Well then, it turns out that people are complex, even my favorite character of House of the Dragon so far, Rhaenyra. She seemed especially stricken with grief at her mother’s death, and especially aghast at her mother’s fate: relegated to birthing a heir to the throne until it killed her. This, as King Viserys sends her on a tour around the realm to find a suitor in, “King of the Narrow Sea,” (in one amusing, albeit dark scene, a mere child offers his House and protection to Rhaenyra, whereupon an older male makes fun of him since she has dragons, but then afterward, the child and the man duel and the child stabs the man to death) and she knows that Alicent Hightower, her best friend-turned-Queen, is in the same predicament as she seeks to avoid. In one bone marrow-deep verbal cut she instantly takes back, Rhaenyra tells Alicent, “How romantic it must be to be imprisoned in a castle and to squeeze out heirs.”
The stark contrast between their two lives is ever the more clear later on when Daemon, back in King’s Landing and bending the knee to the King, takes Rhaenyra to the Street of Silk in King’s Landing to see the peasants taking the piss out of a would-be girl on the Iron Throne, and the debauchery on display at the Pleasure House. As if that wasn’t enough, Daemon and Rhaenyra begin kissing and seeming to edge close to sex. Remember, Daemon is her uncle. Or to put it in the words of Otto Hightower, the Hand of the King, who reports this “disturbing” news to the King, Daemon and Rhaenyra were “engaged in behavior unbecoming of a maiden.” In other words, the King and Otto are worried that she is no longer a virgin and is tainted. That is the King’s chief concern, in many respects, more than the fact of his brother reportedly having sex with his daughter. Where Rhaenyra’s complexity comes in to reveal a different side of her, when Alicent — who I think secretly loves Rhaenyra — confronts Rhaenyra about the scandalous, even treasonous allegation, Rhaenyra denies it. Which true, they didn’t have sex. But it doesn’t stop there. More than that, she denies that Daemon ever even touched her on her mother’s grave. That is clearly a lie! They kissed! They touched! They groped! And yet. Why did Rhaenyra lie to her best friend and on her mother’s grave at that? To protect herself and to oust Otto are the obvious motives.
After the incident with Daemon, who was setting up Rhaenyra by bringing her to the Street of Silk and removing her hat disguise in an attempt perhaps to taint her so that he could be the one to wed her as he suggests to the King later, Rhaenyra initiates and actually does copulate with Ser Criston Cole, who is her royal body guard. While that tender, loving copulation is occurring, we see that the King, who has summoned Alicent late in the night, overtop of her with his decaying body from his skin disease thrusting away while she looks dead inside, unmoving — doing her marriage duty, if you will rather than engaging in sex for pleasure, as Daemon encourages Rhaenyra to do. It was rather disturbing and even those who have been critical of Alicent in prior episodes must have felt sympathy for her here. With respect to the Ser Criston copulation, I couldn’t help but think, even if Ser Criston Cole wanted to bed the Princess, could he have actually refused? She is royalty after all; thus, there is an implicit power imbalance. Still, it was interesting to see a woman using sex for pleasure in this world for a change.
Speaking of power, Rhaenyra uses the allegation leveled at her by Otto as a way to oust Otto. That is, she takes her father up on his suggestion of joining the Houses of Targaryen and House of Velaryon for political and military power by marrying Lord Corlys son, Laenor only if he does his duty as King and rids himself of his self-interested Hand of the King who only wishes to see Aegon seated upon the throne. And the King does it! He even puts together the pieces that Otto sent Alicent at his time of grief over his dead wife to cajole him into marrying Alicent instead of Laena (Lord Corlys daughter).
As usual, I thought the power dynamics and power politics on display in this episode of House of the Dragon were brilliant, but even more than that was the meditation on, and juxtaposition of, marriage and sex in King’s Landing. It was complex and nuanced, and as I noted, added yet another layer of intrigue to Rhaenyra’s character.