Ten years have passed since Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Lord Laenor Velaryon’s “red wedding” and since Queen Alicent made her first rebellion against House Targaryen with a symbolic green dress. When we reunite with House of the Dragon’s leading women this week, much has changed. They are not only played by new actresses (Olivia Cooke for Alicent and Emma D’Arcy for Rhaenyra), but also in different places in their lives. They’re both mothers now; each one is looking out for her own blood. They’ve drifted even further apart, with petty power moves and paranoia over succession wedged deeply between them. And they’re also more sure of themselves, especially Alicent, whom audiences came to know as a meek young girl (played beautifully by Emily Carey). Now, a decade later, she’s more aware of her power and how to use it: She pushes against her aging husband King Viserys, she orders servants to leave the room, she schemes, and she is more focused than ever on putting her son on the iron throne. (Do I smell a hint of Cersei Lannister?) Rhaenyra is a worthy match. She was always headstrong and tough as a girl, but her childhood petulance has evolved into a mature confidence—and stubbornness—and her hard exterior has grown even harder. She’s nothing like her husband Laenor, who is mostly seen laughing and drinking with his secret lover, or yearning for battle, when he’s not with his wife. With Rhaenyra and Alicent grown up and empowered, and with allies at each of their sides, a new game of thrones is in motion.
But first, another birth scene. The episode opens on Rhaenyra’s sweaty face mid-labor. She’s pushing, if you couldn’t tell from the midwife’s coaching, her heavy grunts, or the squelching noises of an infant emerging from her body off-screen. After seeing her mother Queen Aemma die brutally during childbirth in the premiere episode, I watched this sequence cautiously and on-edge, expecting to be bombarded with yet another gory visual of a woman enduring violence or a delivery gone wrong; but thankfully Rhaenyra’s birth is a success. And to the court’s delight (except for Queen Alicent), it’s a boy! Rhaenyra holds her child proudly in her arms for only a few moments before a messenger comes in saying the queen has asked that the child be brought to her. Rhaenyra knows the ridiculous request is just Alicent’s attempt at pushing her buttons, but she won’t acquiesce easily. She’ll bring the baby to the queen herself, even though she should be resting, and even though her placenta is falling out of her as she struggles to get dressed. She won’t give Alicent the satisfaction of seeing her weakened.
Laenor (John Macmillan) is no help, half-jokingly asking, “Was it terribly painful?” as he walks Rhaenyra to Queen Alicent’s room. Please, Laenor, not now. Not while your wife is keeling over in pain on a flight of stairs to her former friend-turned-stepmother’s chambers post-labor. Ser Criston coldly greets the couple in the doorway before they present the baby to Queen Alicent, who’s shocked to find Rhaenyra standing. She’s not shocked, however, that the child bears no resemblance to his father; she’s aware that the baby isn’t Laenor’s and doesn’t hesitate to let him know. “Sooner or later you’ll get one that looks like you,” she tells him. Ouch. On the other hand, King Viserys, withering with age, is happy to welcome another grandchild. When he asks for the baby’s name, Laenor interjects, “Joffrey!” before consulting with the child’s mother. When the couple exits, Rhaenyra leaves a trail of blood behind her.
Joffrey is Rhaenyra’s third child and son, following Jacaerys (or “Jace”) and Lucerys. To the world, their father is her husband Laenor Velaryon, but biologically and secretly, it’s Ser Harwin Strong, aka Breakbones, commander of the City Watch. It’s obvious seeing him in a room with the boys; they have all inherited Ser Harwin’s dark brown hair instead of their parents’ silver Targaryen-Velaryon locks, and none of Laenor’s features. Alicent and Viserys’ three kids, Aegon, Halaena, and Aemond are all platinum-headed. The difference in appearances is no matter to the children themselves, who seem to spend a lot of time together as they grow up in the castle. During dragon training, three of them team up to prank Aemond, including his older brother Aegon, by giving him a “dragon” of his own: a pig with fake wings tied onto it. When Alicent finds out about this, she’s quick to blame the stunt on Rhaenyra’s boys, even though her youngest says Aegon was involved. Her daughter Halaena stays out of the quarrel, playing with a massive centipede and exuding total Luna Lovegood energy.
Alicent brings this matter to Viserys, not only complaining about Rhaenyra’s kids, but also insinuating that they were born out of wedlock. Viserys won’t hear it, and tells Alicent to never speak of these allegations again. The queen vents about her frustrations to Ser Criston Cole. How could Viserys not see what she’s seeing? Why does he have to keep protecting Rhaenyra? Criston lets out a few complaints of his own about the princess, calling her a “spoiled cunt,” which stops Alicent in her tracks. He quickly apologizes. Clearly he is still not over that breakup.
Alicent finds her pubescent eldest son Aegon stark naked, jerking off in his bedroom window to the view of King’s Landing. (Is this your king?) But his mother’s unannounced presence sends him running under the covers. Clearly this young man is unaware of the troubles that lie ahead of him, so Alicent teaches him a few lessons. First, he has to stand with his brother rather than mock him. (Even if he thinks he’s “a twat.”) In these times, he must defend his family—like how Alicent has stood with House Hightower. Aegon might play with Rhaenyra’s kids now, but when Rhaenyra ascends the throne, the fun will be over for him, Alicent says. And here comes the second lesson: Aegon’s existence, as King Viserys’ first born son, challenges Rhaenyra’s claim to the throne. He should and will be king, and there are people throughout the land that wish it so.
Meanwhile, Daemon is in Pentos with his pregnant wife, Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell), their two daughters, and their dragons. The family is being hosted in by Prince Reggio, who’d like for them to extend their stay. He offers Daemon and his family a permanent residence in Pentos in exchange for access to their dragons. The Triarchy has regained power and formed an alliance with Qoren Martell of Dorne, so Pentos will need protection from potential sieges. Daemon is intrigued by the offer, but Laena isn’t. She wants to raise their kids in her home, Driftmark, not here.
Back at King’s Landing, Ser Criston Cole trains Rhaenyra and Alicent’s boys in combat while Ser Harwin looks on. Harwin points out that Criston is giving the Targaryen kids special attention, so Criston, out of spite, lets the boys spar each other, eldest son against eldest son. He’s being a tough coach, encouraging Aegon to fight Jacaerys mercilessly. When Jacaerys falls, Harwin berates Criston for teaching the boys cruelty. Criston takes note of that: Why would the commander of the City Watch care so much about the princess’s children’s training? “Most men would only have that kind of devotion toward a cousin, or a brother…or a son,” he says, delivering an ice-cold jab. The insult sends Harwin into a rage. He beats Criston until he’s bruised and bloody on the ground, which does nothing to help hide his secret. If anything, Harwin’s violent response only strengthens the rumors and makes him and his family vulnerable to allegations. Harwin’s father Lyonel scolds him after the incident, and Rhaenyra overhears the conversation. When Laenor tells her he wishes to fight in the Stepstones, she orders him to stay at home. With rumors about their children’s parentage swirling, he needs to be present to support his family.
Laena misses her brother. It’s probably been ten years since they last saw each other. Now, she tends to her own family with Daemon, including her eight-year-old daughter who’s worried that her dragon egg hasn’t hatched yet. Worse, her father is ignoring her too. (Is anyone surprised Daemon is not a great parent?) Laena at least offers her some much-needed comfort and tells her to be patient.
At a small council meeting, Rhaenyra and Alicent butt heads while discussing policy, but Rhaenyra wants to put an end to it. In a surprising move, she apologizes for any strife between her and the queen. She even makes a generous proposition: Her son Jacaerys should be betrothed to Alicent’s daughter Helaena, and she’ll even offer Cyrax’s next dragon egg to Aemond. Alicent doesn’t bite. Instead, she points out that Rhaenyra’s breast milk is leaking through her dress. After the meeting, Viserys tells his wife that he actually likes Rhaenyra’s proposal, but still, she refuses. “You may do as you wish, husband, when I am cold in my grave,” she hisses at him. (Damn!)
Lord Lyonel Strong approaches the couple with some personal news: He wants to resign as Hand of the King as shameful rumors surround his son Harwin. Even though Harwin has been expelled from the City Watch, he cannot serve with integrity, Lyonel says. Alicent tries to pull more details out of him, but he can’t bear to repeat the gossip aloud. Viserys won’t allow Lord Strong to step down, but permits him to take leave to escort Harwin back to Harrenhal.
Alicent meets Lord Larys, Lyonel’s younger son and Harwin’s brother, for what looks like a private dinner in his room. It seems the two have grown close since they first met, and she’s able to confide in him. She wishes someone in King’s Landing would take her side. If her father was still around, he would be partial to her. Larys, however, has a plan, which involves hires prisoners for a secret mission.
Back in Pentos, Laena is in labor, and it’s torturous. She’s pushing and screaming on her knees, but the child will not come. (Again, I brace myself for another harrowing birth.) The doctor tells Daemon that they could perform a c-section, but it’s unknown if the baby will live and mother will definitely not survive. (Just like Queen Aemma.) While Daemon mulls it over—it’s unclear what he ultimately decides—Laena stumbles outside to her dragon, Vhagar, begging her to put her out of her misery. “Dracarys!” Laena orders her again and again, but the dragon won’t obey. In the end, perhaps once she realizes Laena’s pain and desperation, Vhagar burns her alive. Daemon has just stepped outside to look for his wife when he sees her getting engulfed in flames. It was said that each of the births in House of the Dragon has a different theme. And if Queen’s Aemma’s was meant to establish that the birthing bed is a woman’s battlefield, then each labor equates to a different outcome of war: death and defeat (Aemma), victory (Rhaenyra), and surrender (Laena).
Back at King’s Landing, Harwin is saying his goodbyes to his and Rhaenyra’s children, promising to return. Jacaerys follows him out the door, sensing something is up. He asks Rhaenyra if Harwin is his father. “Am I a bastard?” Rhaenyra responds, “You are a Targaryen. That’s what matters.” After everything that’s happened, the princess thinks it’s time to get out of King’s Landing and move to Dragonstone, away from the madness. She tells Laenor the plan and says he can bring his lover, too.
As Harwin and Lyonel arrive to Harrenhal, the prisoners hired by Larys appear in the distance, ready to start trouble. That night, they set fire to the castle, killing Harwin and Lyonel. (Yes, Larys arranged to have his brother and father killed, in case you were wondering if he’s a good guy.) Back in the Red Keep, a rat scurries into Viserys’ room to feed on scraps. The king may still be breathing, but the vermin visual is a clear symbol of his decay. His days are numbered.
When Alicent hears of the fire at Harrenhal, she’s shaken. She didn’t wish for this, she tells Larys, but he’s already steps ahead of her. He tells her to write to her father; with the Hand of the King dead, Otto could return to court to resume his old post, granting Alicent’s wish of having him closeby as an ally. Larys is certain the queen will reward him when the time is right, which means it’s likely he could blackmail her into doing his bidding. We might’ve just met Larys an episode ago, but he’s one to keep an eye on.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.