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‘House of the Dragon’ season 2 review: The tragic war for blood begins

Ryan Oquiza

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‘House of the Dragon’ season 2 review: The tragic war for blood begins

RHAENYA TARGARYEN. Emma D'Arcy leads the cast for 'House of the Dragon' 2.

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As for what this means for 'House of the Dragon,' it marks the point of no return. This is the kind of season showrunners highlight as the pinnacle of their pitch to television networks.

This review contains spoilers.

What struck me in the premiere of House of the Dragon’s second season is how all of its conflict, when it really boils down to it, could have been avoided.

Rhaenyra and Alicent could have hashed it out, childhood friends and all, with either one reaching out sincerely and calling an end to the bloodshed. Additionally, Aemond could have owned up to his mistake. Killing Lucerys last season was an accident, and controlling a century-old dragon is, as a matter of fact, hard! 

Diplomatic options could have reared their heads out of a dragon’s egg, saved lives, and brought prosperity to the realm.

War, at this point, may have been inevitable, given Aegon’s hastened coronation and usurpation of Rhaenyra’s claim, but it could have been forestalled. Rhaenyra had no immediate interest in going on the offensive, instead requesting allegiances from the houses of Westeros to prepare for a landward siege, not full-out bloodshed.

But the weakness of Viserys as king, the scheming of Otto and his sycophants, and the lust for vainglory from Daemon and others like him have made the cataclysm between the Targaryens feel like a tunnel in which the only exit is smashing through an iceberg. Season two feels like showrunner Ryan Condal finally obliterating that iceberg, and what was once a fragile yet fixable peace now feels like a tragedy.

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So much of what’s at stake is already made crystal clear in this first episode. Rhaenyra is still in mourning but is clearly now vengeful. Aegon is trying to make a name for himself as king but is clearly just a mix of Joffrey’s capriciousness and Robert Baratheon’s hedonism. The Velaryons remain key players, their blockade causing headaches to King’s Landing and bringing back some narratively interesting trade and mercantile concerns to be assuaged.

The highlight of the episode, aside from its brutal finale, is unquestionably Rhaenyra. Emma D’Arcy is not given many lines in this episode, but their performance is a tour de force of silent intensity, with each solemn stare speaking volumes. The acting, stripped to its purest form, concerns the depths of a mother’s grief and the fury of a queen wronged by capricious fate. It’s raw, haunting, and mesmerizing.

I also love the more subtle approach to the dialogue. For instance, Larys Strong, the Littlefinger of this show, never reveals his intentions candidly. His simple statements can become menacing, like when he tells Aegon, “He was your father’s Hand,” peerlessly planting the idea in the young king’s mind that he should appoint him as his Hand instead.

Praise be as well to the hypocrisy of Team Green, infuriating as they may be, since it results in some of the most entertaining juxtapositions of the show. Seeing Alicent on top of Ser Criston while she is in the same room Rhaenyra once had and doing the exact thing she shamed her for is a deliciously ironic moment that I love to hate.

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At the same time, there is still some humanity in her. We witness Alicent offering a prayer for Lucerys, despite his death being entirely her own son’s doing. Aemond, maintaining his tough persona, shows no remorse for the murder, despite instantly regretting it the moment Vhagar bit Arrax. It’s all a facade, concealing the truth that they are all terrified, hiding behind the politics of appearances, a facade only serving to push them closer to a war fueled by egos greater than their own.

This is perhaps the most ruthless and absorbing aspect of House of the Dragon: the unending cascade of vindictiveness between families amidst the constant opportunities to err on the side of peace. If the first season focused on how Rhaenyra and Alicent became at odds due to being used as pawns by patriarchal power, then the second season explores how their goodwill and benevolence are shattered beyond repair by that same power.

The great deal of patience the show has expressed in its handling of the impending war is remarkable, not just because it manages to make the preparation feel urgent and real (there are actual conversations about the economy needed to make weapons — Benioff and Weiss could never!), but because this type of intrigue is what made Game of Thrones so flavorful. 

I’d love to hear more about common people’s problems. I want to know what it’s like for Rhaenys and Daemon to argue. I want to find out what’s going on with the Starks and the Wall. For a show with more than a dozen dragons ready to swoop in at any moment, its restraint — CGI hiccups be damned — is commendable, keeping the story refreshingly grounded.

And of course, that ending. Helaena Targaryen, played magnanimously by Phia Saban, undergoes her own Sophie’s Choice. Confronted by Blood and Cheese, and caught between a knife and a hard place, the innocent daughter of Alicent must choose which of her two children, Jaehaerys or Jaehaera, will die. Since the two look so much alike, she must identify who to kill, knowing full well that the intruders prefer to murder the boy, the heir to the throne.

What follows is classic Game of Thrones-ian terror. The lack of music, the scrupulous sound design gnawing at your ears, and the decision to let Saban’s horrified face do all the talking are all inspired choices. This is one of the most brutal moments in the Fire & Blood novel, a little less violent, to say the obvious, but it nonetheless sets the tone for the succeeding events. 

As for what this means for House of the Dragon, it marks the point of no return. This is the kind of season showrunners highlight as the pinnacle of their pitch to television networks. There will be lots of dragon battles, horse riding, and army men clanking their armor and Valyrian steel.

But the moments we usually remember are the silences, the emotions spoken through eyes. And if Rhaenyra and Helaena’s moments in the first episode are any indication, there is a wildfire of unspoken tension ready to ignite. – Rappler.com

‘House of the Dragon’ season 2 is now streaming on HBO GO. New episodes come out every Monday.

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.