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House of the Dragon Review: ‘The Red Dragon and the Gold’ Brings Dragon Warfare to Life

Raenys in 'The Red Dragon and the Gold'
Photo Credit: Ollie Upton/HBO

If your favorite brand of House of the Dragon is less focused on backroom politics or “coupling…in the bowels of the pleasure den,” and more focused on big ol’ dragons kicking ass, ‘The Red Dragon and the Gold’ is for you.

Sure, the “dragon” reference in the title of this show has multiple meanings. It’s a reference to the various dragon sigils of House Targaryen, as well as a metaphorical (or magical?) representation of the spirit and resolve of a “true” Targaryen ruler, but first and foremost, it is a reference to the flying fantasy creatures and the cutting-edge technology that brings them to life in Game of Thrones properties. While the first three episodes of this season could be described as dragon-lite, we finally get to see that CGI budget in full force this week; more importantly, the creative team makes those dollars count in the compelling action sequence that caps this episode. Of course, in order to unpack the success of that dragon battle, we have to take a look at the entire episode. If you’d like to avoid spoilers, please watch “The Red Dragon and the Gold” before reading any further.

If you’d like to avoid spoilers, please watch ‘The Red Dragon and the Gold’ before reading any further.

Before we get to dragons as weapons of mass destruction, we have to make our way through some back rooms and politicking. First and foremost, our guy Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith, Doctor Who) is still going through it as he attempts to lord over Harrenhal. Once again, he is haunted by visions of young Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock, Upright); he is processing his guilt over shaping her in his image while his ambition simultaneously calls him toward the throne. As young Rhaenyra puts it (in High Valyrian), “You created me, Daemon, yet you are now set on destroying me.”

That is distressing enough on its own, but Alys Rivers (Gayle Rankin, GLOW) still rides in to take credit for the vision and taunt Daemon with her deep understanding of his psyche. Technically, it’s unclear whether she has bewitched Daemon or simply figured out which buttons to push. Of course, after he accepts a mystery concoction from this “witch” of Harrenhal, he suddenly finds himself transported to a meeting with Ser Willem Blackwood (Jack Parry-Jones, Hijack). He seems to have lost some time and raises some eyebrows with his sudden disorientation. Whatever happens, it’s clear that Alys will be sticking around to taunt/counsel Daemon as he struggles to gather an army and determine whether or not he will remain loyal to Rhaenyra. Whatever happens, it will be compelling to see what sort of toll this internal reckoning takes on our favorite badass.

Of course, Daemon isn’t the only problem that Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy, Mothering Sunday) has to worry about. We already knew that she had a war council full of misogynists eager to question and criticize her every move, but we are almost as surprised as Rhaenyra when her son, Prince Jacaerys Velaryon (Harry Collett, Dunkirk), starts chiding his mother for sneaking off in secret. D’Arcy deserves a bonus for landing the look of shock (with a dash of pride?) on Rhaenyra’s face when confronted with this pushback. Ultimately, Rhaenyra is able to steer the war council back on course with an assist from Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best, Lucky Man) and Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint, Before We Die); she is finally ready to harness some dragon power and lay waste to the Team Green forces lead by Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel, The Serpent). His forces have been growing in number as they use violence and intimidation to have their way with the highborn families of the Crownlands (RIP Lord Darklyn). It’s a rough state of affairs, but boy oh boy does it make us daydream about watching a dragon light up Ser Criston like a marshmallow.

 

It seems the Small Council back in King’s landing is also ready and willing to see Criston Cole burnt to a crisp. Everyone is up-in-arms when they realize that Prince Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell, High Life) has been strategizing with Cole in secret. While King Aegon II Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney, Dunkirk) is the most consumed with anger over being left out of the loop, it’s clear that the rest of the small council is worried about what this secrecy might mean. Grand Maester Orwyle (Kurt Egyiawan, Beasts of No Nation) does his best to keep his mouth shut, and Lord Larys Strong reinforces Cole’s strategy while also cutting him down. He also eyes and judges Queen Alicent Hightower’s (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One) moon tea, which serves as very personal and private evidence of her affair with Criston Cole, and the pressure she is under to keep the relationship under wraps.

Of course, Aegon’s frustration leads to the biggest consequences. Not only is he frustrated by the fact that the Small Council doesn’t take him seriously, but he is actively humiliated by his brother Aemond. Watching Aemond dismantle his brother in High Valyrian really raises our appreciation of the language. While we understand Aegon’s frustration, we also enjoy seeing him suffer the consequences of publicly mocking his brother at the brothel last week. To make matters worse for Aegon, Aemond is right. Cole’s choice to ignore Harrenhal makes a lot of sense based on the latest intel, and viewers at home really understand how little power or control Daemon commands at Harrenhal. Instead, Cole’s forces will take the small hold of Rook’s Rest right out from under Rhaenyra’s nose. We don’t love it, but it’s the right strategic call.

Everyone is having a bad day, and when Aegon turns to his mother, Queen Alicent Hightower, for counsel, she squanders the opportunity to mastermind the situation. Instead, she chooses to belittle her son with the absolutely biting note that it would make everyone’s lives easier if he just sat back and did “nothing.” Last week, it seemed like Alicent had shrugged off Rhaenyra’s call for peace, but now we see that the experience has clearly shaken her confidence. It was surprising to see her miss this chance to guide and shape events through her son – an opportunity she has been looking for all season.

 

Ultimately, King Aegon panics under the weight of all this humiliation and decides to ride his dragon, Sunfyre, into battle to earn a bit of praise and glory. While his decision is clearly immature and misguided, Aegon still manages to tug at our heartstrings when he gives Sunfyre a little nuzzle and snuggle before riding into battle.

Meanwhile, Rhaenys is also snuggling her dragon, Meleys, after offering to provide dragon support to Team Black’s defense at Rook’s Rest. While Queen Rhaenyra has been reluctant to activate the nuclear option, she realizes that it is finally time for a show of force – and who better to send into battle than her most trusted female advisor?

Once we hit the skies for a dragon battle, we quickly see the ability of a lone dragon to lay waste to a battlefield. At first, Rhaenys seems to have an easy time turning the flow of the battle. Unfortunately, we also learn that she is playing into Team Green’s gambit. Cole and Aemond have been secretly planning a surprise dragon reveal. The plan seems to be that Aemond will ride in on Vhagar once they draw one of Team Black’s dragons out onto the battlefield.

Things don’t quite stay in line with the vision board; the surprise show of hubris from King Aegon throws a wrench in the plan. He is (unsurprisingly) ill-prepared for battle and is nearly defeated at the hands of the seasoned Rhaenys and Meleys. When Aemond rides in on Vhagar, he just can’t resist the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He recklessly commands Vhagar to attack both of the embattled dragons. Sunfyre falls to his death, and in the aftermath, it seems Aegon is either killed or very badly wounded.

Of course, the dragon violence isn’t done yet. Despite the impossible odds, Rhaenys rides back into battle against Vhagar… alone. Despite getting in some excellent shots and surprising the viewers with her focus on talon-based combat over fireballs, she is overcome by the largest dragon in Westeros and her savvy rider. Ultimately, Aemond is the victor. Of course, his glory is likely to take a hit from the fact that the king is now dead or wounded.

So, who won the week? If we are talking about The Dance of the Dragons, Team Green is clearly in the lead. Sure, the Small Council is in disarray, but they outpaced Team Black by miles in terms of battle strategy. While Rhaenyra was off getting Alicent’s blessing to go to war, Criston Cole turned his suicide squad into a legitimate army and Team Green won the battle of Rook’s Rest. Yes, this victory comes at the expense of Sunfyre (and possibly King Aegon), but as Alicent explained earlier in the episode, any circumstance that leaves Aegon doing “nothing” is a boon for Team Green…and even if they have lost their heir to the throne, they have no shortage of ambitious players in the game. Rhaenyra, on the other hand, seems to be losing her husband (and main muscle) to the influence of a witch, and even her sweet, cutie-pie, angel of a son is questioning her ability to rule in front of the war council bros. Team Black, you’ve got to do better if you are going to win this thing!

As for which cast member won the week, that honor goes to Eve Best as Rhaenys Targaryen. We hate to say goodbye to Rhaenys, but Eve Best sees her out in style with another stunning performance. Not only do we get to see her tangle with two dragons (and look pretty good doing it), but we also see her face her death with bravery and selflessness (and maybe even as an act of penance for slaughtering hundreds of smallfolk last season, only to then spare the usurpers). When a smoky and tired Rhaenys turns back toward the battle, we know she doesn’t expect to make it back alive, but perhaps she hopes her resolve and sacrifice will legitimize and inspire Queen Rhaenyra – or maybe she simply realizes that she is the dragon rider with the best chance to take down that “hoary old bitch,” Vhagar. In addition to her dragon work, Rhaenys also has a nice moment early in the episode when she finally makes it clear that at least one of the Hull brothers is her husband’s illegitimate child. She reveals the information with strength and dignity, and she encourages Corlys to honor his progeny. If he takes this advice, it might be a way to bolster Team Black’s dragon power.

In any case, all we can do now is pour one out for our lost dragons and the Queen Who Never Was. It looks like Rhaenyra will have to make some bold moves next week if she is going to regain her war council or level that battlefield; of course, this reviewer would settle for seeing Ser Criston burnt to a crisp.

House of the Dragon Season 2 Episode 4, ‘The Red Dragon and the Gold’ 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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