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The ‘House of the Dragon’ Finale Brought the Dance of the Dragons to a Point of No Return

After “The Black Queen,” war is no longer coming. It’s here.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Civil war has brewed for a season of television, and three decades of in-universe tension over succession to the Iron Throne.

Numerous characters died along the way, as House of the Dragon skipped through time and dramatized all the slights and squabbles that led to strife within House Targaryen. But until Dragon’s Season 1 finale—until the mighty dragon Vhagar slew young Arrax and his rider, Prince Lucerys Velaryon—no straw had yet crushed the proverbial camel’s back.

“The first battles in the Dance of the Dragons were fought with quills and ravens, with threats and promises, decrees and blandishments,” says Fire & Blood, Dragon’s source text. “The murder of Lord Beesbury at the green council was not yet widely known … many still hoped that the question of succession might be resolved peaceably.”

But now, as Dragon’s first season ends, Rhaenyra’s second son is dead and her angry eyes seem set on vengeance. Royal blood has been shed. War is no longer coming; it’s here.

Dragon’s Season 1 finale is an emotional roller coaster for Rhaenyra, focusing almost exclusively on her and her supporters after Episode 9 focused entirely on the greens. “The Black Queen” begins with a blow, when Rhaenyra, Daemon, and the others on Dragonstone learn about Viserys’s death and the greens’ coup.

For Rhaenyra, the news doesn’t just complicate her plans to sit the Iron Throne; it also induces premature labor. Thus Dragon’s Season 1 finale bookends its pilot episode, when Rhaenyra’s mother died in childbirth. (Daemon and Viserys’s mother also died because of a difficult childbirth, before the events of the show. And in Episode 6, Daemon’s second wife, Laena, died due to childbirth complications, as well.)

Rhaenyra doesn’t die, but her sixth child does. Her emotional roller coaster speeds around another bend as she buries her child, however, because Erryk Cargyll arrives with a gift, removing Viserys’s crown from his satchel like Flynn Rider in Tangled. Daemon places the crown atop Rhaenyra’s head, and the burial transforms into an impromptu coronation; everyone present (save Rhaenys, who has yet to confer with her husband, Corlys, and pick a side) kneels.

Aegon II’s coronation in “The Green Council” overflowed with pomp and circumstance; it was a staged, public event that told the masses of King’s Landing that all the aesthetic trappings of power belonged to him. Rhaenyra’s coronation, by contrast, is a smaller, spontaneous ceremony, and carries much more emotional weight for the first woman to be named queen of Westeros.

Monarchs are a bit like quarterbacks, though: If you have two, you really have none. And in the latest, most urgent entry in the “quills and ravens, threats and promises” phase of the war, Otto Hightower arrives for a callback to Episode 2, as he once again sizes up Daemon across Dragonstone’s bridge.

Also as in Episode 2, Rhaenyra arrives in style, fashionably late, on dragonback. Yet at this encounter, she’s on Daemon’s side, not Otto’s, and she receives the greens’ terms for peace: If Rhaenyra swears fealty to Aegon, she’ll get to keep Dragonstone and pass it to her sons, who will be royally acknowledged as trueborn; Lucerys will inherit Driftmark; her sons with Daemon will become Aegon’s squire and cupbearer; and all her supporters will receive pardons.

Daemon rejects the terms at once and threatens Otto with his sword; Rhaenyra preaches caution, lets Otto leave in peace, and agrees to consider the proposal. Then follows a harrowing scene, as Daemon chokes his wife as they argue about Aegon the Conqueror’s prophecy—of which Daemon isn’t aware—and the proper path to save the realm. This scene doesn’t appear in Fire & Blood, yet it befits a character who already killed one wife. One hopes that in Season 2, Dragon will explore the fallout of this violence with more care than Game of Thrones considered, say, Jaime’s rape of Cersei.

In this episode, at least, that fallout doesn’t materialize. Instead, after Rhaenyra and Daemon part, the blacks’ battle plans form in quick succession and triumphant music stirs. Corlys Velaryon, now recovered from his injury suffered in the Stepstones that sidelined him the past two episodes, agrees to support Rhaenyra’s claim and use his family’s naval power to blockade shipping lanes in the Narrow Sea. Rhaenys will use Meleys to patrol the Gullet to cut off all naval entry into King’s Landing. And they develop a plan to lay siege to the landward side of the capital as well—but will require the support of the Baratheons, Arryns, and Starks to do so.

Thus Rhaenyra finds an ostensibly peaceful mission for Jace and Luke, her two eldest boys with Laenor, er, Harwin Strong. “You go as messengers, not warriors,” she tells them, and asks them to swear on the gods to “take no part in any fighting.”

Yet this is only the latest in a series of McBain moments for Luke, who will soon meet his demise. The episode’s first scene hosts a tender moment between Rhaenyra and Luke, as she comforts her son. And before she sends Luke on his way to Storm’s End, she also tells him, with a smile, “I expect you will receive a very warm welcome.”

Surprise! Vhagar’s already there. As Luke walks up the steps into the hall at Storm’s End, he repeatedly glances back at the towering dragon, knowing exactly what her presence means: that Aemond beat him to the Baratheons. And inside the hall, Luke’s reception isn’t “very warm,” but rather as chilly as Storm’s End in a gale—both from Borros, who isn’t eager to confirm his father’s oath without receiving anything in return, and from Aemond, who sneers at Luke and calls him “my lord Strong” and “bastard.”

Aemond wants Luke to cut out one of his eyes, as payment for the eye he’d slashed during the children’s scuffle so many years (and just three episodes) ago. Borros won’t have it; he’s comfortable refusing Rhaenyra’s request for fealty, but not allowing violence in his own hall.

So instead, danger follows Luke out of the castle walls. The camera tracks him and Arrax through the rain, from ground to air, as they take and then struggle to maintain their flight amid a storm. Then comes a growl, and an ominous shadow appears above, and like a horror movie monster with a jump-scare, Vhagar appears in full. The oldest, largest, most battle-tested dragon alive dwarfs the young Arrax, and a laughing Aemond calls, in High Valyrian, that a debt is still owed.

Thanks to his smaller size and a narrow canyon, Arrax almost escapes, disappearing into the fog—but then, scared and resisting his master’s commands, the young dragon breathes flames at Vhagar’s thick hide. The chase is back on, despite Aemond’s frantic shouts of “No!”

As King Viserys says in Episode 1, “The idea that we control the dragons is an illusion.” Aemond, Luke, and Arrax learn that lesson the hard, murderous way, when Vhagar ignores her rider, launches forward, snaps her jaws, and tears Arrax’s body in two. The young dragon and his boy crumple into the sea below.

That Vhagar pursues this violence of her own accord is a notable deviation from the source text, which gives no indication that Aemond tried to rein his dragon in. This on-screen shift aligns with one of the other major show changes, too, as in Episode 8 Alicent misinterprets Viserys’s dying words as a plea for her Aegon to become king. Both changes serve to highlight the unintentional tragedy of the Targaryen civil war; if not for a name-based misunderstanding and a disobedient dragon, perhaps a chance—if ever so slight—to resolve the succession crisis “peaceably” may have remained.

But there’s no going back now—not after Rhaenyra lost two children in this episode, all as a result of Aegon’s crowning and her budding war with the greens. As Fire & Blood describes, with Luke’s death, “the war of ravens and envoys and marriage pacts came to an end, and the war of fire and blood began in earnest.” Presumably, the fire and blood will pour forth in greater amounts in Season 2. For now, they claimed an innocent boy and his dragon, torn to pieces above the Narrow Sea.