“Rhaneyra the Cruel” Focuses on the Human Costs of Vengeance

The second episode of the season provides ample opportunities for the cast to shine.

I know many people who have never taken to Game of Thrones (and by extension, House of the Dragon) because the story is too violent, too amoral, and too much abuse. And, fair. There’s an awful lot of graphic violence and sexual assault in these shows, and if that’s not what you want to see, I am not going to convince you otherwise.

However, we can all agree that (with a few exceptions) the acting has been fantastic throughout. The Emmys are not always the best barometer of Quality TV, but, notably, GoT and HotD have been nominated for scores of acting awards. The scripts give them lots of opportunities to layer their characters with motivation and humanity, often opposing each other.

Like this week. The Hightower-Targaryens are dealing with the immediate aftermath of the assassination of poor little Jaehaerys, Teen King Aegon II is in a rage, smashing up his dad’s hand-carved model of King’s Landing. (C’mon man! Your dad worked really hard on that! Or rather, he told people to make it and they worked really hard on that.) He screams that he declares war, much the same way that Michael Scott declared bankruptcy.


There is a performative aspect to this. Yes, I am sure he is devastated that his son and heir is dead, but the smashing and shouting comes across as something he thinks he has to do. Otto, the Hand, tries to channel that into their war efforts. He wants to have a funeral procession through the streets of King’s Landing, with the grieving mother and the dowager queen in the wagon behind, while a crier in front proclaims this death to be the work of Rhaenyra the Cruel. It’s some rather heavy-handed propaganda, and – to their credit – neither Alicent nor Aegon seem to be enthused about it. However, Otto is very convincing and the rest of the small council sees the value in letting the realm know what a monster the pretender to the throne is. So, Alicent and Haelena put on their black veils and get on the wagon. Not Aegon, of course. That would make him look weak. Larys caught the guard who helped to kill the child while trying to flee the keep, and Aegon is eager to interrogate him.

Poor Haelaena is forced to ride behind the stitched-up body of her dead son, and when the procession gets stuck in a rut, she has a panic attack as the crowd offers sympathies. There are so many layers here. I don’t think we’ve talked enough about what a raw deal Haelaena has gotten. Married off to her brother, mainly because it’s an echo of what Aegon the Conqueror did ages ago, always treated as weak and daft, never allowed to have any agency, and then forced to go all Sophie’s Choice on her kids while Aegon drank the night away in the throne room, she’s not had an easy time of it.

Word has reached Dragonstone, and Rhaenyra is appalled that anyone could think she would order the murder of an infant. Do you hear me, APPALLED! She would never! Well, say her small council, you were here the other day saying how you want Aemond dead… Well, sure, but that’s totally different. Aemond is an adult (kind of) who is directly responsible for the death of her son. Jaehaerys was a baby! And who would order the killing of a baby?

Meanwhile, Daemon is doing his very best to look nonchalant. If he had a cell phone, he’d be pretending to be engrossed in an email.

After the meeting, Rhaenyra and Daemon have it out. Sure, he sent comically named assassins into the Red Keep, but he was very clear that they kill Aemond. It’s not his fault they went freelancing! Rhaenyra is furious. His antics have weakened her claim on the throne, and no matter how many ravens she sends out denying it, she’ll lose some armies at a time when they desperately need them. This leads to a fight between them that vents so many resentments the two characters have. Rhaenyra can no longer trust him, and wonders if he ever cared for her or if she was just a tool to get to the throne that Viserys “cheated” him out of. (Remember, before Visrerys named Rhaenyra his heir, Daemon was the next in line.) Daemon retorts that he wonders if Rhaenyra ever thought herself qualified, or if she was just a tool that Viserys used to deny him his birthright. This is an argument between two people who have known each other for decades and know exactly which buttons to push. Daemon storms away, and flies off on Caraxes.

Daemon isn’t the only one with a crazy plan. Criston Cole, who is embarrassed that he was off having sex with Alicent instead of, you know, doing some Kingsguarding, takes his frustrations out on Ser Arryk. He berates Arryk for his muddy cloak, which he got by trying to push the funeral coach out of the mud. Arryk is just trying to have his breakfast when Cole decides to be a big, swinging dick, asking him where he was last night. Why, with the king in the throne room while he was entertaining guests, where were you? This annoys Cole, so he starts to question Arryk’s loyalty. If you recall, Arryk has a twin brother, Erryk. Erryk remained loyal to Rhaenyra, while Arryk stayed with Aegon, and now Cole is insinuating that he might be a traitor like his brother. To prove otherwise, he is to go off to Dragonstone, sneak in disguised as his twin, and kill Rhaenyra. You know, super easy. Barely an inconvenience.

Criston cements his reputation as a complete ass this week. It’s not enough to needlessly cast blame on Arryk, he sends him off on a suicide mission where he’ll have to face his estranged brother. And all because he blames himself. As Alicent says earlier, it looks like he’s desperate to unburden himself. (After all, she’s seen that look back when he ran to her to confess his dalliances with Rhaenyra.)

Aemond, the target of the assassination, was off at the brothel. (Because of course, it’s HBO. They are contractually obligated to have some nudity.) And surprisingly, it’s very tender. Aemond is naked, curled up in the arms of the madam, and it appears almost maternal as if Aemond is looking for the affection he never found at home. The madam reminds him that he will have his vengeance, but remember, it’s always the small folk like her that get the short end of it in war.

Small folk like the rat catchers. Larys and Aegon got the guard (whose name was Blood. Blood and Cheese. Oh GRRM…) to confess that his accomplice was one of the King’s ratcatchers, only he didn’t know his real name. No problem. Aegon has all the ratcatchers killed and hung on the walls of the Keep as a warning. Otto is furious at this. All the townspeople who were offering Haelaena their heartfelt condolences are now going to be terrified of the crown. When Aegon tells him of Criston’s cunning plan to have Arryk swap places with Erryk, Otto calls it a prank. Otto has spent decades scheming to get Aegon on the throne, and now the little jerk is going to screw it all up with his impetuousness. Not happy with these insults, Aegon fires him as Hand and appoints Ser Criston as the new one. (Oh, this will go great.)

The “prank” of a plan comes surprisingly close to working. Arryk strolls into Dragonstone, completely fooling the guards, and heads to Rhaenyra’s chambers. If not for Myseria spotting him on the way to a ship out of town, he might have succeeded. (Rhaenyra honored the bargain that Daemon made last week – her freedom in exchange for information about guards at the Red Keep who would let him in. A good deed pays off for once in Westeros! Amazing!) This leads to an impressive fight, where Erryk keeps Arryk from killing Rhaenyra, ultimately running a sword through him. And he is so distraught that he ends it by killing himself. Even after renouncing Aegon, he could never renounce his twin. The twins are played by actual twin brothers – Luke and Elliott Tittensor. (See, you don’t need CGI for everything!)

There are so many wonderfully human moments in this episode, and most of them are from characters trying to balance their duties with their humanity. Jacerys volunteers to ride his dragon over to King’s Landing to spy on the King’s movements, and Rhaenyra pointedly denies him, choosing instead to send his betrothed, Baela. They need to keep watch on the Hightowers, but she cannot bear to lose another son. Baela and Jacerys reminisce about their fathers, and in Jacerys’ case that’s both Laenor and Harwin Strong, and Jacerys seems to acknowledge that Ser Strong was at the least a surrogate father to him. And, importantly, there’s a moment where Alicent goes to talk to her son the King, only to find him crying and sobbing, He’s not a king anymore, trying to project strength, just a scared and sad kid. And Alicent doesn’t know how to deal with this and backs out of the room.

It’s impressive acting from everyone. It’s why I have often looked past the excesses of the show – Brothels! Child murder! – because at the core are complex characters inhabited by amazing actors.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Who’s The Worst? Ser Criston reclaims the title! Now he’ll get to encourage and indulge Aegon’s worst impulses. And show Alicent exactly how much of a moralistic twat he can be.

Victor Catano
Victor Catano
Victor Catano lives in New York City with his adorable pughuaua, Danerys. When not writing, he works in live theater as a stage manager, production manager, and chaos coordinator. His hobbies include coffee, Broadway musicals, and complaining about the NY Mets and Philadelphia Eagles. Follow him on BlueSky and Instagram at @vgcatano and find his books on Amazon

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