As the House of the Dragon finale entered its final 10 minutes, it looked like we were going to be get a lot of chess-piece maneuvering that would leave any kind of climactic action for next year. That certainly seemed to be what showrunner Ryan Condal was suggesting with comments that next season would be packed with spectacle. But spectacle came early in the form of a thrilling aerial dragon battle between young princes and rivals Lucerys Velaryon (Elliot Grihault), Rhaenyra's reluctant secondborn, and Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell), Alicent's mean-mugging secondborn. That battle, fought among the thunderclouds above Storm's End, ended with Aemond's ludicrously massive dragon, Vhagar, chomping up Luke and his dragon, Arrax, like they were a handful of popcorn.
That shocking development came at the end of a finale that saw Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) crowned queen of a disputed realm, though not before she gave birth to a stillborn child. The Velaryons threw their lot in with the gang at Dragonstone for the coming war ahead. And Rhaenyra sent her sons out as diplomatic ambassadors to the houses in the north, resulting, at least in part, in the dragon battle described above and the death of her son.
With HOTD Season 1 now concluded, we're taking a look at the winners and losers in the first verse of this song of fire and blood.
It must be said. Without even appearing in this episode once, the Dowager Queen (Olivia Cooke) struck the first blows in the battle between the Blacks and the Greens. She first sent her father, Otto (Rhys Ifans), to Dragonstone to offer what were essentially terms of surrender. Sent to Rhaenyra along with a page ripped out from a book they'd read together as children, the message was one of friendship and reconciliation. And while Rhaenyra wasn't exactly fooled into thinking her rival had suddenly become benevolent, it allowed her to think she could play a longer game and amass her allies.
When Lucerys arrived at Storm's End to shore up diplomatic ties with Borros Baratheon (Roger Evans), though, Alicent's cunning was truly revealed. Turns out she had the same idea as Rhaenyra, only she had it sooner, and when Lucerys entered Borros's throne room to find Aemond there waiting for him, we were already putting one point up on the scoreboard for Green. She'd beaten Rhaenyra to the punch, and with a better offer too, betrothing Aemond to one of the Baratheon daughters. For as much as Rhaenyra may have our sympathy, Alicent deserves respect for a winning strategy… so far. We'll see how smart it was to poke the dragon (uh, literally) and get Rhaenyra's son killed.
This feels particularly cruel after everything Rhaenyra lost in this episode, from one stillborn child to the news that Luke had been killed in the dragon battle. But if Alicent's move made her the winner, Rhaenyra is the loser for now. But that look on Rhaenyra's face as she turned from the fire after hearing of Luke's death?? Hide your nephew-kids, hide your sibling-wife! Grief and rage and a white-hot determination to burn the Hightowers to the ground, all on Emma D'Arcy's terrifying face. I might not advise calling Rhaenyra a loser just yet. At least not while she's in earshot.
Looks like our one-eyed prince can do more than glower ostentatiously at the slightest provocation. Aemond won the dragon battle with his nephew Lucerys, avenging the loss of his eye. He also makes a heck of a case for being the inside favorite to end up on the throne when all is said and done, given that after what we just saw in that dragon battle, it's hard to imagine anyone besting Aemond in a fight. Of course, we may be misattributing credit just a bit. Let's clarify here…
That's more like it. At the end of the day, Aemond is just a one-eyed second son with a puss on his face without Vhagar, his dragon who is roughly the size of Staten Island and who dwarfed poor, outmatched Arrax before she ultimately ate him right up. By the end of it, Aemond wasn't even in control of Vhagar, who went rogue after a similarly willful Arrax decided to get froggy and torch her in the face. Big mistake, Arrax. Huge. At this point, just put Vhagar on the throne and she can be the first queen of the realm. Honestly, who could stop her if she wanted to?
Not only did Lord Corlys recover from his seafaring battle wounds enough to make an appearance in Rhaenyra's strategy session, he and the Princess Rhaenys threw their lot in officially with the new queen, pledging the full force of Driftmark and its control over the Narrow Sea. Corlys entertained the notion of supporting no one and just chilling with his wife by the sea, but as Rhaenys reminded him, they've got their grandchildren to consider. In pledging his loyalty, Corlys and Rhaenys have basically made the decision to spend their golden years fighting in battle. That's pretty badass.
Every goddamned time with these people. If Game of Thrones taught us anything, it's that the Baratheons will fuck things up in ways that last for decades if not longer. Robert Baratheon's famed rebellion was fought in part on the false pretense that Rhaegar Targaryen abducted and raped Lyanna Stark. He went on to be a crappy king, a rotten husband, and got himself gored by a wild hog and died. His brother Stannis misinterpreted a prophecy and allowed it to goad him into a wildly misguided military campaign. The best of the siblings, dear Renly, still made a ludicrous and utterly unsupportable claim to the Iron Throne and was ultimately killed by a shadow baby with his brother's face.
We've learned to expect the worst when the Baratheons get involved. So when Rhaenyra sent Lucerys to Storm's End to acquire their fealty to the crown, it couldn't have come as much surprise that Borros Baratheon had already gone back on his pledge to back Rhaenyra's succession and had sold the Targaryens out for the price of a favorable marriage for one of his daughters. Freaking Baratheons. Every time.
Ha ha! Not even in the finale! Guess we'll have that much longer before we're reunited with Westeros's premier f*ckboy knight.
One of the worst things about House of the Dragon's first season was the bargain-basement afterthought nature of the opening credits. Game of Thrones set the standard for opening credits with its gear-turning, three-dimensional map, which kept updating itself to suit the landscape of that particular episode.. House of the Dragon not only made the supremely lazy decision to keep the same theme music as Game of Thrones, but replace the roving map of Westeros with a chintzy-looking trickle of blood through the various channels and caverns around the Red Keep. It was the "blood" part of "Fire & Blood," which was he point, we guess, but every week it was such a glaring letdown.
Now this is more like it. Strategy sessions at Dragonstone are now officially required in every episode if it means they'll be accompanied by the table etched with a map of Westeros on its face and then lit from below by a fire put that illuminates the whole map in an ominous orange glow. The effect is breathtaking. It's one of the best pieces of art direction these shows have produced since the Iron Throne itself. Make that your opening credits next season.
With prosecco. The viral sensation of this first season of House of the Dragon is, by a country mile, the promo video of stars and on-screen rivals Emma D'Arcy and Olivia Cooke asking each other question prompts. "What's your drink of choice?" seemed like such an innocuous question before Emma D'Arcy's solicitous purr made the negroni sbagliato sound like the sexiest cocktail we've ever heard of. To borrow Cooke's phrasing, the moment was "stunnin'," and more than maybe anything that happened on the actual TV show, it helped turn House of the Dragon from a dour obligation for Game of Thrones fans to the hot meme of the year. Raise that glass in anticipation of Season 2!
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.