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House of the Dragon: ‘Rhaenyra the Cruel’ Review: Failed Machinations Fuel Chaos in Westeros

This week on House of the Dragon, the brutal assassination of Prince Jaehaerys has pushed our warring houses into desperation mode as the Dance of the Dragons continues to unfold. For the highborn, this desperation manifests itself in shifting power dynamics, self-doubt, and empty political posturing. For the smallfolk, it manifests in a sense of fear and weakening security. Everyone is circling the wagons and scrambling to hoard whatever resources they can muster. They know that when the rich and powerful go to war, it’s the smallfolk who suffer.

If you haven’t watched ‘Rhaenyra the Cruel’ yet, please come back after you’ve soaked in the episode. There are spoilers ahead, and this reviewer would hate to treat your existence with the same indifference that the bloodthirsty nobles in this Game of Thrones property offer their subjects.

Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy, Mothering Sunday) can not catch a break this season. Last week, he was on a mourning tour in search of her son’s remains and returned home to nothing but diminishing trust from her war council. This week, she is rightly pissed off at her husband, Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), for at least indirectly ordering the assassination of a child (sweet Helaena’s child, no less!), though she is certainly aware of the rage that was churning in her heart when she asked Daemon to deliver vengeance. When her team gets word of the assassination, Rhaenyra’s council of bros is very quick to hit her with some basic sexism and assume she is prone to an overly-emotional reaction. It’s tough enough to mourn the loss of a son and run a war without being reminded that your trusted advisors are oh so willing to cut you down. 

Naturally, this leads to an ugly domestic dispute between Rhaenyra and Daemon, in which they both cross a line by saying the quiet part out loud. For instance, in our 2024 world, the leading breadwinner of a household would never wield that status as a weapon against their partner unless they are looking to open a permanent wound. In Westeros, similarly, you never accuse your incestuous royal spouse of using you as a crutch in their desperate bid for the throne.

Nevertheless, Rhaenyra lets Daemon know that he is not the victim he fancies himself to be; he is simply a ruthless power-seeker taking advantage of his well-connected niece. As she puts it, “you used me as a tool to grasp at your stolen inheritance!” Not to be outdone, Daemon lashes back with some venom of his own. He accuses Rhaenyra of spoiled entitlement in a way that would make their rivals on Team Green proud: “Do you believe [King Viserys] made you heir because of your great wisdom? Because of your virtue? Or did he merely use you as a tool to put me in my place because he was afraid of me? Because he knew your legacy, unlike mine, would never outshine his own!” There are a lot ugly truths on the table, and it doesn’t feel like these two will ever be able to repair their relationship. Nevertheless, Daemon armors-up and flies off into the night on his mission to secure Harrenhal.

As Rhaenyra tries to regain control of her council, she decides to confront her prisoner (and Daemon’s old flame), Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno, Ex Machina), about her motivations in providing the intel that lead to the brutal murder of a child. Viewers are treated to a feast as these two powerful women size each other up like birds of prey, ready to strike at any moment. Despite every fiber of her being telling her it would be an unwise decision, Rhaenyra chooses to show Mysaria mercy and honor Daemon’s terms for her release. It seems like Rhaeynra is desperate to feel like a human being instead of a strategy book for a moment, so she decides to show mercy to another woman scorned by Daemon.

Admittedly, this choice appears to lead to one – very big – win for Rhaenyra. While we don’t see the conversations to prove it, there is a heavy implication that Mysaria identifies the approach of Ser Erryk Cargyll’s (Elliot Tittensor, Shameless) bad twin assassin, Ser Arryk Cargyll (Luke Tittensor, Emmerdale Farm), and uses that information to alert Rhaenyra’s guard. As a result, Erryk is able to defeat his brother and save Rhaenyra. Still, it’s a bittersweet win for Rhaenyra, as Erryk falls on his own sword in shame (or, as this reviewer believes, falls on his own sword so that Rhaenyra won’t have to admit that she lost track of which twin was which).

Of course, things are arguably even messier with Team Green. King Aegon II Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney, Dunkirk) is so overcome with rage over the brutal murder of his son, that he is in full and unbridled revenge mode. He even smashes his dad’s model of Old Valyria to smithereens. Meanwhile, Hand of the King – for a little bit longer, anyway – Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans, The Amazing Spider-Man) jumps so quickly and heartlessly into spin master mode that it breaks any of Aegon’s remaining trust in his grandfather. It turns out Otto’s political maneuvering and personnel management isn’t quite as skilled as he believes it to be. Work on that bedside manner, dude.

Ultimately, Queen Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One) and Queen Helaena Targaryen (Phia Saban, The Last Kingdom) are forced to lead a procession through the streets of King’s Landing to show off the brutality of Rhaenyra’s crime and showcase their “gentle” demeanors (yuck, Otto) for the smallfolk; the legend of “Rhaenyra the Cruel, Pretender to the Throne” is born in the hearts and minds of the people – that’s the idea, anyway.

While this reviewer accused HOTD of going soft on the murder sequence last week, the show finds a new way to pay off the horrors of the “Blood and Cheese” incident in episode two. Viewers are struck by the jarring imagery of young Prince Jaehaerys’s body shaking lifelessly on a cart during the funeral procession; this cold, brutal, and absolutely devastating footage, paired with the visual imagery of the cart getting stuck in a pothole on the poorly-maintained streets of King’s Landing, serves as a master class in making viewers feel the weight of an atrocity. We are spared a shot of the body tumbling out of the cart and onto the muddy streets, but the show takes us so perilously close to that outcome that every viewer must have imagined it in their mind’s eye.

Unfortunately, checking in with Team Green also means spending time with Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel, The Serpent). Viewers are subjected to more incel bullshit from the most hateable character on the show. We learn that Criston is not only a giant creep, but completely incompetent. Apparently, as head of the Kingsguard, it never occurred to him to assign a security detail to Queen Helaena. Nevertheless, he gives Arryk a public tonguelashing for muddying the white cape of his Kingsguard uniform and projects his failings onto the soldier by fixating on the cape as a symbol of Kingsguard purity. This is particularly infuriating, knowing that Ser Criston was busy breaking his own oath of “purity” in Queen Alicent’s chamber at the time of the murder. Instead of taking responsibility, he sends Arryk off on a suicide mission to impersonate his twin Brother at Dragonstone and assassinate Rhaenyra. Why? As Ser Criston the Creep puts it: “it’s time the bitch queen paid a price.” It’s just absolutely psychotic behavior from Team Green.

Meanwhile, The Greens manage to capture one of the murderers, a corrupt member of the Kingsguard. They quickly decide to let an unhinged King Aegon bludgeon the murderer to death, though they do keep him alive long enough to learn that his accomplice was a ratcatcher. Of course, rather than put together a lineup of rat catchers for their suspect to inspect, Aegon decides to orchestrate a mass public hanging of every ratcatcher in the Red Keep; any goodwill he may have received from suffering the tragic loss of his son has now been undone by this mad showcase of cruelty.

Otto Hightower is understandably livid when he learns of this atrocity, but he overplays his hand (pun intended) and finds out the hard way that Aegon is ready and willing to replace him with a new Hand: the most toxic person in King’s Landing. Yup, you guessed it. Ser Criston Cole. We should all be terrified that Aegon enjoys this show of power so much. As he puts it, “I have dared, and I find it stimulating.”

House of the Dragon runs the risk of losing some unique dimension now that Otto is packing his bags. We’ll miss his emotional distance, his love for the game, and the downright sensual way he pronounces words like “forbearance, judiciousness, and dignity.”

[Speaking of strange kinks, we also get a brief check in with Prince Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell, High Life), who apparently visits the bowels of the pleasure den to be coddled like a baby.]

Of course, even with Otto’s departure, there are sure to be plenty of fireworks ahead as the young, warmongering Greens step into the seats of power. As our guy Otto puts it, “the young are peacocks, all shrieking and feathers.”

While Queen Alicent is somewhat disturbed by her father’s departure and the more and more inevitable prospects of war, she can’t quite deny how stimulated she is by the idea of having access to a new Hand of the King who is so eager to please her and follow her order.

Folks, get ready for some chaos.

So, who won the week? If we are talking about Team Black vs. Team Green, we’ll give Team Black a narrow win this time around. While Rhaenyra is in a rough, vulnerable place and the confidence of her leadership team is floundering, she survives Criston Cole’s “prank” of an assassination attempt (oh, Otto Hightower, we miss you already) and Aegon tosses out all of his goodwill by proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that personal vendettas and cruelty will rule his character moving forward. Also, while it is possible that Daemon will go rogue after his fight with Rhaenyra, it seems more likely that he is eager to win a victory in her name. Plus, the teases of future dragonriders for Team Black keep coming (we’ll dig into that when the show addresses it more directly).

Now if we are talking about who won the week from a cast and crew perspective, the job gets a bit tougher. It feels wrong not to say that Emma D’Arcy won the week. Their nuanced performance and ability to capture the weight that sits upon Rhaenyra’s shoulders were superb. Powerful. That being said, it feels like Tom Glynn-Carney is the true winner once again. His unhinged, hateable ruler is making House of the Dragon feel more like Game of Thrones than it has at any point in the show’s run. His ability to pair Aegon’s unhinged anger and delight in cruelty with vulnerable, inconsolable weeping is compelling. He also continues to win our pity. He projects absolute doofiness in singing the praises of Criston Cole’s assassination attempt: “[Arryk is] pretending to be his own twin. Brilliant.” But there is another layer to this doofy comment, because just behind that shit-eating half-smirk, we see him questioning his own logic and reasoning. Once again, Glynn-Carney’s fun and layered performance wins the week.

There is certainly a lot of delicious conflict at play, and it looks like we will continue to embrace the chaos in the weeks ahead. Please join us again next week! We’ll unpack how Rhaenyra responds to the attempt on her life and we’ll get a feel for the new-look Small Council in King’s Landing.

Until then, let’s end on a shoutout to Alicent Hightower with the understatement of the century: “Ser Criston is not temperate.”

House of the Dragon Season 2 Episode 2 ‘Rhaenyra the Cruel’ is now streaming on MAX.

Otto Hightower is understandably livid when he learns of this atrocity, but he overplays his hand (pun intended) and finds out the hard way that Aegon is ready and willing to replace him with a new Hand: the most toxic person in King’s Landing. Yup, you guessed it. Ser Criston Cole. We should all be terrified that Aegon enjoys this show of power so much. As he puts it, “I have dared, and I find it stimulating.” 

House of the Dragon runs the risk of losing some unique dimension now that Otto is packing his bags. We’ll miss his emotional distance, his love for the game, and the downright sensual way he pronounces words like “forbearance, judiciousness, and dignity.” 

[Speaking of strange kinks, we also get a brief check in with Prince Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell), who apparently visits the bowels of the pleasure den to be coddled like a baby.]

Of course, even with Otto’s departure, there are sure to be plenty of fireworks ahead as the young, warmongering Greens step into the seats of power. As our guy Otto puts it, “the young are peacocks, all shrieking and feathers.” 

While Queen Alicent is somewhat disturbed by her father’s departure and the more and more inevitable prospects of war, she can’t quite deny how stimulated she is by the idea of having access to a new Hand of the King who is so eager to please her and follow her order. 

Folks, get ready for some chaos.

So, who won the week? If we are talking about Team Black vs. Team Green, we’ll give Team Black a narrow win this time around. While Rhaenyra is in a rough, vulnerable place and the confidence of her leadership team is floundering, she survives Criston Cole’s “prank” of an assassination attempt (oh, Otto Hightower, we miss you already) and Aegon tosses out all of his goodwill by proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that personal vendettas and cruelty will rule his character moving forward. Also, while it is possible that Daemon will go rogue after his fight with Rhaenyra, it seems more likely that he is eager to win a victory in her name. Plus, the teases of future dragonriders for Team Black keep coming (we’ll dig into that when the show addresses it more directly). 

Now if we are talking about who won the week from a cast and crew perspective, the job gets a bit tougher. It feels wrong not to say that Emma D’Arcy won the week. Their nuanced performance and ability to capture the weight that sits upon Rhaenyra’s shoulders were superb. Powerful. That being said, it feels like Tom Glynn-Carney is the true winner once again. His unhinged, hateable ruler is making House of the Dragon feel more like Game of Thrones than it has at any point in the show’s run. His ability to pair Aegon’s unhinged anger and delight in cruelty with vulnerable, inconsolable weeping is compelling. He also continues to win our pity. He projects absolute doofiness in singing the praises of Criston Cole’s assassination attempt: “[Arryk is] pretending to be his own twin. Brilliant.” But there is another layer to this doofy comment, because just behind that shit-eating half-smirk, we see him questioning his own logic and reasoning. Once again, Glynn-Carney’s fun and layered performance wins the week. 

There is certainly a lot of delicious conflict at play, and it looks like we will continue to embrace the chaos in the weeks ahead. Please join us again next week! We’ll unpack how Rhaenyra responds to the attempt on her life and we’ll get a feel for the new-look Small Council in King’s Landing. 

Until then, let’s end on a shoutout to Alicent Hightower with the understatement of the century: “Ser Criston is not temperate.”

House of the Dragon Season 2 Episode 2, ‘Rhaenyra the Cruel’ is now streaming on MAX.

Randy Allain
Randy Allainhttps://randyallain.weebly.com/
Randy Allain is a high school English teacher and freelance writer & podcaster. He has a passion for entertainment media and is always ready for thoughtful discourse about your favorite content. You will most likely find him covering Doctor Who or chatting about music on "Every Pod You Cast," a deep dive into the discography of The Police, available monthly in the Pop Break Today feed.
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