House of the Dragon 1×4 Review: King of the Narrow Sea
‘The King of the Narrow Sea’ is a reminder that in order to enjoy House of the Dragon, you have to be able to separate fiction from reality.
Trigger Warning: This review of ‘The King of the Narrow Sea‘ mentions sexual assault and rape.
Minor book spoilers are also included.
In recent years, it’s become common to assume that one’s media consumption is somehow indicative of one’s own personal morals. If you like a character who is a bank robber, then clearly you support bank robbing, right? Or you ‘glorify’ it by enjoying the character. Or, God forbid, you ‘fetishize’ it if you find that character hot. If you’ve spent more than five minutes poking around fandom, I know you’ve seen these debates. It’s endless.
Knowing that, I knew that these types of people would struggle with House of the Dragon. I mean, the family that’s the central focus of this story has practiced incest for hundreds of years (at least), tends to marry incredibly young, and has a habit of murdering people that get in their way. And sometimes they murder people just for fun, too, depending on the Targaryen (looking at you, Aegon IV and Aerys II). They’re not a kind, innocent family by any means. But they’re the protagonists here.
This episode seemed designed to warn people about what they’re getting into. If you can’t separate these characters’ dastardly deeds from your own moral compass, this isn’t the show for you. I’m not sure how many people out of the tens of millions currently watching it won’t be able to handle it, but this episode was your warning. Turn back now. This is who these people are.
Rhaenyra Targaryen, The Realms Delight (?)
I adore Rhaenyra. That’s still true now, even after this episode showed some of her worst traits. She’s entitled (literally), a bit bratty, and lacks understanding of how commoners relate to one another and navigate life. But she’s also a badass dragon rider with an adventurous spirit. Those latter qualities are the traits that keep me intrigued and generally loyal to House Targaryen even through all their misdeeds. At the end of the day, I’m here for cool stuff. And dragon riders are undoubtedly cool.
Those positive character traits were out in full force in this episode. I enjoyed the hell out of her adventure outside the castle walls with Daemon. She took in a show, tried (stole) some street food, and popped into a pleasure house. These are contextual examples of the fiery spirit that many Targaryens have, and King Viserys directly referenced this week. They simply can’t be contained, and this entire sequence drove that point home.
The only part of her shenanigans that seemed weird is the fact that she made out with her uncle. But, again, these are Targaryens. It’s not that weird for them. It is, however, scandalous in-universe for everyone who isn’t a Targaryen. Setting that aside for a moment, it was genuinely some normal fun and I’m glad Rhaenyra got to let loose a bit before having to marry young and pop out some heirs. Sadly, that is her duty in this misogynistic world and she can’t escape it.
Daemon and Rhaenyra’s Romp in the Pleasure House
The pleasure house scene has caused the appropriate shock across the fandom. This isn’t the first aunt/uncle and niece/nephew pairing we’ve seen in the HBO adaptions. Daenerys and Jon were together in the final seasons of Game of Thrones. That may have been a bit easier to swallow, though, as Jon didn’t look like a Targaryen and wasn’t aware that he was one when their relationship began. Either way, the reaction to this pairing has been much stronger than Daenerys/Jon.
Interestingly enough, Daemon seemed hesitant about their coupling. I don’t think it’s the fact that she’s his niece or that she’s only 17 that bothered him. Again, both of these things are common in House Targaryen. Something about how Matt Smith behaved in that scene makes me think Daemon isn’t used to actually liking the people he sleeps with. And he undoubtedly likes Rhaenyra, so his feelings may have been throwing him off. How do you sleep with someone you care about? Daemon doesn’t know.
I don’t know if Daemon has ever slept with another Targaryen before. Considering he only seems to care about other Targaryens, maybe that’s what confused him. Or maybe he had second thoughts about doing that in front of other people who would surely get word back to the King about their escapades. I have no doubt he knew they were being watched there, but maybe he decided halfway through that he didn’t want that anymore.
Rhaenyra and Ser Criston’s Romp in the Red Keep
But regardless of the swirling feelings and complexities of Daemon and Rhaenyra’s make-out session, he isn’t the one who took her virginity. It was Ser Criston Cole. I deeply admire how their sex scene was filmed and directed. It was one of the most nuanced sex scenes from ASOIAF that HBO has adapted. The actors took great care in the still and quiet moments, conveying so much information about every feeling in that scene without saying a word.
It was, however, quite troubling as well. The sexual encounter between Rhaenyra and Ser Criston is another test of one’s ability to separate terrible moral decisions from one’s enjoyment of a character. I suspect for some, it’ll be a nail in the coffin for them. Rhaenyra has done something unforgivable, and some fans are going to drop her like a hot potato.
WARNING: This section will discuss sexual assault and rape.
There’s a clear power disparity between Rhaenyra and Ser Criston. When she propositions him, he can’t exactly say no. If he did and she was displeased, he could literally lose his life. This makes it at best a dubiously consensual encounter, if not outright rape. Even if he wanted to participate, the power disparity takes out the possibility of enthusiastic consent. It’s not a consensual encounter no matter how you look at it.
Can I still adore a character who used this power disparity for a sexual encounter? I hope so, because Rhaenyra is an otherwise incredible character. If I’ve been able to love Daemon through all his brutality and cruelty, I can probably get past this, too. It is, however, a significant bump in the road, even for me, who has been prepared to set aside personal morals since the beginning. If others aren’t able to push past it, I genuinely don’t blame them. It was a tough moment.
One thing I’ll be watching for in this fandom, though, is if people are willing to forgive Daemon for his sins but not Rhaenyra. In my eyes, their sins are roughly equivalent. I’ll be interested in seeing the arguments of those who disagree. If you’re one of these people, I truly encourage you to comment. I’m not looking to fight with readers, but genuinely want to hear a counterpoint. If you view rape as worse than execution without a fair trial, I can see you perhaps viewing her as less likable.
WARNING: Book Spoilers
Ser Criston and Rhaenyra are not on the best of terms when the dance begins. He completely changes sides. This episode makes me wonder if the dubiously consensual nature of the encounter will come into play with that decision. He seemed to respect her, and maybe even care for her. He also wasn’t afraid to give her perspective on things, like when he mentioned how privileged she is compared to commoners. But now he’s broken his vows, and the consensual nature of it is largely in question.
Even with her eventual marriage to Laenor and the fact that she slept with him after being spurned by Daemon, that’s enough of a problem to cause someone to change sides. Would you be on the same side as someone who took sexual advantage of you? I certainly wouldn’t be.
Viserys Continues to Suck
Would it be a House of the Dragon episode review without me dedicating an entire section to how much Viserys sucks? No. No, it would not. My Viserys rants are even more hilarious now after my favorite characters (Daemon and Rhaenyra) have committed very real and valid crimes. The reasons I hate Viserys seem small in comparison, but they exist anyway. I feel what I feel, man.
This week we see that Viserys sucks in bed, which is no real surprise. This society is misogynistic as hell. A woman’s pleasure doesn’t enter the equation for most men in this universe. Hell, that’s true of many men in our universe, too. That lackluster sex scene was contrasted with Rhaenyra’s, where, despite the moral ambiguity of it all, she is genuinely enjoying herself. Alicent is simply doing her duty. There’s no joy to be found.
They really are setting us up to feel bad for Alicent, and I can’t blame them. This story is best told when both sides have equal parts sympathy and corruption. This dance isn’t going to be black and white. Everyone has crimes. Everyone has sympathetic characteristics. It’s complicated.
So to summarize…
Daemon, who executes people without a trial, uses people for his own gains, and is just generally a jerk? I love him.
Daenerys, who is ostensibly an entitled teenager and essentially rapes her Kings Guard? I love her too.
The weak-willed, easily manipulated, King Viserys, who is being rejected by the throne through numerous cuts and festering wounds? Hate that guy.
Alicent, who is a victim of this misogynistic society and clearly has some sort of anxiety disorder? Eh, I’m lukewarm to her.
I know none of this makes sense. I do feel a bit of guilt about liking who I like, and hating who I hate. When it comes down to it, I think this kind of moral conflict is the point of the show, however. Everyone has done things to make us like them, and make us hate them.
Except for Otto Hightower. He hasn’t done a damn thing to make us like him. Can we all agree that he sucks, at least? I feel like that crosses the fandom divide. Whenever we end up fighting about stuff, we should remember this common ground.
The Catspaw Dagger
House of the Dragon is once again adding lore and history to the larger A Song of Ice and Fire mythos. One of the biggest additions this week was the catspaw dagger, which has the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised written on the blade. The prophecy can only be seen when the blade is heated up, which explains why nobody in Game of Thrones was aware of it.
The prophecy didn’t come true, however. Once again I’m left feeling a bit empty by the overarching mythos that ties us back to season 8. Whether Daenerys or Jon was the Prince That Was Promised, it ends up not mattering at all. Arya ended up killing the Night King with the dagger, and she doesn’t have any Targaryen blood in her. Especially not a tie directly back to the prophesized line of Targaryens that the writing references.
All these references to destiny leave me quite confused. If none of it mattered, why are we continually bringing it up? Are we going to somehow try to fix season 8 retroactively? Are we going to pretend it’s not canon? Or is the fact that prophecies lead nowhere the point of it all? It’s ‘subverting expectations’ or whatever. If our expectations are for foreshadowing to have any sort of payoff, I guess you can consider them successfully subverted.
Next Week’s Episode…
As we head into episode 5, we need to brace ourselves for an actor swap. Milly Alcock and Emily Carey are only listed for five episodes on IMDb. While I’m fully aware IMDb isn’t always accurate, I feel like this one is true. I’m going to miss them, but their adult actors should be pretty stellar, too.
As we head into the Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke era, it’s good to remember that D’Arcy is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns (just like me). I’ll be referring to Rhaenyra with she/her pronouns, but when I talk about the actor, I’ll be switching. You should as well.
I’m both excited for and dreading next week’s episode. I love this show. But I’m going to miss Alcock immensely.
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.
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