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'House of the Dragon' episode 9: In King's Landing, a king's missing

"<em>U</em>surp? We <em>all </em>surp!" L to R: Otto (Rhys Ifans), Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Criston (Fabien Frankel) discuss the reason for the treason.
"Usurp? We all surp!" L to R: Otto (Rhys Ifans), Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Criston (Fabien Frankel) discuss the reason for the treason.

By the time it's done, HBO's House of the Dragon will have adapted a hefty, 225-page chunk of George R.R. Martin's 737-page 2018 book, Fire & Blood. Season one is on track to churn through roughly 75 pages' worth. If you do the math, factoring in five seasons, it doesn't square.

But of course adaptation isn't a function of strict, empirical mathematics. Choices are made to condense or breezily elide certain characters and events, while assiduously and deliberately unpacking others. Also, Fire & Blood isn't a conventional fantasy novel filled with fully dramatized scenes to reproduce — it instead presents itself as one historian's attempt to reconcile various conflicting accounts of discrete milestone events that occurred long before his time. Hence this season's time-jumps and actor re-castings, which attempt to account for the sweep of years.

I think it's safe to say we're done with the time-jumps now, as the civil war this show is fixing to dramatize — the so-called Dance of the Dragons — takes place over the course of just three years. So with the coronation of Aegon II, the triggering event of the Dance, these are our players for the duration.

The characters in Blood & Fire are a lot more...linear, shall we say, than those of House of the Dragon. More ruthless, more single-minded, less troubled by stirrings of doubt and empathy. But the two works still co-exist neatly, if you imagine House of the Dragon as the real events, and Fire & Blood as the history of those events that's filtered down to someone writing about them centuries later.

Take this week's episode, in which a split occurs among those who back Aegon's claim, the Greens. A reluctant Alicent vies with her more ruthless father Otto — not over whether to crown Aegon the Aess, they're completely united on that front — but over how to go about it and how to deal with Rhaenyra and her allies.

No hint of any such split occurs in Fire & Blood, but inserting one into the series underscores the more compassionate elements of Alicent's character that the showrunners started introducing back in episode one. She's not the grasping schemer of the book, she's a woman who's deeply troubled by the means those loyal to her are willing to go to — even if she's distinctly untroubled by the end they arrive at.

Introducing such internal conflicts doesn't simply add nuance and enrich character, of course. It also helps to turn a paltry few pages of the book into a full hour of television. Not for nothing.

Lord Commander Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish) glowers. And smolders, because I mean <em>look</em> at him. But mostly that first thing.
Lord Commander Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish) glowers. And smolders, because I mean look at him. But mostly that first thing.

Red Keep at night, traitors delight

Open on: The Red Keep at night. The fires are are snuffed in the Throne Room, the Small Council chamber is dark, as is the courtyard. A small boy — a page, let's say — leaves the dead king's bedchamber and makes his way through the empty castle down to the kitchens. (Note that while up in the Red Keep proper, the pious Alicent ordered the dragon iconography of House Targaryen replaced with that of the Faith of the Seven, down here, in the bowels of the castle that only the servants ever see, the dragons persist, in the wall sconces that light his way.)

The boy whispers his dark news to Talia, Alicent's handmaiden, whom we know is one of the White Worm Mysaria's spies in the Red Keep. Talia dutifully informs Alicent, then not-so-dutifully lights candles in a specific window of the Red Keep — a signal to Mysaria that the king is dead.

One imagines they'd worked out a code. One if by Hand, two if by seizure, that kind of thing.

A tearful Alicent reports to Otto her (wildly misconstrued!) understanding of Viserys' last words — his wish that his (unworthy and detestable!) oldest son Aegon the Aess become king. Otto looks like she just told him it's Daddy Week in Oldtown, and his drinks are BOGO.

In the Small Council chamber, we see the convening of what will later be known as the Green Council:

Queen Alicent, at the head of the table, looking sad.

Standing by her side: Otto Hightower, Hand of the King, looking smug and Criston Cole, Alicent's personal guard and a member of the Kingsguard, looking like the jackass in a can that he is.

On the other end of the table sits Tyland Lannister, master of ships, looking squirrelly. As is his wont.

Also present: Jasper Wylde, master of laws, looking tough; Grand Maester Orwyle, looking soft; and kindly old Lord Beesbury, master of coin, looking for his Werther's Originals and his cup of tapioca pudding, which the nurse promised him.

Glowering nobly at everyone from the corner is Harrold Westerling, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Also Grand Marshall of Oldtown's Daddy Week Parade, from the looks of him.

(In Fire & Blood, Larys Strong is also present for this scene; there's no sign of him here. But I mean: He's Larys. I like to imagine him just off-camera, skulking awkwardly behind some drapes. Everyone can see him, but they just roll their eyes at each other and collectively agree to pretend that they don't.)

Lord Beesbury (Bill Paterson) needs this whole treason business like a hole in the head.
Lord Beesbury (Bill Paterson) needs this whole treason business like a hole in the head.

And now his buzz has ended

Otto announces that the king is dead, and that his dying wish was for Aegon the Aess to replace him. It quickly becomes clear that several members of the Small Council, led by Otto, are relieved at this, because they'd been secretly planning as much already. This news leaves Alicent surprised, Lord Commander Westerling disgusted, and old Lord Beesbury blustering.

He rises, and starts shouting that he will take no part in this treason, when Criston Cole steps up behind him, grabs his shoulders and shoves him back into his seat. The Beesbury butt makes it back there safe and sound, but his head slams into the marble-sphere doohickey they each use to register their presence at the table.

Which is ironic, as it now registers only Lord Beesbury's permanent absence, as the blood pools around his head.

Swords are drawn: Westerling vs. Cole, with Cole ultimately backing down. (In this scene, Tyland leaves plenty of room between himself and the combatants, representing all of us who've taken our beers with us to a far corner of the bar the second we sensed a fight brewing.)

Alicent pieces together that Otto and the rest of the council mean to kill Rhaenyra to prevent her and Daemon attracting enough followers to challenge Aegon. Lord Commander Westerling — who, you'll remember, greeted young Rhaenyra home warmly in the very first scene of the series — goes from looking disgusted to horrified. It's not subtle; Jim Carrey has a better poker face. When Otto orders Westerling to go to Dragonstone and snuff out Rhaenyra and co. he balks, surrenders the White Cloak of the Kingsguard, and leaves.

You'd think Criston Cole would look shamed, or even chastened, by this. You'd be wrong.

Princess Helaena, Aegon's sister-wife, is in her chambers, happily cross-stitching herself a nasty-ass spider, staying ruthlessly on-brand. She lectures her nanny and her twins, Jaehaerys and Jaeheara — no, seriously, that's their names — about Targaryen natural order. The gist: Just go ahead and covet thy neighbor's everything, that's a-okay by us.

As Alicent tries to break the news about Viserys, Helaena busts out a variation on last week's vaguely prophetic non-sequitur: "There is a beast beneath the boards!" Also: she doesn't know where Aegon is.

Rhaenys has been locked in her bedchamber, but from her window she watches guards rounding up the servants who know about Viserys' death — including Talia — while Larrys looks pleased with himself. More than baseline, I mean.

Also: Rhaenys, Lady of Driftmark, the Queen That Never Was, only rates a room that overlooks the Red Keep's inner courtyard? The place is surrounded by the sea on three sides! Give my girl oceanfront! Oceanview, at the very least! Show some respect!

Arryk (Luke Tittensor) and Erryk (Elliot Tittensor) discuss whether they like to rock n' roll, and if a hot dog makes them lose control.
Arryk (Luke Tittensor) and Erryk (Elliot Tittensor) discuss whether they like to rock n' roll, and if a hot dog makes them lose control.

Where's Weirdo?

Otto dispatches Erryk Cargyll, a member of the Kingsguard, to head into King's Landing with his twin brother Arryk (resigned sigh), find Aegon the Aess and bring him back to Otto, and Otto alone — without telling the queen.

The queen, however, has sent Criston Cole on the same mission, with Aegon's younger brother Aemond One-Eye to guide him, as Aemond knows his brother's kinks. Alicent entreats Criston to bring Aegon to her, and her alone — and she knowingly exploits Criston's obvious, puppy-dog affection for her to do so. Hey, no judgment. Whatever works, queen.

In King's Landing, on the Street of Silk, Criston and Aemond question a brothel owner, who assures them that Aegon's a freak, and his tastes run rougher — less to the Street of Silk, and more to the Back Alley of Burlap, as it were.

The wacky comedy team of Erryk and Arryk are also doing some shoe-leather investigating, while arguing over Aegon's right to rule. Erryk is disgusted by the thought — even more so when they stumble across one of Aegon's frequent haunts, a fighting pit where feral children are unleashed upon on another. They also spy evidence that Aegon has sired a few of these adorable death-moppets himself.

An agent of the White Worm tells them she knows where to find Aegon — for a price, and only if she can talk to their boss.

Criston and Aemond are having no luck, which gives Aemond a chance to air his resentment of his lazy, stupid, rapey brother, and make a case for himself as someone with the intellect, drive and combat skills to rule — if not the depth-perception.

Back in the Iron Throne room, Otto has gathered various lords of the realm to announce that Aegon is now the heir, and to ask — which is to say: demand — that they swear fealty. Most do, but two refuse: House Fell, and House Sorry I Couldn't Tell Where The Dude Was From But The Actor Was Good.

One of the lords who (eventually) swears allegiance to Aegon the Aess is Lord Caswell, which doesn't make sense, if you remember that both times we've seen this guy before — in episode six, on the long staircase, and in episode eight, fawningly greeting Rhaenyra and family in the courtyard — he's acted like a total Team Rhaenyra fanboy.

Which it turns out he still is, and gets captured trying to leave the Red Keep and warn the diva for which he stans. He gets hanged in the courtyard for all to see; fandom is a bloodsport, y'all.

Arryk, Erryk and Otto Hightower meet Mysaria, the White Worm, at a kind of Fantasy Food Court (try the Orange Chicken at Fantasy Panda Express!). Otto tries to high-hand her — to high-Hand her, I suppose — but she's having none of it. She found Aegon in Flea Bottom, and she put him somewhere safe. She'll tell them where, if they agree that when he becomes king, he'll put a stop to the Li'l Scampz Fighting PitsTM. Otto, impressed, agrees to "look into it," which is Westerosi for "prepare a white paper on the potential to launch a task force to investigate the feasibility of forming a shadow-committee, pro-tem."

Rhaenys (Eve Best), the Queen Who Damn Well <em>Should</em> Have Been, If Any Of You Jerks Had Been Paying The Least Attention
Rhaenys (Eve Best), the Queen Who Damn Well Should Have Been, If Any Of You Jerks Had Been Paying The Least Attention

Yet another person tells Rhaenys she should have been queen. Bitch, she knows.

Back at the Red Keep, Alicent visits the detained Rhaenys, and they get a juicy scene together wherein Alicent tries to convince Rhaenys that Viserys had a deathbed change of heart. Rhaenys scoffs at this, because seriously - wouldn't you?

Alicent launches in, asking for Rhaenys' support by trying a pseudo-feminist appeal: House Velaryon's alliance with Rhaenyra never did anything for you — and anyway, it's Lord Corlys who clings to that alliance, you're smarter than that, surely? Also: You should have been queen. Boo, men! Men suck! We women can't rule, but we can guide the men who do!

My gal Rhaenys can see that Alicent's a smart cookie, but she turns the queen's argument right back on her: You're the one debasing yourself in service of men, girl. You're only doing what your husband, your father and your son want! Why isn't it your perky royal butt on the Iron Throne, not theirs?

Erryk and Arryk find Aegon in a sept and attempt to take him home, but he whines that he doesn't want to be king and tries several times to escape their custody. Arryk (I think?) frog-marches him out of the sept, while Erryk (probably?), who's more disgusted by Aegon than ever, hangs back.

They are met on the steps by Criston Cole and Aemond One-Eye. Criston engages Arryk in combat, Aemond engages a fleeing Aegon in a flying tackle. Aegon entreats his brother to let him go, so he can flee Westeros and never come back. Aemond seriously considers the proposal; you can see it in his eye.

But then Criston wins the duel, goes up to the royal twerps, puts his hand around Aegon's shoulder and is all like, "Can I steal you away for a minute?"

That night, Alicent has it out with Otto. He accuses her of squeamishness, and repeats that leaving Rheanyra alive is a mistake. You can't make an omelet without slaughtering a few children, is basically his argument.

Alicent is determined to make her omelet with egg-substitute, however. She puts her Big Queen Pantaloons on, and starts dictating how it's all gonna go. Rhaenyra will be given fair terms to accept Aegon. Aegon will be anointed right away, with the crown and Valyrian-steel sword of Aegon the Conqueror called Blackfyre.

Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) thinks this qualifies as "incognito."
Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) thinks this qualifies as "incognito."

The game's afoot. Afeet, technically, I suppose.

When she returns to her chambers, Larys is waiting for her with the news that Talia, her handmaiden, is part of the White Worm's spy network. Not only that, but the queen's own father fully aids and abets said spy network. Larys knows who leads it, and is prepared to take them out. (Later, we'll see a cloaked figure walking away from the blazing fire that's consuming the White Worm's home. But don't count Mysaria out just yet.)

As he's talking, Alicent removes her shoes and stockings in a practiced way. Larys...notices this.

And by "notices" I mean "slavers over."

Which, fine, okay: Larys is a feet guy. Whatever! It's Alicent's choice to go along with it, so you know: Life's Rich Pageant! Y'all do y'all! (That said, it's very clear that the show wants us to kink-shame Larys here — to see this whole setup as sick and twisted, or even somehow as something that logically follows out of his default, gestalt creepiness. Not loving that.)

Alicent turns away, careful to keep her feet fully visible; Larys then proceeds to...feel his oats, as it were. Which, again, seems like something they've both agreed to, so, yeah. That all happened.

I suppose what this whole sequence is doing thematically is re-establishing that Alicent is prepared to make sacrifices to get what she wants. Sex with Viserys was no fun, but she was queen. Her kids are monsters, but they'll rule. Criston Cole is lovesick over her, which she can use. It's also underscoring that her vaunted Faith, and her repeated appeals to "decency" and "propriety," are just so much hypocritical blather, because look: Here she is, fully prepared to bust out the royal gunboats and slap 'em on a table, if it means gaining a strategic advantage.

We get a nice, "Everybody Hurts" montage of characters in the Red Keep staring into space forlornly, then Erryk Cargyll enters Rhaenys' bedchamber and leads her out of the Red Keep in disguise.

That's right, we've got us an Erryk vs. Arryk split. Erryk for the Blacks, Arryk for the Greens. Brother against brother! Call Ken Burns!

(Here's a handy mnemonic: Arryk is Team Aegon. Erryk is Team Erhaenyra.)

(I'm still workshopping it.)

Alicent (Olivia Cooke) is happy she went with the <em>scented</em> candles.
Alicent (Olivia Cooke) is happy she went with the scented candles.

Duty and the beast

Rhaenys is led into the streets of King's Landing. She's determined to go to the Dragonpit and get her dragon Meleys, but Arryk tells her they'll be expecting her to do just that, so she should leave the beast behind and make for the river and find a ship. But she doesn't get the chance, as the Gold Cloaks are literally herding the townspeople in one direction. (How literal is "literally herding?" We get some shots of sheep. That's how literal.)

Rhaenys gets separated from Erryk and looks worried, but the minute she sees where she and everyone else is being herded to, she smiles.

Cut to: The Dragonpit, the site of Aegon the Aess's coronation, which is now thronged with the hoi-polloi of King's Landing.

In the carriage ride to his crowning, Alicent attempts to talk a sulking Aegon into ruling with compassion and sparing Rhaenyra's life. The Valyrian steel dagger makes still another cameo appearance, officially qualifying it for an Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series nomination.

Aegon doesn't listen to his mother's wise counsel on the subject of good governance, of course, and spends the scene whining that his father never loved him. For a moment I thought the show was gonna double down on this hoary gambit in an attempt to stoke some sympathy for Aegon; when he asks Alicent if she loves him, I sincerely worried they were gonna waste precious airtime to trying to humanize his detestable aess. But then Alicent calls him an imbecile, rightly, and we all dodge a bullet.

The coronation is full of pomp and circumstance (and the heady odor of dragon dung, presumably). Trumpets, anointing, the whole Westerosi nine yards. He's crowned with Aegon the Conqueror's Valyrian steel crown.

The crowd isn't too stoked about it all, until Criston Cole gooses them with a cry of "Aegon the King!" and the hilarious smattering of applause becomes real applause. Aegon raises the Valyrian steel sword called Blackfyre over his head.

If he was meant to give a speech (what a horrible thought), he doesn't get to, because the enormous she-dragon Meleys crashes up through the Dragonpit's floor (like some kind of beast beneath the boards, almost!) with Rhaenys on her back.

Some peasants tumble through the air, others get crushed, still others get whipsawed by Meleys's tail. From the looks of it, hundreds die, and hundreds more are injured.

Meleys approaches the stage where Aegon, Alicent, Criston, Otto and the others stand. Rhaenys and Alicent share a moment. The queen closes her eyes, fully expecting to be well and truly dracarysed into next Tuesday, but Meleys only roars at them, and turns away toward the massive Dragonpit doors — which the Gold Cloaks are attempting to close.

Under whose orders? Not Otto's — he's screaming for them to open the doors so the dragon can leave. Smartest order he's ever given.

Meleys and Rhaenys do make it out, and soar over and away from King's Landing, to inform Rhaenyra and Daemon of all the hubbub.

Parting Thoughts:

  • There is definitely (finally!) a sense of increased momentum, of barreling forward, in this episode. The ominous score helps, as does that montage of everyone siting around looking worried. A great intake of breath.
  • This week was all King's Landing — the Greens — so I suspect next week's finale will be all Dragonstone — the Blacks.
  • Erryk/Arryk. Geez. In a book, it's easy — effortless, even — to tell them apart. But here? With everyone addressing them in clipped British accents that narrow the distance between "eh" sounds and "ah" sounds? Nigh impossible.
  • In that opening nighttime montage of the Red Keep, you heard those rats squeaking? That's there for a reason, I'm telling you. The rat stuff will pay off.
  • Official Dragoncount: Still 8. But at this point we should probably stop counting them en masse and start keeping track of which team they're on. So of the dragons we've seen on the show:
  • The Greens (Team Aegon the Aess) have:

  • Aegon's dragon Sunfyre
  • Aemond's dragon Vhagar
  • Helaena's dragon Dreamfyre
  • The Blacks (Team Rhaenyra) have:

  • Rhaenyra's dragon Syrax
  • Daemon's dragon Caraxes
  • Jace's dragon Vermax (who's maybe still too small too ride?)
  • Rhaenys's dragon Meleys
  • Plus, three dragon eggs. With Laenor "dead," Seasmoke is currently riderless. We know that Baela has a dragon, but we haven't met it yet. And we haven't gotten an update on Rhaena's dragon-status, either.

  • A bit of housekeeping: HBO isn't giving press any screeners for next week's finale, so I'll be watching it live, along with alla youse. The recap won't be published until the wee small hours of the morning.
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    Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.