HomeTelevisionHouse of The Dragon: ‘The Burning Mill’ Foreshadows the Oncoming Dragon War

House of The Dragon: ‘The Burning Mill’ Foreshadows the Oncoming Dragon War

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen
Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO

This week on House of the Dragon, ‘The Burning Mill’ braces viewers for war with a newfound sense of urgency. Not only does our map get a bit bigger, but the show removes any shadow of a doubt that civil war is about to bloody the pages of Westerosi history books. In a sequence that somewhat stretches the boundaries of rationality, the show manages to crush any hope viewers might have that this conflict can be resolved through clear communication and diplomacy. Still, the episode serves as a tasty and sophisticated appetizer for the complex meal that is sure to dominate our televisions for the rest of this season two run. As we dive in to take a closer look at the episode, please be aware that there are spoilers ahead.

‘The Burning Mill’ opens with a clear statement that war is here in the form of a microcosm. We get a few brief moments with some hotheaded youths of the Bracken and Blackwood clans. In quick succession, we learn that these two families have hated each other for so long that nobody knows how the feud began. Things take a dramatic turn with an intentionally jarring jump from a tiny squabble amongst some bros, straight to a field of dead bodies and a burning mill – yes, this device used for processing grain and providing sustenance is now a burning reminder that this conflict is about to spill out of the throne room. If that isn’t enough to sell the idea, Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best, Lucky Man) drives it home in the next scene. Standing beside Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy, Mothering Sunday) at the notably unceremonious “funeral” for the Cargyll twins (Luke, Emmerdale Farm & Elliot Tittensor, Shameless), the Queen Who Never Was reminds her niece that war is approaching, and that once it does, she will lose control of the narrative: “Soon, they will not even remember what it was that began the war in the first place.”

Meanwhile, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel, The Serpent) is hyperventilating before his first Small Council meeting as Hand of the King. We understand why when he pops in late for his own meeting and is met with nothing but scornful looks and sarcasm. He instantly sends himself on what sounds an awful lot like a suicide mission to the Riverlands without any of the myriad reinforcements approaching King’s Landing or even a single dragon escort. If you’ve had it with Criston Cole, this scene is here so that you can sit back and watch him sweat. This reviewer, for one, was happy to see the Red Keep’s resident incel having a bad day.

Despite the fact that we are already enjoying the suffering of this hypocritical and dangerous monster, cast newcomer Freddie Fox rides in, spitting venom as Ser Gwayne Hightower. This reviewer does not enjoy classism, but watching this young Lord delight in mocking Cole’s lowly origins and sarcastically expressing his excitement to, “ride out with a Dornishman,” feels like Cole getting a taste of his own nasty medicine.

Ultimately, we get the treat of looking on as both of these twisted souls soil themselves in a desperate ride to the treeline as Lady Baela Targaryen (Bethany Antonia, Stay Close) and her dragon bear down on them. Sadly, Cole wins a small victory over his new Hightower foe in the aftermath of this encounter; the company will keep a low profile: “no fucking inns.”

Meanwhile, Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith, Doctor Who) is dealing with some trouble of his own. You see, he really wants to conquer something. In that spirit, he dramatically rides in on Caraxes to take control of Harrenhal. He sends stones tumbling from the tallest tower before taking a cautious walk through a wet, leaky, and largely abandoned tower. This fortress-to-be isn’t exactly brimming with reinforcements. When Daemon finally does encounter some halfhearted opposition, he uses excessive force, if only to feel something in his chaotic heart.

When Daemon finally does find the lord of the estate, Ser Simon Strong (Simon Russell Beale, The Outfit), Lord Strong is more than happy to bend the knee and avoid conflict. This really deflates Daemon, the guy with something to prove, but it provides a comic delight for the audience. There is a deep layer of irony in the fact that Daemon’s big prize is so empty and dilapidated. While Ser Simon does his best to put a positive spin on the aged venison and assures us that the peas are not poisoned, a beautiful overhead shot reveals the fact they can’t even fill the stately dining table in this massive castle.

This irony is further punctuated by Ser Simon’s back-to-back failures to address Daemon as “Your Grace.” The dishonor of Ser Simon’s assumption visibly rattles Daemon, but even this badass warrior knows that he is desperate; watching him hold back his anger and settle for a light reprimand is pure comic gold. Daemon lets out a halfhearted threat, “then we are reminded of the perilousness of assumption,” but can only muster enough strength to roll his eyes when Ser Simon repeats the offense mere moments later. Daemon hates knowing how badly he needs the support of this lowly lord.

In addition to some comic relief (shout out to the ailing Lord Grover Tully and his failing bowels), Ser Simon also showcases some good sense and wisdom. In response to Daemon’s questions about the bloody Bracken/Blackwood feud, our new favorite lord explains that the reason is unknowable: “The answer to that is… lost in time. Sin begets sin begets sin.” This is the central premise of the ‘The Burning Mill,’ and the same wisdom that Rhaenys imparted to Rhaenyra. It is clear that the death toll and impacts of this conflict will resound much louder in history than the personal stakes our characters are focused on in the present.

Later that night, Daemon is haunted by a series of dreams or supernatural visions that are linked to a mysterious serving woman at Harrenhal named Alys Rivers (Gayle Rankin, GLOW). One vision features a cameo from season one’s young Rhaenyra actress, Milly Alcock. In the vision, she is sewing the head of Prince Jaehaerys back onto his body while reminding Daemon about all of his comings and goings. Matt Smith’s visual reaction certainly makes it look like Daemon feels guilty for his actions and their impact on Rhaenyra.

Following that vision, Daemon’s consciousness shifts to a confrontation with Rivers by a Weirwood tree. She tells him that he will die there; viewers are left to wonder whether this will be a literal or figurative death. Either way, Daemon is certainly forced to confront his responsibility for the events unfolding in the civil war that stands before him.

Speaking of personal responsibility, it can’t be understated how poorly King Aegon II Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney, Dunkirk) is managing the realm. Not only has he “reinforced” the Kingsguard with his unprofessional and untrained drinking buddies, but he is getting off on empty showmanship (fondling a knife during the Small Council meeting and peacocking in his inherited armor, despite his cowardice when faced with the prospect of actually riding into battle). He laughs off the Kingsguard vow of celibacy with his new “protectors” and then heads off for a night on the town in the pleasure den. Not only does he further hurt his public image with his unruly drunkenness, but he openly mocks his most competent warrior, his brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell, High Life). Surely, this isn’t going to do him any favors as he works to get his court in order.

While Aegon is off burning bridges, Rhaenyra is trying to lay down some roots for the future. As heartbreaking as it is to see Rhaenyra separate from her children, the choice to send them (and some future dragons) abroad feels like a good bit of defense as she preps for the coming conflict. While Lady Rhaena Targaryen (Phoebe Campbell, Midsomer Murders) doesn’t seem thrilled to be relegated to supernanny status, she may feel some honor in being considered the caretaker of the house’s future.

Finally, ‘The Burning Mill’ brings the stars of the series together for a reunion that comes as a surprise to hardened book readers and unspoiled fans of the television series alike. Desperate for a peaceful resolution and eager to prove to her war council and advisors that she is up to the task at hand, Rhaenyra calls a Hail Mary and sneaks into King’s Landing for a face-to-face meeting with Alicent Hightower (Oliva Cooke, Ready Player One). Disguised as a septa at The Great Sept, Rhaenyra is able to confront her childhood friend alone and hash out the misunderstandings that lead to their current divide. While Rhaenyra’s level of risk here is a bit hard to swallow, it’s ultimately worth it for a chance to see the two standout performers of this series back in a room together. Cooke is able to thread the needle and deliver venomous dialogue, even while viewers can read the guilt and conflict on her face as Alicent. D’Arcy similarly shines. Their expressive face pops extra brightly when framed by a septa’s hood, and Rhaenyra’s inner conflict comes to life before our eyes.

Fortunately, both of these old friends get a chance to clear the air, share their mutual respect for one another, and assure audiences that this civil war is based on more than a simple misunderstanding from season one.

Unfortunately, things have gone too far. Alicent is unwilling to change her mind, even if her face reveals that she can see the error of her ways. Things have gone too far. Even if Alicent did change her mind, the old wounds run too deep, and too many new wounds have opened.

It’s just like our guy Ser Simon Strong says: “Sin begets sin begets sin.”

So, who won the week in ‘The Burning Mill? ‘If we are talking about Team Black vs. Team Green, it seems that Team Black prevailed once again. Sure, Daemon’s new digs are a bit musty and Rhaenyra is way overdue to feed some of her misogynist war council to Syrax, but we didn’t watch them actively crumble for an hour like Team Green. Criston Cole peaced out of his new leadership position as Hand of the King before he could get his seat warm and rode off blindly to war with a small group of bros and a rough new haircut. Plus, while Alicent’s mercy toward Rhaenyra was in keeping with her character, it seems likely that she will regret letting her childhood friend escape so easily as the Dance of the Dragons heats up.

If we are talking about individual performances, this week’s winner is a surprise candidate! Simon Russell Beale as Ser Simon Strong won this reviewer’s heart with his hilariously lackadaisical, “I’ve been here before,” surrender to a hot-headed Daemon Targaryen. He bends the knee like he is pouring his morning cup of coffee and constantly stifles Daemon’s fire and aggression. It’s pure comic gold, and we will all have a great time if House of the Dragon keeps leaning into that dynamic.

Well, that’s it for episode three, ‘The Burning Mill.’ In another week, we will be halfway through season two. If the preview for episode four is any indication, it looks like our warring factions are ready to activate the nuclear option. Please check in with us at The Pop Break next week to discuss the finer points of dragon warfare!

House of the Dragon Episode 3, ‘The Burning Mill’ 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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