The penultimate episode of House of the Dragon’s first season makes one thing clear from its first frame, an empty throne shrouded in shadow: The dying breath of a wistful king is now as key a turning point in the Targaryen legacy as Aegon’s Conquest itself. We might as well forget marking time in Dragon with the letters AC, and replace it with AV: After Viserys.
This is because Viserys’s warning about the Song of Ice and Fire—and Alicent’s alleged misunderstanding of that prophecy—has immediate, resounding consequences. At its open, episode 9 lingers on several tableaus that impart a pain beyond mere melancholy: There’s a real sense of foreboding flooding the silent small council room; the lonely, flame-lit corridors; the piano playing as a young, toe-headed boy delivers news of the king’s passing to Talia, the handmaiden. Talia, in turn, notifies Alicent, who seems genuinely distraught as she informs her father of Viserys’s dying wish. We know, of course, that the king’s little mix-up is the doh! of the century. But Alicent’s conviction seems true. Sure, might she be aided by a healthy dose of confirmation bias? Perhaps. But the tears in her eyes betray an earnest terror.
Together, Alicent and her father inform the small council that Viserys the Peaceful passed away in the night. “But he has left us a gift,” Otto adds, his voice suddenly brightening. “With his last breath, he impressed upon the queen his final wish: that his son Aegon should succeed him as Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.” The council is quiet, immobilized, though only long enough for Jason Lannister to reveal that members of the council have already been planning this exact turn of events—the usurpation of the Iron Throne. Alicent is furious these schemes have taken place without her knowing, but good Lord Beesbury is angrier still. He accuses the council of treason, only for Ser Criston to silence him with a stone ball through the skull. (If we questioned the knight’s anger management skills before, this episode serves as a reminder that therapy should be free in Westeros.)
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Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Ser Harrold Westerling isn’t so thrilled about this turn of events either. As Alicent argues for Rhaenyra’s life to be spared, Otto insists her execution is the only way to ensure the stability of the realm. (Alas, that pesky realm at fault once again.) Ser Harrold remains unconvinced, and refuses to take orders from Otto until a king (or a queen) is actually seated upon the throne. Remember, he once served as Rhaenyra’s protector, back when she was known as the Realm’s Delight; it would be folly to think he’s abandoned his affections completely.
Alicent and the rest of the greens are forced to work quickly. She scurries through the castle to gather up her children; if they had flashing neon targets on their backs before, they’ve grown substantially brighter. The only child missing, of course, is Aegon himself, and his sister-wife Helaena hasn’t a clue where her neglectful husband has fled. But she repeats her prophetic warning from last episode: “There is a beast beneath the boards.” Viserys always yearned for a dragon dreamer in the family. It seems more and more certain that his daughter is one of them.
Still, that doesn’t mean Helaena can magically divine Aegon’s location, and so both junior and senior Hightowers rush to locate the erstwhile heir first. Otto employs the help of Ser Arryk and Ser Erryk Cargyll. (And you thought having multiple Aegons was confusing!) Alicent opts to trust Ser Criston and her second son, Aemond, but only after imploring Criston with a particularly interesting turn of phrase. “Everything you feel for me,” she says, pausing before adding, “as your queen.” “I will not fail you,” he replies, holding her gaze. Are these two…? I mean…?
Together, Criston and Aemond search the Street of Silk as Arryk and Erryk stake out a child gladiator ring. Back in the Red Keep, Otto insists the lords of Westeros bend the knee to King Aegon. Those who deny—or even waver—are promptly rounded up. At the gladiator ring, the Cargyll twins encounter one of Aegon’s bastards (“one of many, I wager”) as well as one of the White Worm’s informants. The White Worm, of course, is Daemon’s former paramour Mysaria, now a King’s Landing secret-keeper à la Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. She demands an end to child fighting in Flea Bottom in exchange for Aegon’s whereabouts.
And so Arryk and Erryk uncover a disheveled Aegon huddled beneath a chapel brazier, only for Criston and Aemond to confront the trio outside the building. A goofy little sword fight ensues—replay Cargyll and Criston dashing down the stairs a few times if you want a good laugh—while Aemond captures Aegon and escorts him home to his fate, regardless of the derelict heir’s lack of “taste for duty.”
Meanwhile, in the Red Keep, Rhaenys is locked into her chambers while Alicent oversees the embalming of her late husband. The Queen Who Never Was breaks out long enough to confront the former Lady Hightower, who expresses her regrets “for the lack of ceremony.” She pleads with Rhaenys to join her side; whether Rhaenys believes that Viserys changed his mind or not, the point remains: Aegon will be named king. “House Velaryon has long allied itself with the Princess Rhaenyra, and what has it gained you?” Alicent posits. “Your daughter dead, alone in Pentos. Your son, cuckolded. Rhaenyra’s heirs are none of yours.” She even invokes Corlys’s reckless pursuit of the throne, as he wastes away from an injury we’ve yet to see on camera.
Finally, Alicent appeals to Rhaenys’s own lust for power. “You should have been queen,” she whispers, and it seems, for a moment, she might have won an incalculable act of diplomacy. “You are wiser than I believed you to be,” Rhaenys replies, but with steel in her voice. “And yet you toil still in service to men. You desire not to be free but to make a window in the wall of your prison.” A delicious line, and a perceptive one. Alicent has never imagined, let alone manifested, a reality outside the confines of men’s machinations.
So when the queen confronts her father after Aegon’s safe return home, it’s intriguing to discover she resents Otto’s role in her current, tortured position. “Our hearts were never one,” she tells him. “I see that now. Rather, I’ve been a piece that you moved about the board. I wanted whatever you impressed upon me to want.”
Otto warns that Rhaenyra cannot live; if she does, her allies will gather to her cause. “My husband would have desired this mercy be shown to his daughter,” Alicent insists. Otto practically scoffs. “Your husband?” he asks. “Or you, his daughter’s childhood companion?”
I paused here to study Alicent’s face, wary of her reaction. This is one of the first times Rhaenyra and Alicent’s friendship has been mentioned by someone other than the daughters themselves, and it’s addressed with an air of accusation, tinged with shame—as if a forbidden romance whose feelings linger still. Still, Alicent betrays no regret.
Even as she escapes her father’s chambers, the queen is to be humbled further this evening. She encounters Larys, who teases information about how and why Otto learned of Aegon’s hiding place before she did. Alicent sits, removes her shoes, and Larys speaks again, of a web of spies operating for Otto’s benefit within the Red Keep. He pauses, and Alicent slips off her stockings, quiet but seething. The Clubfoot allows another detail: One of the spies is Alicent’s handmaiden, Talia—a fact many fans had already suspected, given the character’s inexplicable prominence in episodes past. They agree to dispose of her discretely, and Alicent lifts her feet as a reward, turning her face away as Larys masturbates. Dragon gleefully employs rampant incest and graphic childbirth scenes, yet little has made my stomach churn like this moment between supposed allies.
But episode 9 is not to end on such a note of defeatism. A particularly brave Cargyll, unable to “let this treachery stand,” barges into Rhaenys’s quarters and demands she follow him, should she wish to escape the Red Keep unnoticed. Together, they slip through the roads among the common folk, only to be swept up in the crowds gathering outside the king’s coronation ceremony. Rolling into the scene in a carriage are Alicent and Aegon, the latter of which is certain his father never actually named him heir. “Do not toy with me, mother,” he says, as she insists he show Rhaenyra mercy when he’s crowned king. He interrupts: “Do you love me?” Olivia Cooke’s reaction here is an instant classic, a delicious mix of disbelief, fury, and affection. “You imbecile,” she replies.
Finally, Aegon is named heir before the crowds of King’s Landing. A murmur of disbelief ripples throughout the crowd as they process this unexpected news, but applause follows soon after. They are happy enough for the status quo to continue: A man has always ruled upon the Iron Throne. As Aegon II is given the crown of Aegon the Conqueror, he lifts his sword into the air with the baffled delight of a child unaccustomed to adoration. Suddenly, his power is made manifest, and Aegon is instantly addicted.
His glory is not to last. In a scene that nods to Game of Thrones’s most famous (and infamous) episodes, such as “The Winds Of Winter” and “The Bells,” the ground splits from beneath the chapel, and a dragon rises through the dust and debris. The Red Queen, Meleys, approaches King Aegon with Rhaenys on her back, threatening enough to prompt Alicent sprinting in front of her firstborn son. But Meleys intends only to unleash a deafening roar, and the scarlet she-dragon lifts into the sky, taking with her the Queen Who Never Was—and a few scraps of Aegon’s dignity. An epic moment to herald Dragon’s finale, and an essential one: With this move on the chess board, we can officially consider the Dance of the Dragons begun.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books and fashion.