In Westeros, weddings never turn out well. The wedding of Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) and Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nate) is the focus of this week’s House of the Dragon episode. However, the episode begins disastrously and the big day ends in bloodshed, a toppled king, and newly drawn lines between allies and enemies.
We Light the Way slows down a lot for the politics surrounding Laenor and Rhaenyra’s engagement after a shocking death and Otto Hightower’s (Rhys Ifans) abrupt exit from the court. Problems quickly develop. Rhaenyra is having an affair with her Kingsguard protector Ser Criston Cole, while Laenor is already in love with another man, Joffrey Lonmouth (Solly McLeod) (Fabien Frankel). Laenor and Rhaenyra reach a novel agreement: they will wed out of obligation but keep their relationships private. It ought to be the ideal solution, but Ser Criston makes matters more difficult by requesting that Rhaenyra leave the throne and elope with him. Rhaenyra initially appears conflicted before concluding in a speech that breaks Criston’s heart with the words “I am the crown.” Despite her complaints about what comes with it, the independent princess is not going to give up her birthright so easily, which triggers the dark events of the episode.
Less romantic issues require the attention of King Viserys (Paddy Considine), Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), and the vivacious Rhaenys (Eve Best). Viserys points out that Corlys wants the Targaryen dynasty to end because Rhaenyra is a woman forcing Laenor and Rhaenyra’s offspring to adopt the Velaryon surname. The fact that Corlys later speaks to Rhaenys about the injustice of the sexism she experienced in the past illustrates how deeply ingrained gender politics are in Westerosi society. The Queen Who Never Was hasn’t appeared for a few episodes, but when she finally does, it injects a welcome spark of life into what would otherwise be a fairly routine negotiation.
When the wedding finally happens, dread permeates the atmosphere from the beginning. The Red Wedding spectre is very present, but what will go wrong this time? It’s impossible to predict which plate will fall first because there are so many plates spinning at once. The grieving Ser Criston Cole, the outrageously audacious return of Matt Smith’s Prince Daemon, and even Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), who entered the middle of Viserys’ speech with scorched-earth purpose, are all present.
The sequence that follows the storm’s eventual end is purposefully hazy and perplexing, which heightens the tension. Until it is made clear that Ser Criston is ruthlessly beating Joffrey to death, it is unclear what is happening and who is in danger. In his attempt to play the game of thrones, Joffrey made a fatal mistake: believing that mutually assured destruction would protect him, he revealed to Criston the knight’s most dangerous, darkest, and deepest secret.
The theme of forbidden love and its dangers permeates this wedding (House of the Dragon); Daemon still can’t be with his niece Rhaenyra (if that’s even what he wants, which is tantalisingly unclear), and Joffrey and Laenor are kept apart by Westeros’ strict traditions. Daemon recently murdered his wife in an especially gasp-worthy sequence. The marriage ceremony itself is a tear-stained, subdued affair, punctuated by Viserys’ ill health getting worse to the point where he passes out. When it all comes to a head, it’s ugly and violent. It’s a bad way to go out and serves as yet another indicator that a devastating civil war is drawing nearer.
The dominoes that will eventually lead to war have already inexorably started to fall, much like the series of events that led to the bloodshed at the wedding. Alicent makes a dramatic entrance after Criston, in a frustratingly disappointing miscommunication, admits to having an affair with Rhaenyra. Alicent is enquiring about the rumoured liaison with Daemon. With Rhaenyra on the throne, Alicent is at her breaking point, especially after her father Otto accuses her of being the reason for his shame and warns his daughter that her children will never be secure.
Although Alicent’s heel turn could have been better established, given how significant it is, given how adamant Rhaenyra was about her virtue in the previous episode, it is understandable that the revelation of Rhaenyra’s affair is enough to permanently break the two women’s bond. It’s also possible that it forces the young queen to realise the Daemon rumour is true after all.
The show’s most intense, spine-tingling moment thus far, however, involves Alicent entering the wedding late while dressed in a vivid green dress and acting with icily rage. Readers of the book will be familiar with the colour’s meaning, but the observation that the Hightower’s beacon glows green during times of war speaks volumes about the fundamental change in attitudes that has taken place. The icing on the cake was when Alicent casually referred to Rhaenyra, her former closest friend, as her “stepdaughter.”
Carey delivers her best performance to date, flitting between heartbreaking sadness when her father departs, shock upon learning of the tea by the Weirwood tree (the location of her most important scenes with Rhaenyra in House of the Dragon), and visibly hurt and enraged emotion at the wedding. This episode serves as Carey’s final one, and it’s a good send-off. Carey and Alcock have so thoroughly inhabited the two leads that it seems strange to recast them (along with the Velaryon siblings in House of the Dragon), and, unfortunately, Alcock doesn’t have as much to work with as Carey in this final appearance.