with such a large leap in the middle, such stumbles were likely unavoidable. The narrative demands of this episode were too great to address them all without any hiccups—and while that reality makes for a less spectacular viewing experience, it should hopefully serve as a stepping stone to a more consistently entertaining end to the season.
The important players who will start the Targaryen civil war are here. The battle lines have already been, if not fully drawn and inked, at least sketched out in a draft. House of the Dragon now has more children, more dragons, and more Targaryen might on display. The show is firmly at, as Fire & Blood describes the height of Viserys’s reign, “the apex of Targaryen power in Westeros.” Fairly soon, it will all come tumbling down.