In our dialogue for the season finale, Petra and I discuss Daemon’s disturbing behavior towards Rhaenyra, Aemond’s apparent shock that a dragon is not a slave and the tendency for fans to rage when scenes don’t go the way they expect.
Petra: Well, here we are. At the end.
Luka: Also a beginning. I’m sure we’ll have future dialogues later on dedicated to looking back on the whole season and looking forward to season two, don’t you think? I don’t want these to be over!
Petra: I’ve really enjoyed bringing the Glass Candle Dialogues back. And, yes, I have plenty of thoughts about the season as a whole and, while my predictions usually turn out wrong, there are a lot of things I’m hoping for next season.
Luka: I’m sure we’ll do a bit of that today too, that’s inevitable. But it was an eventful episode by itself, too! What was your general first impression? And did it change on subsequent viewings?
Petra: I can’t talk about this episode without addressing the leak that occurred two or three days prior to its airing. I didn’t watch the leaked episode, but I did let myself get spoiled just enough to know that Lucerys’ death was accidental. I had a few days to mull over this change without knowing how it occurs, so when I finally watched the episode it was a relief that the scene worked. There were so many ways the writers could have absolved Aemond of responsibility to keep him likable that would have felt cheap and even corny. The way the sequence, in its final form, was – I’m so sorry – executed, was really interesting.
Luka: Ba-dum TSH! And I agree. Judging by the reaction some people had when the episode leaked, I could’ve sworn that Aemond just did an oopsie and had an accidental mid-air collision with Luke. Instead of demanding he take out his own eye and stalking him on a dragon at least five times the size of Luke’s as he cackles maniacally and tells him he owes him a debt in High Valyrian. “Accidental” is not the word I’d use. The dragons do get out of control, which I find fascinating, but Aemond’s not free of blame here, is he? The dragons disobeying their riders was another strangely controversial thing I absolutely loved. We saw Drogon get more than a little bit rowdy with Dany, and hey, as the Mother of Dragons herself said, “a dragon is not a slave.” The fact that they have a mental bond doesn’t mean they riders mind-control the dragons. I don’t know where anyone got that idea.
Petra: We already knew from Game of Thrones that Targaryens started keeping their dragons in the dragonpit because they were unwieldy, but we’ve never encountered a dragon disobeying their rider during a battle before. Some people felt that Vhagar was feeding off of Aemond’s hatred and carried out Aemond’s true desire by killing Lucerys. That’s not how I read the scene. I took it more as a consequence of Aemond’s hubris, that he thought he could chase this kid around, threatening violence and nothing meaningful would come of it. He’s a bully, trapped in a sort of arrested development by thinking that actions don’t have consequences. As Rhaenys said in the premiere, the young men of Westeros have never known true war. I think, from Aemond’s perspective, this was a continuation of that Pink Dread prank: cruel but meaningless. Idiot.
Luka: I see it the same way. Aemond’s obsessed and Luke’s young, and both are inexperienced, and surely that’s part of why Arrax and Vhagar disobey them. But there’s more to it than that. This is a much more honest take on dragons than many stories in that world would have us believe… which many readers took at face value, apparently. Dragons are cool, yes. They’re awesome, in both senses of the word. But that’s not all there is to them. I’d have thought the end of Game of Thrones would have taught all of us that, but even for those who discount that ending, A Dance with Dragons offers a very similar perspective to their danger. I’ll put it like this: when George talks about dragons being nuclear weapons, what is he talking about? They’re sentient weapons of mass destruction who, whether because of their nature or magic or both, are intrinsically connected to violence, to fire and blood. A Targaryen giving in to their basest desires is them being a dragon. That’s no coincidence. A dragon wants to burn shit up and probably be left alone the rest of the time. So yes, Arrax feels threatened and spits fire at Vhagar, and the oldest dragon of the world isn’t gonna take that. It seems perfectly reasonable to me, not only in the sense of “canon” (the least interesting aspect of the conversation to me, to be perfectly honest) and character motivations but more broadly as a cautionary tale (that the characters will ignore) of what dragons really are, and as a perfect parable of how the whole Dance will go. I think it’s delightful that the dragons themselves draw first blood in the Dance of Dragons. Just perfect.
Petra: I’m curious how dragon disobedience might factor into later conflicts, if at all. Obviously, every dragon battle can’t result in an accidental fatality, but it would be odd if the dragons mellow out after this.
Luka: Oh, I don’t think they will. Other dragonriders, Daemon in particular, seem to have a much firmer grasp on their dragons… though in his case I believe it helps that his disposition is much more dragon-like than that of many others. Speaking of Daemon, he’s in another controversial scene this episode. The stans are aghast! Personally, it shocked me too, seeing Daemon treat Rhaenyra like that… but instead of being outraged and looking at it as character assassination I reconsidered how I viewed the character, and wondered why his actions shocked me at all. Looking back on the season, I don’t believe I should have been shocked, you know? Many were apparently bamboozled by Daemon “turning a new leaf” after the big time jump—that wasn’t me, to be clear; I enjoy him greatly partly because of how dark he can go. But this still shocked me… in a good way!
Luka: That said, I don’t think that moment could’ve worked for me in almost any other situation. It was a perfect combination of elements that did it: for most of the episode up to that point, Rhaenyra and Daemon have been at odds with each other about the prospect of war. Daemon believed he’d married a dragon like him, but he’s starting to see his brother in her. He publicly accuses her of this: “That’s your father talking.” Then comes the straw that broke the camel’s back: Rhaenyra says she’s trying to avoid plunging the realm into war because she believes she has a near-divine prophetic duty to keep it united at any cost, a prophecy passed down to her by her father. I truly believe this is the perfect mix of things that would lead Daemon to strangle Rhaenyra in anger: he’s impatient; he’s seeing a side of Rhaenyra that reminds him of the weakness he so disliked in Viserys, as much as he loved the man; and the Song of Ice and Fire makes him angry not only because it’s dream nonsense and not the real tangible things they’re discussing (“Dreams didn’t make us kings; dragons did”) but also because it means Viserys never considered him a true heir, as Daemon was never told of this. Impatience, anger, jealousy, all at once. So the scene worked for me, in this instance, but I understand if it didn’t for a lot of people (as long as it isn’t because “my sweet family man Daemon would never! ”), and I don’t think that would have made a lot of sense to me in any other circumstance, you know? The only thing that irked me is that this had never come up before. One would think this would have been addressed in six years of marriage. It stinked to me a bit of “these characters don’t exist when they’re not on-screen,” which is not thoughtful writing. Maybe Rhaenyra only feels free to pass on the information now that Viserys is dead? I accept that’s an entirely valid read, but my first impression was that it didn’t feel right.
Petra: To be honest, the fact that the prophecy is kept a secret at all doesn’t make sense. If the fate of the world is at stake why on earth wouldn’t you share that information with everybody? Especially if you’re using it to justify your family’s legitimacy as rulers. Feels like the Westerosi equivalent of the divine right of kings: “if we’re not in charge, the Others will take you.”
Luka: My only explanation for that is that they’re trying to make peace with the Faith and have historically gone to war with them over Targaryen customs. So maybe they don’t want to introduce this obviously heretical prophecy into a society who mostly believe in the Seven. I do wonder if they’ve told some Lords of Winterfell, though. One would think they would. That could be why Torrhen knelt to Aegon without a fight. Maybe we’ll know one day.
Petra: Maybe. Anyway, Daemon choking Rhaenyra was another thing I learned about through the leaks, and a lot of people were unhappy that it ruined Daemon’s character growth. I didn’t feel that way, even before I learned the context of the scene. Daemon enjoyed mutilating civilians as a Commander of the City Watch, he committed a war crime at the Stepstones and he crushed his first wife’s head in with a stone. The notion that Rhaenyra would be immune to his violence plays into the dangerous notion that she’s different, that she brings out his best self, that he’d never behave that way towards her. To be clear, Rhaenyra never says anything even remotely resembling “I can fix him.” I’m just saying, violent behavior tends to spill over into all aspects of a person’s life. And I do understand that the scene was upsetting. As much as I’m enjoying Aemond as an amoral disaster, if he choked Helaena, that would cross a line for me. I get why Daemon fans were disturbed by this episode, but acting as if Daemon didn’t already have a long history of toxic, violent behavior is just … that’s not the character that’s been written.
Luka: I do want to say, some Daemon fans were disturbed. Or rather, angered. I’m a Daemon fan, and I was disturbed, which I believe was the point of the scene, but I ended up appreciating it as a choice from the writers. When you said that “violent behavior tends to spill out into all aspects of a person’s life,” that reminded me of a Twitter thread by Julia Gfrörer I read a few days ago about the fan response: “There’s no such thing as a violent man who’s only violent towards the people who deserve it. George has been repeating this theme in his work for decades, almost to the point of tedium, and yet some of you still refuse to take it onboard. Perhaps the most seductive myth in the world is that of righteous violence. If you thought House of the Dragon of all shows was going to perpetuate it you are stupid beyond words. I really don’t know what else to say at this point. Some of you didn’t quite catch on with Daenerys. That’s okay, it happens. But to fall for it a second time! Pal, get back in the kiddie pool!” A bit harsh, maybe, but true.
Petra: Absolutely. Perfectly worded. I love morally gray characters and, of course, it’s always fun to root for the villain. For the most part I disagree with people who moralize or condemn fans for enjoying anyone but the nicest, most upstanding characters. But then we get the discourse surrounding Daemon and some of the talking points sound too reminiscent of, well, real world situations.
Luka: Right. What you just said brings me to the question of how much responsibility a show—any work of art—has to balance its spectacle with the violent reality that spectacle represents. It’s complicated. Sometimes a show isn’t on the nose enough for most of the audience and viewers are surprised when the character they’ve been enjoying does truly awful things. The responsibility is shared, I believe, between the viewers and the show creators. This show wants to give us cool dragon action (and regular human action) while also commenting on what this violence actually is and where it leads. There’s some inherent tension in that, a tension the show seems interested in, but the truth is some watchers just want the cool action and they feel called out when a story they enjoy viscerally starts examinining the hard truths behind the characters perpetrating that violence. This happened with Dany. But, as I said, the writers also have a responsibility to balance the spectacle with these uncomfortable realities. With Dany, it seems like it worked for very few people, despite the seasons in Meereen showing how she could easily go down a similar dark road in Westeros. I count myself amongst those for whom her “turn” at the end worked, as terrible as it felt, but even I admit the last season needed a few more episodes to bridge that gap, emotionally. With Daemon, however, as cool as he is, I fail to see how one could miss he’s a violent, impatient, chaotic man. He isn’t built in the essentially heroic mold of Daenerys. In this case, I feel safe in saying it’s those viewers’ lack of media literacy that failed their comprehension of the character, and not the other way around. That may seem rude, but… it’s the Rogue Prince! This wasn’t exactly a twist.
Petra: Daenerys had a moral agenda, at least. Personally, she lost me when she killed Mirri Maaz Duur, but I understand why the majority of readers and viewers continued to root for her as she, fundamentally, did her best to make the world a better place, even if her practices had problematic colonialist undertones. Daemon just wants to see the world burn. Literally.
Luka: I’m sure we’ll be litigating this fascinating character for years to come. I’m open to changing my mind about him, too. I’ll leave it at this: I’m quite curious about how the writers will adapt certain events in his future. But that’s for another day. Another year too, sadly. We touched on the big controversies of the finale, but I believe that’s kind of a shame, in a way, because I must say I greatly enjoyed this episode, and what it did with the characters of Rhaenyra, Rhaenys, Corlys and Luke and many others. I was even excited for the three Queensguards, as tertiary as they may be! It was a great character-focused episode, for a finale. Do you have thoughts on any of their journeys this episode?
Petra: I felt Corlys and Rhaenys’ conversation was overdue. I understand why we didn’t get more time with them in this massive, sprawling story, but it was nice for them to finally take stock of everything that’s happened to their family, and it was genuinely poignant when Corlys, of all people, decided to retire from politics only for Rhaenys to tell him that was no longer an option. As for Luke, I knew he was a dead kid walking, and I was impressed by how much personality he was given in his final episode. He’s got a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, and he’s trying to do his best. His death hit me harder than I was expecting.
Luka: Me too. They had work to do this episode, didn’t they? He’d been a cute little kid, and seeing a kid die horribly would already be sad, of course, but we needed to have a bit more of a connection to him. We knew he felt uneasy about inheriting Driftmark since his conversation with his grandfather, Corlys, in “Driftmark,” but we needed this opening scene with his mother. I knew why it existed, and it still worked for me. So much weight to put on a fourteen year old, especially one who’d rather not have any of those responsibilities. Jace is an older teen and more intense, taking his responsibilities more seriously than any heir we’ve ever seen, but you can tell Luke would be much happier if he was just allowed to be a child. Poor kid. Rest in peace, my namesake! Or, in pieces? Sorry.
Petra: Usually when a character exists only to die, they’re written so blandly in an effort to make them likable that I don’t care about them. This is especially true of children who, in general, are written to act much younger than they are. This wasn’t the case with Luke. I truly got the sense that, had he lived, he would have had an interesting character arc ahead of him. Well done, Elliot Grihault.
Luka: Great work, Elliot Grihault, and may your character’s death inspire the surviving characters to do terrible deeds and destroy the House of the Dragon from within! That final shot of a vengeful Rhaenyra will stay with me for a while. I can’t wait to see where they’ll take her next season. Emma D’Arcy has done an astounding job with the character, especially these last few episodes. Everyone was going on about how Paddy Considine deserves an Emmy, and rightly so, especially since this was his only season, but D’Arcy deserves to be on that conversation too. They did great, to the very last moment of the season.