With anticipation at an all-time high, HBO has finally debuted House of the Dragon. The Game of Thrones prequel is stunning visually, featuring gorgeous cinematography alongside its CGI dragons. With brilliant performances and a return to the kind of propulsive storytelling that made Game of Thrones appointment television for years, House of the Dragon seems poised to improve on the legacy of the iconic series.
The episode opens with a flashback to the reign of King Jaehaerys. The old king is dying, and must choose between two successors: his daughter Princess Rhaenys, and Prince Viserys, her cousin and Jaehaerys’ oldest male descendent. The assembled lords declare Viserys the heir despite Rhaenys’ stronger claim. With a cold Rhaenys looking on, the narration proclaims that Jaehaerys knew that only one thing could bring down the Targaryen family dynasty: itself.
We flash forward to nine years into King Viserys’ reign, 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen. The dragon Syrax takes to the sky over King’s Landing with young Princess Rhaenyra riding her, and the two appear to have a special bond. As Rhaenyra lands, Alicent Hightower waits for her. They jokes about Syrax growing big enough to hold the both of them, giving us a glimpse at their close friendship. The two happily walk the halls, arm in arm, before Rhaenyra goes to see her mother Queen Aemma. She’s heavily pregnant and miserable, but as she tells Rhaenyra, “the childbed is our battlefield.” While her daughter would rather be a knight, Aemma implies that the best thing Rhaenyra can do for the realm is bear children.
Meanwhile, Viserys meets with his council as Lord Corlys tries to warn the king of an ominous threat in the Triarchy, a new collective led by Craghas Drahar, or “The Crabfeeder.” He is interrupted by Rhaenyra, late for her duties as a cup bearer. Viserys’ brother Daemon is noticeably absent from his seat on official business, but there seems to be tension when his name is raised. Not wanting to hear more from Corlys, the council returns to preparations for the Heir’s tournament. It’s clear Viserys expects Aemma to have a son and that the tournament will celebrate his birth. Rhaenyra listens with interest as Viserys’ oldest child, but says nothing.
That night, she goes to meet Daemon in secret in the throne room, where the prince is resting lazily on the Iron Throne. Daemon is Viserys’ presumed heir minus the birth of a son, so he is understandably invested in Aemma’s pregnancy. He’s also invested in Rhaenyra, bringing her a Valyrian steel necklace. He places it around her neck, and it seems the Targaryen legacy of marrying within the family will definitely be carried on in House of the Dragon.
Later, Rhaenyra and Alicent study outside, with the princess confiding that she wants her father to have a son. Once he does, she will be free to do as she likes, and she dreams about her and Alicent flying together on dragonback to far away locations. Alicent envies Rhaenyra’s privilege in not having to worry about her societal position and is about to rush off angrily when Rhaenyra calms her by reciting her history lesson perfectly.
Viserys has a painful wound on his back that refuses to heal, making him stress over having a male heir. He finds Aemma in her bath and tends to her, both sharing jokes about Rhaenyra and Daemon. Aemma gently brings up the possibility that the baby might be a girl, but Viserys insists that his dream predicting that the baby is a boy will come true. Aemma quietly tells Viserys this is the last time she can be pregnant, having had many miscarriages that took a toll on her body and mind. If she doesn’t have a boy this time, this is it.
Daemon looks out over the City Watch that he commands, delivering a rousing speech to the group about rising crime in King’s Landing and ending with the threat that tonight, the people, “will learn to fear the color gold.” The watchmen lead a gruesome series of executions and maiming of criminals, with Daemon enjoying every minute. When word gets back to Viserys and the rest of the council, they are horrified. Hand of the King (and Alicent’s father) Otto Hightower has especially strong words, but Daemon insists that King’s Landing needs to be safe for all its people. He argues that the common man fears the city and jabs Otto for being out of touch. Otto then adds that Daemon hasn’t been to see his wife Lady Rhea Royce of Runestone, and his absence has been noted. Daemon brings up Otto’s recently deceased wife and nearly starts a fight, but Viserys, ever the peacemaker, tells both men to settle down. Daemon stalks out of the throne room, leaving the rest of the lords dissatisfied. He immediately heads to the nearest brothel and to his lover Mysaria, who reassures him that Daemon can’t be easily replaced by Viserys’ unborn son.
At the tournament, Rhaenyra runs in late as her father gives a thundering speech that declares Aemma is in labor. He opens the tournament as thousands cheer. One fighter asks for the favor of Rhaenys, calling her “The Queen Who Never Was.” It’s a sore spot, but Viserys lets it go as he assumes the matter of succession is settled. Ser Criston Cole, a common born knight, unhorses both Baratheon sons and catches Rhaenyra’s eye. Daemon arrives, clearly the star, and chooses his opponent: Gwayne Hightower, Otto’s oldest son and Alicent’s brother. She’s worried, and Rhaenyra takes her hand in a sweet show of support. In a brutal fight, Daemon badly injures Gwayne, but the knight is able to get up. Daemon flirts with Alicent and asks for her favor, which she gives after a subtle look to her father. But a more important matter pulls Viserys away mid-fight: Aemma’s labor is not going well.
The baby is in the breech position, and they risk losing both the baby and the queen. She begs Viserys to help her as he soothes her, but she is inconsolable with pain. The maester pull Viserys aside. At this point he has two options: save the baby, or lose Aemma and the baby. They can try to delivery the baby via caesarean section, but it will kill Aemma. In a horrific scene, Viserys prioritizes his potential heir over his wife’s life and bodily autonomy, giving consent for the surgery. Aemma, out of her mind with pain and knowing what is about to happen, begs Viserys not to let her die. She bleeds out as they deliver the baby: the boy that Viserys wanted. Viserys names the child Baelon, as he had discussed with Aemma.
The graphic violence unfolding at the tournament is contrasted with Aemma’s pain. Criston manages to unseat Daemon from his horse, and the two spar. Daemon has to yield, a great upset. Criston is Dornish and handsome, making Alicent blush, and the knight asks for Rhaenyra’s favor. She gives it as Otto returns to the tournament and informs the assembled nobles about Aemma and the baby.
But Viserys’ mixed joy is short lived. Baelon dies shortly after the birth, and a joint funeral is held for mother and son. Grief stricken, Rhaenyra holds back as Daemon quietly urges her to join her father. She is angry, asking sarcastically if for the few hours Baelon lived, Viserys finally knew joy. She softly notes that she “will never be a son” before joining her father. Her dragon waits for her order, and she gives it: “dracarys.” The funeral pyre burns.
The night of the funeral, Otto Hightower brings up the matter of succession. Most of the lords consider the matter settled, with Daemon the logical option. But Otto thinks Daemon is too much of a loose cannon to rule, with the unspoken implication being that they think Daemon will kill Viserys for the throne. Daemon listens secretly from outside, laughing at Viserys’ feeble attempt to defend his brother’s ambitions. Viserys claims Daemon has no interest in the throne and lacks the patience to rule, while Otto notes that, “the gods have yet to make a man who lacks the patience for absolute power.”
Heated, Otto gives his uncensored opinion: Daemon has the makings of another mad Targaryen king, and they must prevent it. Viserys could name Rhaenyra his heir, which would break precedent but ensure Daemon never gets the throne. Corlys brings up Rhaenys, his wife, noting that not only does she have the better claim but also already has a male heir herself. The room dissolves into arguments that Viserys interrupts. Angry and grieving, he tells the council that his wife and son are dead and he cannot watch this debate any longer. Alone, Otto sends a raven to Oldtown as Alicent arrives. He asks her to “comfort” Viserys, oh-so-subtly telling her to wear one of her mother’s dresses to do so. Alicent tentatively sits by Viserys’ side, telling a story about the loss of her mother. They share a moment of connection in their shared grief.
The council meets, with Otto telling those assembled about a report that Daemon toasted Baelon’s death, calling the dead child “The Heir for a Day.” Viserys is outraged, as Otto clearly knew he would be, and the king summons Daemon to the throne room. Daemon doesn’t deny what he said, turning on Otto and noting that he is a scheming second son who needs his position as Hand of the King to stay relevant. Daemon insists that if he were Hand of the King, he could protect Viserys from the council, calling the king weak. That settles it for Viserys, who informs Daemon that he is heading back to Runestone. He won’t be the heir. Daemon leaves with his dragon Caraxes and Mysaria.
In the caves under the castle, Viserys has Rhaenyra visit the skull of Balerion. He warns her that in order to be a Targaryen ruler, it must be understood that the dragons are the ones in control. The illusion that the Targaryens have power over the creatures will doom them if they are not careful. Rhaenyra realizes that Viserys wants to name her his heir as he laments the years he wasted looking for a son. He then tells her of Aegon’s prophecy (the Song of Ice and Fire) that we later see come to pass on Game of Thrones. He urges her to guard this secret with her life and to protect the realm as its queen.
As the lords gather to pledge their loyalty to Rhaenyra, Alicent helps her dress. It’s clear that Rhaenyra is aware of the gravity of the responsibility she has inherited. The new heir looks out on the assembled court. Clearly nervous, she steels her nerve as a dragon roars.
House of the Dragon airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.