'House of the Dragon' Season 2 Review: Song of Grief & Guilt

(L-R): Harry Collett as Jacaerys Velaryon, Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen, and Oscar Eskinazi as Joffrey Velaryon in <I>House of the Dragon</I> Season 2. Credit - Theo Whiteman—HBO

“There is no war so hateful to the gods as a war between kin,” a wise character observes in the second season of HBO’s House of the Dragon. “And no war so bloody as a war between dragons.” Sadly, by the time those words are uttered, both kinds of war have come to seem inevitable. King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) is dead, and his bratty son Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) has usurped an Iron Throne that rightfully belonged to his older half-sister, Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy). Season 1 ended with the spilling of first blood, when Aegon’s brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) watched his dragon, Vhagar, devour Rhaenyra’s son Lucerys (Elliot Grihault).

It doesn’t matter that Aemond didn’t intend to kill the boy. Lucerys’ death, which came so soon after that of his peace-loving grandfather, sets off a wave of violence that mounts as the second season of the Game of Thrones prequel, premiering June 16, progresses. As Rhaenyra’s Black faction and Aegon’s Green slide slowly toward all-out civil war, House of the Dragon cements its place in George R. R. Martin’s dark universe by rejecting platitudes about honor and bravery that suffuse so many fantasy epics. Instead, this harrowing season exposes the unique forms of grief and guilt that result when one nation—and the family that leads it—declares war on itself.

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen and Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in <i>House of the Dragon</i> Season 2.<span class="copyright">Ollie Upton—HBO</span>
Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen and Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon Season 2.Ollie Upton—HBO

In a welcome break with the relentlessly expository first season, which raced through decades’ worth of traumatic births and deaths at a pace that made it tough to feel immersed or even invested in the palace intrigue, the first half of Season 2 unfolds patiently, in the immediate aftermath of Lucerys’ fatal flight. His older brother, Rhaenyra’s heir Jacaerys (Harry Collett), is at Winterfell, confirming the loyalty of the Starks. (Would they even be Starks if they weren’t loyal?) At the Blacks’ home base of Dragonstone, Rhaenyra’s bellicose husband and, er, uncle, Daemon (Matt Smith), burns to storm King’s Landing and exact revenge on Aemond and Vhagar. Meanwhile, the valiant Rhaenyra—who suffered a devastating stillbirth just before losing Lucerys—has traveled to the site of her son’s death to wail over his remains. Daemon isn’t particularly sympathetic. “The mother grieves as the queen shirks her duties,” he sniffs.

While the Blacks mourn, the Greens splinter into factions as the implications of what Aemond has unwittingly done sink in. Impressionable, insecure, and bitterly competitive with his warrior brother, Aegon rebels against a mother, Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), and a grandfather, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), who had taken his obedience in the wake of Viserys’ death for granted. Rather than heed their self-serving but politically prudent advice, he allows the most hawkish members of his council—and his own out-of-control emotions—to push him toward war. In between trysts with a new lover, Alicent agonizes over the choice she made, years earlier, to support her father’s ambitions over those of her childhood best friend, Rhaenyra.

Olivia Cooke in <i>House of the Dragon</i> Season 2<span class="copyright">Ollie Upton—HBO</span>
Olivia Cooke in House of the Dragon Season 2Ollie Upton—HBO

In a surprisingly subtle variation on the first season’s obsession with the ravages of reproduction—one that takes the show out of the tiresome Feminism 101 territory it previously occupied—generational divides emerge. Elders like Otto and Rhaenyra’s cousin and ally, Rhaenys (Eve Best), preach caution. Eager though they are to prove themselves on the battlefield, young men raised in peaceful times remain ignorant of the true costs of war. Innocent children become cannon fodder in a conflict they didn’t choose and are often too young to even understand. In a sane world, parents would sacrifice themselves to save their kids, but here that dynamic is inverted. Caught in the middle are Rhaenyra and Alicent, whose disinclination to murder each other’s families seems insufficient to prevent an explosion of violence.

Indeed, the outbreak of civil war is depicted as something both horrific and unstoppable—as simultaneously natural and unnatural as Cain killing Abel. Twin brothers in the Knightsguard, Arryk and Erryk Cargyll (Luke and Elliott Tittensor), end up in opposing palaces. The accidental slaying of Lucerys triggers more deadly mistakes and misunderstandings. Far from King’s Landing and Dragonstone, we meet a pair of clans whose feud long predates the war of the Greens and Blacks. The two factions use their split loyalties as an excuse to tear each other to shreds. We don’t see the battle that escalates out of their confrontation. What’s more salient is its outcome: hundreds of lifeless bodies piled up on their adjoining properties.

Ewan Mitchell in <i>House of the Dragon</i> Season 2<span class="copyright">Ollie Upton—HBO</span>
Ewan Mitchell in House of the Dragon Season 2Ollie Upton—HBO

The Cargylls aren’t the only ominous doppelgangers we encounter this season. Rhaenys, a would-be queen passed over for an inferior man, has always been a mirror for Rhaenyra. Aemond resembles a younger version of his similarly pugnacious kinsman Daemon; their names are anagrams. In fact, Aegon and Aemond’s relationship echoes that of Viserys and Daemon: the weak king and the brother who makes up in terror what he lacks in official power. The Targaryens are also, of course, an incestuous family, which helps to explain why the names of just about every platinum-haired character sound alike. These multiples reinforce the impression of civil war as an obscenely intimate tragedy, waged among inbred aristocrats who couldn’t be more alike, for a cause that is largely irrelevant to the armies of commoners who will die fighting. As one character points out: “When princes lose their temper, it is often others that suffer.”

House of the Dragon excels, in its much-improved second season, at keeping those anonymous hordes the royals call “little people” in mind even as it sharpens its focus on the fluctuating relationships between a few key characters. Rhaenyra, wounded by grief but resolute in her decision to defend her claim to the throne, is becoming more than just a strong female protagonist. Alicent’s guilt may not redeem her, but it does humanize a woman who betrayed her dearest friend in order to align herself with powerful men. Daemon is brash but haunted. For all his aggression, Aemond, who spends idle hours curled up in the fetal position in the lap of a favorite prostitute, remains the same isolated, brittle child who lost an eye to gain a dragon.

Showrunner Ryan Condal’s talky, character-driven approach has its downsides. There are still too many names and subplots. To let so much political and personal friction develop requires slowing the action to a pace that might frustrate anyone who’s mostly here to watch dragons brûlée people. (For those who might be wondering, the dragon riding still looks as goofy as ever.) But by de-emphasizing—and deglamorizing—combat, in favor of enriching central characters, closely tracking each side’s machinations, and questioning the very premise of a just war, the series harkens back to the early seasons of Game of Thrones, before the plot was reduced to filler between episode-length battles. Whether it takes place in our contemporary world or a fantastical medieval Europe, a solid political thriller is worth a thousand big, dumb, fiery special-effects spectacles.

Correction, June 17

The original version of this story misstated the name of the actor who plays Aegon as an adult. He is Tom Glynn-Carney, not Ty Tennant.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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